x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A jaunt to Jaipur with the 'saint of the three-wheeled vehicle'

On the road Luke Jerod Kummer takes a trip around the Indian city on an auto-rickshaw whose driver becomes both a guide and a companion.

A view from the back of Sagar's auto-rickshaw.
A view from the back of Sagar's auto-rickshaw.

The hotel car that picked me up from the airport in Jaipur charged US$10 (Dh37), or more than a third of the cost of my double room. During the ride the driver pitched a tour of the city for what he called a rock-bottom price of $23 (Dh84) per day. Figuring other offers would come along, I politely declined. The next afternoon I asked the front desk how much it should cost to go to the city centre in one of the hundreds of auto-rickshaws plying the Pink City 's streets.

On the corner I waved down one of these motorised vehicles that look like the larval-stage spawn of an old-time coach. The driver wore tinted glasses, silver hair and grin whose nature I couldn't quite classify as wolf's or lamb's. I told him where I wanted to go and he replied in near perfect English that it would cost 60 rupees, or about $1 (Dh3.67), which is what the desk clerk suggested. "50 rupees," I countered.

He nodded. "Chalo," I said, using Hindi-speaker's version of giddy-up. It may seem unremarkable to someone who has never visited India that this driver had not tried to hustle a foreign tourist with a ridiculous sum. But during my trip to Delhi a few months back I had regularly argued with drivers asking three times the normal fare. As we bumped along the road in the company of face-painted elephants, cart-hauling camels, scooters, Tatas and cows wandering through traffic like ghosts, we chatted. His name was Sagar. He came from a village that was once on the outskirts of Jaipur but that now has been swallowed up by the rapidly expanding city of four million.

At the stop signal he handed me a notebook bound in worn leather and I took my turn leafing through pages filled with superlative-laced testimonials from tourists around the world. My favourite was authored by a fellow from the States who called him "the Indian saint of the three-wheeled vehicle". I asked Sagar about it but he replied that he could not read a single word of English or Hindi because he had barely gone to school. He was a chai-wallah at 12, a rickshaw driver at 16 and an auto-rickshaw driver soon after that. Now he is in his forties and has no other aspiration in life.

"I take people around Jaipur," he said. "I try to make them happy and I now I have many friends. One day I will die and then people will come looking for me. They will cry because I am gone. For me, this is enough." What impressed me most about this book of what could well have been glowing eulogies was that so many people said that, whether it came to textiles or temples, Sagar knew the best deals and places to see. I only had a few days in the city and this sort of know-how from someone who wasn't going to rip me off could be a great asset.

I asked how much it might cost to hire him for the day. "Pay what you like," he said. "You should know that I am very, very cheap," I replied. "Do you plan on giving me any money?" He asked. "Not much," I said. Something was apparently better than nothing because with that we had struck a deal. Sagar's first piece of advice proved worthy, as he directed me to Jantar Mantar, a 17th-century observatory of enormous stone staircase leading to the sky and astrological globes used to discern interplanetary motion. The site was to close its gates long before the temple I planned to visit and I would have missed out on it if not for Sagar's heads-up. At the end of the day I gave him $8 (Dh29). He didn't complain and I told him to meet me at the same spot the next morning.

And so the payoff from my fortuitous encounter with this wise man with three wheels continued. From then on breakfast was not the $4 (Dh13) continental variety offered by the hotel, but roadside chai and delicious mirchi - long green chillies slit open and stuffed with spicy potatoes before being powdered in dal flour and deep fried - which cost 15 cents (50 fils) each. When I wanted to browse some of Jaipur's famous textiles Sagar took me to a factory where they do block printing and advised me how much to bargain. Dinners were eaten at open-air restaurants offering $0.80 (Dh3) thalis with crunchy poppadom crumbled into rice alongside stewed vegetables and sweet coconut muck.

When I asked to visit Hawa Mahal, an iconic building whose pink façade ascends in towering, symmetrical baroque design, he warned me of the touts that would invite me upstairs to their flats across the street to get a better view only to afterwards demand that I pay through the roof for the privilege. And so I easily waved them off. My flight home was at 4am and I didn't fancy the idea that I would have to pay $27 (Dh98) for a night at the hotel when I would hardly be able to sleep there. Instead, I queried Sagar whether I could bunk with him and pay the same amount. That night his wife prepared a home-cooked Rajasthani feast with fresh chapatti that we ate with his family on the roof of his three-storey house overlooking the hills surrounding the city.

After dinner Sagar's daughter laid out a blanket and a pillow for me and I slept there for a couple of hours with the outdoor breeze washing over my body and the mix of Muslim calls to prayer and chants from Hindu temples nearby saturating the night air and entering my dreams. Sagar woke me up on time - a feat I likely wouldn't have managed on my own - and delivered me to my flight. In my travels I've come across some rotten guides who neither earned their pay by being good drivers nor companions. Sagar was both and without him I may have left Jaipur as I had left Delhi - wringing my hands in frustration. Instead, I'd go back in a heartbeat, though next time I'll know his rooftop is more pleasant than any hotel. lkummer@thenational.ae