When you book a tour in India with a local driver you do pretty much take your chances with what sort of driver you get. Very rarely you’ll get a chap who drives like a dream, understands what you want and can explain what’s going on. If you’re lucky he’ll not kill you but you’ll never really have a clue what’s coming next. If you’re very unfortunate you’ll sit in the back of the car for several days with white knuckles.
I booked a tour with an Indian operator and they organised the driver. Of course I shouldn’t expect to get someone without amazing English and sure enough our driver was a pleasant chap who tried his best to entertain us, didn’t hit anything or come too close to doing so, and got us from A to B via a mix of places we were and weren’t expecting. Shijo picked us up at Kochi airport, drove us to our hotel and said he’d be back the next day at 9 o’clock to start the drive up into the mountains. An unexpected bonus came when he declared that we would be passing his village and so he was taking us home to meet the family and to take us to the church.
I don’t know if this is standard behaviour when he has local clients – I suspect probably not. I think as the deep pocketed foreigners he recognised that we might well be interested and that showing us his home and family might be good for a better tip at the end of the tour.
We have been to India many times but getting into a proper village is always a treat. Kochi is a quite well off state and the homes are mostly well built and often quite opulent due to the tendency of families to send a son or two off to the Gulf to earn money and send it home. Someone explained to us that the whole family chip in to build a good house so that the family will get a good match for their daughters.
We turned off the main street into the village, a neat and tidy place with roads that were no more battered and worn than elsewhere in Kerala. "That’s my friends shop" said Shijo, waving out the window to some smiling young men. He turned down a side alley between well built houses, and came to a rough looking track where a goat was sleeping in his path. Shijo tried the horn but the goat was uninterested. He got out to shoo it out of the path and by the time he was back in the car, the goat had beaten him back to its favourite spot. Some swearing and arm waving followed (Shijo, not the goat though for all I knot the goat might have been cursing him under his breath) and eventually we were able to pass.
First he took us to his parents’ house and showed us round the garden. All the nearest neighbours came over to say hello and the ones further away waved and called out to us, asking our names and how we were. Shijo showed us the plants in his mother’s garden before introducing us to his mother and his tiny old grandma. It’s easy to think that people are much older than they look and his grandma was actually younger than my mother who is only 70 and still pretty sprightly.
Next he took us to his house, a rather basic breezeblock building about the size of a double garage which had been built in the back yard of his landlady’s bungalow. We met his wife and two young sons, had a cup of coffee and played with the kids. It was a very basic place to live but the family seemed really happy. Since it was Sunday, next stop was the church, a massive modern building where the service had just ended. He told us that up to 5000 people squeeze in every Sunday and there is standing room only. I was quite surprised that a building only a few years old had been build with all the saints and icons depicted with fair European skin. I’ve seen that in the old churches which date back to colonial times but I was surprised that the statues would be shown that way without the influence of foreign missionaries.
When we left the church one of the local priests came to speak with us, asking where we came from and getting us to shake hands with some of the children who were with him. It was a stark contrast with my local church which dates back to the eight hundreds and is the oldest Saxon church in Europe but struggles to pull in a couple of dozen people on a Sunday. Everywhere we went in his village people were really friendly and it was lovely to see that he was working so hard to bring up his children with his parents and grandmother nearby. And of course it made us feel pretty generous when we reached the end of the tour – it’s hard not to put your hand deeper in your pocket when you’ve met four generations of the family.