Let Me Just Call My Driver, Part 1

I’m aware, telling my India stories to friends, that I frequently use the elitist-sounding phrase “our driver.” But for a short trip, I could find absolutely no down side to hiring private drivers in lieu of using autorickshaws or public transportation. First, there’s not a lot of public transport. Second, and my deciding factor, drivers are so cheap. Even when our relatively posh hotels arranged the drivers, we never paid more than $20US for a full day of being driven around. On a tight schedule, I think it’s totally worth it, even for budget travelers—of which I am one.

Taxi prices are what you could call “scalable” in India. If you are Indian, you pay one price. If you are foreign and non-Hindi/Telegu/Marathi-speaking, you pay, oh, about triple that price. To be fair, we’re not talking big numbers. My friend and I took an autorickshaw in Vizag to run an errand for our friends’ wedding. We found the auto in our hotel parking lot, and then called our Telegu-speaking friend (the groom) to tell the driver our destination. The driver wanted to charge us something like 100 rupees. The groom countered with the fair price—30 rupees. The driver apparently said, “But, sir, they’re foreigners!” Our friend told him, “No, they’re not. They’re my fiancee’s family.” (This is one of my favorite stories from the trip both because it’s an inside look into taxi pricing and shows so wonderfully the character of my friend’s husband.)

On one level, the 300% markup seems absurd. And it is. But 100 rupees is $2.20US. Westerners no doubt overpay over and over because it’s just so much work to fight on the price and the difference makes so little difference to our abundant bottom lines. When you hire a driver, you know what you’re getting into from the start and save the drama of haggling over the price of a vehicle every time you get in a vehicle. You also save yourself the mental anguish of said negotiations, which for me, goes something like this, “Did I overpay? Should I have offered less money? But it’s still so little money. And it’s such a poor country… I should give him a really big tip. Maybe he has kids to feed. But, then again, he totally tried to screw me over, and I don’t want to feed into this system of dishonesty…” And so on.

Drivers led to some of my favorite stories in India, some of which I’ll tell here. As a devoted NYC public transit customer whose budget permits maybe one taxi a month, I think I’ll rather enjoy remembering that, once upon a time, I had a driver.

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