Taxi drivers are among some of the most interesting people I come into contact with on a regular basis. Most of the drivers I encounter in the cities where I travel are immigrants, and many have unique and very interesting perspectives on the United States. While traveling last week, I had conversations with two such drivers which, together, I believe really capture the ethos of this country.
The first was a Russian Uber driver who was granted political asylum just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He had nothing but positive things to say about the United States, unhesitatingly declaring it the best country in the world (the Canadian I was with took some exception which was duly noted). In over twenty-one years of living in the United States, he had not returned to Russia a single time, and had absolutely no intention of ever doing so.
The second good back-seat conversation I had was here in the Washington, D.C. area. It was with an Ethiopian who had been in the United States for eight years and was every bit as dismayed by this country as he was enamored. The school shooting in Connecticut was a big topic of conversation during my trip, but I don’t think I encountered anyone so upset by it as my driver. There was certainly plenty of killing in Ethiopia, he told me, but it could always be traced back to specific issues. The idea of killing simply for the sake of killing — shooting people with whom you had no quarrel whatsoever — was something he could not even begin to wrap his head around. I assured him that he wasn’t missing anything — that natively born Americans were no closer to understanding it than he was. The only difference was that we were growing accustomed to it.
I usually wouldn’t ask someone I just met what they hoped to do with the rest of their lives, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have several drivers volunteer their aspirations. I’ve heard some selfless and inspiring plans over the years from improving access to healthcare all over the world to trying to solve the problem of food distribution, but I found the simplicity and elegance of my Ethiopian driver’s dream to be particularly interesting. If he ever had enough money, he told me, every year, he would pick two people from every state in the country and send them on a two-week trip to Africa. That’s it. He would not require them to volunteer, and he would not ask anything of them in return. All he wanted them to do was spend two weeks on a sublime, culturally rich, and war-torn continent, then return to their normal lives. The rest, he told me, would take care of itself.