Mohamud was my driver from San Diego to Del Mar.
I don’t say something like that very often. I don’t have drivers. I am happy to carry my own bags; I don’t fly in first class, unless I am upgraded for smiling at the right person (as happened on the way to San Diego this week). In general I’m a woman who is happy to save some money and do it myself; I love the thrill of finding a deal, and not paying more than I think is reasonable. But my husband was attending a training at a big medical company and they treated us very well in return. So, we had a driver.
The driver pulled up to the Marriott in a shiny black Escalade, just like the ones you see on Real Housewives, or that the President is whisked around in. Big. Shiny. Impressive looking. All the bells and whistles. When he opened the door for me, taking my bag from my hands and setting it in the car, the running boards automatically came down, so that I could step in with ease. I tried not to gush too loudly, but seriously, other people were now straining to see who we were. That’s what happens when you get into a shiny black Escalade with tinted windows, in Southern California– people think you’re famous. Admittedly, I felt a little famous right about then.
Our car edged out slowly and silently; a sleek carriage carrying Smart Guy to corporate headquarters and then taking me to our hotel on the water, in Del Mar– a beachside community north of San Diego and south of La Jolla.
Our driver didn’t introduce himself. He was quiet, focused, very professional– glancing back at us occasionally in the rear view mirror. He avoided eye contact but I caught his glances a couple of times and smiled anyway. When he made a sharp turn to avoid a traffic snafu, a few blocks from the Marriott, I congratulated him:
Way to go! THAT is some fine driving! He smiled in the mirror. I would have taken that same turn, and Smart Guy here would have gotten mad at me! (I don’t really call him Smart Guy, just to be clear).
He laughed good-naturedly, but remained focused. “There’s traffic on first; it’s crazy to sit waiting.”
“She’s not a good passenger,” Smart Guy added, in response to my comment. The driver smiled again. He was diplomatic in his attention, but clearly amused.
Admittedly, I’m not a good passenger when you drive– maybe not in general… I piped in. But, I don’t mind being his passenger (I smiled at our driver, who was watching me now and smiling back)– he can drive!
He laughed again at our playful banter, but remained quiet as we merged onto the 101.
The two towers: I took this photo from our room, before meeting Mohamud.
How long have you lived in San Diego, I asked him.
“Nearly twenty-three years.”
We began to chat about the hot dry landscape, as well as our appreciation of all that sun. He nodded politely. When the subject of real estate followed, our driver became more animated.
“When I came here, it was a small place, nothing happening really. It was mostly military families and retirees. The two towers across from where I picked you up– they were selling for $200,000 then, for very large units, big windows with sweeping views of the water. They could not give them away. The building sat empty for nearly 3 years, until they finally rented them. No one would buy them. ” he continued. “Then Bob Dole based his campaign here when he ran for President in ’96– the Republican convention, and then theSuperbowl XXXII was played here– Brett Favre, John Ellway– everyone was coming to San Diego! The prices of those condos didn’t just go up, they skyrocketed!”
He took one long, animated finger and drew a line straight up in the air between us. I was mesmerized. His soft accent, his focus on detail, held me.
“The same units that no one would take for $200,000, were suddenly selling for $800,000. Today they are $2.5.” He shook his head. “I think about that every time I drive by there.”
All these years later–Why?
“It reminds me that I was foolish. I should have borrowed money, bought five of those units…” His voice trails off. I am spellbound. He chuckles, “Oh, that would have been so smart…”
He continued talking, easily and naturally, telling us about the changes in San Diego since his arrival. I was struck by his extensive knowledge and ease in conversation, but reminded myself that he does this for a living– of course he knows a lot; he must talk to people like this all the time. We told him that we were from the Seattle area, that we weren’t used to such dry landscape, and then we shifted to water issues.
Smart Guy was quiet, but I chatted away, wanting to hear more. I shared that I remembered water restrictions when I was a child in California– not being able to flush every time we used the toilet (only when you had to!), dry brown lawns… He smiled. We talked about the ice water challenges for ALS. So much water wasted, I said.
Matt Damon co-founded a non-profit (Water.org) that focuses on clean water for people around the world, I told him. He did the challenge with water from the toilets in his house! He pointed out that the water in his toilets was still much cleaner than people all over the world are forced to drink and live with.
“This is true.”
Matt Damon used the ice water challenge to focus on clean water for others… It made me really think about all the clean water that was just dumped, in all of those videos.
He nodded and watched me for a moment.
“People here don’t take the drought or the restrictions seriously. They water their lawns and throw it away; they think that there will always be more water.”
I think that as Americans we don’t really think about water very much, I contributed. Even in the poorest parts of the U.S. water is not that hard to find. We don’t really understand that in other countries, people walk miles for water. Images of my two trips to India flashed through my mind– women with huge jugs on their heads, Peru and Johannesberg, South Africa, where children told me that they carried water two times a day in large plastic containers, dragged along in small wagons. In these places, water is not taken for granted; it’s precious and limited.
