I arrived in Washingtonon a sunny bright end-of-May afternoon. The flight was on schedule (being Lufthansa), it was 4.30 p.m., Sunday, one of America's famous weekends (it starts on Friday, noon, with Americans telling one another: have a nice weekend) was drawing to a close. Later, on my to Baltimore, I would find on the road cars, with boats and bicycles hitched on the roofs, driving home.
But that, as I said, was later. First, we came out of the plane and walked directly into what looked like a dog vestibule in mid-air. There were chairs, and we sat on them, and the vestibule started descending to earth and then moving away towards the terminal building. It was a bus; it drive to the other end and docked into the terminal lounger, and we were in Washington DC.
Immigration, customs, were perfunctory. For Indians, it is difficult to get an American visa, but once you have got it, everything is easy.
Outside, the taxis were waiting, the yellow cabs with advertisements on top. An Indian, a sheaf of papers under his arm, slid up to me and asked me: "Where do you want to go?" I pretended not to hear, but he probably though I did not know English, so he repeated the question in Hindi. To avoid him, I grabbed the first taxi in the queue. More than being cheated in a foreign country, I hate being cheated by an Indian in a foreign country.
As it turned out, the taxi-driver also looked like an Indian. He told me he was a Pakistani. "Thank you, very much, for giving me the opportunity to drive you to Baltimore. This is the first time I am taking a fare to Baltimore. I do not know the way. Would you be knowing it?" I told him - no; so he told me not to worry, he would manage.
He was from a village near Peshawar. He had come to America three years back, and since he did not know a world of English before he arrived there, his language, his expressions, mannerisms were all genuinely American. Only an illiterate can be so authentic. We, with all our school and college and textbook learning and convent and Jesuit tutoring, give ourselves away the minute we open our mouth.
My Pakistani driver was to surprise me more. Half way along, he switched on his radio and announced: "Hello, this is Washington Flyer calling Baltimore Base. I have a fare with me for the following address (he gave the address). Can you guide me? I am on Highway 812, coming on to Belway 17CD."
Baltimore Base came clear over the electronic cackle. "Washington Flyer, you driver straight in till you come to Beltway 24 H. Turn into the Parkway and go for the Beltway, but don't take the Outerbelt. Then call me again."
"Thank you, Baltimore Base, I do appreciate that. This is Washington Flyer switing off," my driver said.
Every once in a while, the radio was switched on and Baltimore Base guided us into the city, round the Harbour, past three traffic lights, around a square, down a one-way, right up to our doorstep. "I do appreciate that," I told my Pakistani taxi-driver.