23 Jul 2017 14:49 IST

More about taxi rides

Oh the things you will hear if you will only listen!

My dear friend Rasheeda, a pioneering journalist of many years’ amazing standing, is a great believer in conversations, particularly with taxi drivers. Her work and her verve have driven her to far corners of the globe, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Mexico. And though many people tend to only half-listen to the voices on the ground, not she. She says she has learnt so much about people, their culture and politics from discussions with those who have conveyed her, especially across cities in unfamiliar countries. And she is right.

I’ve written about taxi drivers and auto drivers in these columns, but there’s always something new to share after every trip out of town, or out of the country. Like the time Rasheeda, our friend Aditi, and I went on a breakneck holiday to Sri Lanka some years ago. We piled into an auto for a ride to Galle fort from the bed-sit in which we were staying. It was a short distance, but the intrepid driver offered to stay with us all day and take us wherever we wanted to go. The time was short and there were so many places we wanted to see and as we heatedly discussed how we would traverse the breadth of the serendipitous island, nearly coming to blows in the process, Prasanna (in Aditi’s baby-voice the auto driver’s name acquired its very own tune) offered to take us all the way to Colombo via Kandy, Dambulla and Sigiriya.

“In your auto?!” Our decibel levels crashed at the prospect of the beating our bodies were bound to receive.

“No, I get taxi,” he replied.

“Too expensive,” was our collective response. For once, we agreed.

But he higgled, we haggled, and finally the price was set and we were off early next morning on the trip of our lives.

And I haven’t forgotten the taxi driver who picked us up at Colombo airport in the middle of the night in the first place to drive us down to Galle. While Rasheeda and Aditi snored away in the back (take my word, they will deny this furiously), he talked about his experiences driving a yellow cab in New York for a few years until homesickness drew him back to Sri Lanka.

Although Uber has become a bad word in some circles thanks to the shameful shenanigans of people in high places, cab hailing apps have surely made life simpler. On a recent visit to Berkeley, I was initially puzzled when people referred to “getting lift” or “take lift”. Bad English, I thought, despite studying at UCB, the hallowed ground where parking space is allotted to various Nobel Prize-winners by name. Until the penny dropped: Lyft is a popular taxi service and very soon I became adept at calling for one.

The most memorable Lyft ride has to be the one I took from Berkeley to Moraga on my own, to visit a couple who had just had their first child. Omar was my driver and as I stepped into the cab, he greeted me with, “You smell good.” Now that’s a bit forward, I thought, me with my grey hair and all, never mind the experimental blue forelock courtesy a couple of eager-beaver nieces out to give me a makeover. “You smell of incense, you know,” he clarified and then I realized: I had spritzed on a Forest Essentials perfume (must have been pretty strong) and his accent revealed his Arabic lineage. And then, instead of heading in the direction in which I was used to always heading, he turned right round and began climbing the Berkeley hills.

What a ride and what wonderful views of the bay! It was unbelievable and unexpected. We kept going and going, higher and higher, hairpin bend after hairpin bend, past a sign saying Tilden Park, and various trails, leaving Berkeley quite far behind. “I have never been here,” Omar said, and that wasn’t exactly comforting, but the trees, the sea, the panorama that unfolded round every corner… it was magical.

In the course of the $20 ride (very long, by the standards of my stay) over some 14-15 miles of mostly hill roads, I learned that Omar was from Yemen, that he had moved to the US about 30 years ago so that his children would have a better life, and that he had five children, the oldest was 30, and his sixth grandchild was on its way! He looked early 40s and I asked him: How??? “Oh, I was married when I was 14,” he said, “and my wife was 12. They’re a little weird like that in Yemen.” Right. By the time he dropped me off at my address, we were chatting like old friends. You don’t need FB to drop your inhibitions, all you need is a long ride with a friendly cabbie.

Like this young man whose name I now forget, in San Francisco. He spoke about his brother and himself being taken in by grandparents and raised on a sprawling farm somewhere in Alabama. He too dreamed of a good life for his two children, 9 and 2 (he looked about 20!). He loved SF, he said, but he wanted his children to grow up the way he had, and read and learn about the world, and understand how people from different cultures lived and learn to accept various points of view. When I got into a Lyft at the Design and Craft Museum located in a fairly lonely stretch (for SF) in Dogpatch to go to the de Young Museum at the Golden Gate Park, the first thing the big, burly, dreadlocked driver said was, “If you’re thirsty, there’s a bottle of water for you.” That was a relief, as was the music playing on his system.

There were many rides, and many encounters, each one instructive and engaging: a young woman trying to build some capital so she could go back to university, another who automatically assumed all young Indians in SF were techies and had to be disabused of that notion, and another who expressed great good wishes when he discovered his passengers were old friends of 50 years’ vintage. For a young man of Afghan origin, it was a chance to practice Hindi and get tips about what films to ‘must see’ and garner tidbits about the King Khans. “Enjoy your stay,” he said as he waved us goodbye at the Beat Museum. For our part, we tried to persuade him to watch some Tamil films too: “you can watch with subtitles” was the bait.

Mainly, though, I realised that moving countries is about trying to give our children a better life, as the Albanian taxi driver explained in London. “I dream of going back home,” he said. “But they are so lazy there, happy just drinking and sleeping. Nobody wants to work. If only they would work hard, it’s a beautiful country. Here, we work hard, my children lead a better life. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s in between.” That’s what brought him to the UK more than 20 years ago; it was not easy, but he is grateful. He takes his three children to Albania as often as possible on holiday. “It’s important, no? To know where you come from?” he asks.

It’s a rhetorical question but who can argue with that? Don’t we all want something better for our children? Don’t we all need roots to stay connected?