I travel for a living.
I spend more time on wheels than on the ground, firm and rooted. It’s a job I’ve grown to love, hate and now I go through the motions with as much apathy I can muster. I had given up on a steady relationship with anyone and enough to find a significant other. I speak to my parents while waiting for connecting flights or picking up my dry cleaning. I do not have a postal address of my own. I do not own or rent digs of my own, and I do not worry about paying my bills. I do not have a favorite restaurant and neither do I worry about buying cereal for breakfast.
The job has its perks. Yes, it does. I see places, meet people and get to experience, albeit forcefully and not always pleasant, various degrees of weather, culture, comforts, languages, habits and people.
As universally alike a species we are, the differences between each within a group, community, organization and geographical area are subtle. The nuances that make each tick (or not), the habits that define each, the society that surrounds each, the languages that enhance the accents. What at first was an inconvenience and an annoyance, slowly grew on me. I took in the differences with caution, on guard and realized quickly, that the similarities I saw in the differences, fascinated me. Initially it was about figuring out why they did what they did, or why the person thought what he did. Am not sure, when it happened, but the ‘why’ phased out to a ‘what’. It seemed to remove a fair amount of stress and tension within me. It was information gathering rather than reasoning. The ‘what’ was more than enough.
I was not a talker. I liked my peace and quiet, the voices in my head creating enough chatter to not want anymore from outside. I was not the kind of guy who’d strike a conversation with you in the next seat just coz we both were reading the same article on the New York Times, or headed to the same destination. I was not one who cared to network, and no sir, I did not own a LinkedIn account. That does not mean I have an invisible wall around me. I have now come to realize the signs of the occasional traveler. They *want* to talk. To tell all, to the person next to them, to ease the jitters of the travel.
I once met an old German lady who told me vivid and intricate details of her stay in Hannover during the regime. For three hours she spoke at length of names, people, marxists and the storekeeper and the baker’s lives of the past. She helps translate German literature works for an International Organization in the city. Her son had married a second generation Egyptian-American and her daughter lives with a professional wrestler in the Bronx. She opened a little black book to run through the names of her grandchildren she couldn’t recall. A powerhouse in that short 5 foot frame she carried as she waved me goodbye.
Then there was this one handsome cab driver in DC, my very first eye-opener to when I sub-consciously quit asking ‘why’, say 13 years ago.
‘What’ ticked him to drive a cab late into the night was my question instead. Me, in my polished shoes and an expensive overcoat huddled into the line at the airport, caught this young man’s attention. He approached me and in soft African accent asked:
“Sir, Maryland or the suburbs here?”
“Can I give you a ride? Or would you rather wait another 20 minutes?”
I hesitate. I was still young and my frame still boyish. Being accosted by a strange yet polished man without a visible cabbie license at the airport at 11 in the night did wake my sensors.
“Sir, I live in the suburbs. About 10 miles away. I need to get home and this is my final ride. Didn’t want to wait another 30 minutes to discover no one wanted to go south and then I drive home alone.”
His frankness was appealing. I nod my head, heave my attache across my shoulder and follow him. Surely, he looked safe. Once we ease into the highway, he nods at me through the mirror.
“So what do u do sir?”
“The usual. Work and travel for a living” I reply in a non-committal tone, to dissuade further conversation. It was late and all I wanted to do was check in and sleep.
He smiles and focuses on navigating the three lanes towards merging.
“This isn’t what I do all day sir.” he states as a matter of fact, with an air of self-assurance that he could indeed read my mind.
“Oh! so what do you do?”
“I write code. As in software code. I work for CACI, have been for the past 8 years”
My eyes blink out any vestige of sleep left in them, and I smile, visibly surprised.
“Really? That’s great. DC area is chock full of government contracts I hear?” Taking care to not sound overly condescending or surprised that he was actually driving a cab for me, and in all reality could very well be earning more than I did!
“Yeah, that’s why I love this place. I came here about 12 years ago, did an odd job here and there, put myself through school and learnt how to code. It pays well, my wife doesn’t work anymore, have a home in the ‘burbs and kids are all at home.”
Questions pop before I can even process them.
“Where are you from?”
“Ethiopia. Came in as a refugee. Times were tough back there..”
“It’s neat that you took this opportunity and are doing well. You have kids, you said?”
“Yes sir, we got to do what we got to do. Have three kids. The last one’s a baby, and she’s a darling. Look, here I have them.” Pointing to a small postcard on the dashboard “Coding’s been good to me so far. Love my job, love what I do. Both during the day and evening” He smiled.
There is a burning question in my head and I blurt it out before I could process the elegance and the respectability of it.
“So you like to drive?”
“No sir, I sit at the computer all day. It gets lonely after a while. I make money, I play with my kids for a bit in the evenings, talk to my wife and I do have friends around, but that’s not what life is all about now is it? I love people. I love their stories. As a cabbie, at the airport, I meet at least two interesting people a week. The money I get is small change to how rich my thoughts are when I lay down at night. It’s always the people. So many lovely wonderful people out there. You know that don’t you, sir?”
We smile at each other through the rearview.
It’s always about the people. The people you meet along the road you travel.
Gotta love the road.