The time we were kidnapped by a really good driver…

There are a million points at which we may have been able to change the course of this tale, but here’s how it went down.

We arranged for the hotel (THIS hotel) to book us a driver back to the airport. This is common in India. Granted you pay double the market rate (or more), but you are generally guaranteed a recent model car that’s well maintained, English speaking driver and some sense of accountability/reliability. Well, that’s the way it normally works.

Note that I’ve driven to/from Pondicherry & Chennai airport 3 times (not counting this return trip) and from the city to the airport on business. So, I’m not a local, but I’m not a novice at this. There are two routes: the lazy, meandering, scenic East Coast Beachway, which we took en route to Pondicherry; and the expeditious, smooth multi-lane National Highway which we intended to take back to the airport. We made clear when we booked with the hotel that we wanted the National Highway route.

The car showed up on time, it was clean and things looked promising. I said to the driver, “National Highway, not the East Coast,” and he responded dismissively, “yes yes.” We hit the road.

We were about 15 min outside of Pondicherry and we were not yet on the highway, which I knew was odd. I raised my concern; J (sitting in front, next to the driver and the only guy in our gang) reiterated it, since I was plainly ignored. The driver slowed down but said that the National Highway route had too much traffic and East Coast route was quicker. I am dubious, but reluctant to turn around & loose time (there is a flight to catch after all). J checks the route on his smartphone to find where we can cross over to the National Highway; there is much discussion with the driver about when/where we could cross over. By now, the driver resumed his cruising speed. It was clear that we were stuck with this route as the driver had a line of BS for every alternative J found.

In the meantime, the driver was swerving hard into and out of lanes when he passed cars/auto rickshaws/overloaded lorries/holy cows/stray dogs/ etc. Now, these are common obstacles in these parts, so I understand the need to avoid them. Really, I do. But the gradual lane change is the key for professional drivers. The swift moves will make even the most hardy passengers seasick because there are just so many obstacles you end up feeling like you are running a giant slalom the whole route. A(B) & I popped a couple of her Dramamine. During the slalom, the driver took no less than 4 cell phone calls. We found small comfort in the fact he hadn’t placed any calls and thus doesn’t need to actually dial the phone whilst swerving insanely.

Apropos of nothing, the driver pulled off the road and into a crowded roadside restaurant/truck stop/parking lot in a blip-on-the-map that could hardly be called a village. We were confused. Did he need to pee? Coffee?? What was happening? He jumped out of the car without a word. One of the guys standing on the road came by to greet him. Driver handed the greeter a precisely wound wad of money with a chit and they exchanged brief words. In the meantime, I was scoping out the parking lot scene. We were clearly out numbered. Could not tell if the restaurant served alcohol or not (which seems to be a big factor in a lot of bad behavior). There are only men in the parking lot, no women in sight.

About the time I concluded that this was not the place to pitch a fit, I was overcome by an unbearable stench. And then, a car door slamed shut. The greeter was now our new driver and wordlessly pulled out of the parking g lot. A(B), A(M), J & I were freaking out, in no particular order, about: the odor, the stranger, does he have a driver license, is he drunk, does he know where we are going, why are we paying double market rate for shady car service we could get from the street, are we being kidnapped, what the hell just happened? I was physically overcome by the smell and wrapped my scarf around my nose before I started to dry heave (no exaggeration). Everything now made sense: no National Highway because Driver #1 would have missed his rendezvous point, incoming calls that had to be answered were from the waiting Driver #2; Driver #1 had prepared the toll and return trip chits for Driver #2 from the start. Penny dropped, so to speak. We’d been had from the start.

J asked, “where are we going?!?” Greeter/Driver #2 responded, ” Chennai.” J followed up, “where in Chennai?” “Airport.” Okay, small relief. J very conspicuously tracked our route on his smart phone, in full view of Driver #2. I thought it was genius of J to make it obvious that he was tracking the route. A(B) said she was calm until she realized J was taking defensive measures… from which point onward she was on guard, too.

I asked, “do you speak English” and I was greeted with a blank stare over the shoulder as he drove. I decided not to ask any more questions and allow him to focus. Plus, we were beyond the point of no return with respect to making the airport in time. Instead, I focused on landmarks as we drove to ensure that we were taking the proper route to the airport (if not our desired route).

Meanwhile, A(M) called the hotel to inform them of our situation… And make a record for when they needed to start the search for our bodies. After A explained to the hotel that we were not on the National Highway (“you’re not?”) and the driver was inexplicable switched (“oh, that’s not good”), we were even less comforted than before. Apparently, our decision to book thru this hotel afforded us no additional security.

As it turned out, Driver #2 had much better driving skills than the original driver. Bonus: he presented no indication of being drunk. In fact, other than the personal hygiene issue, Driver #2 seemed better in every way. (To be fair it was hot outside, so if he’d been standing around for hours in the boiling sun at the rendezvous point, it was not surprising that he was so smelly.)

The route was familiar (the reverse of the prior drive) and the car slalom had ceased. We started joking about how we would laugh about this one day. The hotel eventually called A back (after an unacceptably long time) to say that Driver #2 was a legitimate driver with the car service. {Query the due diligence performed to determine that, as no one knew Driver #2’s name and he received no phone calls during the drive. Taking untrustworthy Driver #1’s word for what went down seemed dubious at best.} The hotel explained that Driver #1 had a stomach ache and at the last minute had to call in reinforcements. Which was a total crock — he placed no calls and (with hindsight) the “switchero” was clearly the plan from the get-go. Even if this story had been true, someone from the car service should have called the hotel and informed them of the switch so that the hotel could have called us and prepared us. Classic customer service failure. Our displeasure was clearly lost on the hotel.

The closer we get to the airport — according to J’s map, my landmarks and the road signs — the better, safer & less gullible we felt. A(B) summed it up best: one day we’ll tell the tale of how we were kidnapped by a really good driver…

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1 Comment

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One response to “The time we were kidnapped by a really good driver…

  1. Kristine

    I hope you are saving all of your stories for a really good best seller!

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