Taxi Trip by Matt Salleh
Originally published in Hobopoets Issue #1
I got into a taxi the other day. I was on my way to get a physical examination for a job prospect so I was headed to the hospital. I figured a hospital would be a pretty easy place to find. I thought anyone that lived in this town would know where it was. I also figured any taxi driver could find it. Not so. Bad assumptions.
The guy that responded to my wavering hand was a Chinamen. Not that Chinamen are anymore incompetent than any of the rest of taxi drivers in this city. Not that he could have been anymore incompetent than an Indian taxi driver or driver of any nationality. Its just that his China-men-ness accentuated the conversation.
He was very exuberant about getting me in his cab. For some reason, mat sallehs are preferred customers. Probably because we usually dont know where were going and were funny to look at.
He was expressive about his lack of knowledge of any place I wanted to get to.
"Ampang Puteri Hospital Please". I requested.
"You know where is"?
"No. Youre the taxi driver. Youre supposed to know where things are and how to get to them." I didnt really say this I just thought it. Instead, I just looked dumb, a look us Americans have cultivated and turned into a science in order to get what we want.
"You don know? I dont know." He said to me, along with a couple of other things for which I cannot find symbols on my keyboard to represent. He threw up his hands and waived them around and said some more of those things that are not represented well enough in the alphabet I know.
I showed him a slip of paper that had the words AMPANG PUTERI HOSPITAL written on them. He kept driving so I figured he finally knew where I was talking about. But then, suddenly, as if frozen in his tracks by the prospect of an instant meal of kueh teow or dim sum, he stopped in the middle of the road. From his gunung berapi spewed forth yet another eruption of words, which both dismayed and mystified me. I think it might have been one word that took a total of 10 minutes to say all at once, or maybe a string of mutterings that should not be repeated in front of those not used to hanging out with construction workers or taxi drivers. At any rate, we were again having a "cultural moment" and were at the crossroads of our language barrier.
Finally, I said "H-o-s-p-i-t-a-l" in a loud clear voice. We Americans tend to do that when we want to communicate with someone with another language. Our theory is that if we say it loud enough and slow enough then it wont matter that they dont speak English. Theyll figure it out anyway. I mean, after all, English is the only language anyone needs to know nowadays. And again, I showed him the scrap of paper with the words AMPANG PUTERI HOSPITAL scribbled across them.
He erupted into a fit of laughter.
"Oh, hospiterhl. H-O-S-P-I-T-ERHL" he screamed back to me in a state of delerium. He kept laughing. So much so that I thought I might have unwittingly stumbled upon some inside national joke that amuses everyone in the country. The kind of joke you just dont get when youre an outsider. I was almost proud of myself, pretending that I could relate to his humor while shaking my head up and down and laughing too.
"Hospital" I replied as if it were the funniest thing I had ever heard.
And again he let into another set of symbolic gestures and words that I took to mean "Why didnt you say so in the first place you jack-ass?" and then drove off towards the hospital.
Once in a while I could here him mumble "hospiterhl" and giggle to himself up in the front seat.
Im glad he was amused.
Im glad we made it to the hospital.
At least I learned to add a little "erhl" to the end of my words that end in L.