I know I've begun to make a new city in India my home when I find an auto rickshaw driver that I can trust. For 9 years I’ve had Kumar in Jaipur. Over this span he has gone from being a reliable driver to a friend, a business and tour assistant.
This is my 2nd visit to Ahmedabad. Today I found my auto rickshaw driver. I’d been taking Uber for 2 days, searching for handwoven fabric workshops, sustainable clothing brands, a women's self-help group called SEWA, and other places from my research to visit. GPS in Ahmedabad is wacko; many times the driver and I ended up way off from my requested destination.
This afternoon I was looking for a grocery store. A wild goose chase with a very kind Uber driver led us to a non-existent Bhoomi General Store in the middle of an intersection. It is typical to spend way more time on any activity here in India. We call it India Time. It is elastic, shrug the shoulders flexible and intolerant of impatience.
Giving up, back at my hotel, The House of MG, I asked reception to tell me where the nearest food store was. They pointed at a small sign that said ”Outside food is not permitted in the hotel”. I explained that I was going to take the overnight sleeper bus to Bhuj and needed some namkeen (snacks). Reluctantly one man told me to go out the door to the street, turn left, walk a bit then it would be on my right. I asked before or after Relief Rd. After he said. So off I went, glad to find someplace I could walk to from the hotel. I was craving fresh fruit and carrot sticks. I crossed Relief Road barely avoiding careening auto rickshaws, buses, fearless motorcycles and bullying cars amid a cocaphony of horns, engines and happily shouting people. Continuing on, I saw no little grocery mart. I went in to a body care shop and asked. He said turn right, go straight to the next street, turn left and it would be there. No problem. Off I went, shooting the gap between milling evening crowds of families and people going home from work on uneven and crumbling pavement. Following the directions I ended up at a row of money changers and banks.
I resorted to Google maps and typed in 'food store' and B.H. Lala and Company, a grocery store, popped up saying it was 3 minute walk. Excellent. Again off I went with my iPhone in hand following the dotted line. Straight then around... it should be here. Back and forth I went retracing my steps, taking new directions and generally wandering while with head down I watched the little blue moving dot on the map of my phone that was me. Making my tousled blond head spin, the destination dot kept changing and showing up in odd corners and alleyways.
Stopping to re-enter my destination for the third time, a kind gentleman sitting on a blue plastic chair asked if he could help. I had passed him two or three times as he sat peacefully outside his shop watching me with bemusement. After I explained, he said he’d never heard of the store. Calling friends over from neighboring shops, he asked them if they knew of this store. They all gathered around peering at the map on my phone. None of them knew of this elusive store. They motioned to an auto rickshaw driver to come over. I explained what I wanted and he said, “Restaurant is there”. I said no, I want kitchen food. Food to cook with. Vegetables. Fruit. Ah. The light dawned with a big smile and nod. After consulting with the other gathered men, an animated discussion in Gujarati ensued then they all nodded as the driver said he would bring me to “good place”. Great. Climbing into the iconic yellow and green auto, he said, “I am Lala”. Ironic, considering the grocery shop I was looking for had Lala in the name.
Off we went. Getting caught in the melee of an evening street market packed with sidewalk vendors selling everything from pants, shirts, socks and tee shirts to combs, plastic housewares, hanks of yellow nylon rope and posters of Hindu gods, we crawled interminably through a narrow lane in a crazy mix of bicycle and auto rickshaws, motorbikes and people. Finally breaking through we turned left then right and on and on. I was starting to worry about where we were going when we went down a quiet street that did not look like a commercial area. “Correct?” I asked. ”Yes, yes.” he said ”No problem. “ He parked the auto in what looked like an industrial area. I was nervous. He smiled reassuringly and pointed to an open gate. “Here.” he said. There were some people about so I figured I was probably safe, got out and followed him.
The dented and paint scratched gate opened into a dim warren of produce sellers under a high tin roof with bits of sunlight shining in, he said, “Government market. Very good. First look then choose.” We walked through the passageways past gorgeous displays of colorful fruits and vegetables, the merchants looking bored as they sat cross legged cleaning their fingernails, writing in tiny notebooks, smoking and chatting with each other. No one seemed eager to sell. I selected some red carrots, mini tangerines, two perfect pears and a couple of kiwi. Paying a total of $4 I told Lala that I needed a knife, making the motions of cutting. After a few more tries the look of understanding crossed his face and I followed him as he moved nimbly out to a street behind the market, finding a knife almost immediately at a sundries cart. It was very sharp. 10 rupees. Sold. Lastly I told Lala, “I need club soda”. “Soda?” he said. Yes. Soda. Walking down the pedestrian-only lane of small open front shops, he inquired of different merchants and were directed to a shop a few doors down. They handed me little square packets of white powder. Baking soda, or so I presumed. “No, no.” I said. “Soda to drink. Bubble water” Ah. The look of understanding again. Back to the rickshaw we went, climbed in and put-putted down the winding streets to a shop selling only carbonated drinks. “Two bottles”, I said. 36 rupees. Done.
Now back to the House of MG where Lala told me that he was my man. My auto rickshaw driver. Anywhere and any time. Airport pickup, bus station, shopping, he had my back. I took his phone number, paid him nicely, shook his hand as we grinned at each other and I headed into the hotel.
I now am ready for my overnight sleeper bus trip. I triple washed and used my anti-bacterial wipies on my produce, made carrot sticks, wrapped them in some plastic and packed them and the fruit in a little cotton bag. 3 hours later, my mission was accomplished.