In my years as a consultant, frequent travel became routine. Waking up early Monday morning, cab to the airport, checking in baggage, waiting in lines, secondary screening, waiting in the plane for takeoff…by the time I reached my destination to start the work day, I was already beat!
But in this mundane ritual of a road warrior, I always took a moment of pause as I reached my destination and exited the airport. I would pan across the sea of yellow taxis looking for something familiar…yes, a dastaar!
Call it “reverse racial profiling” if you will, or maybe this is just my small way of creating some balance in the world – nevertheless, it is always a treat to find a Sikh taxi driver to share a ride with.
Even though we are complete strangers, the taxi driver is immediately my Veer or Uncle, and it is like we are meeting again after many years. We share a common guide and a common experience, and that is enough to bypass all the small talk.
It seems they are just as happy to have me as a passenger as I am to have them as a driver. For me – one who has always been intrigued by the “Sikh experience” – it’s a chance to converse with another Sikh about faith, politics, family and everything in between. Also, since many of these Singhs are recent immigrants, it gives me a glimpse in to the lives of my brethren in Punjab and the challenges and struggles they face in adjusting to their new life…neither of which I have much insight into.
I’m sure they enjoy the conversation in the same way, or at least enjoy the opportunity to speak Punjabi and have cultural dialogue with one of their passengers. Some compliment my Punjabi and ask which pind (village) I’m from, while others joke about my poor accent and grammar, asking when my parents came to America…but nevertheless, they are equally proud to see another Singh.
The conversations are light-hearted, friendly, and always seem to end in debate over accepting my cab fare – they insist I don’t pay! That only gives way when I repeatedly argue that my fare is reimbursed.
These taxi rides are often informative, where I can find out about local gurdwaras and events, and at other times resourceful. I recall one time, while travelling abroad, after some conversation with the driver, it turned out he was on the management committee of the local gurdwara. After further discussion over the projects I was working on in the States, I found myself at the gurdwara that weekend running a Sikh history workshop for the teenagers.
But one experience stands out the most.
Years ago, I missed my flight at the local airport and needed a ride to a neighboring airport about an hour away. The Singh taking me there was pretty quiet, but half way through the ride he asked me if I knew my paatth “mujabani” (by memory). He immediately called another Singh on his cell phone, and asked him to call another. Then he handed me the phone.
I have found sangat and enjoyed Sodar in many places over the years, but scattered amongst several taxis across the Tri-State area is definitely a first! That night, I probably would have just rattled through my paatth as soon as I got on the plane. But sharing that experience with the sangat of the airwaves from a moving cab, was truly memorable. His eagerness to use this opportunity with a Sikh passenger to reflect in shabad was inspiring, and made me re-evaluate my own relationship with my nit-nem.
No matter how many people I meet in my professional career, I’m unlikely to meet as many people with such diverse backgrounds as these taxi drivers do. To many passengers, they will be the first Sikh they meet or maybe the only Sikh they will ever meet, so in a sense, they are ambassadors…ambassadors on wheels. And they will share the virtues of Sikhi, if not through dialogue, then at least through their kindness, compassion and professionalism.
My business travel days are mostly over, and I can’t say I miss it much. But I do miss the rides and conversations with the Singhs when our paths would occasionally cross. But I rest assure, knowing that in any country I may visit, anywhere in the world, amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy city, I will find a Singh driving a taxi, proudly in his Sikhi saroop.
Then, I will know, that home is never far away.