Saturday, October 9, 2010

Reflections on Taxi Drivers

I always notice taxi drivers when I travel.  They often say a lot about a place and its culture, and are some of the most vivid characters of my journeys.
I first noticed this during a trip to San Francisco many years ago. They have some of the funniest taxi drivers I have ever met.
My favorite was a hippie-like man who liked to tell jokes. “How does a blonde stop at a flashing red light?” Being blonde myself, I had no idea. He delivered the punch line by alternating between the brake and accelerator of the car several times. Stop. Go. Stop. Go.
Once in Atlanta I got in a taxi somewhere near the Olympic stadium. The driver was a huge man that said nothing. His size was intimidating, and he had an air about him that only enhanced this. I remember asking a question about the location of a site.  He seemed annoyed that I had asked, and never answered.
Taxi drivers in New York are always interesting because they are often immigrants with an interesting story to tell. The number of modest doctors and scientists from other countries maneuvering through those urban streets is often forgotten.
In Dubai, where I live now, the taxi drivers are usually from India or Pakistan.  Many of them have been in Dubai for several years. Unlike the chatty drivers from San Francisco, these guys are pretty quiet and usually do not speak unless spoken to. In my eight years of living here, I have only had two conversationalists.
The most memorable one was a young Bangladeshi driver who was new to Dubai. In the short time I was in his car, I learned that he is a huge Lady Gaga fan.  One of her songs came on the radio and he cranked it up. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Dubai’s summers are scorching hot otherwise I am sure he would have rolled down the windows for the world to hear him sing.
To this day, my favorite taxi rides have been in Istanbul.  The drivers are always full of conversation and questions.  
I also learned a lot of my basic Turkish from them when I lived there. Even when I could not speak fluent Turkish, they would still try to converse with me as if I did. They would hear my Turkish greeting and immediately try to start a proper conversation.
The first question to a foreigner in a Turkish taxi is “Where are you from?”  Usually, once they learned I was American they were ready to have a friendly political discussion, which would almost always result in them telling me how much they adore Bill Clinton.  Even if I couldn’t understand much outside of the word Clinton, they kept speaking anyway.
I also enjoyed the drivers that were proud of their northern, Black Sea (Karadeniz) heritage.  There was one based at the taxi stand close to where I lived.  He always listened to Radyo Karadenız, the local Black Sea music station.
Black Sea music could be described as the equivalent to Blue Grass music in the States - a little fast, a little fun, and a little country. No matter how dark and grey a morning was, or how tired I was, I would always smile the entire way to work as I listened to this music. 
There were also the professional taxi drivers that took their profession seriously.  I once met a man who was a second-generation taxi driver.  The entire trip’s discussion was about the demise of the profession due to the new hayvanlar, or animals, that drove crazily.
Although I had my share of hayvan drivers from time to time, they were also entertaining.  The drivers that shout loudly to the traffic and other drivers were always entertaining.  And after all, it is Istanbul, and a little craziness on the streets is the norm.
Perhaps my most significant taxi experience was the day that President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq. At that point, everyone knew it was coming, but when it did, I think there was an energy shift in the world. The air felt quite heavy that day.
As usual, the driver asked me where I was from. What do you say when your leader decides to invade Iraq where so many people the world over did not support it?
I was reluctant to respond.  Not out of fear, but I was just not ready for a political exchange that day. My response was “everyone’s least favorite country today”.
He didn’t understand my sarcasm at first, so I said Amerikaliyim, “I am American”.  He then understood.  
His response, “Abla, Turks understand the difference between people and politics.”
Coming from a country where the gap between political parties seems so wide and people are so quickly judged by affiliation to anything, I was really surprised by his response.  I was not sure what I expected, but not that.
We were both silent the rest of the ride home.

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