A raconteur chauffeur is the best companion to have on the road, writes Michael Gebicki.
'Driver will be waiting at the station," are the final, breathless instructions from my guide as I hop on board the train at Gurgaon, in Delhi's outer suburbs. "Look for the man wearing trousers."
He's not kidding. When I get off the train the next morning at Jawai Bandh, deep in southern Rajasthan, Bajram Singh is instantly identifiable, the only male not wearing the ballooning dhoti that clothe the lower half of the male body throughout rural Rajasthan. He's tall, slender, mid-30s and smiling, and over the next five days Bajram will be my chauffeur, piloting me through the villages and tawny wastelands between Udaipur and Jodhpur.
I come bearing gifts. Courtesy of my diligent tour operator, I was provided with a pair of particularly fine cotton sheets and a pillow for the overnight sleeper journey from Delhi. Reluctant to make a gift of this regal bedding to the Indian Railways, I hand them over to Bajram. His eyes light up. "Oh sir, this is very wonderful," he says. "I shall thank you tonight when I am sleeping in my car."
We set off across the semi-desert for the village of Narlai, about 25 kilometres away. It's only mid-morning in spring, but already the heat is fierce, sending a shimmer through the brown humps of the Aravalli Hills in the distance. A Rabari herdsman sits in the shade of a temple wall and a camel pokes its head through the upper branches of an acacia, watching us pass.
Throughout India, there is no such thing as a self-drive car for non-Indians. Getting behind the wheel in India would be a death wish for one not born to it. Only an Indian can sufficiently grasp the peculiar psychology of their own crowded, holy cow-infested world to steer through it with any safety. When faced with an oncoming truck on our side of the road, scampering langurs or steering a slalom course between wandering cattle, Bajram's calm fatalism infects our journey.
The next morning he's there to pick me up at 7.30, the very model of a modern chauffeur, shiny shoes, razor creases in his shirt, huge smile. "You've been sleeping with your second wife," I say. When he's away from home, Bajram sleeps in his car and this has become a joke between us. "Oh sir, my number-one wife is being so jealous of this car."
I've told Bajram he should have a name for it, a suitable feminine persona. He thinks this is a hot idea and he's asked me to come up with something. His vehicle is a white Toyota Innova, a big, plush people-mover with two bucket seats in the rear where I sit in lordly splendour. On the console separating the seats is a box covered in silvery metal and loaded with goodies, sweets, nuts, bottled water and a packet of Lay's potato chips, American cream and onion flavour.
Whenever I come back from a sweaty excursion, Bajram is there to meet me with a cold towel, a water bottle and a smile. "Are you feeling comfortable, sir?" he asks. "I am always comfortable when I am with you, Bajram," I tell him.
When not on duty, Bajram lives in a small village in the desert near Bikaner, famous as the home of India's Camel Corps. There's a wife and a son, "and a daughter", he adds as an afterthought, and nine siblings. When his sisters marry, his father has to provide a dowry, gold for rings, bangles, earrings and for the nose. "Very expensive," he says. "Whole family must help," and as his head waggles, his brow furrows in the mirror.
This is a photogenic corner of Rajasthan. While people in the state's larger cities, and Jaipur in particular, have abandoned traditional dress in favour of jeans and T-shirts, in the villages the affection for watermelon-size turbans and dazzling saris lives on.
"Bajram, stop, stop!" I am constantly yelling when we come across yet another heart-pumping scene, which might be a turbaned gent riding an ancient bike through a tunnel of eucalypts, or a dozen women in flashing saris, bangles jangling as they weave thread around a sacred tree. On these excursions Bajram adopts the role of bodyguard, shooing less handsome children out of my camera frame and bossing pedestrians into more sculptural poses.
"Incredible India," he always says with a sigh when we set off again, and the phrase becomes another well-rubbed joke between us.
Bajram is keen to take me shopping. He mentions several times that Jodhpur is famous for its dhurries. In a weak moment I respond with mild enthusiasm and he conceives the notion that I am keen. He is trying to engineer it so that after my cycling tour, which starts at about 4pm from Rohet, just south of Jodhpur, he will conduct me to a dhurry factory. He's been trumped by Kuldeep Singh Sayla, my cycle guide, who has ascertained that what I really want to see is antiques, and he's promised to take me to his own friend - "Genuine antiques, no hanky panky", he says
"Lakshmi," I tell Bajram as he's driving me out to the airport in Jodhpur. The goddess of wealth seems like a happy name for a car, and he's chuffed. "Lakshmi is very important for me; I am thinking this is a wonderful name for my wife number two," he says. We stop just past the Clock Tower Bazaar so I can fill in his guest book. It's full of laudatory comments. I tell him people love him so much he should be a politician; he thinks this is a riot.
He's outlined a tour for me. Next year. "Come to Jodhpur, we will go to Udaipur, Bikaner, Chittorgarh and Jaisalmer. Rat Temple also. Six nights. You are bringing your wife and daughters, too," he says. "I am showing you the most even more incredible things. Incredible India," and we're still laughing as I go through the airport doors.
The writer was a guest of Banyan Tours and Singapore Airlines.
Singapore Airlines has daily, one-stop flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Delhi at a starting price of about $1447. See singaporeair.com.
Delhi-based Banyan Tours organises customised itineraries throughout India with imagination and professionalism at the forefront. For any traveller who appreciates distinctive experiences that lift a trip above the norm, including small, distinctive hotels with outstanding character, Banyan is a logical choice.