From the moment I arrived in India, I was fascinated by the auto rickshaws in Bangalore. These airy yellow and black vehicles transport millions of Asians each day. They zip in and out of traffic as their small engines hum loudly. Puffs of smoke coated with a thick odor are left in their wake. It is an inexpensive and effective way to get from one place to another.
Frequently, the drivers can be found snoozing inside. They are notorious for charging inappropriate fares to westerners and driving longer than needed to get to a destination. I had been forewarned of these hazards and was a bit reluctant to take my first adventure. Yes, it would definitely be an adventure. It was likely that the driver would not speak English.
- How would I communicate?
- Was it safe for an expat woman to travel by herself?
After a few weeks, I was ready to step out of my comfort zone and take my first solo ride. In my memoir, May This Be the Best Year of Your Life, I recall this momentous event.
How was I going to select a vehicle to take me home? From a distance, how could I determine if the driver was dressed too nicely? Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one going in the opposite direction on this wide boulevard. He immediately turned about and headed my way. “Oh no!” Josh would rule this one out because the driver was going out of his way to stop for me.
“Where are you going?”
“Uh…Richmond Town…Richmond Road…near the TNT building,” I said reluctantly.
I breathed deeply and climbed onto the upholstered bench. I hoped all would go well.
I was astounded. The driver could speak English, a true rarity in the population of auto rickshaw drivers.
Once I was situated in the middle of the seat, clutching my purse for dear life, he asked, “Where are you from?”
I hesitated to reply and then softly stated, “United States.”
From that moment until I arrived at the TNT building near Josh’s apartment, we engaged in a nonstop dialogue. His fluency and his ability to comprehend challenging words and concepts impressed me. I asked him if he had learned English in school. He told me that he had studied the basics but improved by talking with customers.
After I complimented him on his English, I continued the conversation by asking him about his fellow drivers. “Whenever I’m in a rickshaw it seems as if the drivers don’t know any English at all. Is that true or are some of them pretending?”
“I’m different. I like talking to my passengers. I want to improve my speaking skills. They are not pretending. Most do not understand English and don’t care to learn.”
When the vehicle was stalled in traffic, two women in an adjacent autorickshaw hopped out while their vehicle was idling in the middle lane. My driver chuckled.
“Ha! What do you think that’s all about? Did those women not like the driver?” I asked.
“No, it wasn’t the driver. It was the meter.”
I couldn’t believe my own ears. My driver was being candid with me about meter tampering. During our remaining time together, he asked many questions about life in America, especially about driving rules and penalties for infractions. His interest in knowing about places where there were driving rules with enforced consequences grabbed my attention.
Toward the end of my ride, the driver asked what I was doing in Bangalore. He thought it was hilarious that I would be looking for a job in India. Since he considered it so funny, he told me that it couldn’t possibly be true. Like an old record stuck on a scratch, he kept repeating, “Why would any American want to work in India?” By the end of the ride, I still had not convinced him. I must admit that I frequently asked myself, What in the world am I doing here?
The ride seemed shorter than I expected. His meter was accurate because it was almost identical to the amount on the meter when Josh dropped me off.
After taking that memorable ride, I gained the confidence that I needed to take future solo rides. However, none of my rides were as entertaining as this first one. My eldest son, Josh, scolded me for having a conversation with the driver. He felt it was safer to be aloof. I disagreed. As long as I carried on a casual conversation, I was not concerned. I looked forward to the interaction with the locals. Unfortunately, none of the other drivers were ever as literate as this one.
Each time I flagged down a driver, my heart would start to race and beads of sweat would form on my back. I would start to second guess my choice.
- Would I be safe?
- Would I reach my destination in a timely manner?
- Would my fare be accurate?
Most of the time, I did not encounter any problems. Two times, I made quick phone calls to my future daughter-in-law because the driver was heading in the wrong direction. A terse conversation in Hindi usually alerted the driver that he needed to change his course. My concerns were quickly relieved. My journeys in these auto rickshaws in Bangalore gave me the freedom to go from one part of the city to the next. Without the luxury of a personal driver or an arranged taxi, I needed to rely on this form of transportation when I needed to commute shorter distances. If I traveled more than a few miles, it was a stormy day or it was dark outside, I arranged for a taxi.
- Do you have an auto rickshaw experience that you would like to share?