On a recent family trip to the US and UK , we also got a glimpse of Eritria , Ethiopia , Pakistan , Ghana and Morocco . We were “taken” there by the various taxi drivers during our travels. The conversations were honest, stripped of the veneer of diplomatic deceit, possibly because we knew that weren’t likely to meet again.
We learned a lot about their countries. We also discovered some universal qualities of people across societies – more on this later. We learned that Eritria was once a part of Ethiopia and that it got Independence recently, a fact that made the Eritrian very proud, and the Ethiopian very angry. “They took away the ports”, he said testily. Eritrian independence cost Ethiopia the entire coastline of the country, leaving it completely landlocked. We were surprised to hear that Ethiopia is actually not desert, that it has plenty of rainfall, and forests and mountains.
“And what about the famine?” we asked, referring to the calamity that had put Ethiopia on the world map. “It’s them politicians”, he said, continuing, “It’s a great country, with wonderful people and lousy politicians. And because of them, we have hunger and corruption, and one out of 10 children dies. If only we could get rid of them politicians…”
The Ghanaian – Kwesi - was very quiet at first, rejecting our conversational overtures. And then we asked the one question that always breaks the ice, “Is your country beautiful?”
He smiled wistfully and spoke in that delicious thick African accent, “Oh yes! We have everything in Ghana .” And he was right, 500 kilometers of coastline, mountains, plenty of natural resources and arable land. “Unfortunately, we also have politicians”, he said, “and they are looting all our gold and cocoa.”
Our Pakistani driver, Masood, had wanted to be a Bollywood actor, and had even stayed in Bombay for 3 months, working on a film with Urmila Matondkar! “Don’t look at me now”, he said, pointing to his balding head and belly, “I used to be really handsome then”. The producer-director had died unexpectedly, and Masood’s dreams with him. He now drives Sunjay Dutt in Long Island whenever he visits. We rode silently down Van Wyck Expressway, under the newly constructed monorail to the airport.
“How is this monorail affecting your business?” my wife asked him. He snorted, “Behen, you know what the size of the taxi business in New York - in New York alone - is? Billions of dollars. This silly monorail starts somewhere in Queens , in the middle of nowhere. Who is going to take it? The taxi fleet owners have paid off the politicians to make this white elephant. Hundreds of millions of dollars” – he said “dhollars” - “phoof”.
Our last taxi trip was with Tahar, the Moroccan, in London . He arrived ten minutes early. Pacing around, he waved us in, loaded the luggage impatiently and raced off. “The rush, it is too much”, he said, “ten minutes, and you lose thirty minutes in traffic.” I said, “We have plenty of time, no problem”, to which he replied, “Yes, but I haf problem! One more trip, I can make.”
He waved his arms around, carving and chopping the air like a music conductor as he spoke, the words coming off his tongue like hand-rolled cigarettes.
“Oh, Morocco , beautiful country, we haf everything. Our Mediterranean beaches, our oranges. They are the best in the world. And our pears, you can smell the aroma a mile away.”
He drove frantically, weaving in and out of the narrow London lanes, zipping across the short stretches of motorway, glancing at the clock on his dashboard.
And what about the government?
“Oh terrible! Looters, I tell you. We have oil, gold. But they hide it away, they keep hush about it.”
As we took the exit for the airport, he reached his short, stubby hand across, shook mine vigorously, and said, “I am Tahar. When we reach the airport, there could be some people, they ask who you are. You say that you are my family ok”, he whipped his head around to take in those in the back, wrapping an imaginary rope around the group, “family, ok?”.
I was puzzled. “Why?” I asked. He shook his head, and looked away guiltily, saying, “I not tell the taxi company, this way I keep the entire fare. Times are tough here in London , you see.”
There was an awkward silence for the next few minutes as we drove up to our terminal.
Nobody stopped us, thankfully. As we got out, I asked him, “So, Morocco sounds like a great country, but the government, it is corrupt, has no values, right?” “Ah, absolutely. No values.” He took the fare, climbed back in and drove off to catch his next trip to the airport. Such is the state everywhere in the world: the mirror reflects our own image, but we don’t recognise ourselves.