Of a taxi ride and what happens half the world away

It took just one 30-minute cab drive to remind me why I love to travel: I’d never have met a young Ethiopian taxi driver who loves football — and thinks Newt Gingrich is looking good — if I hadn’t ventured to Denver for BlogCon 2011. We never exchanged names, but, by the end of the trip from airport to hotel, I felt as though we were old friends.

Our conversation began as such conversations usually begin — with a quick exchange of small-talk-type questions. How are you? Is this your first time to Denver? Why are you visiting the city?

It was my answer to that question that propelled our conversation outside the realm of humdrum politeness. When I told him I was in Colorado to attend a bloggers’ conference, he was especially enthusiastic. He’s a big fan of the blogosphere, he said, because he no longer has to rely on “the mainstream media” for information — and he’s able to do his own fact-checking. He recognizes echo-chamber-danger, but would still rather have the freedom to choose his own sources.

Plus, the Internet connects him to his childhood home in Ethiopia — and provides a window into the U.S. for his family. He didn’t know Chris Brown and Rihanna broke up (he didn’t even know they were dating!), but a young relative in east Africa did — and brought it up to him when he was home for a visit.

From the minute the driver expressed his eager embrace of what I do, the conversation flowed freely. We talked politics briefly, treading lightly until we figured out we had more in common than not. He said he’s been impressed with Newt Gingrich lately, but mostly just wants to see politicians stop acting like children and putting their own reelections ahead of what’s beneficial for the country.

As I realized how much I was enjoying the conversation, it occurred to me that what we were doing is presumably what he does day in and day out. I asked him if he likes his job and he told me he loves it for much the same reason he loves blogs: It brings him into contact with all kinds of people.

Yesterday morning, for example, he drove the sportswriter Rick Reilly home. He’s a big sports fan, so that was a highlight. So, too, was an experience he had in Ethiopia about three Super Bowls ago, when he found himself watching the game in a bar with a few American expats, other Ethiopians who had lived in the U.S. and various tourists. It was the middle of the night there and the entire night seemed a little surreal to him — even as it reminded him people are the same the world over. Everybody’s partial to their own home, their families, their sports teams — and, while “my home,” “my family” and “my team” are different for everyone, the sense of attachment is the same, he mused.

“The world is becoming smaller and smaller,” he said.

He’s right — and the Internet is a big part of that. It’s cool, really, but, sometimes, I’m not so sure it’s all positive. As expansive as the Internet is, it can sometimes also feel limiting, a technological trap of sorts. With the Internet, fewer and fewer reasons exist to ever leave home. Virtually whatever I need I can order online. Virtually whomever I need to talk to I can contact online. Virtually any question I ask Google answers.

But what my cab driver reminded me of is that, when we do venture “outside” again, we’re able to build on the connections we’ve made online. Even when the mediating screen is gone, the knowledge we’ve gleaned or dished out remains — and facilitates human interaction. We have more to talk about, more to share — in person.