I had a taste of the still-feudal side of India this past week.
Saturday I met up with my friends Eric and Holly, who had flown in from Boston to travel with me for two weeks. They had booked a room in Delhi over the internet, which in America makes perfect sense. In India, we quicky came to realize, it’s not such a good idea: I could make a web site with pretty pictures tomorrow and pretend it’s a nice hotel instead of a dirty dump. They were a bit shocked; I was less so. We moved the next morning, but in the process of doing so we got swept into a travel agency, which I had hitherto managed to avoid. Because Eric and Holly have so little time here, when the agent suggested our hiring a car and driver to take us to Jaipur and Agra, I agreed. I take full responsibility for being the sucker – although I did manage to refuse the hard sell of pre-booking hotel rooms, which the agent tried to tell us were hard to come by.
So the next morning we were swept into the world of Soni, an agreeable-looking chap in his early thirties who drove like an absolute maniac ( so pretty much a typical Indian driver). Our contract said no air-conditioning, but within half an hour of pickup Soni turned it on and told us not to tell his boss. We had been ok with the windows open.
South of Delhi are miles of office building and factory suburbs. The pollution and traffic are stunning. I had been amazed in Delhi to find a very modern, very clean subway system; you can use either a smart swipe card or you can buy a big round plastic token that looks like play money but is actually encoded with exactly the station you’re supposed to get out at. (Eric let out a startlingly loud chortle that probably nearly got us arrested when we figured out how sophisticated the silly-looking thing was.) I tried to tell them that the rest of India didn’t look like this, but it was a few days before they believed me.
Once on the road we tried to change our plans and go on to Pushkar for a night, but Soni balked. We had thought we had him for four days and could do whatever we wanted in that time; his contract said Jaipur and Agra, and that was all he was doing. We realized we weren’t going to win that one. Early afternoon I got hungry and started pushing him to stop somewhere for lunch. Instead of stopping at a dhaba (roadside stand) as I asked, he finally pulled up to a large extremely western-looking restaurant. We walked in, looked at the far overpriced menu and the busload of western tourists and decided to rebel. Walking out again, Soni came running up, then waved us to a normal Indian hole in the wall. Round 2 us.
Over the next few days we had constant battles with Soni – ranging from where we would stop for lunch to where we would sleep the night to what shops we should go into. We tried to talk to him like straight westerners –cut the BS, tell us where you get commissions and maybe we can make a deal — but he denied that there was any such motive. In Jaipur I called him to pick us up at a restaurant and he said he would be waiting where he’d dropped us off that morning because the traffic was bad. I said no, you’ll pick us up here. In Agra we wanted to cross the river to see a tomb and he said that the road was one-way and that it would take forever to get there. When I insisted, it took about fifteen minutes. Although it was agreed that he would drop us at the out-of-town train station on the final day he tried to do it five hours early, claiming he had a long drive back to Delhi; I told him firmly that wasn’t going to work for us.
All the while we tried to keep a smiling, good relationship going (to the extent of chuckling at his long-winded ‘jokes’, none of which we could understand), but we wondered what was going on in his head. Did he hate us for refusing to be herded, or did he respect us for it? He became our favorite topic of conversation while we were out of the car. Where did he sleep? Did he really do yoga and run for an hour every morning, and if so where? I saw myself becoming more hard-hearted, yet at the same time it was obvious he was testing our limits. And we didn’t use him that much, preferring to walk around by ourselves rather than be driven to every shop. He actually complained the second evening that he had been bored, as we’d ditched him all day. We felt exhausted that we had to take care of his physical and emotional welfare. It became clear to me that even if I can ever afford to have live-in staff, I won’t.
[I’m running out of time now, as we have to catch a train to the Nepalese border shortly. Will write quite a bit more within the next few days.]