Of all the Backpacker experiences I’ve had this has made me feel the most middleclass, like the British of colonial times, with a driver under toe to take me around at my whim, or so I assumed. I don’t know what a good price to pay for a driver is but for two of us we paid £400 (30,000 Rupees) for a 20 day tour so roughly £20 a day. I assume this is a decent rate though it can be impossible to tell what some things are meant to cost. I think we may have got to know more about the Indian attitude towards money and tourism from our driver than we ever would from chance encounters and it’s been a very interesting experience with many pros and cons. These things may of course only apply to the Delhi/Rajasthan circuit; I have nothing else yet to compare it to.
The main pros were definitely the places we got to see that we wouldn’t have done otherwise by train. The scenes along the road were very special and a great insight to the Indian lifestyle outside of big cities, with endless goat herders along the streets and desert. We got to stop in eight places instead of the two or three we had planned previously and got to see some awesome things in these towns.
As independent travellers we have so far done everything ourselves, got the cheapest forms of transport and eaten at places of our own choice. Little did we know this wasn’t going to be the case for the next 20 days. We have travelled on a tight budget and the £10 a day extra was going to make it very tight. Despite our driver claiming to have been driving people for 8 years he was still unable to grasp the fact that;
A) We’ve been travelling for six months and are more than capable of walking down a street unassisted.
B) When we say we have a budget we mean it and definitely aren’t actually walking ATM’s.
C) It is possible that we will have preferences different to the main bulk of tourists and wanting to see something different doesn’t mean that we don’t trust his planning.
D) We know what commission is.
We got accommodation as we went along and in each case went with his recommendation, unfortunately too late on we realised that this was giving us a skewed perspective of Indian hospitality as the driver was the real customer and not us. In each place we checked in the room was of a decent standard, though we were always told we were getting a special price I didn’t believe it as I know what room 600Rs (£8) gets and it was normally the same. The main reason for being told this was that people with an 800Rs budget were getting the same room. In these hotels the driver gets a percentage of whatever you pay for the room as well as free board and food. Because of this the hotel owners are more bothered with keeping the driver happy than the guest as he will be returning perhaps once a month. The same is true of roadside restaurants when we are handed an overpriced menu and wait half an hour for service when the driver is already hidden away somewhere with a feast of a meal for free. No matter how many times we said we just wanted fruit or a snack from a street stall we were always taken to a restaurant with the white ‘tourist driver’ cars lining the car park. The worst example of this being a super fancy restaurant in which the driver said to us that he knew the place was expensive so we should just have a tea but he gets a free gift for taking us there. So we thought ‘finally he is being honest, at least’ we went inside and looked at the menu and it was 60Rs for a cup of tea which is normally 10Rs. So instead we had to sit outside for half an hour while he got his ‘free gift’ some cheap glasses and assumingly a fill of free food too. When it comes to this you really start wondering what the service is you are paying for.
Besides the commission of hotels and restaurants there are also the ‘gem shops’ I call them this but they can sell anything from silver to textiles. The first instance of this was our driver taking us to see his friend who makes silver jewellery. After explicitly saying we don’t like metal jewellery so don’t want to waste our or their time we got taken anyway. The man gave us a 30 second demonstration about silver then sat us down with hundreds of items on the floor. The drivers role in this was to keep handing me items and tell me they are nice as I glance at them and put them back. The man selling the silver was also a chauvinist pig which made the process even less pleasant. The silver wasn’t crafted with particular skill and we found that the silver was smuggled from Pakistan and many of the stones were from equally questionable sources reminding us of the film Blood Diamond. We also got taken to a Pashmina shop, and a tailor but narrowly avoided a marble shop in Agra due to him wanting to go home early. We found out with these gem shops the driver gets something like 200Rs for taking us and then at least 30% of whatever we spend. The driver assures you that the prices are a little higher because the quality is much better but the prices can be much, much higher than what we’ve found for things of similar quality. As someone who has been fairly reasonable at art and craft things my whole life I can tell the quality of how something is made but he things we are clueless and lacking any common sense. After the selling process and we said we weren’t buying anything the mood would always turn sour and the driver would be grumpy with us for a day, on one occasion dropping us in the city centre and telling us we will have to pay for a rickshaw back to the hotel.
When in Jaisalmer our driver failed to tell us about an annual festival which was starting the next day despite us having plenty of time in our schedule. He told us it wasn’t very good and acted put out when we wanted to stay for it. The only other time we changed his plans was when we wanted to have an extra night in Bharatpur instead of Jaipur as we felt like experiencing a bit of nature. He was very annoyed about this decision and we heard him complaining to other drivers about it in front of us. He seemed to think we were so stupid we couldn’t recognise place names and body language. He had no interest in nature and couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t want to spend our days shopping in a hectic city instead. I find this quite unbelievable after dealing with tourists for so long.
There were many occasions where we asked him questions about things in India and he would give us a confident answer, we have later to come to realise that 90% of these were plain lies that he said instead of saying ‘I don’t know’. Whenever some form of scam was coming up his sentences would start with ‘I’m honestly telling you’ and would often be followed by saying that he wants us to be happy then he is happy in his heart and that he is only showing us these good prices because we are good people. Of all the things that annoy me dishonesty is probably the biggest.
This was all topped off by the last few days of him telling us about his other guests and how they give him a ‘little extra’. When it came to driving to our final destination of Agra he had come up with a plan which allowed him to leave 24 hours early. After previously telling us (when we wanted 2 nights at Bharatpur) that the drive to Agra was 1 hour it had now stretched to 2.5 so we would have to get up early to get there in good time. When we were there he had no interest in showing us to a guesthouse (probably because the area we wanted didn’t give commission) so he basically dropped us at the edge of the area and pointed down a road. We had decided on a tip of 1000Rs (£13) which is not generous apparently but we have very little spare money and weren’t particularly happy with him and he got an extra day of pay. After a quick hand over not even a thank you was uttered which only confirms the greed and selfishness.
I don’t think our driver was different or bad compared to the rest from other ‘customers’ I’ve spoken to. I think if you were on holiday without much care for spending and money this would be a great option but as people who have to watch every penny it can be increasingly stressful and as an independent traveller it can be a very patronising experience being told when and where to eat and rest as if you’re a child. I look back on this entire experience with a slight amount of trauma but at the same time am aware it is a necessary evil and i most definitely got to see some unique and amazing things.