Three days before our departure to India, I got an email from the agency with which we had planned and booked a two week long private tour of Rajasthan. They asked whether I would like to speak with our designated driver before the trip. I replied affirmatively, and less than a couple of hours later, I was on the phone with him.
In a blunt speech of good English, Manoj bragged about his driving abilities and knowledge of the Rajasthan road puzzle. I confirmed our ETA, and he asked for a “most beautiful picture” of Zeza and myself, so he could recognize us at the airport. When I hung up, I was sure I had spoken to a dynamic, easy going young man. And I was happy about that.
Why? Because for 2 weeks and 2000km of an unknown, mysterious world, Manoj would be much more than just our driver. He would be our helmsman, our translator, our GPS. Our connection to the mothership, our escape pod should anything go wrong. We expected, and would be dependent of, his best advice, help and effort. So if we could communicate properly, if we could find some common ground between us, we thought we would find it easier to get along with our driver. And we considered this as paramount for the success of this trip as the Imodium we carried.
However, the guy waving at us as we exited Delhi airport’s arrivals section was surely in his fifties. His deep, sunken eyes gave him a worn out look which he never managed to shake off during the whole length of the trip. But his friendly smile and welcoming attitude were somehow tranquilizing. And as we made way into town, got to know each other and built up some confidence, both Zeza and I began to feel like we wouldn’t have any problem in connecting with him.
The “Befriending our driver” Masterplan
Somewhere along the ride to Delhi, Manoj spoke to us about the nature of our trip and his approach to it:
About our itinerary. In his opinion, it was a rushed one.
About how that was not important. Since it was agreed upon between ourselves and the agency, his job as our driver was to do his best to provide the best possible experience.
About his way of conducting his business, which was to make his clients his friends. He would advise us on what to see and do, take us to restaurants he knew to be hygienic, suggest stores with quality products, etc.
About how on any occasion, should we decide not to take his advice, he would not be hurt in any way.
And, as if building his whole speech towards this one suggestion, about how he thought we should skip the stop we had planned in Alwar the next day, on the way to Jaipur.
According to Manoj, Alwar was not worth the detour and time otherwise best spent in Jaipur. Other than an abandoned Fort and a Palace, not nearly as imposing as others we would get to see further on, the city had nothing else to see or do. “It’s my job as your driver to give the best advice, but if you don’t want to take it, it’s fine. You’re the boss”. Zeza and I could not properly debate this issue between us two in the car. And even if we were a bit surprised, at this point nothing told us that his intentions were different from what he claimed. So we decided we would take his word for it.
After a short stop at the hotel, we presented Manoj with a box containing Portuguese food products. A small gift to mark our friendship and the Diwali festival ahead. He seemed surprised and pleased with it, and invited us to dine at his home with his family that very night. We accepted, of course, glad that our become-friends-with-our-driver masterplan seemed to be working well. Not even in the best case scenario we imagined we’d be invited to dine at his home. Let alone on the first day.
I will tell the story of this dinner on another post. But at the end of our first night, after visiting their home and sharing their food, we were humbled by the lesson of generosity and hospitality we received from Manoj’s family.
In the morning, we started our journey through Rajasthan. Along 13 days of endless roads in the Indian desert, we talked about our thoughts and impressions about what we were seeing and experiencing. About Hinduism and its relationship with other beliefs, the caste system, overpopulation, poverty. Manoj was very curious about Portuguese society, specially in what concerned religion. And his driving abilities were, in fact, worth bragging about. He kept alert and careful in the inner city traffic mayhem, even though the long country roads made him drowsy.
The Suit Stunt
However, he kept throwing in schedule changes and activity proposals, sometimes insistently. He became very solemn while presenting his suggestions, adding an often long speech to justify his approach, and finishing with his catchphrase. “If you don’t want to take my advice, it’s fine, you’re the boss”. With a feeble hint of condescendence. Just enough to make us feel like we would be missing the opportunity of the century should we decide to overlook the magical piece of information he bestowed upon us. We became leery of these suggestions after an episode in Jaipur, on the second and third days of our trip.
As we made way to Jaipur, Manoj told us how famous the Pink City was for tailor-made suits. He thoroughly recommended that I buy one, as they were a bargain for their top quality. It so happened that he had a tailor friend, and he could take us to his shop if we wanted. “If you don’t want to it’s fine, you’re the boss”. I said I wasn’t interested, explaining that I don’t suit up more than a couple times a year, and the suit I had gotten for my wedding a few months earlier would surely get me by for the next decade. He insisted, telling us of a Brazilian client of his who was also hesitant, but ended up buying 3 suits.
