Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A tale of two drivers

I referenced this story the other day and I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell it. This happened long, long ago in a faraway land (oh, okay, it was in India). . .

You may remember that I mentioned Munna and I said that he'd had quite a life. Well, today's story is half about him. He's the first driver. Since I spent the day with Munna as he drove me around Agra, I had the chance to talk to him and get to know him a bit. I found out that his mom died when he was a baby, his dad had died by the time he was 6, and his older siblings pretty much left him to fend for himself. This meant that he was a street kid, not knowing where his next meal was coming from and having no stability in his life whatsoever. He never went to school and, as a result, he could not read or write.

By the time Munna was 12, he was working as a pedicab driver. Within a few years, he was working for someone else and had graduated to driving an autorickshaw. Now, you might expect that someone who's had such a rough life might easily turn into one of the many scammers or touts that are prolific in India. It'd be easy for someone who had nothing to try to get as much as possible at every opportunity. But that's not Munna. He knew that he'd not had the best childhood, but he figured others had had it worse, so he considered himself fairly lucky. He made it his mission to help people less fortunate than him whenever he could. This personal philosophy also extended to his work; he didn't think it was right that touts were scamming tourists and giving India a bad name, so Munna vowed to never be one of those guys.
One year, when Munna was about 15, an Australian couple got into his rickshaw. He drove them around for the day, showing them the sights of Agra, much like he did for me. But there was a connection among the three of them and they all just really clicked. The following year, the couple came back to Agra to see Munna again. They did the same the year after that and the year after that. The parent-less Munna and the child-less Aussies essentially adopted each other. Then one year, the couple gifted Munna with the most amazing gift - a brand new rickshaw all his own. This meant that he could work for himself and all the money he made would be his. He worked his tail off and was eventually able to buy another rick and another until he had a mini fleet of his own. The couple flew him out to Australia a few years later for a visit and it was the first vacation he'd ever had.

Fast forward 20 years to the present day. Munna still drives a rick and still has the one the couple gave him (he says he'll never get rid of it because it means too much to him). He works every chance he gets because he's saving money to open his own guesthouse, one that would allow people to pay what they could afford. Munna regularly goes without meals; he gives his food and/or money to other people because he says he's already had one meal that day and that other person probably hasn't. When he told me that he hadn't seen the Aussies in a couple of years because the man was sick and not able to travel, he started to cry. I'm not gonna lie. I was crying right along with him at that point. 

So the point of all of this is what? Munna drove me around for a day in Agra, showed me sights and took me to restaurants I never would've seen on my own, and told me from the beginning that if I wanted to give him money afterwards that was fine, but if not, then at least he got to meet someone else from the States. Munna was genuine and honest and straightforward and just a good person who I enjoyed spending time with, so you can bet that I gave him money before I left.

Perhaps by now you've caught on to the fact that since this is a tale of two drivers, that there must be a story behind another driver. And perhaps you've also caught on to the fact that this other driver is completely the opposite of Munna. Let me tell you about Rajat.

I met Rajat in Mysore as I was walking down the street looking for a place to stay. He walked up to me and started talking, asking me where I was heading and suggesting hotels. I was immediately on guard because touts often earn their commissions by leading tourists to a particular hotel. He must've sensed my hesitation because he said, "Don't worry. I'm not a tout looking for money or anything. I just like to help when I'm able to." Ok. So the first hotel I went to was completely booked, not fully unexpected because it was just a few days before New Year's. Rajat was there when I came back out of the hotel and he wanted to tell me about another place that might have rooms. At this point I figured that even if he was a tout, if he helped me find a room in a city of booked hotels, then that wouldn't be so bad.

We actually went to a few different hotels before I eventually settled on one that was still incredibly overpriced (but also the cheapest I could find). All the while, Rajat and I were chatting and I was starting to think that maybe he actually was just being friendly. When he suggested going to Mysore Palace later that night to see it all lit up, I decided I'd go; after all, it was something I'd planned to do anyway. Afterwards we went to a local place for dinner and that's when I started finding out more about him. I found out that he used to be a teacher but it didn't pay enough, so he'd been a rickshaw driver for the last year and a half. When Rajat dropped me off at my hotel and suggested taking me around to a few places the next day, I said no, that I didn't want to take away from his fares, but that maybe we could grab dinner after he'd finished work.

