Abdul is the first driver cum guide, whose name and face I can remember. In the 70s, when I was a kid, he took us daily in his Ambassador taxi, from the Fountain Hotel in Mahabaleshwar, to various sites and points in and around the hill-station. I even have a black and white photograph of him stored somewhere in a shoebox. When we left, we promised to be in touch…but the moment we were back in Mumbai, he was already a distant fading memory. During those five days however, we came to know so much about him…his wife, his children, where he was born, how he came to be a driver in Mahabaleshwar…pretty much the story of his life.
In the semi-sleep trance that comes with dozing off during a long car ride, I suddenly remembered many of the vacation drivers and guides who have been with us through the years. Currently we are driving through some of the most astounding, craggy and raw mountainous landscapes I have ever seen. The vistas hit you in the belly and suck you in…and make you fall in love with this part of our country and its terrain. Dorjee, our driver has taught us more about this region than we would have ever learnt from guide-books and despite all the planning we did, nothing prepared us for the visceral impact of this place. As drivers go, he is among the best we have had in a long time, never driving over 60 kms/hr, with no jerks and no sudden turns and twists.
Ella in South Africa last year was the same. She owned the SUV in which she took us around the southern part of the country. She picked us up at the Cape Town airport and was with us till George…for about 5 days. Her Indian name, given to her by some other Indian tourists, was “champa chameli chapli”…she could talk non-stop and by the time we parted, we knew everything that perhaps was to be known about her. She made that leg of our South Africa experience very interesting and nice.
The one bad experience we had was in Bhutan. Our first driver was a young man in his early 20s, over-exuberant, given to high-speed driving and constant jerks and nausea-inducing sudden turns. It became so bad that I had to call the travel agency for a replacement…amazingly they sent another driver into the interiors of Bhutan overnight, no questions asked. The new driver, whose name I have forgotten, was portly and slow and even-tempered and made the rest of our journey memorable, even coming with us to Tiger’s Nest, along the way helping and sometimes even carrying the children when they got tired during the 3-hours trek.
Santosh, our driver-cum-guide in Sikkim was equally good. Careful and very knowledgeable, he was able to get us to Nathu La Pass much before the hordes arrived. Each time he would make a trip to Bagdogra airport to pick up and drop tourists, he would carry back a sack of potatoes and onions for his house…they cost less in West Bengal than in Sikkim.
All of them, for the few days we spent together on our various trips, became part of our lives. Each had a unique story to tell. These are people we meet for a short time and then we both move on…knowing that it is unlikely our paths will cross again. And yet, these drivers cum guides enrich our lives for those brief few days…and we too, hopefully add to their basket of pleasant experiences.