Amit made a few phone calls to set the transportation. There was no bus to the Abu Dhabi airport, so I would have to take a taxi.
“Be sure to only give him 40 dirhams, no more,” he cautioned me as I waited with my bag. Soon a worn out, stained, and scratched white Toyota Camry pulled up, with no taxi markings at all.
The driver was a young South Asian man, maybe in his early 30s, with thick, short, dark hair, a mustache, and large, beady eyes. He immediately came out of the car to help me put my bag in the trunk.
The backseat was dirty, but the driver, with a smile, motioned me to sit in the front.
I looked back at Amit.
“Thank you so much for your hospitality. You were a fantastic host,” I said, trying to express my gratitude with weak words.
“Take care, and happy journeys,” he replied. We shook hands.
“Keep in touch,” I said, before turning, getting into the car, and shutting the door. Amit watched from the parking lot until we drove out of sight, the same way Mom and Dad had stood at the train doors, watching Ashvin and I for as long as they could.
We started out the drive quietly, the man—like every taxi driver I’d met so far in the Emirates—privy to the master-servant dynamic. Don’t speak unless spoken to, unless the passenger is one of your people. I was also South Asian, but he could tell that I wasn’t like him.
I had to break this dynamic. At home, I rarely spoke to the talkative taxi drivers. But what I’d seen the past few days had made me immensely curious. Here was my chance to get to know a true migrant worker. To learn more about this man.
“So…” I started, speaking slowly, “Where are you from?”
He immediately smiled. “I’m from Bangladesh. Where are you going?” he asked me.
“Nepal,” I replied. He looked surprised.
“You are Nepali?” he asked.
“No, I’m from America…” there was a pause, as I debated waiting for the inevitable question. But he seemed like a genuinely friendly man, so I decided not to force any awkwardness, “but my parents are from India.”
“Oh. You speak Hindi?” he asked.
“No. Only Telugu,” I said.
We zipped onto the freeway, the traffic remarkably light, the streetlights, either due to the vast sky or the light-sucking sand, dull. We went out of Abu Dhabi into the interior desert of the Arabian peninsula.
Amit had, the previous evening, explained to me how divided Emirati society was in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion. At his work, there were official, separate pay scales for different races (Emiratis on top, whites second, Indians at the bottom) for doing the exact same work. Even below that, were the taxi drivers. There was no politics to speak of in this dictatorship, no civil rights. What would a rich westerner or Emirati have to say to a poor taxi driver?
“How long have you been in Abu Dhabi?”
“Fif years,” he said, holding his hand out. Five years.
As I asked him more about his life, he warmed up. He had previously worked in an electronics shop that had been closed down by the police, and it sounded similar to the ones I’d seen below Amit’s apartment. Without any choice, he was forced to become an illegal driver. This taxi—aged, its seats faded, holes and tears on the steering wheel and console, and somewhat jerky engine—was his only source of income now, almost all of which he sent back home. What a tough life.
“Well, thank you for taking me to the airport,” I told him, unable to think of a better response. He smiled and reached down below his seat and pulled up a thermos and some plastic cups. With one hand on the steering wheel, he poured some liquid into a cup and handed it to me.
“Here,” he said, “Bengali chai.”
I held the cup for a second, wondering if this was safe. It was warm against my hand, and I just couldn’t refuse genuine friendliness, so I took a sip. The flavors of spices and steamed milk flowed down my throat. It tasted aged, but was good.
“Very good. Did you make this yourself?”
He beamed, “Yes. You can’t find Bengali chai here.”
I sipped the tea as he asked me about my family. I wish that I’d been more prepared, and made a mental note to keep the photos of my parents and brother in my daypack rather than in my backpack, now in the trunk. I could tell he would have loved to see them.
“What about your family?” I asked. For the first time, I caught a glimmer of emotion in his eyes.
“I have three kids, all in Bangladesh,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. He was here, working alone, for his family. I was touched.
He reached down again and pulled out a photo album, breaking all the rules of driving. Though with the light traffic, I wasn’t too worried; he opened it up, searching for the right page, with one hand on the wheel.
“When did you last go to Bangladesh?”
“Two years ago. Here,” he pointed. The photo could have come from one of Amama’s old family albums. In the center was an old lady wearing a blue Sari, and around her were three small children. A girl, a boy, and a small infant, barely a year old. Like my family’s old photos, no one was smiling: the lady was tired and cranky, the children, scared and aloof.
“My mom,” he said, “and my three children.”
I moved closer to see the photo better. Behind them was a tiny shack, metal sheets over a bed, cluttered. I presumed that this was their home, barely larger than my room back in Kansas.
I had a flashback to one of our trips to India, when we went to the home of one of my great uncles, Amama’s brother-in-law. He lived far away from the rest of the family, in a much poorer part of Hyderabad. His home, which he shared with his children and a few grandchildren, was the size of a single bedroom in America, divided into two, with two beds, a tiny kitchen, housing five or more people, depending on the night. They were ecstatic to have us there, and eager to please, offering us food, drinks, seemingly everything in their kitchen. At the time, as a shy teenager, I remember being eager to leave. Yet the impression had stuck with me all these years.
The home in the photo was much, much worse than my great uncle’s home. The walls were no more than metal sheet, so even a mild gale could blow them over. It was obvious that it was a slum dwelling, a neighborhood I’d never venture into on my own. Until now, at least. I made another mental note, to visit some slums in Asia, and understand the lives of people living there.
“How old are they?” I asked, pointing to the children.
“She, my daughter, is four, my oldest son is three.” He paused for second before continuing, “And my youngest son is one and a half.”
As he said the last age, he paused, and I could again see the hesitation in his eyes. One and a half. He’d just told me that he’d not returned to Bangladesh in two years.
The truth hit me, sucking my smiles dry. He had never seen his son. I felt a knot in my stomach. His only income was from being an illegal taxi driver, probably only making a fraction of what he made before when he had an electronics shop, sending as much as he could to his family back home so that they could survive. My fare would be going to the family he loved and missed dearly.
Never seeing his son. I let it sink in. I couldn’t imagine how that must feel.
For a few seconds, we drove in silence. Then I asked him to show me more photos. We chatted over images of his beautiful family all the way to the airport. I was glad to be in this taxi, with this man, whose loneliness was so apparent to anyone who cared to see it. At the airport, after he walked me to the security line, an obvious gesture of friendship, and after I’d given him the money, 40 dirhams as Amit had told me, all the cash I had, we bid a short farewell. I wished him the best.
Later, I sat in the gate, awaiting my plane, and wondered. My mom had told me how, when she was young, my grandpa worked for the railroads, often away from home for months at a time, sending money so that his three children, my mom being the oldest, could attend private schools and get an education. How lonely was he, so far from his children? But without his sacrifice, I would never have been born in America, or had the chance to go on this trip. It was the same thing that my Bangladeshi taxi driver, whose name I never asked, was doing here in Abu Dhabi.
Could I ever be as brave as my taxi driver or my grandpa was, or make the sacrifices they did? Shaking my head, I sighed. I knew the answer.