I reckon I might have made a mistake here – I left the subject hanging. I didn’t say yes, but I didn’t end up the conversation with a definitive no as well.
A few hours later, after visiting Galta Temple, and even though this was about 16h, Manoj insisted we call it a day. “Rush hour is coming. Getting into town now will be very difficult, and everything will be closed by the time we get there. Besides, tomorrow will be very tiresome day, and you haven’t yet got chance to rest properly from your flight”. It’s a fact that India does come at you very strongly, and processing everything is exhausting. And I did fancy a bit of alone time with my wife. To talk about our first impressions of India. Among other things.
So we went to the hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon reading and drinking chai in the garden. Among other things. As we got down for dinner, we noticed Manoj’s car was gone, though he was staying there as well.
The next morning, we went to Amer. As we entered Jaipur again, Manoj said it would be a good time to stop by the tailor. Surprised by the rebirth of this subject, I replied I was not interested in buying a suit. He drove around in silence for a couple of minutes. Then, he pulled over in a busy street and asked “Sure you don’t want to visit?” “Positive”, I said. As he reversed direction, Zeza noticed him shaking his head negatively towards a very disappointed man waiting outside a shop. That shop was a tailor.
The new plan
We can understand if Manoj tried to convince us into visiting a few places for a commission. We can imagine that a driver’s income in India should be no fortune. And after visiting his home and learning how his family got by, we would be happy to help him bring home as much money as possible. Provided, of course, that our trip and our interests remain safeguarded. But at the moment he shook his head to the tailor, we understood he had puppeted us. He got us to skip the stop at Alwar and took us early to the hotel in Jaipur so he could organize this stunt.
We felt disappointed at the perspective that our driver’s advice intended more to allow him to pursue his agenda than to actually improve our trip. But how to deal with something like this? Confronting Manoj about the situation would surely prevent him from trying similar maneuvers in the future. However, he would probably become defensive about it, and refrain from giving us any further advice, bad and good as well. And surely, our relationship with him would go through a rough patch, at a time when we still had many miles ahead of us. So this was not the way we wanted to solve this. But we could not allow our trip to become another carriage on the commission train.
Deciding against confrontation, we chose to act like nothing happened. But his suggestions wouldn’t catch us off guard anymore. We accepted or rejected them only after properly discussing it between us, and always answered explicitly and definitely. No maybes nor we’ll think about thats. We thought this way we could maintain a friendly atmosphere for the rest of the trip.
The Pushkar Plot and the Pakora Peace
This was easier said than done, however. It didn’t take long before all this built up stress culminated in an argument. On the night before we left Jaipur, we were dining at the hotel when Manoj comes to us. “Tomorrow we will have very long travel to Jodhpur. What time should we leave?” “Well, we were thinking maybe at 08h, so we can have at least 2 hours in Pushkar…” “Pushkar?”, he interrupts, “But we will not be going to Pushkar tomorrow”.
“How come? It’s scheduled!”, Zeza says. “I must be very clear, the agency did not inform me about this stop. And tomorrow is Diwali eve, this is not good day to go to Pushkar”. Suddenly it hits me like a chapati bread to the face. This is the Alwar stunt, version 2.0. “Listen, Manoj, please re-check the trip plan the agency gave you. It includes this stop, and we want to go there”.
The argument ended as Manoj left to call the agency, and never returned to inform us of the feedback he got. We assumed he was told to do as agreed. There wasn’t really any other option. So when we came down the next day at 08h we found him ready to hit the road, acting like nothing happened. But his behavior annoyed us, and he was aware of it. After spending most of the trip in silence, he pulled over on a small village just outside Pushkar. “I will be right back, please wait”.
Oh, what could it be now, we thought, as we searched for another tailor. But Manoj came back after a couple of minutes, with 2 newspaper wrappings smelling intensely of fried food. “This is for you, please don’t say no”, he says as he hands me one. “Is this a chili pakora?”, I ask as I open the wrapping. He nods. He had spoken of the chili pakora as probably the spiciest snack to eat in Rajasthan. Zeza is immediately out, the stench almost makes her spew her breakfast all over the back seat. But this is right up my alley. And we couldn’t reject this peace offering of his. Even if it got me an aggressive case of diarrhea the next day.
