Saturday, November 05, 2005

Immigrant Angels – Four cabbie stories

I flew an Embraer 170 jet across the United States from Dallas Fortworth to Chicago O’Hare. A small thing to take care of in Chicago and I took another such flight to Washington Dulles.

This is probably the perfect time to visit the capital area – fall. The State of Virginia looks like a young media professional from London when shades of reds are the color of the season – wearing red silks, fluffy boa, dyed hair, bright red demented eye wear, jewelry and more. (After I paint the picture I realize how bad it is.) Virginia looks beautiful, surely more attractive than that media girl.

The people from capital area are predominantly occupied in governance or working for agencies that are government parasites. Of what I hear from friends who work in defense contracting companies the bureaucrats are a bunch of frustrated sods warming chairs and acting pricey for the mere fact that they are sitting on government money. I got a fantastic deal at the Hyatt Dulles right next to the airport (and I almost missed the flight back to Dallas Fortworth and that is another story). I got a well-appointed room overlooking a terrace garden with a lounge area and a sleep area for $80 a night all inclusive and it otherwise costs $354 and taxes (Priceline.com rocks!). This is like a pauper placed in a palace. I was sharing elevators and waiting for cabs with bureaucrats wearing arrogance on their two thousand dollar suit sleeves. They threw loaded glances at this strange Asian guy wearing jeans and an Eddie Bauer corduroy jacket – ‘is he staying here. I need to get Cindy to change my reservations next time’.

There is a pleasant comfort in meeting immigrants in the capital area. Like New York City, Washington DC has always attracted immigrant population driving cabs or working at Delis. They are legal immigrants polite, confident and engaging. This posting is about four cab drivers who in their own way made a difference to my otherwise sober trip.


Flare of existence - Kelly Zhu
The first morning at Hyatt and I was worried about calling a cab from the hotel. I thought they would send me a gleaming Merc and fleece the daylights out of my meager travel budget. However, I decided to go with them and a Lexus GS440 lands up. I had to share the ride with another Asian girl from California. She was going to Reston, VA and I was going across the bridge to McLean, VA. Kelly Zhu, a Japanese lady in her thirties, was the cab driver.

The champagne silver Lexus was a fantastic car with a Magellan GPS (the type that constantly talks to you - ‘you missed the exit you dumb ass’). Kelly maneuvered the car with great ease and skill. She was a silent woman with a pleasant smile; unlike the ones in Ozu movies. I pictured her in a small town home that smells of fish in Maryland with her Pokemon daughter, eating small portions of clean food on a perfectly square plates on perfectly square low table. She dropped me at McLean, VA, handed me her card and left.

After I finished my meeting I get a cab driven by Siraj Khan and we got stuck on the beltway. The radio said that there was a rather bad accident on the beltway. We crawled for over a mile and saw those flashing lights up ahead. We had to skirt around a tow truck and a couple of police cars blocking the accident and one of the lanes. Then I saw it through those flashing lights in my eye – the ravaged hood of champagne silver Lexus awkwardly pulled up at the shoulder. The airbags flopped over the front windows. It cannot be Kelly’s car. But since then, I had grit in my mind about Kelly and the visual of the mangled car filled my vacant afternoons. Kelly Zhu if you ever read this show me a sign – send up the flare of existence.


No line of control - Siraj Khan
Irrespective of where you flag them in the United States, Pakistani cabbies have a consistent remark. They are out to prove that the hostility between people of our countries is a weak mirage conjured in the heads of the state for political advantage. The truth is we are one, like renegade Siamese twins.

Siraj’s illustration of this point was a bollywood-style drama of friendship. He is of Pakistani origin – a cricket player-like handsome man in his early thirties in a Walmart polo neck, jeans and wrap around dark glasses. He drives an unmentionably yellow cab with the CD player incessantly playing ‘Pretty woman dekko dekko na Pretty woman’, franchised for Falls Church Cab Service. His friend Raj, of Indian origin, drives a cab for the same company. (Raj – Siraj. Who said truth cannot be cheesy!) Raj threw a huge bash on Diwali day with booze and fanfare. There were three Indian families in attendance and about ten Pakistani ones. They had a ball, of course on a common ground of Hindi film songs, not to mention the inebriated sing-along and dancing.

