Cheeky beggars

Up until now, we have been surprised by how laid-back Indian drivers appear to be. Yes, they are always hooting and they don’t follow rules of the road like we do but they seem to have their own system.

Basically this is the rule: Give way to anything bigger than yourself. So that works for buses, lorries, cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians. You know your pecking order.

Other than this, it’s every man for himself. Unless you’re an animal. Water buffalo, wander as you wish. Cows, walk or sit where you like. Foolish dogs, sleep in the middle of the road, why don’t you…

Mainly, the driving we have seen in recent weeks has been on slow roads. Traffic cannot go too fast because of the state of the road. Potholes, construction work, rubble, it’s all there. But on the road from Udaipur to Jodhpur, we spent some of the time on a two-lane highway where slow lorries hogged the outside lane.

One minute our driver was overtaking on the left, the next minute on the right, and then occasionally there would be a barricade in the road with incredibly little warning, either put there by police to slow the traffic or put there to allow roadworks (there will be women in saris carrying concrete on their heads). The equivalent roadworks in the UK would have about a mile of warning cones. Here, you’re lucky if there are three cones before the hazard is underneath your front wheels.

Right in front of us, two large lorries found themselves side by side at the same speed. One wouldn’t give way to the other. They got scarily close to the point that I gasped, thinking it was accidental. And then I realised they were doing it on purpose.

One wouldn’t give way to the other and one of the drivers was deliberately trying to force the other off the road.

The other retaliated and pushed back. Then a third lorry somehow came up and got involved and stopped (causing us to stop) – and the driver jumped out brandishing a stick.

At which point our driver pulled round to the left on the stony hard shoulder and we carried on our journey, safely out of the way.

A couple of weeks ago, we were in a car where we needed to get to a restaurant on the other side of the two-lane highway. Our driver crossed over in a gap in the central reservation, and proceeded to drive on what was the hard shoulder – in the opposite direction to the oncoming traffic. In England, you would be vilified. Here, no one batted an eyelid. They didn’t even hoot!

Indians like hooting. It must be their favourite pastime. It’s even painted on the back of most vehicles. ‘Horn OK.’ ‘Horn please.’

(You may remember Mohammed, the taxi driver in Mumbai. We liked him because he never used his horn.)

But Indians are surely oblivious to the sound. It all becomes white noise. One driver we know hoots at every corner, even when he has not looked the other way. It’s as if he thinks that a hoot means he can proceed.

Tuk-tuk drivers pass vehicles and pedestrians with inches to spare. They don’t stop if they see something coming. They might slow down but they otherwise just keep going until people squeeze past and somehow, if everyone breathes in, they manage it. It’s as if every customer has told them to step on the gas because their house is burning down. I’m sure no one is in such a hurry.

We had the best tuk-tuk drive into Jodhpur on our arrival. It was busy at 5 pm, and everyone was hooting. And our young tuk-tuk driver, who may or may not have been to tuk-tuk driving school, was for a while on his mobile phone. I was getting worried as I thought he was texting when I realised he was putting on Indian music on his speakers. To be honest, it really added to the atmosphere, as we whizzed in through the crowded Sardar Market past the Clock Tower and into the alleyways of old Jodhpur.

During the day, the market is alive with people selling all kinds of things, from Diwali stickers and firecrackers to brightly coloured scarves and sandals. The area around the Clock Tower is touristy but initial prices are designed to let you haggle. Today I picked up a large piece of fabric (almost too big to be a scarf) for 100 rupees (approx £1). The price had started at 500. I hardly even tried!

But of course where there are white faces, there are inevitably beggars. Many scruffy children approach you, often tugging on your clothes to draw attention to themselves.

They indicate that they are hungry.

We were approached one morning by three girls. Admittedly, they did look like they could do with a decent meal. Instead of giving them a 10-rupee coin, we gave in to their requests for chapati. We took them to the roadside omelette stall and ordered them an omelette each. It cost more than giving them each a coin, but it was a far more satisfactory outcome all round.

You do have to make a judgment call each time you see a beggar. Some we ignore, others we acknowledge. One such was a particularly disabled man outside a rural temple we had visited. I was pleased that David had given him something, because I realised that we were both going up to the street dogs and the street cows to say hello, and yet it would have been all too easy to ignore the human being.

The man was delighted by our gift, which was little more than the cost of a cappuccino back home. He kissed it and said thank you by touching his heart.

Other beggars are less grateful. One young girl didn’t want to accept a slightly torn 10-rupee note (we made it clear it was that or nothing). Another, who had followed us for way too long, didn’t seem to think that a couple of small coins was enough. Cheeky beggars!

As I say, you do sometimes have to ignore beggars and we don’t tend to give them the time of day when an area is crowded. If you give to one child, you’ll find that 20 more suddenly come out of the woodwork. You also don’t want to be getting a wallet out, exposing where you keep your wallet and making yourself vulnerable to a thief.

It has become a bit of a routine each morning, sorting out 10- and 20-rupee notes and other coins. We also take biscuits and cakes from our very generous breakfast, ready to hand out to grateful hungry children. We don’t have to carry them for very long.

 

It’s funny, many people here in Jodhpur seem to have the same hobby.

The other day, we were walking and talking to some boys who had tagged along. They were practising their English.

‘What’s your hobby?’ they asked. So we mentioned photography, pointing to the camera.

‘What’s yours?’ we asked. ‘Football? Cricket?’

No, it turned out to be collecting foreign bank-notes. Of course! We didn’t have anything to give them, and probably wouldn’t have put our hands in our pockets in this instance anyway.

Earlier the same day, as we were walking up a tiny back street to the fort, we said Namaste to an older man standing in his doorway. ‘Where are you from?’ is the question we have been asked more than any other this year.

‘England,’ we say. Ah, England, his favourite. Of course. ‘Very, very good.’

And before you know it, he is talking about his sons and how one of them loves history. And oh look, within arm’s reach by the front door, is his foreign bank-note collection in a small photo album.

David doesn’t see it as begging by any other name, but the cynic in me says otherwise.

We have, after all, been advised by our haveli owners to be wary of people chatting to us. They tend to be over-friendly and will say they are best friends or brothers with the haveli owner in order to gain your trust somehow.

Fortunately, nothing bad has happened yet. In fact, we don’t think (touch wood) we have been scammed once in our travels. Over-charged, definitely, but not scammed.

Next stop, Jaisalmer.

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