Each weekend of my travel includes at least two taxi cab rides, to and from the airport in our destination city. There’s an ongoing little game I play… trying to guess the country our cab driver is from based on his accent. I’m pretty good with accents, particularly African ones. They sound similar but I’m getting pretty adept at distinguishing the dialects and naming their country’s origin. My friend Ronda gets a kick out of it and always goads me on.
This weekend we had a few extra cab rides than our usual. Arriving in St Paul, MN, five of us climbed into a van cab. Our driver, Adama, had a thick African accent… but I couldn’t quite place it. “Senegal”, he said. I guessed West Africa. So at least I was close.
We were excited to be in the twin cities. After all, Minneapolis / St. Paul is home of the illustrious Mall of America! So, a few of us hailed a cab and headed to the monstrous mecca of shops. Climbing into our taxi, I immediately had to laugh. Our cabby was far from African. White-skinned and white-haired, plump rosy cheeks and a Minnesotan accent so thick I was sure we’d landed in a scene from Fargo. Yep, he was an actual local. And quite eager to tell us ALL about his town.
After a few hours of wide-eyed mall-trekking, standing amazed before an actual roller coaster inside the mall and buying a new pair of shoes because the ones I was wearing had turned my toes into Fred Flintstone nubs… we decided to head back to the hotel. Thankfully, right outside the main entrance was a convenient line of green & white cabs just waiting for our beck-and-call.
The first cab in line pulled up and we climbed inside. The cabby was on the phone and only paused for a second to ask, “Where to?” We replied, “Crown Plaza…” “Downtown?” he asked while still on the phone and in between sentences. “Yes”, I replied from the front seat. “On Kellogg… you know where that is?” “Sure-sure”, he replied gruffly. I obviously was an intrusion to his important phone conversation.
He proceeded to screech out of the mall parking lot… and head to the highway. And the three of us (Beverly and Ronda in the back seat, me up front) proceeded to get uncontrollable giggles, the result of our driver talking VERY LOUDLY on his cell phone. And when I say LOUDLY… I mean LOUDER than your mama has ever screamed at you. So LOUDLY that not only could we not hear ourselves think… we couldn’t hear each other yell. The girls in the back kept saying something to me…and all I could do was yell in return, “WHAT?” Obviously he didn’t get the hint… and obviously he was in a heated conversation. So our driver continued his voluminous monologue. My guess is that it was regarding some international incident… since the words “Somali” and “don’t understand” and “stupid idiot” (all in English – apparently lacking a Somali translation) were repeatedly regularly throughout his rant. I hate to keep referring to him as “our driver”… but we never did get his name… since he spent our entire ride on the phone.
Finally, we seemed to be pulling into our destination. Although, suddenly… we realized we were going the wrong way on a One Way street. Our driver paused his conversation long enough to say in his thick Somali accent, “#@*! This is a One Way Street!” and then did a quick donut in the middle of the street…. landing us right in front of the doors of the Crown Plaza. We were a little stunned from his Harrison Ford move… but we were happy for the momentary silence as he put his phone in his lap (the other caller still on the line, mind you) to let us know it would be $30.00 for our E-Ticket Ride. As I filled out my credit card slip, I confirmed, “You’re from Somalia, right?” “Yes, yes… Somalia”. For some reason, I felt a little victorious…. but I needed to after that harrowing adventure.
We quickly scrambled out of our cab… wanting to end our Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”. But something seemed amiss. This didn’t look like the lobby of our hotel. I kept saying, “I don’t think this is right”. Ronda, ever the optimist… kept repeating, “This is just the backside of the hotel… we’re okay”. Beverly kept asking rather fearfully, “Really? Are you sure?”
So we asked the receptionist, “Is this the main lobby?”. “Yes”, she replied. “This is it”. But it didn’t look familiar at all. I finally asked, “This is the Crown Plaza on Kellogg Street, right?” “Um, no… that’s in St. Paul. This is the Crown Plaza in Minneapolis”.
Ahhhh! We just stared at each other… dumb-founded. Our distracted cab driver brought us to downtown Minneapolis… not downtown St. Paul. Ironically, the twin cities are not identical. Stupefied and blinking in disbelief… we realized that we’d been brought to the wrong hotel. Our clueless cab driver carelessly delivered us downtown alright, but the wrong downtown.
So what else could we do? We hailed another cab. This time a gentleman with a Lincoln town car offered us a ride, for the same price as a cab. Another $30.00. Ronda offered to pay this time. Our driver, also a Somali…. convinced us that our previous Somali friend was probably having a fight with his wife. Surely, there was no other reason to be so loud or animated on the phone. Regardless of his reason for yelling incessantly… we were never happier to be back at the right hotel.
Lastly, and redemptively… my cab ride from the hotel to the airport Sunday morning was a pure joy. I was immediately greeted with a large beaming smile… the kind I’ve grown accustomed to from Africans… and a warm “goodmorning”. My delightful driver jumped to load my bags and hold my door. He’d already won me over.
Right away I guessed he was African. Sudanese, I think. But before I could ask he was already asking me. “Where are you from? Where are you flying to? Why were you in Many-So-Ta?” He was great with the questions. But I finally squeezed one in. “Are you from Sudan?” “Oh!!! How did you know?” he asked, almost jumping out of his seat. “I have quite a few Sudanese friends in Nashville. Many are the Lost Boys.” “Oh!! The Lost Boys! That is good! Very good!”.
Omar (he had introduced himself) proceeded to tell me his story. Orphaned at the age of 6, he worked most of his young life to pay for his keep in the orphanage. Somehow, 9 years ago, he was chosen to come to the U.S. on refugee status… and has just now earned enough money from driving cabs to get an education. He’s now in school, for the first time in his life, at the age of 29. But he does not seem bitter or resentful or even exhausted. Merely grateful for an opportunity. His school books were neatly, and perhaps proudly, stacked on the front seat of his cab.
I told Omar about World Vision. He was fascinated that people could be sponsored and get the help they needed. He asked for the phone number & website… because now that he is working and going to school… he wants to give back. He wants to sponsor a child of his own.
I was so moved by Omar. It was a perfect way to end my weekend in St. Paul. A perfect way to remember the Twin Cities. I pray that Omar gets the education he’s always longed for… and that he is blessed by being able to help others from his homeland.
And I’m reminded that every cabby has a story. Every person has a story. And I’m more curious now than ever.