As we were stepping out of the hotel room, we saw a tall, broad man peering through the viewfinder of a DSLR. The SUV behind him was open and the valet placed our bags in the boot.
As we closed the door, the driver kept his camera on the front passenger seat and hopped in. He had a small goatee and wore an earring. His black leather jacket and slim fit jeans completed his look. Like almost all the SUV drivers we had interacted with on the mountains around the river Teesta, he looked like a rock star.
“My name is Mahesh,” he announced in a jovial voice as soon as he closed his door. “So you’re headed to Darjeeling, eh? How was Gangtok?” His laid back manner appeared as if he had known us for a long time. And we eased into a conversation without any hesitation.
“It’s absolutely beautiful! So much to see. So clean. And people are so friendly. We’re already planning our next trip here!” It had rained for three days and there was not one camouflaged puddle, and the roads were free from slush and filth. The hospitality we had received at the hotel was outstanding, and we didn’t really want to leave.
“Yes, I love Gangtok,” said Mahesh. “Every time I come here I like to take pictures. You’ll see a huge difference between Gangtok and Darjeeling. That’s such a dirty place.”
As we made our way along the narrow, winding roads, we approached a fork—one road led steeply uphill, while the other continued downhill. Wedged in the middle of the fork was an SUV. The driver had apparently taken a wrong turn uphill, and was backing down slowly. Cars had begun piling on all sides. And something miraculous happened—everyone waited patiently as the driver reversed, moved forward, turned a little, and reversed again to repeat these mini movements for maneuvering the tricky slope.
We told Mahesh how amazed we were by the orderly conduct of the drivers in Gangtok. In the Delhi-NCR region, people honk even if the traffic signal is red! And here, people waited silently for what seemed like an eternity for the driver to course-correct. That done, we proceeded downhill.
“There is very good enforcement of law here. People don’t go breaking rules.” Mahesh was clearly happy in Sikkim. “I come to Gangtok every now and then. But one day I will come here only to take pictures. I want to photograph the traffic ladies here. And want to compare and contrast them with police in Bengal.”
As Mahesh was speaking aloud his artistic dreams, the scenery outside took a beautiful turn. Beside the road, a shallow stream was flowing on a bed of hundreds of smooth pebbles, with hills all around. We had got used to the natural beauty of Sikkim by now, but it appeared that there was no way for us to document it through the windows of a moving vehicle. As if reading our minds, Mahesh slowed down. “You can take the picture now! See, I want you take as many pictures as you can. I want, that when you go home and you see these pictures, you will remember me!”
We continued smoothly, when Mahesh parked the car to the side of the road beside a huge boulder. He paused, looked outside his window, and quite abruptly, grabbed his camera and hopped out without a word. Puzzled, we looked at each other, and then tried to follow his movements. A short distance behind us, Mahesh was straining his eyes and looking up. He peered into the viewfinder of his camera while we kept wondering what it was he was looking at. He came back and placed his gear on the passenger seat and we resumed our journey. “There was a vulture’s nest up there on top of the boulder. I thought I saw two baby vultures there. But couldn’t get a decent photograph.” If there was a hint of disappointment in his tone, it went away in a few minutes.
Our next stop was at the ‘Lovers Meet’ viewpoint, from where one could see the confluence of the rivers Rangeet and Teesta. Mahesh asked us to soak in the view and take our time—something, that we later realised, no one had said throughout any of our road trips.
Once we had crossed the viewpoint, Darjeeling was not very far.
“Welcome to Darjeeling! I hope you enjoy your stay here. It won’t be as nice as Gangtok, you’ll see. But I hope you have a good time.” As we finished unloading our bags at the entrance of the hotel in Darjeeling, Mahesh’s phone rang, perhaps a relation had called. Still chatting on the phone, he nodded his head in acknowledgement of our small goodbye and reversed the vehicle to begin his ride back home.
Our scenic journey over that week had many exotic destinations and experiences that we would remember for months, if not years to come. And looking back, we now realise how important the role of our drivers was in our journey.
Throughout our trip, we had travelled with many drivers, some for transfers, and some for sightseeing. None of them were particularly remarkable, and stuck strictly to their jobs. For them, it was about getting us from point A to point B, as per the itinerary. While our driver in Gangtok had allowed us a small extension of our sightseeing time to accommodate our slow pace of exploration, the drivers in Darjeeling would keep calling us and telling us to hurry up. Towards the end of our trip, though, one driver left a lasting impact on both of us.
We had left Darjeeling to spend a day in Kalimpong, a town where my father had spent some part of his childhood. It seemed like our driver didn’t want to drive and tried to talk us out of visiting an old monastery by saying that all monasteries looked the same! We got him to take us there, albeit grudgingly, by arguing that it was included in our itinerary, and no, they weren’t all the same to us.
As we were making our way to the hotel after completing our sightseeing, I noticed a sign board.
“Hill top!” I squealed with delight. “That is where my grandfather used to live! Could we stop for a few minutes, please. I just want to have a look at that house.” The light was fading fast, and we had to leave the next day. If we had a shot at laying our eyes on the old house I had heard so much about, this was it. “That’s not part of the package!” retorted the driver and continued onward.
That’s not part of the package. It was simple, and as inconsequential to him, as that. But to me, those words stung. It took a while to get over it, and we both vowed never to take packaged tours after that.
We returned to Delhi the next day, our cameras and phones full of pictures and videos. We told our friends stories of beautiful buildings, clean marketplaces and the blank foggy vistas that hid Kanchenjunga from us throughout. We praised the hospitality of each of the Summit hotels we stayed in, the colourful strings of prayer flags and the scenic routes we travelled. We shared our disappointment of missing the Kanchenjunga, and the little joys of travelling with one very interesting driver who took us from Gangtok to Darjeeling.
It was a pity we didn’t take down Mahesh’s number, nor did we take any pictures with him. But what we do have is the memory of the road trip we shared. Every time you look at these pictures, you will remember me, he had said. He was wrong. We remember Mahesh even without looking at the pictures.