India: Cows, camels and chillies for good luck

Our driver steers the minibus through typical Indian congestion

You know that scene in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel where the British retirees are on the Jaipur bus heading for a collision with a tanker? And they’re about to have heart attacks? I’ve been there. In a minibus on a collision course on that Indian highway. And our driver drove serenely through the narrowest of gaps without batting an eyelid. He also dodged camels, cows, donkeys, dense crowds and dangerously overloaded improvised trucks.

With nerves of steel and a ready smile, Raj Kumar drove us hundreds of kilometres through several states on northern India’s chaotic roads without a mishap. From Delhi to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) is only 253km but it actually took seven hours due to the gridlock traffic getting out of Delhi and then the slow-mo chaos on the highways.

Top-heavy vehicles groaning with precarious loads were also a hazard

As you probably know, cows rule the roads in India. You have to drive around them, and that’s what Raj Kumar did, serenely and smoothly, as well as dodging donkeys tethered to the median strip, dignified camels hauling carts, and even a water tanker driving directly towards us in our lane. Not once did I see any road kill. I have a theory about that one.

Cows resting on the median strip on the way into Delhi

At one stage Kumar cruised straight down the centre white line of our two lanes on the four-lane highway. When I nervously queried it, a veteran travel writer (typing away on his laptop in the back seat) simply said – without even looking up -“So drivers can pass on either side”.

Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?

Green chillies are a good luck omen for travellers

Kumar wasn’t taking any chances with our safety – he tied a bunch of chillies and a lemon to the front of the bus which apparently would safeguard us against whatever. Like many Indians, he earns peanuts compared to us. The basic wage in India for a casual laborer is only 180 rupees a day. That’s about $2. Many hotel employees will earn about 18,000 rupees a month, and Kumar earned only 4000 rupees a month. Gratuities made all the difference. We tipped him 100 rupees each, for each day he was employed to drive us around. It seemed like an embarrassing pittance. His patience and skill was worth its weight in gold. Tour guides also expect a tip, of about 100 rupees per person, a day. Its worth keeping small denomination notes and coins on hand.

From Agra to Jaipur in Rajasthan (where the Marigold film is set) is 235km but it’s about five hours with an occasional stop. The distance from Jaipur back to Delhi is 256km, with road reconstruction keeping our cruising speed at about 60km/h. It takes up to seven hours.┬áManesar (IMT turn), Kotputli Flyover, Behror midway and Shahpura (where the NH8 diverts) are perpetual bottlenecks.

Raj Kumar, a driver and a gentleman

When Kumar finally dropped us off at Delhi’s international airport, there were tears in his eyes and ours. After a week of hauling us all over the place, at all hours, and never missing a beat, he felt like family. You’re a driver and a gentleman, sir, and I salute you.

More info on tours of northern India:

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