Saturday, August 27, 2005

Rodest is from Haiti

Rodest comes with a cell phone growing out of his ear. Rodest likes Indian girls. Rodest likes spicy food…your typical teenager right??

Wrong! Rodest is a taxi driver and he comes from Haiti.

In Chicago, if you are lucky, you find a taxi driver who speaks, then if you are really lucky, you find one who speaks something sounding like English and if you are the luckiest sod on earth, you find one who actually speaks English. That is how we met Rodest, or rather he met us.
When we called the taxi to take us to Devon Street for a Desi dinner, Rodest barely held his cell away from his ear, to ask where we wanted to go. We would have gone nowhere otherwise, anyway. The minute we drove off, he continued his yapping. We thought of the miserable person at the other end of the conversation, he was probably sleeping. Because only Rodest seemed to be doing the talking. He used some strange language. We caught some French words here and there, but could make no head or tail of it.
Then there was the fear that he would land us someplace else. He barely seemed to notice where we were going. Some other people from our team who were following us in another car had the same suspicion and pulled over to confer with him. Rodest was irritated at being separated for a second from his beloved toy. “Where are we going?”, they asked him with the intention of confirming. Fatal mistake! “The same place where you are”, was his reply. Smart man!! Blank stares all around. Finally Rodest broke the silence, “You follow me. We all go to Devon Street. Stop asking where we are going” he said.

We drove off again. His volume was so loud in that closed taxi that conversation amongst us was impossible. Devon had never seemed so far to us.

Finally we were there and on time too. Rodest finally shut himself up to receive the payment. I guess even much loved things can be put away when it is pay up time!!! He asked us if we needed a ride back. Even before we could answer, his card was in my hand and he asked us to call 10 minutes before we left. And just to ensure that we hired him for the ride home, he refused to take any payment. He would take the entire amount from us when we drove back to the hotel. Not only did we bear the constant yapping on the way here, we would have to suffer the same on the ride back???? Aaargh!!! This, definitely was not our day.

Dinner is always a merry affair at Sabri Nihari on Devon. It’s a Pakistani place, but then the taste of Frontier chicken beats the flavor of patriotism, especially in lands far off. The lassi is as good as what you get back home. The meat is tasty and well cooked. So is the mutton biriyani. And the Naans are as huge as bed spreads. We demolished them one by one. We are after all to the manner born.

Finally, it was time to call Rodest. One of us had a brain wave after all that food. With our man busy yapping, we were sure to get his cell engaged. If we could not reach him, there goes his money and there goes the ride. He He!!
We should not have counted on it. The man answered on the second ring and told us, much to our discomfort, that he was waiting right across the street to take us back. Any elation we felt after eating the Desi spread disappeared like bakarwadis at Chitales.
We were dreading listening to his chatter all 45 minutes of that ride back to the hotel. Grin it and bear it we told ourselves for god helps those who help themselves.

And talk he did right through out. But mercifully not on the cell, but with us. It was as close an insight as we would ever have into the life of this man, coming from an impoverished nation. Very much under the same circumstances our people come here.

He had come here in 1983 and had been driving a taxi ever since. The conversation took off when he asked us if we were Indians and if we liked spicy food. That was like asking a scot if he liked his scotch. He had made friends with an Indian taxi driver in his early days. He loved the complexion and the long hair the Indian girls sported, he told us and was waiting for his chance to marry one. He took tips from his friend without actually revealing his intentions to marry. One day he finally told his friend he was serious about marrying an Indian girl. Much to his surprise, the friend laughed at him. So much for you fascination with their hair he told Rodest. They will hate you for the same reason. Your curly top, he added. There went his chances of ever getting an Indian bride. But his love for our spicy food continues.

Rodest finally settled for a Jamaican girl to marry.

He has some relatives back in Haiti and he keeps going back every 2 to 3 years. The fields his forefathers ploughed are all under water now and he can’t bear to look at them. Obviously agriculture can no longer be a means of livelihood in his country.

As we got ready to go in the hotel Rodest told us it was fun having us on the ride. He handed us a stack of taxi receipts. He understood that we would want to share the fare for the ride. How intuitive!!

This is Rodest for you. And Rodest is a taxi driver.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

On travel by Greyhound

A Greyhound Journey

If you want to know the true essence of the US of A, a journey by the Greyhound bus service is a must. Its like traveling by our ramshackle STs. You get to see the underbelly of the American way of life. You meet all sorts; from fiercely independent senior citizen fallen on bad times to loud mouthed bra burners; from medieval style traveling musicians to students going home from college. And then there was us, going on a trip to the Niagara Falls, looking forward to enduring a 14 hour bus ride through Toledo and Cleveland in Ohio to Buffalo in New York. They all had one thing in common with us though. Shoestring budgets!!

