Monday, October 31, 2011

Building Bridges and Breaking Barriers

I've often told people that one of the most fascinatingly different things about India is that there are many segmented economies coexisting at all times. On Saturday I may have committed the greatest cultural faux pas of my time here and made two of those economies collide (in my own small way). On Saturday our drivers walked through the gate of Neemrana Fort as paid guests rather than simply dropping us at that gate only to return twenty four hours later. On Saturday they came ziplining with us.
Sir, open that gate!
Lindsay and I have talked about different things we could do for our beloved drivers, Ashok and Kailash. While we're sure tips are always appreciated, we wanted to do something in addition to just throwing some additional money their way. We wanted to provide an experience that they wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to experience. Selfish on our behalf? Probably. A great experience for all? Absolutely.

After getting settled near the reception area, I walked back to the fort gate to invite "the boys" (what the wife and I affectionately call them) to invite them up. Without hesitation the guard firmly stated, "they're not allowed." This was the first time I had ever really felt like I was in 1950's Mississippi. I replied, "yes, they're going ziplining." His response? "750 rupees each." This is the standard entrance fee (which is exorbitant in my opinion, but it's their rule so I can't really complain) if you're not staying at the fort or using the zipline. My response varied little, "they're paid, going ziplining. The guard still didn't believe me and had to check my printed receipt and still had a couple questions. Begrudgingly, he relented and allowed them to pass. Kailash, who always walks with a bit of a strut, seemed to hold his chest especially high as he passed the guard. For some reason, I was incredibly proud. It's like I helped Kailash with his own little Rosa Parks moment. Selfish on my part? Yep.
Tentative yet smiling before the climb
I had never seen such evidence of the segmented class system here. Normally, drivers wouldn't even consider entering a property like this (and who knows, maybe they don't even want to); however, I was shocked by the level of resistance when they had every right to walk through the gate. In my mind, it was no different than if I had paid for another friend to join; in the mind of the guard, it was entirely different. Regardless, they made it through the gate.

I had tried to describe what we would be doing but wasn't sure how well the concept of ziplining translated. In addition to my weak description, I had assured them that we would have fun. If the way Ashok's eyes bugged out of his head when he first saw someone screaming across the metal cable was any indication, it hadn't translated well at all. Ashok in particular seemed nervous as we got to the top and as he stepped into a harness for the first time. It didn't help matters that as we lined up to go, Kailash (usually the confident one but suddenly more reserved) playfully yet quickly pushed Ashok in front so he would go first. I quickly called him on that and he knew he'd be going first.

By the end of the second zip, much like our other first time guests, all of their fears had eroded and they were having a blast. They even smiled for a couple of pictures, which is a saying a lot more than you might think. Even though Ashok still answered any question with the word "sir" (some habits are probably harder to break than simply having a couple hours away from the car and on a zipline course), they seemed to genuinely enjoy their time and felt like part of the group than simply our drivers that have made our lives incredibly less stressful than they could have been.
Ashok finishes up the second zip
Ashok, I know you're reading this, "ma'am" and I just wanted to say thank you. Dhanyavaad. Ab gari acha chala-tay ho. (I'm sure I butchered that). Please tell Kailash the same.


  1. Hmmmm....may I say this is precisely why I *detest* five-star culture. It's snobbish, superficial and completely avoidable. Drivers should be treated like human beings and the further away you keep them from rubbishy five-star venues, the less likely they will be to treated like sub-humans. Scr*w Neemrana, go eat in a dhaba with your driver. Both of you will get better treatment there than you'll get from the pseudo-posh folks.

  2. Their guards are really something! Even after you paid to be treated this way is odd and frankly insulting to you their guest.

  3. Great post...the treatment by the guard was ridiculous. As someone that is afraid of heights, I had the same reactions (horrified to ecstatic) on my first zip line experience. Oh, I wish I could have seen Ashok's face! Glad you could spend some time outside of the car with both of them. Tell Kailash, Ashok, and "ma'am" we said hello from STL!

  4. The magnificent India is home to some spectacular spots for the travellers coming by cheap flights to India for indulging into some adventurous hiking and trekking.

  5. Your guards are really something! Even if you paid will be treated in this way odd and frankly insulting to your guest.