Saturday, May 16, 2009

Coversations on the road

Serious travel is about meeting people. Whether it is the town just around the corner from where you live or some remote part of the world, a journey does not have shape or narrative until you meet and talk to the people among whom you are traveling.

The last few weeks I’ve been bouncing from one American city to another. Three weeks ago, I was in Arizona navigating the urban contours of the sprawling Phoenix metropolitan area; a few days later I was in a van hurtling through the gently undulating Minnesota countryside full of just-tilled corn farms; and today I am in Miami, where the Atlantic Ocean looks a bizarre and beautiful shade of green, and where all the cab drivers are from Haiti – until just a few hours ago when I met one from Nicaragua.

My conversations with those I’ve met along the way have been brief; they haven’t allowed for a deeper engagement. But they are nevertheless glimpses of how interesting people can be; and how there are plenty of surprising discoveries to be made in casual conversations.

Here, then, are two vignettes.

The first is about a man I met while traveling on a shuttle to the Minneapolis airport. He was slightly plump and in his fifties. But what marked him out was his long white hair and flowing white beard. He could have been a character out of JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the RingsGandalf say – and this impression was accentuated by the peculiar twang with which he spoke. It was a Midwestern accent for sure, but some rural version I’d never heard before.

This man, Sam, was from northern Wisconsin, which he called “wild country, as wild as it gets”. For some reason he had started a farm in Western Minnesota, still the Midwest, but far away from his roots. Along with his wife and kids, he had raised cows and hogs – at one point he had two hundred of them – and grew his own vegetables. They had aimed to live off the land as much as possible and to not buy any of their food. With the outbreak of mad-cow disease, Sam stopped raising cows and switched to bison.

As their kids grew and the time came for them to attend college, both Sam and his wife decided to go to school themselves. His wife went to a college in Wisconsin first and he followed later. Sam left his farming activities and got trained in managing electrical equipment. And then he took the oddest decision: he took up a job in a place near Anchorage, Alaska. He began working for an Inuit community. He came back to Minnesota from time to time to see his wife and children.

Alaska was where he was heading now: he had been back to see his family and now was on his way to the Minneapolis airport to catch a flight to Anchorage. Later in the summer, he would return, drive to Colorado and hunt elk. It was something he did on a regular basis. Every year, he would kill an elk, store the meat and bring it back to Minnesota and make burgers – enough to last him the entire season.

How did they taste?

“It really depends on how you make them. Most butchers don’t know how to take care of meat. I do mine carefully.”

A man from northern Wisconsin starts a farm in Western Minnesota without any prior experience; then goes to school and gets a college degree late in life; takes up a job in Alaska among the natives, and spends the winters in Alaska’s darkness; periodically returns home, spends time with his son and wife, hunts elk and is an expert at making elk burgers. Sam said all this easily, in that strange accent of his.

With his hair and his beard, and the life of wandering he had chosen, Sam was something of an American sadhu.

My second story is about a cab-driver, Greg, in Minneapolis. Greg was from Liberia, but had lived in Minneapolis for a while now. He had a well established business but the economy had recently pushed him into driving taxis. I’d never met anyone from Liberia before, but I had heard a lot about the country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (Liberia’s history is full of irony: slaves from America were settled there in the middle part of the nineteenth century, but they promptly imitated their former masters, and, in a hideous echo of their own experience, began enslaving their indigenous fellow countrymen. Sirleaf is of that stock: she is a descendant of (or at least is associated with) the early American settlers. The odds were stacked against her since her predecessors had been rapacious rulers -- which is why her election was somewhat unexpected.)

I asked Greg what he thought of Sirleaf. I was cautious in phrasing the question, for in the past there had been visceral reactions when I’d mentioned names of African leaders – even those popular in the West.

But Greg was a fan of Sirleaf: “She’s educated, she is articulate, she is not corrupt, and she is trying her best – what more can one ask for? I think Liberia will be much better off because of her leadership. I just wish she can rule for a long time.”

As we approached my destination, I realized the song playing faintly on the stereo was quite familiar. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was popular song from the Dharmendra-Mumtaz movie Loafer: Aaj Mausam Bada Beiman Hai. Almost all Africans I have spoken to are familiar with Bollywood, but this was a song from the 1970s – popular, yes, but you wouldn't expect it to be known outside India. I asked him if it was his CD that was playing. Greg increased the volume.

“Yes, it is my CD -- I love Hindi songs. Have you seen Mr. India?”

I wished then I’d had more time to talk with him. But it was time for me to leave. Just as I was paying him, he showed me the book he was reading: The Essential Rumi.

How many more such surprises and delights, I wondered, could we have shared had we chatted for five more minutes?

No comments: