What we learnt about Spain from a taxi driver

You may know this feeling: that our deepest insights into the world come from talking to a taxi driver. A colleague uses this method to predict election results, and is not wrong more often than right. I use this method to find out a little about any new country I visit.

This is hard in Spain, because most Spaniards do not speak English. In Madrid we had the luck to get into a taxi driven by a Nigerian emigre. He said he loved Spain because of the weather and the attitude of people even though it was not a rich country. The Family raised a questioning eyebrow at me. I shrugged a silent "No idea" in reply.

Later I looked at the web. Spain, like most of the rest of the world has been in financial shock in the last few years. It is certainly not in the world’s top ten economies. But is it rich or poor? I guess one way to judge is by the purchasing power of people. The taxi driver we talked to visited Nigeria every year, and had taken a vacation in Japan and India. So he was better off than any taxi driver we had met in China or India.

I decided to look at another measure: the per capita gross domestic product. This is the average economic output of each person in the country. Of course this is a very indirect way to measure the wealth of people, but it is indicative in some ways. By this count the USA tops the world with about 55,120 USD per head in 2017. The triad of UK, Canada and Germany follow closely, with 43815, 41098 and 40133 USD per head. France, Japan and Italy are also rich by this measure with 35,566, 34,715 and 29,605 USD per head. Of the world’s top ten economies, Brazil and China are distinctly middle-income, with per capita GDP of 8,508 and 7,944 USD respectively. India, with 1,490 USD per head is the poorest of the top ten economies of the world.

I could not find this year’s data for Spain. I had to go back to data from two years ago. Then Spain had a per capita GDP of 25,752 USD. This could make it poor by European standards, but definitely one of the richest in the world. Score one more insight due to chatting with a taxi driver.

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The story of Dinesh

Coincidentally, today is the 9th anniversary of the day we started our trip through Bhutan. So it is also nine years since the six of us met up with Dinesh, the man who would drive the car for us. He met us at the airport in Paro with a Toyota Innova which he’d driven up from Hashimara,Russet sparrow, Passer rutilans, Paro airport, Bhutan the Indian railhead for road trips to Bhutan.

Dinesh was quiet and reserved when we met. The youngest in our party was The Joy, a bubbly birder, stopping at every sparrow (Passer rutilans). We halted thrice before we left the airport, and The Parent of Joy wondered how Dinesh would cope with this.

I sat in the seat next to the driver’s and tried to chat with him. He was from Bihar, and had left home to look for work immediately after he passed school. He learnt to drive, although he left the details vague, and soon found employment with a travel agent, driving in Bihar and Bengal. A few jobs later he was in Hashimara working for the travel agent I’d dealt with.

He opened up when I told him that I’d grown up in Bihar. It turned out that his parents were in their village, and his wife and children lived with him in Hashimara. "And school?" The Family asked. He would usually direct the answers to me, even when questions came from others. His older child, a girl, was going to school in Hashimara. "So she knows Bengali", I guessed. He said that he did too.

A decade ago few people would have thought of Dinesh as a migrant. After all, The Parent of Joy was a Tamil speaker who grew up in Kolkata and now worked in Mumbai. The Sullen Celt had family in Goa and grew up in Mumbai. Over the last decade, a new political story has grown to separate the seven of us who drove through Bhutan then. The six urban middle class professionals are seen as pan-Indian by some political parties, and are therefore invisible to their bigotry. Dinesh, unfortunately, is seen as an immigrant by the same parties, and reviled for taking away jobs from locals.

As we travelled through Bhutan, Dinesh began to take an interest in birds, and started spotting them very efficiently. The featured photo was taken soon after he spotted his first scarlet minivet (Pericrocotus speciosus) on the road from Mebar Tsho to Ura.Scrlet minivet, Pericrocotus speciosus, Bhutan I remember The Family trying to get him to smile as I took this photo.

The six of us were on a holiday, enjoying the ten days-long break, but Dinesh was at work. He had not elected to stay away from his family. Sometimes, when we met in the mornings, he would remark on the bad mobile reception. This meant that he had not managed to talk to his wife and children at night. At the end of the trip The Family asked him how long he would stay at home. Dinesh said he would be off on another trip after one night at home.

He was a very good driver, and I could see why his services would be in demand. One afternoon we decided to go off-road for a picnic lunch by a stream. It started raining hard soon after we’d opened up our backpacks. We ran back to the car. It continued to rain hard. Dinesh decided to drive back to the road, before we were stranded. The mud was so slippery that the tyres would not get a good grip. We helped him to ballast the car with rocks, and he drove slowly upwards over the undulating terrain until we got to the road. Later when The Father of Joy and I discussed this, we were both sure that this kind of driving was beyond us. When we got back to the road and congratulated him on his driving, he smiled.

As we left the usual tourist route of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha, he began to suggest little detours, interesting things to see on the way, and hotels which we could try out. He had us figured out, because his suggestions always appealed to us. He remained in this relaxed mood when we drove to Phuentsholing, crossed back to India, and he dropped us at the railway station in Hashimara. We shook hands, and never saw him again. Sometimes, The Family and I say to each other, "I hope Dinesh is doing well"

A foreigner in the US

I entered the US at the end of the week which was full of rancorous controversy over immigrants. My plane arrived in O’Hare airport at the same time as a flight from Brazil. The immigration queues moved fast. I picked up my luggage and exited to find banners welcoming immigrants, and people ready to give legal aid to travellers in distress. Right at the point of entry, I saw the best of the US: both in terms of efficient officials and a participatory democracy.

On a short visit for a meeting, one sees little of the hurt that many people feel since 2008, in terms of jobs and incomes. The people I’d come to meet included native Americans as well as later arrivals (but, as far as I knew, none descended from the Pilgrim Fathers). All of us, legal US residents, as well as foreigners on short trips, were lucky people, because we had steady jobs and medical insurance.

When you are in a country for a week on work, the immigrants you get to meet are usually those in the hospitality industry and transport. I had interesting conversations with four taxi drivers, one from Bulgaria, one from Benin, one from Nigeria, and another from Ethiopia. The last person drove me to the airport as I left the US. His opening statement was that I was leaving on a nice day. I said the whole week had been nice, and I’d liked being in Chicago. He replied, "Yes, I guess we will pay for it later." I laughed, and asked "Nothing comes free, eh?" He burst into laughter and said, "That’s the US for you. You think you’ll earn a lot, but it all disappears."

There, just as I was leaving, I got the distilled essence of the immigrant experience. This echoes what I’ve heard from immigrants in India and China, Europe and the US: they arrive thinking they will lead a much better life; it is better, of course, than what they left behind, but it isn’t as easy as they thought it would be.