An hour’s journey by the local train, Metra took us downtown from where the Greyhounds start their journey. Report an hour earlier they told us, as if it were a plane ride. The reason for this became clear when we stepped into the station. There were baggage check in queues and since the best seat went to the early bird, they had queues in front of platforms. Funny, we thought, don’t they think of giving seat numbers here??

Anyway, we got of to a start at 5.20 pm sharp after much confusion over which queue led to which platform. The bus departure time was 5.00 pm as listed on the tickets. Ahem! This was certainly backward. The Chicago traffic slowed us down till we left the city at about 8.00 pm. The first stop was for dinner, little before Toledo. A surprise awaited us in Cleveland at about midnight. You need to change buses they said. ???? This was news!! Well, one more queue (which was already well populated) later we were on the bus to Buffalo. All this changing and queue business should have brought out the best of the Desi spirit in us. We ought to have crowded together in the line so that we all could rush into the bus at the same time. We should have misdirected other passengers so that there would be less people on our bus. (Cackle, cackle!)How enterprising, no? Yet the people are such that you want to be nice to them.

The town of Niagara Falls is about a 25 min. bus ride away from Buffalo. We reached there at 7.30 am, a bus change later. We had arrived!!!
You can finish having a dekko at all the sights Niagara has to offer in a day’s time. It makes sense to carry the lightest of luggage and return by the late night bus the same day. It saves you the hotel expenses which, at this time of the year, are quite high due to the holiday season. And you don’t need a guide to show you around. Just take the Niagara State Park Passport. It includes tickets to all the attractions, plus unlimited rides on the trolley which moves continuously around the park, and a map. It worked very well for us.

The boat ride in the Maid of the Mist has to be the highlight of the trip. This boat takes you right up to the Horseshoe Falls. This is where 90% of the water from the lakes deposits itself in the Niagara River. If you ever wanted to take a shortcut to the Atlantic Ocean, this would be it. Water droplets rise about a hundred meters into the air due to the sheer force with which the water hits the rocks below. This is the ‘mist’ that visitors see and it is visible miles away. And due to the mist, there is a permanent rainbow in the sky over the Falls. This entire view is best seen from the Canadian side. We were glad to do the Falls on the US side for this trip.
The other attraction there is the Cave of the Wind experience. A wooden ramp takes you right next to Falls. The water roars beside you and the agitated air throws you back. Khadakvasla anyone?

On both these attractions they give colored barsatis to keep visitors from getting wet. From an elevated view, people wearing these look like slave workers at an assembly line.
Besides the Falls themselves, there is an aquarium, a discovery exhibit and a bridge, half way into the Niagara River, to enjoy the rest of the day.
Our bus back to Chicago was at 10.00 pm that night. We made it well in time, so no standing in lines this time. (he he he!). But the best was yet to come. We arrived at Cleveland for our bus to Chicago at 2.30 am, only to stand in a queue again. The onward bus was to leave at 4.00 am. The prospect of spending 1.5 hrs in the line at this ungodly hour did not look appealing. To add to that, we had not slept the previous day. We consoled ourselves, the images of cozy beds and warm baths floating in front of our eyes.
Finally it was time to board; the ‘driver cum conductor’ was letting in passengers on the bus through a door leading to the platform. Whew!! Finally we were sure to be left in peace till we reached Chicago about 7 hours later. But wait, the driver, had closed the door in our faces saying the bus was full. We were still optimism personified. They could arrange for a new bus we thought. There were still many people in the queue. Just then the supervisor came. Without much emotion, she announced, “The bus to Chicago will leave at 7.00 am because there is no driver available till that time!” Who was she? The Supervisor cum devil? And where was this? USA cum Bihar? My friends had to keep me from attacking her. This is not happening I thought!!!
Used to fatalism as we Indians are, I squatted on the station floor till 7.00 am. Never mind, I thought, we could act as poor as we wanted here. Who was there to stand up to anyway? We were in the same bus (boat). I might as well have gotten drunk too. Who cared?
The driver of the 7.00 am bus turned out to be wise lady. Sensing our thin patience, she used wit and humor to get us all packed in and we drove off towards Chicago as the sun rose.