Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Conversations with cabbies

"Is it a difficult drive to the airport at this time of day?" I ask the balding gentleman in the front seat who drives my car to the airport in Melbourne. He looks up at me in the rear view mirror and smiles patiently. "It depends," he says. Before I can jump to "on what?" he continues: "If you begin the drive thinking that it's going to be easy, considering that most people are on the roads heading home, then you're bound to find it difficult. But if you just know that's the way it is, that five o'clock traffic can't be any different, and simply focus on getting there, it's just another drive."

That wise comment was prelude to one of the most interesting conversations I've had, one that made the 45-minute drive in peak Melbourne traffic go by like a breeze. We discussed religion, working class politics in Australia and (a topic close to my heart) school education. He told me about his 11-year-old son who goes to a charter school where most of the children come from very affluent families. "I usually drop clients home to these areas, and now my son was attending birthday parties here...we had to have a few talks about aligning expectations with reality and coming to terms with economic differences." He was just as curious about life in India, and not in the usual "oh tell us about the poverty" way.

For a streetside view of a city, there's nothing quite like a tour by cab, particularly if the tour is accompanied by commentary from the cabbie. Over the past four years or so, I've been treated to many unique views of interesting cities, glimpses into lives I would otherwise not have the privilege of knowing, particularly in my role as an itinerant business traveller or tourist. We rarely exchange names but we trade snapshots of our lives, and the person behind the wheel always gives me a perspective that fills out the fringes of a strange city for me.

In Sydney, I've spoken with a Bangladeshi father who despairs of ever speaking Ozzie like his son and teenage daughter, a Pakistani who is eager to know about the "other Hyderabad" that I come from, a Chinese immigrant who drives a cab by night and runs a construction business by day, and a Jamaican jazz singer who left with me a card and an invitation to his next performance. And I mustn't forget the Ghanaian named just like the then United Nations Secretary General who told me about how children in Ghana were named, for the day of the week, so one was likely to find many many people with the same name!

In Pretoria, I was treated to a story about the Jacaranda city that forever changed the way I look at that lovely purple bloom. Michael, my driver and tour guide of an afternoon, told me how a shipment of Jacaranda saplings bound for China from South America ended up in Pretoria, and the local government, stuck with hundreds of trees that needed planting in a very short time before they died, drafted school children and community members to plant trees all along the city's main avenues. When the trees bloomed in the following years, Pretoria took pride in their beauty and soon came to be known as the Jacaranda city. A few years down the line, however, it was discovered that the deep rooted, water guzzling trees had so depleted the water table that a moratorium was placed on the Jacaranda, and it was forbidden to plant any more trees!

In Geneva, a Lebanese cabbie wanted to know all about Raj Kapoor and the latest Bollywood tamasha, and in exchange he told me his tale of coming home to a new land with no family but a lot of hope, and how things had changed, for his family and for him, with his move to Switzerland.

In Buenos Aires my smattering of Spanish drew an eloquent explanation of the Plaza de Mayo, a place of pilgrimage for me.

And in London? Well, the cabbies in London (the few I met--London is a city for buses and the tube and walking) were either too polite or too indifferent to enter into conversation with an Asian woman, just one more of the scores he must have driven from work, to home, or to play.

For me, almost every taxi ride in a strange city has offered an education. Given that most cab drivers in developed countries are immigrants, it's taken the immigrant experience out of novels and films into real life for me. When one travels on business, it is difficult to get "under the skin" of a city, and at best one is taken out to dinner by a kind local colleague or invited into the home of another. But a cab ride offers a special bubble of a space, one in which the conversation does not have to have a beginning or end; it's sort of like a parenthetical experience that happens in the continuum of the day. Rarely are names exchanged, or linear life stories shared. it's bits and pieces, things that fit into the space between the two clicks of a meter.

For these stories, the tip I leave always seems too little.