Grabbing A Taxi Ride In The Time Of Coronavirus
Last year I turned to Grab Hitch, the social carpool ride sharing service in Singapore for health reasons. When the Corona Virus outbreak hit this year, I was worried. But I learnt an important lesson — when you make a connection with people, you choose friendship over fear.
GrabHitch came into my life like a knight in shining armour, with one difference.
The brave knight was not perched on a horse, but seated behind the steering wheel of a comfortable car with air-conditioning.
My knight dropped me at my office, allowing me to arrive at my workplace refreshed and ready to take on the day.
For four years prior to this miraculous disruptive intervention, as an environmentally conscious (and financially constrained) Singapore resident, I had stoically used public transport for my daily commute. One bus, two trains, 60 minutes and 2,000 steps later, I would arrive at my desk, sweaty and exhausted.
Early last year, a series of health issues, including a nasty fall, made this commute painful, if not impossible. Unable to stand for long and fearful of another fall, I considered my options. GrabHitch, the social carpooling service, was the answer to my prayers.
My new friends
J, an elegant woman who lived nearby, picked up my first request. She arrived on time and welcomed me with a smile. I rode with her several days a week. We shared our travel pictures and I cooed over photos of her grandchildren.
On days when J wasn’t available, T accepted my request. A soft-spoken gentleman with adult children, T was a fishing enthusiast and avid traveller who had spent a month in a remote part of India. He shared details of his upcoming trip to Mongolia.
My mornings became predictable, pain-free and relaxed. Evenings, on the other hand, could be hit or miss.
A young girl wearing glasses and a black headscarf picked me up in a zippy white Volkswagen Golf one evening during Ramadan.
“Did you eat?” I asked, guilty about delaying her return home after a full day of fasting.
“No. But I don’t mind,” she replied in a lilting voice. We talked about her work, her family and her desire to travel. She envied my travels to 30 countries and I appreciated her youthful optimism. At a subsequent meeting, we spoke about love, marriage and life, a conversational detour triggered by a copy of Ayesha At Last on her dashboard that revealed our mutual love of books.
I met many other fascinating characters. A swimming coach who taught kids at my condo on Wednesday evenings handed me a cool waterproof business card.
I met a woman who taught at a school for special kids. We marvelled at the coincidence we had met this way, despite us both living in the same condo. I reassured a young man who was soon to become a father and consoled a new mother who struggled to breastfeed while working at a demanding job.
Hitch drivers fell into two broad categories — the first group consisted of regular commuters who dabbled in this new avenue to make a few bucks, the second were those who tried to game the system and maximise their daily earnings by filling up all available seats on every eligible ride.
My favourite driver was S, a round-faced woman with dimples. On our first ride, she told me about the tough time she was facing. As we bid goodbye in the car park, I held her hand and assured her that everything would work out well. I saw her again after three months. To my relief, her flashing dimples showed she was in a better place.
You never know
My most memorable episode, however, was in a regular Grab ride with an elderly man who picked me up late one evening.
Noticing my drop-off address, he initiated the conversation with: “You rich ah? You live in condo.”
“I work hard,” I replied with a smile, trying to keep the conversation light.
“Uncle also work hard, but cannot live in condo,” he promptly responded. I remained silent, unsure of the correct response.
As we navigated the maze of one-way streets near my office, he received a call. The previous passenger had forgotten his sports gear in the car. Too confused to retrace his path and unable to follow the GPS, I could see him floundering. I offered to lead the way.
We handed over the items to the relieved customer and turned towards home. He chose to break the silence on the final uphill stretch. He said: “You very kind. If you ever forget something, you call me ah?”
It was a strange moment of acceptance between two people of different ages, genders, ethnicity; two people who had started off on the wrong foot.
Late last year, my health improved sufficiently for me to resume my daily bus-train commute. I missed the relaxed rides and conversations with my new friends.
For our annual Deepavali party, I invited J and T, much to the surprise of my family. When I returned from a holiday to India in January, I hitched one ride with J to hand over the gifts I had brought back for her, as well as another regular customer A, who had also become a good friend.
After all, these drivers were individual commuters who could choose to stay safe by not picking up passengers and their germs.
I sent a message to check with J. “My son has asked me not to Hitch. But I take only people I know. Do you want me to Hitch you tomorrow?”
Her words were no protection from the virus, but they proved to me that with all the rides we had shared, I had not just made a connection, but I had also gained a friend.
This article first appeared the The Straits Times, Singapore on 15 March 2020.
Also published at https://www.ranjanirao.com on March 15, 2020.