Rajat called me a couple of times the next day, but I wasn't in a hanging out kind of mood; I just wanted to wander by myself. As it turned out, Mysore was a very walkable city, so I never needed to get in a rickshaw to go anywhere. When my travel plans changed and I decided to leave Mysore a day early, I called Rajat to let him know and to suggest we get that dinner. He said he'd pick me up from my hotel, we'd eat, and then he'd take me to the bus station. We ended up going for coffee with a friend of his first and then he said he wanted me to go to this store before we got dinner. I told him I wasn't interested in shopping and I was getting a little antsy about how late it was getting and being at the bus station on time, so I'd rather not go the store. He said I didn't have to buy anything, just take a look. Rajat, his friend, and I went around and around in conversation because I couldn't understand why he wanted me to go to this store. Finally, I thought I understood: the store was giving out coupons as credit (for what, I still wasn't sure on) and I was going to give the coupon to Rajat to use since I'd be leaving and wouldn't need it myself. Fine, no problem, let's just do it so I can eat before I get on the bus.

Next, we start driving again and it seems like we're going a little out of the way. Rajat says we're going to a place where only locals go. The food is good and cheap and I'll like it, he says. He was right about that; there were no tourists at all and the food was indeed good and cheap. We said goodbye to Rajat's friend at that point and we left for the bus station. As we pulled up, Rajat told me to sit tight, he'd come around to open the door and help me with my pack, and then I could give him money. Wha??? I figured I was going to pretend I hadn't just heard that, so I got my pack, thanked him and said it was nice meeting him, said goodbye, and started toward the bus station. 

He came after me and said, "Wait! Aren't you going to give me any money?" "For what?" I asked. He answered that I should give him money for the driving that he did and I responded back that I didn't realize he was working each of the nights we went out, that I thought he was being friendly. After all, he drove his own car, not a rick, and he wasn't wearing a uniform. This is the part where he starts arguing with me and I told him that it all made sense now - he was a tout and that's why he took me to different hotels, and to the store I didn't want to go to, and out of our way to a food stand. He protested and said that wasn't the case at all. I suggested that next time he not try to be a scammer, just be honest with people and let them decide if they wanted his services or not. I told him that I'd met many people during the course of my travels, some that I was still in regular contact with and some that I simply shared a meal, a drink, or conversation with, but that NONE of them asked me for money in return.

I figured he'd stand there and argue with me until I was beaten down enough to hand over rupees, so I said I was sorry about the misunderstanding but that I wouldn't be giving him anything, and I turned to walk towards my bus. He yelled an obscenity after me, but I kept right on going, never to see him again.

So that's that. Two drivers, two entirely different experiences. And, in case you're wondering why the heck you're reading about India when I'm in Cambodia, well, maybe you'll want to go look here or here instead.


  1. I really, REALLY enjoyed the stories. Not just the content either. You're becoming quite the writer as you travel the world. Meeting people like Munna has to make meeting people like Rajat all worthwhile.

  2. is rajat one of the guys that has written occasionally in the comments of this blog - or am i totally remembering the wrong name?

    and thank god for people like munna and good for you for not giving into the pressure of rajat. walking away was the smartest thing to do . . . you make a mother proud. and a friend. and a ruby. xoL

  3. That was a very nice story. Hopefully you come
    across more Munnas then rajats, at least you
    know what to look out for now.

    I love your new blog header by the way! I still
    can't beleive you touched a real tiger!!

    Love ya

  4. Laura - NO! Let me make that very clear! The Rajat who comments occasionally is a very nice man that I met on a train. The Rajat of this story is a completely different person, but unfortunately this is a common name. I think I met at least three people with this name.