Almost without exception, the hundreds of people I’ve met in dozens of countries are usually happy to meet an American. Most people are smart enough to separate a government’s policies, which they may or may not agree with, from an average citizen who happens to be traveling in their country.
As previously reported, I often end up having the same conversations over and over in different parts of the world. I don’t always respond to the usual “Where are you from?” icebreaker question right away, but after talking with someone for a few minutes, I don’t hesitate to say I am from the U.S.A.
In Pakistan, where I spent the better part of last week, this was certainly the case. The stock dialogue usually goes like this:
“Oh, you are from America. That is a very nice place!”
“Yes, well, Pakistan is nice too. I’m happy to be here.”
“Really? You like it here?” (They usually sound a bit surprised.)
“Yes, very much.”
And so it goes, ad nauseum, the same conversation everywhere with a few variations.
On the way back to the Karachi airport after my four-day visit, the taxi driver and I have this conversation for a while, and then he leans forward and says, “You know, I want to tell you something about America.”
As he says this, I have déjà vu all over again. I have seen this movie before, and I know exactly what comes next.
“American people very nice,” he says, sounding like a Pakistani Borat. “Pakistani people like American people very much.”
Yes, I know what comes next, because I’ve heard it in Uganda, in Vietnam, and Romania.
“But Mr. Bush,” he says. “We don’t like him… or Mr. Musharraf either.” (Mr. Musharraf is the president of Pakistan, although he’s in the process of being impeached this week.)
Then there are the references to Guantanamo, Iraq, the difficulty of getting visas to the U.S., and so on. It’s usually a bit depressing to hear the litany, and there’s not much you can say except “Sorry about that.” But this time, since we’re closing in on November, I have a better response.
“Well,” I say, “We are having an election in America very soon, and next year there will be a new president.”
And here is the part of the conversation I did not expect, the one variation in the simultaneous love of America and indictment of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy that I hear pretty much everywhere.
“Yes! The election!” the driver says, taking his hands off the wheel and looking at me in the back seat as I frantically watch the road in front of us. “You will have Mr. Obama as president!”
I laugh at this unexpected statement. Should I try to explain that Obama has not yet been elected, and there is in fact another candidate in the race? It’s probably too complicated.
“You know of Mr. Obama?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says. “Everyone here is talking about him.”
After careful deliberation, the taxi drivers of Karachi have apparently decided to endorse Obama in the American election. When I finally do ask my driver what he and his friends think of the other candidate, he says, “You mean Mrs. Clinton?”
One of the things I love most about traveling is conversations like that one. Every time I meet someone like my driver in Karachi, I walk away with the conviction that I couldn’t make these stories up if I tried. I have my share of misadventures, but I also meet incredible people of all kinds. I don’t usually have a desire to live my life the way they do – I probably won’t be moving to Pakistan anytime soon – but I almost always appreciate how different people view the same world.
Later, at the KHI airport, I sit in the departure area waiting for the check-in desk to open up. I look at the departure sign, which reads as follows:
Hong Kong via Bangkok
Jeddah via Riyadh
Two-thirds of the flights are to the Persian Gulf, where laborers head off to work for nine months or more. There are also a lot of kids here, though, and a lot of women who don’t keep their distance from me as much as most of them do in the city.
The check-in begins on time, and I go through the second security check. At 1:40 a.m. we finally take off to Hong Kong, with a stopover in Bangkok to drop off half of the passengers. My next stop is Brunei, a small, sleepy Islamic monarchy surrounded by Malaysia. It’s the last stop on the trip, and after this, I’ll be headed home.
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Image by megabeth