Friday, December 5, 2008

Ahmed Travels, Inc

In Which We Say Goodbye to Aijaz, and Meet Samser
Some time ago when I first came to Varanasi, I was walkin home with a moufful of paan, and one of the pesky drivers outside my hotel asked me, ‘you eat paan?’ and then we had the same conversation I have with everyone—You speak Hindi? Yes. Which country? America. How long India? Etc…sometimes in English, in Hindi when I can get it. In this case I could. The next day I contracted him for a day of scurrying around, talked to him all day, and knew that I wanted to have this guy on staff. He’s been driving in Varanasi for 28 years, knows every inch of the city (Bob’s Gym? Bike store? Yarn store? Atm? Another one when this one isn’t working? Check, check, check, etc.) He’s Muslim, very loosely observant, but I have very few interactions with non-Hindus, so I liked that. And most importantly, he did two things I’d never seen in India before: used a turn signal, and yielded to other drivers. We don’t have any pictures of Aijaz himself, but you’ll remember his left hand from this SLNC favorite.
We subsequently found out (well, Maggie did) that Aijaz has 10 children and lives in his ancestral home with 14 other people. His brothers all drive or clean hotel rooms [which is where, he says, he got his otherwise completely inexplicable Jim Morrison t-shirt]. He jumped to open the door every time we stopped, and would lead Maggie and the kids into the gullies, often beating them on foot when they were in a rickshaw. The man can walk about a 11 minute mile without appearing to do anything more than casual stroll. And he cheerfully took me into the Muslim quarter to eat at a hole in the wall curry store that I never, ever would have found on my own. Lunch for two (bread, rice, dal, and curried goat) was Rs. 75, = $1.50. I love my India!
About 6 weeks ago Aijaz had a proposition. The Tata Indica we were tooling around in was small, old, slow, and not airconditioned—that covers the big problems. Sir, [always, always sir, at least once every 7 words] there is a car we can buy. I have 35k, sir, my friend has 50k, we only need 20k more. Sir, the car is much nicer, and it will have airconditioning. Sir, if you could give us the rest, sir, we’ll cut your daily rate by 200, sir, for the rest of your time here. Sir.  [We’d been paying rs600 = $12-14 a day, which I wanted to make sure would include an extra Rs 100 on the top for him in addition to his daily pittance from his boss who owns the Indica.] I did the math, and we would come out Rs 2k down…plus this sounded shady. But I trusted this guy, and I wanted to see him get ahead—drivers work like 16 hours a day, no exaggeration 365 days a year. And they get paid squat. Aijaz told me, around this time,
Sir, I like being a private driver. Sir, I am now sleeping 6-7 hours a night, sir, it is very good sir, too much work is not good for your body.
Our daily custom was enough that he had stopped hassling the Germans and French outside the schmancy hotel in the Cantt.
So, let’s get this guy a car and move the business ahead, I thought. Maggie was iffy on it, but I asked—what kind of car? Mouthful of paan, he said, “afwafafa.”
“Ambassador, sir, Hindustan Ambassador.”
Instadecision: “Buy it.”
The Ambassador is an icon of the Indian road, the preferred car of government types and shi-shi traditionalists. When we were first in Delhi M had asked if we would ever get to ride in one. Now we were going to get an Ambassador for every day. Hoo-freekin-rah. And airconditioned too, not that its that hot, but with the windows up its quieter and much less smoggy.
I turned over the 20k a few days later, and we were told it would be about a week. Right on time, the kids started asking, “Will Aijaz bring the Ambassador today?” “Maybe.” And I’d ask him, and he said something about paperwork, and there was a holiday, and then the lawyer, and we have to get the car fixed, etc.
Oh, no. I’ve been scammed, I thought. This went on for 4 more weeks, until one day he said ‘Tomorrow, we will bring the car.” Four days later, still no car, but he takes me to a tourist trap art showroom, where some unknown makes a phone call and tells me “100% Guaranteed, you will receive the car tonight.”
Two days later, we’re on our way somewhere through a back alley and we pull up, and there, hood open and a wheel missing, is our Ambassador.
There’s much more to the saga then that, but this is already going to 1k words. To the chase. Here’s the Ambassador with Grampy and the kids:
After a few false starts with the battery and starter, its now running fine. We even ran the A/c yesterday.
The other thing is that on day 3 AA (after Ambassador) Aijaz said, “Sir: my son will do your driving service, sir. He knows fluent hindi sir, also some English, sir. And we will take care of diesel, sir, no more rs 150 a day, sir, we will fill the tank completely, sir. Also, sir, I will make your daily rate Rs150, sir, everything included.”
So now we are driving with Samser. He’s 18, and doesn’t drive with the same aged caution his father did, but he also lets me open my own door, and we get places faster. ‘Some English’ means he knows words, but not enough to form a sentence yet, and so M has to talk pretty slow.
He’s studying, and its fun to have a new English student again, plus he doesn’t eat paan so he’s more comprehensible to me in Hindi and English. He doesn’t know the city quite as well as his dad, either, but we’ve gotten everywhere we’ve needed to go so far. He even got me out of a Rs 2k fine for not wearing my seatbelt a few days ago. And after a month training with us [Hell, son, if you can drive those people you can drive anyone!] we’ll get Aijaz back. Til then, good to have a new member of Team H-V.


Grandpa George said...

Hey SDB,

What a delightful experience!--the true reward for Grandma Ginny's "hey there's a new Nag Champa." (this, btw, reminds me of WWII when the home folks were so excited to get a post from abroad.--of course, much of my memory is like RR's memory of wwII--from the movies!)

Glad you're having this adventure--keep wearing your seat belt and ask A if his observance of traffic laws is attributed to his dear father's admonitions to be ever so careful.

Much love,


Susannah said...

Ben seems a little wary of Samser. Then again, judging by his face in the other photo, he may just be practicing to become Zeb Jr.

Mom and I were vaccinated today - see y'all in 1 month!

margaret said...

What? Grampy?! Did he show up just for the Ambassador photo? Did not know he was visiting. Maggie, you are looking so regal in your fancy threads!

Grandpa George said...


Forgot to add--Congrats on great micro-enterprise sponsorship--good for you and for father and son drivers.

Grampy looks great--as do all the Hasketts


ehirunner said...

Grampy comes to India 4x a year, this year at least. He was here for 4 days just before Thanksgiving, and yes, just in time to load the Ambo.