As we pulled up to the impressive corporate headquarters, an enormous fountain greeted us at the base of the hill. Water cascaded down, mocking the state-wide drought. Wow, real water shortage I see…. I stated, sarcastically. All three of us laughed uncomfortably.
He looked at us in the mirror and smiled, a frustrated, cynical smile. “No one will conserve water when they see something like this.”
We were quiet as we drove up to the impressive compound, and he escorted my husband inside. The bright sunlight was jarring, as the car door opened and the spell inside was broken for a moment. I watched as the driver ran back to the car, in the hot sun.
You don’t have to run in this heat, I assured him as he got back into the cool dark car.
“Thank you,” he replied politely.
Where are you from originally, as we pulled away.
“East Africa,” he glanced at me in the mirror. I nodded. “Somalia.”
I’m sorry, I answered. He glanced my way again. I’m sorry that your country has suffered so much. Our eyes met. It must be painful to see the place where you grew up, change so much.
“Thank you. Yes, it is terrible, it is so terrible.”
Do you still have family there?
“Some, but I brought all of my immediate family with me. They are all here.”
Wow! That must have been really hard. I’m glad they are all safe. Still, it must be horrible to watch that happen to a place that was once home.
I watched his eyes soften in the mirror, even as he frowned.
“Yes, it is awful.” His voice had taken on a solemn tone, but he seemed more comfortable with me.
Did you see that movie? The one with Tom Hanks… the ship, Somalia?
We talked about the movie Captain Phillips, and the real crisis that the fishermen of the region have suffered, leading to the piracy that the world focuses on– while generally ignoring the reasons for these desperate acts.
It was hard to sit there, listening to the audience cheer when the Somali pirates were killed, I stated. They were so desperate, I wanted it to work out for everyone– though I remember the event… I knew the end of the movie.
We were both silent as we drove back down the driveway.
He watched me, quiet for a moment, but then took the time to explain how the situation developed there, carefully detailing the characters and factions involved. How foreign ships had come in and pushed the local fisherman out. How Somali fishermen had held one large foreign ship for ransom and told these interlopers to stay away… that they were ruining it for the Somali people, who relied on the fish and waters for their survival. Some of it I’d read about, but his details were personal, more balanced. He was eloquent in his story telling, peppering the history with personal thoughts: “It was a wise decision;” “This was a good idea, at first.”
Then he was quiet again, as we merged back on to the freeway.
“You know, when we were talking about water before–“ He shifted.
“When my family was fleeing from Mogadishu, from tribal issues– we lived in the city, we didn’t know about the tribes, but we had to go– running to Kenya, even though we weren’t involved with the tribes. We had to leave. People knew about the animals, there are wild animals outside the city; and, we brought enough food… but people didn’t think about water. That is how so many died; they had no water.”
I watched his eyes, as he told me the story. I could see him going back in time, and it humbled me, in the back of that cool, black car.
“It was horrible– no water anywhere. But we had no choice, we had to keep going.”
How old were you?
“13, almost 14.”
He watched me for a moment and then continued, as if weighing whether to say more.
“When we were running to Kenya, the water– there was no water. People watched for the places where they knew there had once been water, and they would dig, until the soil was damp…” He paused, going back further as I held my breath. “My grandmother–” his voice caught, but he went on. “My grandmother told me that she had to dig and dig, waiting to find the damp place, and then–” I watched, stunned as I saw his eyes fill with tears. “My grandmother, she would suck the dirt, to get some water.”
He was crying now, quietly, and I could barely breathe, but felt my own tears burn my eyes.
“She was so thirsty… that my grandmother… my grandmother sucked the dirt…” he choked on the words again, and our eyes blurred together in the mirror.
I reached around and held his arm, rubbed his shoulder. I tried to comfort him from my backseat sanctuary– his story changing everything– in that car, in my perspective, in the sunny world outside. I rubbed his arm and simply said, I understand.
After a few moments, he pulled himself back together, wiping his eyes and focusing on the route. I was still stunned, his words echoing in my head: She sucked the dirt, to get some water.
Your story makes me think about all these children coming in from Mexico, Central and South America; they’re so desperate. He nodded, wiping his eyes again. I just don’t understand how so many Americans can be so callous– thinking they’re coming here for free stuff.
Now he nodded. “It’s terrible.”
They don’t want our free shit; they are just trying to survive. A parent must be so desperate to let a young child make that trip, a child must be very scared to do it… how can we be so cruel, to send them back.
“Yes. It is wrong.”
I understand the laws; I get that there are regulations… but there must be a better way, than sending babies– young children, back to such horrible conditions, that their parents sent them off alone to come here… My voice trailed off. She sucked the dirt, to get some water.
