Wednesday, January 14, 2009

India IV: Driver's Education

Our car came to a sudden (by American standards — it was par for the course in India) stop in the middle of the highway about halfway from Delhi to Agra. Traffic had come to a complete standstill and we all got out to see what was happening. Apparently some car had broken down and the northbound drivers tried to swerve around it only to be stared down by southbound vehicles. Now this sort of thing happens all the time in India, but usually the traffic finds a way. But not this time. Traffic in both directions came to a standstill. Well, that was fine by us. We had been in the car for a couple of hours and could use a leg-stretch.

A man was standing on the side of the road with a monkey, so of course I paid my rupees and got to shake the monkey's hand. Then I realized that probably the last thing that monkey had done with that hand was throw feces at the previous tourist who came by. Eventually everything sorted itself out and the car got going again, but it was another three hours before I found a place to wash my hand, and so I spent the rest of the car ride holding my hand out in front of me, making sure it didn't come in contact with anything I might ever touch again.

But that was twelve years ago. Had things changed? Some of the major roads are a in a bit better repair, but it's still the same old hold-on-for-dear-life chaos as autorickshaws, cars, cows, chickens, dogs, pedestrians, beggars, lorries, and scooters all fight through on the same laneless roads. The Law of the Jungle is the only apparent rule of the road, as small things just make sure to get out of the way of bigger things.

The fascinating thing I learned this time around was the class distinction between the different types of drivers-for-hire. Of course, like anywhere else, the car you own has some status attached to it. My Gujarati host was beaming proud that the Ambassador he was driven to work in every day was the same car used by the top government officials. But as far as I could tell there was status attached to the drivers as well. The taxi drivers, for example, had visible contempt for the rickshaw drivers, who were far more interesting. So we'll start with them.

Perhaps it's the openness of the rickshaw itself, but their drivers tended to be chatterboxes. Even the guy in Ahmedabad who didn't speak a word of English was contantly gabbing away. Early in the day I'd point out places on the map for him to take us. Who needs a common language when you can just point to the intersection? Well, apparently map-reading isn't part of the standard public-school curriculum. It soon became clear that he couldn't decipher the map, and so we'd say the name of a place — Gandhi's Ashram, IMM — until he recognized it. He'd then pull over and chat with another driver or random person, who might have one direction for him, and when that direction exhausted itself he consulted someone else. Taking one direction-piece of the itinerary at a time, we'd inch closer to our destination and usually make it there (one particular aborted cafe trip excepted). This disinterest in navigation by map seemed pretty standard. One driver in Mumbai clearly only knew the names of the neighborhoods. You could say "Fort," but good luck trying to specify a building or a street.

But this lack of basic skills one might associate with a driver-for-hire was made up for by the friendliness and casual nature with which they seemed to perform their duties. Our Ahmedabad driver would often stop off at his favorite local pit-stop for Masala Chai (no, not as good as Mom's). He'd bring us a cup and chat with his buddies while locals would come gawk at the white guys and some would practice a bit of English.

Local: Where from?
M: Chicago
L: [Blank stare]
M: US? United States?
L: [Blanker stare]
M: America
L: Ah-May-REEK-uh!
M: Yeah, Ahmayreekuh . . .

But these were some of the best bits of the India trip. None of the sites in Ahmedabad were particularly spectacular. OK, Gandhi's Ashram was very cool and the Indian Institute of Management designed by Louis Kahn was impressive, mostly because it felt like Stanford on the inside, but surrounded by high wall and barbed wire with the poverty of the city creeping right up to the walls. But chilling with the driver on the corner you could sit back, hang out, drink some tea, and watch the locals go about their business. In Udaipur, our rickshaw driver made two stops (to and from the Monsoon Palace — the worst-kept tourist site on the planet) at his local tobacconist to pick up some of Paan — the Betel leaf/nut mixture that Wikipedia describes as a "palate cleanser and breath freshener" — not sure about that, but it certainly turns your teeth red and makes you spit nasty red juice. The detour into his neighborhood was clearly the best part of that excursion. Kids played in the street, donkeys and cows strolled around, locals came by the water pump to wash their feet. Good stuff.

The taxi drivers weren't nearly as much fun. Sure, it was a more comfortable ride, but not much character, not much conversation and a guaranteed stop at the "best restaurant on the way" for mediocre food and a nice kickback to the driver. The driver from Osian to Jodhpur was kind enough to offer me what he called "opium" before he popped some sort of narcotic into his mouth to get him through the rest of the drive. At least he washed it down with some chai to keep him awake. The taxis did seal you off from the beggars and choking pollution, but they also sealed you off from the side streets, local tea-stops, conversation and all the sights and sounds that make it worth going to India in the first place . . .

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