Tag Archives: india

More than just the meter

Taxis have been a hot topic in the news this week and this has got me thinking about the different ways taxis and minicabs feature in our travel experiences.

For many of us, a cab ride to and from the airport signifies the beginning or the end of a trip. These threshold moments, as we shut the car door and hear the engine rev, bring a host of different feelings. It could be the sheer excitement in knowing you’re jetting off somewhere exciting…it could be the anxiety around needing to get to the airport in good time or the unease, even guilt, at having left loved ones behind when off on business. In many cases, on the return leg, it’s the sinking feeling in knowing the holiday is really over and it’s back to the grind…or for some, even concerns around finding your home as you left it.

So lots of emotional highs and lows depending on numerous circumstances… From the type of trip you are going on, the time of day and whether you are alone or with others… to whether it’s driving to or driving back home from the airport. All of these things can affect the mindset of a traveller and taxi drivers need to pay attention to more than just what’s on the road and tune into the needs of their passengers.

In many cases they don’t know how to. For example, a cab ride with friends to Luton airport a few days ago (at 4.45am) involved a 10 minute stop for petrol, despite us talking en route about being pushed for time and the likelihood of having to battle through the crowds at the check in desks. The driver definitely had enough in the tank to get us to Luton but for some reason hadn’t paid attention to our sense of urgency or even checked what time our flight was before deciding to stop.

I’ve also had numerous encounters where I am on my way home from Heathrow after a long transatlantic flight with little sleep and all I want to do is spend time thinking, reflecting (and more commonly nodding off). In these circumstances I’ll often pull the short straw and get the driver who insists on interrogating me about my trip…asking about my job and offering opinions, verdicts, solutions and stories of his own. Normally I appreciate the chit chat, but not when I’m so tired I can barely string a sentence together.

This type of conversation is best suited to when I’m on my way to the airport, especially when I’m going to a new destination. For example, I went to India for the first time a couple of months ago and the cab driver who took me to Heathrow had been to India several times before. Our conversation added to my intrigue and suspense about the country I was about to spend the next two weeks discovering.

And what about the taxi drivers at our destination? Cabbies on the other side are often our first insight into the new culture we have entered into…the first physical contact we have with a local. Often the shoe is on the other foot here and my co-travellers and I will be the ones asking them the questions and seeking their advice, making small talk to try a get some initial insight into our new temporary home.

Sometimes we’ll end up having deep and meaningful conversations and I’ve occasionally found myself thinking back to conversations in cabs and words of wisdom shared by taxi drivers themselves…from discussing the Tibetan population in New York City to the extreme poverty and slum life in New Delhi.

Right now I’m staying in a small village in Cyprus and was delighted to discover that the taxi driver who takes us back from the restaurant area is the son of the person who works in the village pizzeria and the same person who came to sort the WiFi in our villa. Speaking with him (albeit after a few drinks) resulted in a really memorable 5 minute journey where we ended up learning some of the local lingo.

The best drivers in my view are the ones who stay with you for long run. The ones in countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Thailand who, for an agreed upfront charge, accompany you for the day and go beyond being just a driver, becoming more of a ‘tour guide’ or ‘partner in crime’…doing whatever it takes to get you to your meeting, event or tourist attraction in time and even waiting patiently for you until it’s finished to take you back without you having to worry about transport.

The worst, on the other hand, are the rude, obnoxious drivers who barely acknowledge your existence, the ones who take the strange back streets and make you question your safety, and the ones who seem to just want an argument. I had an incident a couple of weeks ago in New York where the driver misunderstood me asking to go to a street number rather than a building number and nearly reached boiling point whilst blaming me for the mishap. Needless to say he didn’t get a tip.

So lots of examples of the different ways taxi drivers can affect our travel experiences, for the better and for the worse. It goes without saying that cab drivers, often far more than they are aware, contribute enormously to the highs and lows of a trip and set the tone for the journey, day or holiday ahead. And in many cases they become more than just a driver. We, as travellers, where possible should reap the benefits of this, learning from their knowledge and expertise and adding colour to our overall travel experience.

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India – a few first impressions

I have been in India for a few days on a business trip and can now say that this is the most chaotic, unpredictable yet magical country I have ever visited. The work I am doing over here has mainly been taking place in the afternoons and evenings so I have thankfully been able to get out and about a little bit to see some of the sites, to observe and to experience the Indian culture and way of life (though never by myself as have been told on several occasions now that Delhi is not particularly safe).

I thought I’d share a few first impressions from the capital city of Delhi before I head down south to the city of Hyderabad in a few days time.

