The Tuktuk Driver in Lucknow Train Station
I did not need a tuktuk driver in Lucknow. The modest 3-star hotel that I booked (mainly because I couldn't find backpackers' hostels for Lucknow), came with a pickup service. I suppose Lucknow is not really part of a backpacker's itinerary. Even I was only there for reasons that could only be termed whimsical.
I made my way through more people than I had ever imagined could be present in one place, to find an empty spot by a wall where I could switch over my SIM card. The 'local' SIM card that I had obtained with much difficulty in Varanasi, was still not working. Data roaming it is.
I had already confirmed my arrival before the train left Varanasi. But I needed to know where I would be picked up from.
"Outside, where the taxis are," came the answer from the other end of the line.
I just had to figure out where that was.
Running the Gauntlet of Tuktuk Drivers
It was fast approaching nightfall, and yet Lucknow train station was still heaving with people. Groups walking from one direction, groups walking from another. Groups sat by the walls, waiting, and yet others huddled at random spots on the floor of the hall.
As can be expected from such a clearly busy station, there was no shortage of taxi and tuktuk drivers. Just walking across the main hall, several of them approached me rapidly, arm stretched out to invite me to be escorted to their vehicles. I gave them firm denials, asserting that someone was picking me up, and I did not need a driver.
Finally locating a likely way out, I walked outside, only to run into yet more drivers. Not many of them bothered, having seen me refuse several drivers. But a few tried their luck anyway.
One in particular, caught my attention.
The young tuktuk driver in Lucknow train station
He looked different from the other drivers.
He was younger, for one thing - couldn't be much more than 20, if that. And he had an edgy, high-strung way to him, which was different from the more focused, composed demeanour of the older drivers. He had a good build, nice shoulders, but it was clearly carved down by an inadequate diet. Tousled hair, bleached by the sun in the way of people who spend too much unwilling time in the streets. Unlike the fairly neat clothes of the other drivers, he wore a very faded T-shirt, and too-short trousers that he had clearly outgrown.
Taxi? Taxi? he pleaded at me with a posture stooped in humbleness, eyes gaunt with desperation. I hesitated. Another driver sensed it, and smoothly swooped in to offer me the same. It made the first man jostle forward more aggressively.
The feeling was gone. Annoyed, I retreated into my travelling poker face, and told both of them no. I already had a ride. It should be here soon.
But it was not here soon.
And the longer I stood there, the more that drivers came to harass me, trying to convince me to wait no longer.
I called the hotel again. It took several tries, and this time the person at the reception barely spoke any English at all. So much for 'English is widely spoken'. But finally, he said one word, 'manager', and gave me a mobile phone number. I finally reached the earlier person, and asked after the pickup.
"Where are you? He cannot find you at the airport."
I took a deep breath and counted to ten. My message had clearly said I was arriving by train.
There was no pickup. "Please, take a taxi from the train station. We will reimburse you."
So it appears, I did need a tuktuk driver in Lucknow.
"You are my first today"
I went back inside, to gather my thoughts. Sensing my need, the older driver came forward again. But before he could speak, the young tuktuk driver leapt in his way, eagerly offering to lead me.
Smoothly, the other driver tried to manoeuvre his way around, ignoring the younger driver. To my surprise, he did not back down. The young man jerked his frame forward towards him, staring him down, claiming priority, desperation clear in every line of his posture.
The boy is desperate, I thought. I nodded to him. Relief broke over his face. Quickly, with the same edgy energy lest I change my mind, he led me out of the train station to his tuktuk.
Once in, he started the engine and said, in broken English and with a break in his voice, you are my first time today.
I was aware of the darkness that had fallen over the city. I felt a tightness in my chest, wondered if he had eaten at all. For 'today' would be over soon.
Lodgings in Lucknow - Value for Money?
My tuktuk driver disapproved of my hotel. "You already booked it?" he asked. I affirmed it. I had thought it best to stay relatively near the station, so that I did not miss my onward train to Delhi in a couple days.
"It is not so good," he ventured to say, and recommended others.
I thought, he probably gets a commission from the others, and not mine. And anyway, it was too much of a bother to cancel the booking now. I declined, and told him I preferred to keep my booking. He drove on.
"That one is better," he pointed. And again, after a while, "Or you can stay at that one."
But eventually we arrived at mine, and I thought maybe I had been unfair in my thoughts about my tuktuk driver. All of the places he pointed at, did indeed look better than my hotel.
Not that it was bad. But for a 3-star hotel, it did not look much better than a motel. Especially considering how much more it cost me than the much nicer hostel in Varanasi. Maybe the value for money equation in Lucknow is very different.
Still, I had stayed in similar places in my country. Hopefully it was at least a decent place after all.
A rude reception...
"Nepal?" the man behind the counter sniffed, when he bothered to attend to me eventually.
I raised an eyebrow, and corrected him. But as neither he nor his companion spoke much English, I wondered how much was understood. I informed them of my reservation, and asked for my room.
But it was not forthcoming. There was apparently a mix-up and it seemed that there was not a room booked. And the demeanour of the reception staff smelled of racism - I suspected it was because I really do pass for Nepali. Apparently it was not an ethnicity of esteem here.
I suppose it did not help that I was dressed in semi-trekking clothing, and semi-hobo hoodie travel wear, in a city that probably does not see many backpackers. A Caucasian traveller could of course still pull off the hobo look without losing privilege. But I am Asian. There's a reason why newly-prosperous Asia quickly became the biggest consumers of super-luxurious Western fashion brands. We can't advertise privilege by ironically wearing hobo-inspired clothing. We really get mistaken for actually being hobos, or migrant workers.
...and a loyal driver.
My loyal tuktuk driver was still hanging about, hovering. I suppose, in case I needed to move to another hotel, he would have another fare. Occasionally, he solicitously advised me to simply move to a different place, since there are better options anyway.
I was reluctant to do so. I did not know for sure that they would really be better, and I was too weary to go searching in the middle of the night.
But I did appreciate that he stayed. It gave me the feeling like I had options. I did not know how I would hail another tuktuk driver, from here.
Reluctantly using inequality against inequality
I personally dislike hierarchical paradigms. At heart, I have egalitarian ideals, even though I have some claim to the higher strata. A kind of Sybil, if you will. But I accept the reality of it.
That night, I was alone (except for an unexpectedly gallant tuktuk driver), in a strange city. And in the face of utter indifference by the front desk, I had to do it. Because I did not have automatic privilege by skin colour, nationality, or obvious wealth, I had to enter the hierarchy paradigm and claim the higher position by other means.
The higher ranking person does not ask - she commands. She does not give options, she gives ultimatums.
But hierarchical status is not about being bossy or demanding or loud. 'Imperious' is in the small things, you see - how you stand, sit, the tone of your voice, the clip of your words, the angle of your head. Either you call your manager, now, or I shall have to do so myself and tell him this unacceptable service. You are mildly astonished over being forced to descend to this inconvenience.
And you know what is the most ridiculous yet most helpful thing in these situations?
A crisp British accent.
It irritates me that this is true. But as I can generally summon it when I need to, I might as well deploy it in such contingency situations. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my tuktuk driver champion puff up with pride, as if he were actually in my personal service. I glanced to see him glare triumphantly at the front desk staff.
The service improved instantly. The manager apologised profusely on the phone. He was clearly more cognisant of the peril of treating a guest with racism. A room was miraculously produced. And the same staff who received me so arrogantly, were downright servile for the rest of my stay.
But as for my first tuktuk driver in Lucknow, he waited until I assured him I was going to be all right before he would leave. And I gave him a good tip - just for standing by my side.