Raj and Siraj do not eat lunch without each other. And they do this everyday. Last month was Ramadan and Siraj was fasting. Raj had these unhappy and lonely lunches that he ate to live. Yesterday was Id and Siraj organized a do and invited the same bunch – biryani, butter chicken and lots of beer to wash it down. A re-run of the song and dance routine and the bunch was elated. Now, Siraj’s fasting is over with Id and he can eat lunch again. He wanted to drop me of at Great Falls, VA as early as he can for the friends are uniting again for lunch after a month. Raj is buying Chinese and they are meeting at Tyson’s Corner.

I did call Siraj that afternoon for a drop back at Hyatt. He was at DC after lunch and he called back to say that Raj was tied-up too. I called the cab company and after couple of hours of wait they sent me Steven Mbwaza.

This was a typical establishing decoupage in a Hindi movie to illustrate friendship, with jumpy comic songs, heroes in colors that hurt, which the west will discard as something camp and not at all übersexual.

As corny as it may sound, it was earnest and I liked that.


From the fields of gold – Steven Mbwaza
Friday afternoon, I was working at Content Enablers at Great Falls, VA. Brad went early to convert eighty pounds of chicken simmering at home into enchiladas for a night party. Mathew came over, had a $9.99 Gyro dinner at Deli Italiano with me and left. I called for a cab and they sent me a thin, tall, articulate, deep voiced young African American who introduced himself as Steve.

Steven Mbwaza was from Ghana, Western Africa. His country was a colony of the British Empire and was declared independent ten years after India in 1957. Steven was 32, well read and well informed. He wanted to know my take on the Delhi bombs and was concerned that the Pakistani borders were not secure after the earthquake. He was all for democratic progress and India seemed to be his benchmark. ‘You guys are smart and we want to be there too.’

Ghana is a small and peaceful democracy of about 14 million people south of Sahara with rich metal resources. Appropriately christened Gold Coast by the British Empire, it traded that name for Ghana later. The unpronounceable President of Ghana is apparently a progressive man sending youngsters out to learn and bring back wisdom to make a difference in the economy and governance of this small country. Kofi Annan is a Ghanian and he supports this cause. Him being the UN Secretary General visible and influential has helped in Ghana getting noticed by the larger global community.

Steven, a dual citizen of US and Ghana, drives a cab, studies at the University of Maryland and runs a small acupuncture pads business back in Africa. ‘I want to go back home soon, like how you Indians are and make a difference to my land.’ I was impressed and inspired by this young man’s patriotism, drive and conviction.


My travel planner – Ahmed the Turk
Too many Sam Adams the earlier night and I woke up late. I had to catch a flight at 8.27 am and the front desk had told me that there is a shuttle every half hour. They did not tell me that they start at 7.45 am on a Saturday.

I had to call for a cab. Ahmed the Turk drives in and I politely told him to step on it. It is a short drive. Ahmed talks without a pause in an interesting mid eastern accent with guttural flourishes to an otherwise insipid monologue. I made the mistake of confessing that I am planning a week’s vacation in Istanbul. Ahmed quickly donned his cap of the knowledgeable guide set out to create my itinerary as I panic.

‘First day is at the bazaar Kapalıçari; next day is at the mosques Ahi Celibi, Selimiye, Al Sophia and Zeyrek; then the churches Anglikan and more. You get everything in Istanbul, the legit and the illicit. But you need to know the path. You should eat the fish, with what do you call that, lemon and olive oil at the bazaar. Ask them to make it hot and eat it slowly. Do not forget to take the ferry across the river between the European quarters and the Asian quarters. The sauce for the fish is an amazing combination of olive leaves and spices. Ask the guys to top it’. At this point we have been at the United gate for a few minutes and my flight will shut in about twenty. I can see that the airport is extremely crowded with weekend traffic. I am being polite and listening to him as I pull my wallet out. He continues with the color of the sea in Turkey, extended services in a Turkish bath (he winks), but does not tell me the fare. Another minute of his banter and I am about to excrete wire-cut house bricks. In between somewhere he said ‘Thirteen dollars’ and I stuffed a twenty dollar bill in his palm and shot out like a moor during crusade. I ran to the counter, inched nervously in the queue, get half naked through security check, dress up, reach gate C16 and as the lady is deciphering my last name to announce I slide to her, enter the gate and it shuts behind me. I was the last person to enter the plane and the vacation in Turkey was the last thought in my head.

I breathe as the Embraer taxis out on the runway. It lumbers up the sky and I ease into a comfortable content nap. I am going back to Dallas.
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