Cab drivers in India can be your best friend or worst enemy. We spent a lot of time in a car or a van. We had four very able drivers – Rajpal in the north taking us from Delhi to Jaipur to Agra back to Delhi (originally also to take us to Amritsar, but I had to take a day off to recuperate from getting sick with a fever), Nassim for one night in Mumbai, Subash for one night and day in Goa and Manikuttan in the south taking us from Cochin to Mallapally to Thekkady to the Kerala backwaters to Cochin. They were all good, a couple extremely good.
Drivers serve a variety of purposes. The first and foremost is the most basic. They are literally taking you from point A to point B. Point A to Point B in India means something significantly different (read: highly dangerous) than it does in the States. As such, our lives were completely dependent upon them. There’s a trust that needs to be given from the outset and developed over the course of the relationship. Make sure you use either a reputable service or have a trusted family member or friend secure one. My cousin secured one from a service in the north and my mother connected with one my uncle had used in the past on our southern journey. In Mumbai and Goa, we lucked out. Make sure to get someone who can speak good English or have someone with you who can speak his language (generally Hindi, and in my part of the world down south, Malayalam).
Drivers also are your eyes and ears to get you what you want. Rajpal in the north was especially good at this. They know shop owners and street merchants along the way that can get you good prices on clothes, textiles, carpet, statues, jewelry, and other various trinkets and souvenirs. What this really means is that they are getting kickbacks from those same vendors from whom we are getting good prices. “Good” is relative, so have a predetermined amount in your mind as your upper limit, one that you’ve decided before your trip. What we found was that the reputed “good” prices on the way from Jaipur to Agra were actually significantly more expensive than the prices we found in Thekkady. That being said, when we did the roupee to dollar conversion, we came away significantly under budget for the entire trip.
Drivers can be a wealth of information. We learned so many unsolicited tidbits about India in the north simply because we connected on a personal level with Rajpal. We talked about Indian history, Indian politics (e.g. Gandhi, current affairs, the new election and the new prime minister), Indian business (e.g. brick-making, lending and clothing), Indian sports aka cricket, India’s highways and road systems, India’s abundance of trash, her families, etc. besides seeing some of the most beautiful parts the country offered (as well as her stark contrast).
The drive itself is a looking glass into the Indian way of life. We saw so much we would not have seen if we had only flown; and for that I am very thankful. And since we were in so many cities, going thru small towns to visit them, we saw more of the real India, not to mention different parts of India, than anyone we’d known, and in some cases I’m sure more than many Indians living in India.
We saw camels (in the north), buffalos, cows, oxen, goats and dogs everywhere, and even, in some parts, elephants. Along with her animals, India’s peoples were everywhere. They, like the animals, believe they own the road just as much as any vehicle. Besides walking the streets, many of them were working – pushing huge 8’x10′ carts filled with various items they wanted to sell. The roads were also teeming with motorbikes and scooters, many times with an entire family riding on them, a little child or two tightly squeezed between mom in the back and dad holding the handlebars in front. We saw massive trucks (aka “lorries”) fill the roads, many dangerously overloaded, some by the side of the road with its passenger inside, its wheels off its axle cos it could not handle its load. India was constantly both moving and standing still as we drove on through.
Not only were there shops our drivers took us into, we also saw all kinds of markets along the roads. Indians are always selling, and the roads of India are truly her supermarket – bananas, mangos, shoes, silks, scarves, marble, wood, etc. all could be seen from our cars. In the south, we stopped on the roadside next to a dirty pond off the side with a fenced pathway holding a hundred ducks, one of which became a part of the duck curry we had that night for dinner and breakfast the next morning for my family.
Driving in India, as I’ve indicated as nauseum in many posts, is extremely dangerous. The drivers of India are extremely skilled. They are used to its madness, their skill centered around defensive aggressiveness or aggressive defensiveness, depending upon your point-of-view. Their feet are constantly playing footsy with both the brakes and the accelerator, prepared at a moment’s notice to abuse one or the other. There is no such thing as a lane, and most times if there are white lines on the road, they are straddling it not committing to either “lane”. They are fighting for ownership of the road not just with other vehicles, but also the aforementioned people and animals. It is truly survival of the fittest. If not for a good driver, none of us would have been the fittest.
At the end of the trip, be prepared to pay a hefty sum (even by US standards). Generally speaking, it costs Rs 15 per 1 km. On top of that, you may – and generally it’s expected that you do – provide for all his meals and account for his lodging for the night.
At the end of the day, our experience would not have been what it was without the commentary by and camaraderie with our driver. I still say going by train is the best way to see and experience the real India (though by all accounts, today it remains a somewhat dangerous one). However, driving thru India was more than a fantastic substitute, giving us a glimpse, and in some cases more, into the real India.
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