The untold stories…

'Do you want to talk or listen?'

We all use them. Some more than others. Whether seldom used or a lifeline, we do need them. I talk about the humble taxi. The little plain yellow or yellow and black inconspicuous little vehicle has metamorphosed into something much more than simple means of transport. It has evolved over time to become  ‘concept’ like uber, lyft and more. When at one time the journey was usually conducted in silence, today the driver and passengers chat about nonsensical things, important issues, politics, movies, books and at times even families. Some journeys intrigued me, others amused me and a few even made me contemplative, staying with me despite time passing by.

Years ago my sister came visiting me with her then little kids and rode yet another inconspicuous cab. Metered fare was not too common then and the driver asked for, in my opinion an exorbitant fare which my dear sister paid without a word. I wonder if his conscience rankled him because on reaching destination he gave both my nephews twenty percent of the charged fare saying, “buy yourselves some toys or sweets with this.” In India it is customary for elders in the family to gift children something on meeting and I assumed this was his way of compensating a stranger with two kids who he thought he overcharged. A kind of late awakening of his humble conscience but commendable nevertheless.

A couple of years back I accompanied the daughter when she went back to college. On telling the driver our destination at the airport taxi rank, he turned around to give a big smile, “great college, great campus” while rattling off about all the colleges in the city, ending with stories of his daughter in med school studying out of state. By the end of the ride we were more knowledgable about the capital of the country than we would have been after google search.

The uber I took on return to the airport was a surprise. The retired veteran from the armed forces, took up the new profession of being an uber driver after a back surgery, started discussing the White House as most people in Washington DC probably do and we ended up having an interesting discussion on the book by Kate Andersen Brower called “The Residence” (Inside the private world of the White House). I was surprised that we both had read that not so well known book, but my jaw dropped off when our discussion took us to a book by Rebecca Skloot named “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” that chronicles how the cells of a unknown woman diagnosed with cancer were taken without her knowledge in the early 1950s revolutionizing medical science and leading to the development of vaccines, cancer therapies, cures and more. The beauty of it all was that the elderly African American uber driver was as impressed with his Indian passenger’s reading list as she was with his. By the time he parked at the airport curb I had received an invite to his son’s upcoming wedding.

Recently an old friend from high school came visiting and we took an uber to go from one tourist spot to another as I showed her around our beautiful city. We reminisced about good old times from two decades ago, our conversation a mix of both English and Hindi. She wondered if I still loved my cuppa of tea and I confessed that I still become a nasty woman if I didn’t  get my kind of tea, brewed perfectly for three minutes by a certain time of the day.  As we reached our destination the driver, an Eritrean smiled, “I got most of your conversation except the Hindi parts and I would love to know the remedy to not become a nasty woman without tea. You see, I need that remedy too.”

An unforgettable incident happened in Melbourne, Australia, before the uber days when the hubby was traveling to San Francisco and forgot, yes forgot, to carry his passport with realization dawning kind of late at the check in counter. When I received the call from a very sheepish him, I was, as per Murphy’s law a good forty-five minutes away from home. I, in turn phoned the then seven year old son with instructions to take the right passport, dad’s passport, not the expired passport but the current passport and go wait at the curb with the visiting grandma, while I called them a cab to rush to the airport to deliver the passport to dad.

I then called our regular cab company explaining that a senior citizen and a little boy needed a ride to the airport to deliver a passport. I stressed on the urgency of the situation. The driver laughed and suggested that he could deliver it but the skeptical me wanted family to take the passport so there they were- the Pakistani driver, my very Indian, aging mother in law and my little boy headed to the airport with no time to spare. In India, Pakistan and probably many other nations in the region an elderly lady is addressed as ‘mataji (respected mother)’ and the mother in law later related the predicament of the poor driver, as he asked every few minutes,  “Mataji, er who will pay my fare?” Next day I received a text message from him saying, “I had fun driving your son and mother to deliver the passport.” I replied, “I am glad, we had fun too. Thank you.” This made me reflect that while India and Pakistan can’t exactly be called friends whether in cricket or political affairs, often regarding one another with muted suspicion but in another continent, in a far away land this Pakistani gentleman was delighted to help the Indian lady and her family.