Organised Chaos: We had a car pick us up at the airport and as soon as it got onto the main road I was deafened by the on-going drone of horns honking all around us. These were coming from the surrounding cars, rickshaws and our driver himself. After a few moments it became apparent that, despite being on a 4 lane road in a fairly modern car, there is absolutely no highway code, indicators are either considered as décor or no one understands how to use them. The horn seems to be honked at every opportunity – for changing lanes, to tell other drivers off or perhaps to just let off steam. I soon realised that as crazy and chaotic as these roads felt, the honking system somehow seems to work and strangely starts to convey a sense of order and structure. In fact, the following day whilst en route to a meeting, our driver made a wrong turn and decided the solution was to do a U-turn in our lane on a busy main road and start driving back in the direction we came from, head-on against the oncoming traffic. Despite the surrounding drone of horns momentarily getting louder with our driver now contributing to this, no other vehicles seemed to imply this was out of the ordinary. This leads me to believe that the system on the road is simply ‘anything goes’ as long as you use the horn…and holding on for dear life is pretty pointless as the chaos of the roads just seems to work. Or as our driver put it “In India you need good horns, good breaks and good luck.”

The head wobble: I was informed about this pre coming to India. It is a unique movement which consists of bobbing the head from side to side in response to a question or a statement. I find this particularly fascinating because I know quite a few Indian people in the UK yet have never really seen this trait in action, whilst over here EVERYONE seems to do it. I haven’t exactly worked out what it means and I’m not sure if Indians really know themselves – it seems to be used in lots of different situations and there are some attempts to explain it such as the one at this link and a possible theory behind it here. As intriguing as it is, it can make the experience quite tricky for a visitor as it means you don’t really get a straight answer… leaving you to feel like you don’t know quite where you stand, even with the simplest of things such as opening hours, directions and availability of food on a menu.

The food and waiter service: I love Indian food back in the UK and so far have thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve eaten over here – and it tastes even better albeit even more spicy (probably because it hasn’t been modified for an the British palate). I’ve also been safe so far from any kind of Delhi belly (though don’t want to jinx anything!!) The service has been interesting and on the whole waiters have been extremely attentive and smiley, creating an impression that they are willing to do anything for you. We did hear from one taxi driver that the Indian way is to consider ‘the guest as God’ and visitors are treated in line with this.

Stares and Smart Phone pics: Something that does make the experience over here rather unsettling is being stared at and having your picture taken everywhere you go. We have been to visit the Lotus temple and the Red Fort (which are absolute must sees in Delhi) but the experience was slightly tainted when realising that other people are more interested in staring at you rather than the actual site. I can understand the intrigue and the fact that we look different so have just about managed to let the staring go over my head, but have also been approached on numerous occasions now to have my photo taken with people, almost like I am some kind of ‘celebrity’. At first it was an absolute no as I felt uncomfortable with the idea of someone I don’t know having my photo on display in their home (which one man said was the reason for asking) – but when realising that they are just going to take my picture anyway (which everyone else around who hasn’t had the guts to ask is doing) I have started to give in and pose for pictures only if it is with a woman or a family. What is peculiar here is that when trying to engage in conversation with them – asking their names and where they are from – they have no interest in asking anything back – they simply just want a picture. Our Indian colleagues explained that it is a way for people to feel a sense of status, showing pictures to their family and claiming they have a westerner ‘friend’. So I guess, as nonsensical as it is, I can on some level accept it and am trying to not let it bother me, especially since it is even happening in the 5 star hotel we are staying in!

And a few other shorter, yet equally interesting observations:

  • It’s over 30 degrees here at the moment yet most of the men seem to be wearing smart shirts and a guy in the hotel gym even started running on the treadmill wearing a full on suit.
  • The extent of poverty is heart breaking with children coming up to your taxi door in the middle of a busy road and begging for money – one girl must have been as young as 6. We have been advised to restrain for giving anything as it will go to the corrupt people who have, in many cases, kidnapped them and it is much better to give to an official charity. There are also stray dogs everywhere which is sad on many other levels.
  • Bribery seems to be the done thing. One of our taxi drivers got told off about parking somewhere by a policeman and we noticed him hand over a wad of cash and he seemed to go away.
  • Men seem to really dominate the streets and whilst walking around you see lots of groups of men together but few women without men. Many of the men are very affectionate with each-other, often walking along holding hands which seems to be socially acceptable. I looked this up and there is some explanation on this blog: http://www.womentravelmotherindia.com/i-wanna-hold-your-hand-not-in-india/

I wonder what else I’ll encounter over the next week. So far I have realised anything is possible!