Our driver’s name is Joginder.
He met us at the airport but it was 1.30 am and we had been traveling for 27 hours. We remember very little about him
We have had two leisurely days in Delhi to recover from jetlag. This is the third morning and Joginder is to meet us at our hotel and we will set off on a 7 hour drive to our first stop, a small village in the middle of nowhere called Alsisar.
But Gordon is still moaning groaning and farting, and not necessarily in that order. We discuss the possibility of staying another night but Gordon decides he can sleep in the car and will be fine. It is not a good decision.
We wait in the lobby for Joginder. We know he is driving a white Toyota Innova, an SUV.
In the next ten minutes three Toyota Innovas draw up outside the hotel. They are obviously the transport of choice for tourists. Each is brand new and shiny white. Out of each steps a young handsome driver immaculately dressed either in a uniform or in pressed long sleeve shirts and pants. We leap to our feet for each one, and smile expectantly hoping that this one will turn out to be Joginder. Each one ignores us and greets some other travellers and whisks them away on their journey.
The fourth Toyota Innova to arrive is not shiny and new. It is however, white. It is an older model and has a blue decorative design on the side, an addition that Indians seem rather fond of and no doubt adds considerably to the purchase price but not to the value. This design has worn thin over the years and has been replaced in places with an almost matching blue tape.
Out of this car steps a driver who is neither particularly young nor handsome and is certainly not immaculately dressed. Just like his car, his clothes have seen better days and are hidden beneath a large nylon puff jacket. We are sure this can’t be Joginder, but he immediately recognises us and greets us warmly with a huge smile. We place our bags in the back of the SUV moving aside assorted blankets and a pillow. We later learn that Joginder saves money by sleeping in his car whenever possible, which is a charming idea, but it means we are actually driving around India for the next 30 days in Joginder’s bedroom.
We settle in to the back seats and notice that every door pocket and every available space under the seats is filled with every day items that Joginder needs in his bedroom. It is an odd feeling but we are very comfortable so we can hardly complain.
Joginder is a solid compact man around 40. He has enormous brown eyes with long curling eyelashes that any cow would die for. His hands are those of a prize fighter, huge, broad and strong, a comforting thought should we run into trouble. They show signs of wear and tear that suggest driving was not his first career. He has a glistening solid gold bangle on his left wrist and two huge gold rings on his right hand, one with a large piece of coral imbedded in it and the other with a rather flashy tiger’s eye staring out.
He is covered in hair. Tufts of hair adorn the back of his hands and his knuckles. His body hair is barely constrained by his shirt and small tufts stick out above his collar and beyond his cuffs. His hearing must be seriously affected by the tufts growing inside his ears. His face has a permanent five o’clock shadow even immediately after shaving. It is not a look that I find attractive, for which Joginder is no doubt thankful, but it is a look that shouts “I am a man”.
But, however well endowed folically speaking, he might be, nature has played a cruel trick. There is one place where hair is not growing as Joginder would like it. The top of his head. What little hair there is, is brushed forward in an effort to to hide the receding hairline and cover the bald patch.
As we drive we start the usual verbal dance of getting to know each other. He wastes no time in asking us what we do. When I reply that we are retired, he looks long and hard at us in the rear view mirror and asks “How long?”
For some reason I am embarrassed to tell him the truth, so I say five years.
Again we get that look and then he says,
“So for five years you sit at home and do nothing?”
I guess that is one way of looking at it.
It is actually quite a hard question to answer, without sounding elitist. I tell him that we like to travel. He asks if we have been to Italy. He tells us he is not a rich man, but he has been to Venice.
He goes on to say that he worked for a very nice man who came to India from Italy. This man liked him very much and was so pleased with Joginder’s work that he flew him to Venice for three weeks and Joginder stayed in this man’s house.
When I say that he is lucky to have gone to Venice because it is one of the most beautiful places in the world, I get another look in the mirror. There is another pause and he says
“Yes, I am very lucky”, and then with heavy emphasis, he adds “ The man I was working for paid for everything because he thought I looked after him so well in India”
It seems a little early in our relationship to be dropping such enormous hints.
Especially as he drives like a bloody maniac.
Actually to be fair, everyone drives like a bloody maniac.
We knew we didn’t want to drive ourselves in India, but we are not sure that being a passenger is any better.
Joginder drives a stick shift, and while he is driving he likes to attend to other business. He uses one hand to hold the phone which he is permanently talking into, or worse still, texting on. He uses another to pick his teeth endlessly. When the tooth pick finally breaks he continues using his nails. A third hand is permanently pressed down on the horn, a fourth is on the steering wheel and a fifth is needed for changing gears.
It is a time and management process which he has yet to master, and makes sitting in the back seat a rather nerve racking experience
The rules of the road in India also seem a little different. On a regular two lane road, everyone drives with the car astride the centre white line. The side of the road is reserved for motorbikes, Tuk Tuk’s, horse and carts, donkey and carts, even camel and carts, and the ever present wandering cows which wander wherever they fancy. So the entire drive is a game of chicken as we are endlessly approaching traffic head on. At the final moment someone will swerve to their side of the road (never Joginder, it seems) and create havoc amongst the lesser vehicles. It’s a game of Indian standoff
On a freeway the havoc is increased proportionately by the number of lanes, as each lane is marked by a white line. So drivers can either sit astride the lane markings or between them. This is not an either or choice, it is a battle. So on a three lane freeway there is a minimum of five and sometimes six lanes of traffic, each driver desperately seeking his own tiny space of tarmacadam.
Leaving Delhi we are mainly driving on freeways, but as we get out in the country we leave the freeways behind, and we are on two lane roads. The further we go the narrower the road becomes and the surface becomes littered with potholes and patches with no surface whatsoever. Now Joginder often finds it faster to overtake by going to the side of the road where there is no pavement, but there are no potholes either.
After six and a half hours we finally turn off onto a dirt road leading into a small village. Like every other place we have driven through it is desperately poor and filthy. But then we turn a corner and find a very grand hotel entrance facing us
The hotel was built two hundred years ago as a huge and impressive maharaja’s palace. Today it has been converted into a huge and impressive hotel
Gordon however is not impressed. He has not slept in the car and his stomach has not enjoyed being thrown around in the back for almost seven hours. He takes to his bed immediately, where he props himself up and demands tea.
He may not be well but he looks quite at home:
Ed: Dear Readers, After the alarm caused by Andrew’s description of my near demise (and thank-you for your concern), I would like to point out that my job as editor is to save us from libel cases and not to censor too many of the andrifications.
For those of you who don’t know Andrew well this may be a new word. For those of you who do, you will know that the definition of andrify is “to embroider in the pursuit of fabulosity”