We continued talking; he told me about arriving in San Diego, how he and his younger brothers had been so amazed by everything they saw in this new world.
“My younger brothers were seeing all of these big houses, these shiny cars and they would say to me: ‘ I want that house! I want to buy that car’ Over and over they were saying this. And I told them, you can have that car, and you can have that house– but first you will have to work very hard. You will have go to school and study, and you will work very, very hard. And when you have them, you will still work hard.”
As he spoke, he continued to wipe his eyes, reclaiming his calm. I barely noticed where we were or the passage of time, I was so absorbed in his story.
“The next day, I took them to the a very different part of San Diego. There were no nice homes or cars. I parked the little Corolla I was driving and put the club on the wheel, so no one could take it. We walked for several blocks, with people we didn’t know. There were men sleeping on the street, drunk, others with cups held out for money. I told my brothers to put some coins in their cups. My brother looked at me and said ‘but we have only just arrived here! I have very little in my pockets.’ But I told him, put the coins in there anyway, so you will remember what it’s like to not have very much. Tomorrow, you will begin to work hard so you never have to hold that cup.”
As the stunning blue ocean came back into view and we turned along a store-lined street, I realized that we must be coming to my hotel soon. When had we left the highway? How long had we been talking? It felt like hours, but it had only been a half hour, perhaps more, perhaps less. I wasn’t sure. I felt removed from everything but the dark interior of the car and the driver’s eyes as we spoke, as I listened to his wondrous words– Alice, down the rabbit hole.
What happened to your brothers? What are they doing now? I had to know.
“One of my brothers is a cardiac surgeon. He studied at the Mayo clinic and he lives in Minnesota. My other brother is an engineer in Ohio. “ He smiled broadly at me.
Oh my God! Imagine, the people who must have seen you as you fled Somalia. They might have thought you were simply more children who needed something for free, or that you were worthless, like the children at our borders now… but now your brother is saving lives! My eyes burned as I became overwhelmed and tearful. All of those little children, fleeing places where they are not safe, where they live in fear and then they are turned away! Who knows which of them might be someone who changes so many things! I understand that there are laws, and regulations, but how can we just turn them away, or treat them like criminals! I rubbed my eyes, as he watched me. And now– we are both crying!
We laughed, and I saw that we were turning into the hotel. I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to drive in that cool, clean, sleek car all day, with those kind, wise eyes in the mirror. I didn’t want to say goodbye.
But there we were, pulling up to a beautiful hotel on the water. The bellmen were all coming forward to get my bags and greet me, and I only could think of my driver and how I didn’t want to get out.
He stepped from his seat and opened my door. Again the sleek floorboard dropped down, but I no longer felt like a celebrity. I felt humbled and touched and overcome. I stepped out and said, I’m Dawn, extending my hand.
“My name is Mohamud,” he held out his hand, with a beautiful smile, and our eyes met face to face.
I threw my arms around him, hugging Mohamud, and he hugging me back, both of us grinning, as the hotel doormen watched in bemusement.
Minutes later, Mohamud drove away, waving to me, as I walked into the beautiful lobby to check in.
* * *
Mohamud drove us to dinner that night, and we talked a little more about our earlier conversation. I told him that I wanted to write about the day and he told me it was fine with him. It’s a story that should be shared, I told him. “Yes, it should be shared,” he replied, looking directly at me in the mirror. I asked if I could take a picture of his eyes in the mirror and use it in my story and he laughed. As I tried to focus my iPhone, he adjusted the mirror allowing me various angles. We all laughed as I joked that his eyes would be very famous, hoping a few people would read this long, magical story. It doesn’t matter; the time we spent in the car changed everything about my few days in a beautiful place, being treated like royalty by a generous and wealthy company. As I walked the beach or ate my meals, I thought of Mohamud and his grandmother, many times. She sucked the dirt, to get the water. It changed everything.
Mohamud also drove us back to the airport when we left California. We talked about his children– his daughter, in college, hoping to be a doctor, his twin boys graduating high school this year. One wants to be an engineer and one wants to go into finance. With such a wise and gentle father, I know that they will all do very well. We talked about the changes in public schools– dismal and disturbing to all three of us. I felt like I was talking to an old friend, but sad knowing we would not see each other again, anytime soon.
When he opened my door, that final time outside the terminal, he said: “It has been an honor and a privilege to meet you.”
No, the honor and privilege has been all mine.
We embraced again, and then I watched Mohamud drive away, tears burning my eyes, as we headed in to catch our flight home.
I hope when he reads this, Mohamud smiles. It was my privilege, indeed.
*Please follow the links above to learn more about clean water for people around the world. Every minute, a child dies for lack of clean water; this is something we can all change. Share this story.
Then, watch this video. Take a few minutes. Sonia Nazario, author of Enriques’s Journey, speaks so eloquently on the subject of our borders.
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