We spent the day driving down the NH8 from Halol to Valsad in the Indian state of Gujarat. In a three-wheeled rickshaw. Myself and my 2 dearest friends a Kiwi and a Yank. On a six-laned highway going our top speed of 50km/hr. We arrived late afternoon and after getting our rickshaw a quick oil change and check up, we got back on the road looking for the nearest hotel. Of which there were few. The first one turned us away because they were fully booked. The second place we tried was some sort of Indian country club that refused to rent us a room on account of us not having any relatives in Valsad. No shit Sherlock. Sadly, the check in guy was a stickler for rules and my blond hair wasn’t getting us anywhere. This was how we found ourselves back on the highway heading towards the town of Pardi as the last bits of sun started to dip below the horizon. We had made one pact before we started our India adventure and that was to never, ever be on the roads after dark.
This was how we met Ambalal. Had the sun not been setting I can guarantee our paths would never have crossed. As we dodged motorcycles and large overloaded trucks we spotted what appeared to be a truck stop/motel. As we pulled in we were startled to see that there were very few people staying there, and that the lack of people were made up for with life sized statues of animals splayed out on the lawn adjacent to the restaurant. It was super bizarre. The kind of place that loosely resembles a dormitory for truckers and I can pretty much guarantee that we are the only western women who have ever stayed there in the history of it being open. But what were we to do?! It seemed less likely that we would be murdered in this strange zoo like setting than we would be killed driving on the road after dark so we booked 2 rooms. Naturally, the staff were super excited to see us.
After dragging our bags upstairs to our uber basic rooms we made our way to the restaurant. The hotel owner made his way over which is how we came to meet Ambalal. Ambalal was the manager and spoke near perfect English. He spoke the kind of English that makes me love India where you are asked “what is you good name?” and they say things like “most certainly” and “very excellent” and other very formal sentences. I liked him immediately. He previously had worked at a fancy hotel in another part of India, which was why his English was most excellent, but had moved closer to where his family was. Over dinner he and the owner sat with us and were very curious about our adventure and how it was that 3 western girls had come to drive an auto rickshaw 3000km across India. Ambalal acted as the interpreter between us and the hotel owner. After dinner the hotel owner pulled out a photo album and regaled us with stories of times past, he kept pointing at the same man in the photos over and over saying “best friend.” In this photo album was the missing piece of the puzzle as to what the heck was up with the zoo animals. As it turns out these fake animals were a real hit for Indian weddings, and we were shown photos of large Indian wedding celebrations with the animals in the background.
The following morning we were awoken by Ambalal leaving us buckets of boiled water for our morning bucket bath. By the end of the trip we would become professional bucket bathers. We packed up and went down to load the rickshaw up. The mornings were often misty and the rickshaw would have a layer of watery film covering her. But not this morning. The night security guard who had been in charge of keeping an eye of the rickshaw had taken it upon himself to give her a wash and swept her out. So unexpected. And so sweet and kind. Our kiwi teammate was a little under the weather so we needed to stop off at a pharmacy as we headed for Nashik. Ambalal was very insistent on taking us to the pharmacy in the town of Pardi.
This was how I found myself sharing the front bench of our rickshaw as a tiny Indian man directed me along the side of the highway. Going the opposite way to traffic. One of the girls in the back took a video as we were instructed by Ambalal to drive on the shoulder as large trucks and other rickshaws speed past us. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Eventually we crossed to the other side of the highway and made it to the pharmacy. To our surprise Ambalal then asked us to take him to his village because “it is most certainly on the way.” He had already been so kind to us we just went with it as he directed us the 30 min to his village thru the bumpy graveled roads.
The closer we got to Ambalal’s house the clearer it was that this was quite the adventure for him. It wasn’t likely every day that he was driver home in an auto rickshaw by 3 western girls. It’s also worth noting that the rickshaw we were driving was hot pink. To say we stood out is an understatement. He took to it like he has leading a parade float. He was waving and the smile on his face was enormous. On the downward section of a single lane gravel road he directed us to take a right turn. We passed a small house on the left that belonged to his son and then at the end of the road were 2 other houses. One where Ambalal lived with his wife, and the other one belonged to his mother. We quickly realized that Ambalal hadn’t informed his wife or mother that he was bringing guests. After they got over the initial shock we were ushered inside and given 7-ups and instructed to use the western toilet in Ambalal’s mother’s house. We then got a full tour of the house he had built for his mother. It was a pretty cool experience and very unexpected to be welcomed into a family home.
Ambalal would become one of many kind men that helped us along our way across India. We had a difficult time connecting with Indian women during our 2 week adventure driving from northern India to the south. They often seemed confused by what it was that we were up to. We would wave as we passed in the rickshaw, but it was hard to get a response. Numerous times we found ourselves in situations where we had to rely on the kindness of strangers, and India would reward us time and time again. From young boys who changed our front wheel when the bolt had loosened up after the gravel roads to and from Ambalal’s house, to the kind rickshaw driver who taught us how to drive one and believed in us, to the mechanic who opened his shop on a Sunday to get us back on the road and refused to allow us to pay.
I have always believed that people the world round are generally kind. For me, travel often proves this. If you are kind you often get kindness in return. I sure hope that Ambalal’s days are filled with kindness as he definitely showed his share of kindness to us!
What are your stories of experiencing kindness on the road?
If you’re wondering why the heck I was driving a rickshaw across India in the first place you can check out our team website here, or entertain yourself with the numerous videos of our epic adventure on our Facebook page. You’re welcome ahead of time, because trust me, they’re entertaining as hell.