From Delhi to Agra, Ranthambore to Jaipur and the ‘lake city’ of Udaipur, Rajasthan filled us with excitement. At times the cities instilled a wee bit of fear and shock in us, it should be said, but we were experiencing it for the first time, with no make-up on nor any frills. ‘This is India’ is a commonly said phrase which we used ourselves on more than one occasion to make light of a fair few frustrating situations. For its many flaws, no one can deny that Rajasthan is heavily laden with jaw-dropping, shiny and exceptionally well looked after palaces, forts and magical places. It has wonderful qualities; not least the vibrancy of its street life (especially during wedding season), its smiley children and its unfaltering passion for religion – something which is certainly not exclusive to Rajasthan.
After a while though we found ourselves longing to get away from the dust that permeates the air and the bitter taste of pollution that lingers for so long in your mouth. There comes a point when you don’t want to wrap a scarf, t-shirt or wad of tissues around your mouth and nose every time you get in a tuk-tuk in a poor attempt to breathe in as little air as possible.
For us though, any feelings of uncomfortableness were just temporary. They would pass and we would move on to another town, another city, another place. For the young tuk-tuk wallah who spoke no English at all and who seemed to be new to the job given his noticeable happiness at being asked to take two tourists on a semi-long journey, his very smart attire and his lack of attempt to overcharge us, his feelings were permanent.
The smiley young man carefully winded his way through the congestion in Jaipur and out to the Amber Fort (pronounced ‘Amer’), about 11km out of the city and one of Jaipur’s must see sights. The Fort was built in the 16th century and stands high up on a hillside and is surrounded by spectacular views across the hills and a glistening lake which dominates the foreground. The view on our approach was so striking that our tuk-tuk wallah could not hide his delight, looking to the left every chance he could. It turns out he too was seeing it for the very first time like us. The friendly driver waited outside for a couple of hours whilst we looked around before smiling and waving at us to catch our attention and driving us back to the city. We covered our mouths again as he coughed and spluttered all the way back to Jaipur.
For this young man, hardly done with being a boy, his career is ahead of him as a tuk-tuk wallah. He will drive around day in, day out, picking up tourists and locals alike, and continue to live in this bubble of pollution until either his stars align or someone makes a conscious effort to make vast improvements to the congestion and air quality. Alternatively, he will keep going until the startlingly obvious health issues he will endure take their toll.
Of course, there are plenty of far worse jobs he could be doing in Jaipur so he is lucky that his entrepreneurial spirit has had a part to play in his journey through life thus far. There is a fascinating book called the ‘White Tiger’ that I read on our journey through India. It is a story about an entrepreneurial boy who grew up trying to escape life in the slums and who eventually made it as a driver for a wealthy family in Delhi before ending up owning businesses and becoming wealthy himself in Bangalore (after quite a bit of luck and a smattering of deceit). Whether our tuk-tuk wallah will be as lucky, who knows, but of all the tuk-tuk drivers we encountered I am sure I will wonder about the fate of this particular young man in the years to come.