The rest of the trip
After the Pakora Peace, things changed. Not that we ever managed to fully trust our driver again. Finding honest advice amid the torrent of possible masked schemes coming out of his mouth was a challenge. Especially when these followed some comment about the life of a tourism driver in India, surgically designed to make us feel compelled to accept it. Like how his younger son demanded a bicycle as compensation for him not being home for Diwali.
So I cannot tell if we grew more used to his antics and learned how to deal with them, or if he took the hint and quit the schemes. But the fact is that we managed to find a balance, however precarious, that allowed us to coexist for the rest of the trip. And to benefit mutually from it. Even if a suit was not on our plan, we did end up buying a few things, such as spices and souvenirs, at the places he suggested.
As for ourselves, we got the safe trip we wanted, and ended up capitalizing on the good advice our driver gave us. Like the quick but unbelievably intense stop at the Om Banna shrine, or the beautiful Mandore Gardens we visited at his insistence. In the end, and despite everything that happened, we have to admit Manoj did have a say in some memorable moments of our journey.
To be completely honest, he had a say in most memorable moments of our journey. Because positively or negatively, directly or indirectly, accepting or rejecting it, his advice influenced decisions, shaped routes, and triggered events which, ultimately, affected the way we perceived India and Rajasthan.
The invitation to dine at his house on the first night, of course. The elephant ride at the shelter rather than up the Fort in Amer. The Diwali scam we fell into at Pushkar, after rejecting his suggestion to skip it.
As we approached Delhi for the last couple of days of our trip, Manoj asked a favor from us “as Christians”. That we reviewed his work on the agency’s TripAdvisor page, so they would be pleased with him and assign him more jobs. “It would be good if you do it tonight, so it will be published faster, and if you write two reviews, one for each.”
That night, we sat down to write the reviews he asked, but not like he asked. We would describe our experience accurately, with all the details of his schedule changes, activity suggestions and hidden schemes. Surely the agency would not be happy with such a report, and would hopefully recur to a more trustworthy, less scamming-prone driver in the future.
But… what about his family? If the agency actually refrains from hiring Manoj on account of our reviews, their income would drop considerably. They’re already poor as it is, could we really put his family through an even bigger struggle?
Wait. We’re restraining ourselves from being honest about our experience with our driver out of concern with the possible consequences this might have to his family. Perhaps this was his intention when he invited us over to his house. Would we feel the same way if we hadn’t met his wife and kids?
Either way, we should not let it affect our judgement. We must share our experience just as it was. Manoj is the one who should be worried about how his actions can hurt his own job. And maybe the agency will let him go with only a warning, and he’ll learn to be a reliable and trustworthy driver to his future clients.
But what if they do stop hiring him?
Will we allow Manoj to play us yet again?
The next day, our last full day in India, we were to visit a few sights in Delhi. Manoj asked about the reviews first thing we got into the car. “Oh, sorry, we were too tired last night, went straight to bed after dinner… We’ll do it tonight!”
At sunset, he picked us up nearby the Red Fort. He was strangely quiet, his eyes more sunken than usual. I asked jokingly if he was sad that we were leaving the next day. He turned to me like he had just noticed I was there, and said “Something happened with a relative of mine. I will drop you off at your hotel, pick up my family at home and head straight to my birth village, 400km south from Delhi. I have already informed the agency, and they will arrange your transfer to the airport tomorrow with another driver.”
We thought it better not to ask any further questions about the subject. At the hotel, he waited at the reception as we went up to our room and returned with a set of documents we needed to sign to discharge him, along with a satisfaction survey we filled out quickly. And a good tip, to help him get his son the bicycle he asked for Diwali. Before he set off, we took a picture together, and said our goodbyes.
That night, after another round of the mighty battle against our own selves that India demanded we fought during all our time here, we wrote one review. Saying how great it was to spend these two weeks in Rajasthan with our driver Manoj. No reference to his schedule changes, activity suggestions and hidden schemes.
Maybe this wasn’t the right thing to do, maybe we are too soft, maybe we got played again. But I guess that by writing that review, we chose to believe that Manoj was a decent person. That he didn’t mean to disrespect us when he tried to puppet us. That he invited us to his home out of friendship rather than to influence our opinion.
In the wake of India’s constant line-blurring that turns the most realistic painting into an abstract mess, here’s hoping that everything works out well for our driver, for his family, and for the rest of his future clients, to whom we apologize for not finding the mental and emotional strength to say everything we said here when and where we should have said it.