Once a friend was picking up our high school going son from Stanford University after a Model UN conference and told the Uber driver to drive slow while he looked for the ‘kid.’ When my suit wearing 5 feet 10 inches tall boy waved and walked towards the car, the driver raised his eyebrows at our friend and in strong Chinese accent said, “This is a kid?” And our friend replied, “Wait till you hear him talk.” Once our boy  paused for breath from all the stories he was telling our friend, the driver made eye contact in the rear view mirror nodding sagely in complete agreement that this  indeed was a kid.

When we lived in Lusaka Zambia, the city was known to be very unsafe but God be praised that every time I sat in a cab, often literally holding up the broken door by my side,  staring at the road through cracked and scotch taped wind screen, the Zambian drivers had been most concerned that this foreigner, their quite regular passenger should not be mugged or car jacked and drove through safer streets, ready to step on the gas at the slightest suspicion of car jacking. Some discussed recipes, theirs as well as ours,  while others discussed politics and I now think that there is no difference in people, whether they are in Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe or even America. I confess I have not ridden cabs in South America as yet.

Taxi driver says to long-suffering passenger: 'If times get any harder, I'll have to start charging for my witty and perceptive opinions on various topical issues of the day.'

Often the husband takes an uber to go to the airport and relates some of the most interesting conversations with his drivers. One was an ex CEO of a company that got bought over and thereafter he took to uber driving to pass time and meet  people. He spoke about work, mergers and acquisitions. Another was a student supplementing (of course) his income and spoke about academics, his course, credits, cost and value of his education. One was an owner of a fleet of trucks and spoke about the trucking business. One picked his brain on a tech start up and took his card to call for more inputs if needed. There are so many stories, some told, most untold and we realize that cab rides are now roots of some very interesting stories.

Do you have a story from a cab ride to share? Did something make you smile or did you have an experience that can’t be called delightful? Do write in….

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Killing me softly with synonyms…

The language that tops as the most spoken language in the world is English, followed closely by the languages spoken in two of the most populous countries in the world- China and India. Considering this, conversation, expression, communication, discussion, consultation, observation, query etc etc should not be difficult for anyone knowing basic language skills. That we would be challenged by the language we learned since kindergarten was unthinkable and when it happened it didn’t exactly shock us but yes, 20 years on it has the ability to make us grin.

It was Hari Raya, a much looked forward long weekend in Malaysia. The hubby and I along with some friends were planning to explore Taman Negara- the National Park a few hours drive from Kuala Lumpur. Not owning any tents between us, we needed to rent them and consulted the google of those days- the Yellow Pages and started calling stores renting camping gear.

The first call- “hello I would like to rent a tent” was answered with “what lah! no rent lah” and the phone was disconnected. Simply!  In the second call we explained better or so we thought- “hello, we are going to Taman Negara and can we rent a tent?”, which was followed by “can not rent lah, cannot lah” and were disconnected again. Maybe in the sixth or seventh call we were rewarded with a sliver of hope- an understanding, when the person answered, “we don’t rent lah, we only hire, you want to hire?”6a00d8341d417153ef00e553d24ceb8834-1 Hallelujah!!! Oh yes, you bet, we will hire the tent, no worries at all. And then the slightly risen hopes came crashing down when the gentleman added, “but you too late lah, all hire gone, you call someone else and ask to hire not rent. Hire can, rent cannot”. Armed with this new found knowledge, we again began the calls with renewed confidence and enthusiasm-“we would like to hire a tent lah”. We thought we were fast/quick/rapid/swift learners. And the answer was, “no lah, you cannot hire tents lah, but you can rent.” In my peripheral vision I could see the hubby holding his head, shoulders shaking, tears streaming down his face in helpless laughter while I gaped, flustered, sputtered and begged to hire or rent whatever. “But no lah, not possible lah, too late lah! Can not lah!”

People familiar with Malaysia would be accustomed to the suffix  lah to sentences as well as can-can for an affirmative and a long stressed cannot for a negative. However when I accompanied guests from overseas to a restaurant and their request of, “can I get a can of coke please” was met with a quizzical frown, followed by a quick understanding on the part of the waiter as he quipped happily, “can cannot lah, but bottle can!” Go figure!!!