A driver is not just a driver, he is an expat’s Indian ambassador. Finding a good driver takes effort and a fair bit of luck, but it’s worth every minute spent preparing, interviewing, evaluating, and praying on the off chance Ganesha will remove any obstacles to hiring the best of the best. Unfortunately, even the most diligent expat can end up with a dud that is far more trouble than he’s worth. But once the right driver is hired, everything India is easier.
So remember we were driving, driving in your car…(Tracy Chapman)
Drivers come in three flavors: Awesome A-list, Basic B-list, and Dreadful D-list. The differences can be both stark and subtle.
Basic B-listers are to expat drivers what supporting actors are to a Bollywood movie—you can’t make the movie without them, but they aren’t going to win an Oscar for best actor. B-listers do an acceptable job getting those under their care from one place to another, they know their way around town, and are adept at locating new and hard to find places. They may ask for a raise or occasional time off, but it never reaches the point of being a nuisance. B-listers are a diligent, confident, capable, reliable breed of driver, not inclined to surprise—good or bad—striving to do a decent job.
The thing about Basic B-list drivers is this: there isn’t much special about them. Drivers by nature work crazy hours, have a fair amount of downtime, and deliver their charges in what one presumes is the safest and most expeditious manner. B-listers are great drivers, willing to do a few of the little extras if asked—but you have to ask them. You’re not going to come home one day to find the clothes ironed and a fresh batch of homemade salsa in the refrigerator, or return from holiday to discover they scheduled the reverse osmosis maintenance while you were away, or drive halfway across town in bumper to bumper traffic just to drop off food from last night’s Eid al-Adha celebration. They’re good drivers, just not awesome.
A-listers are the superstars on the cinematic driving scene, sure to win an Oscar for their work and leave the audience wanting more. They do everything the B-listers do and then some.
Awesome A-list drivers are expert negotiators, plying their skills on everything from plants to pashmina. They go above and beyond the call of duty, finding ways to make expat life easier, providing helpful advice, taking the initiative to replace propane tanks and water bottles, slipping off their shoes and re-wiring light switches, purchasing groceries, walking and washing pets, finding hard-to-locate but much desired items, repairing toasters, caring for plants, and dealing with mind-boggling schedule changes as routine.
The A-listers have a can-do attitude, taking pride in their jobs. They drive like experts, navigating the chaos of Indian traffic without undue use of horns and without making their passengers car sick while transporting their precious cargo—children, furniture, pets, plants, booze—safely from home to yoga to work to pub to home. They rarely request time off and when they do they are quick to provide a substitute. Awesome A-list drivers are never late, never ask for a raise, and never, ever complain.
If Basic B’s are supporting actors, and Awesome A’s are the stars, Dreadful D’s are the bitter extras nagging for better pay, more screen time, and a nicer trailer—they are the villain of every expat nightmare, important to the script, but killed off early in the season due to contract conflicts.
D-listers fail for a variety of reasons. Some lie about their availability, others use the car when expats are out of town, and a few even steal money. They can be annoyingly persistent when asking for a raise, while not recognizing all the things they aren’t doing to make expat life easier. We’ve known D-list drivers who added groceries to the cart expecting the expat to purchase them, D-listers who got into loud, yelling arguments with other household help, and D-listers who forgot to pick up their expat employers at the airport. There is no end to the number of ways a driver can be dreadful.
Who’s gonna drive you home tonight…(The Cars)
Finding a decent driver, much less an Awesome A-list driver, takes time, patience, and no small amount of preparation. This is probably the most important decision an expat makes during their assignment. Good drivers don’t just show up to work most days and avoid accidents—for A-lister’s it is a calling, a life of service to others for which the rewards may be few. Identifying the person who considers your family as important as theirs takes effort.
Referrals are a good place to start when hunting for the perfect driver. Friends, coworkers, departing expats, expat forums and Facebook pages, messages on the inside of bathroom stalls, smoke signals, the underground A-list railroad, and the dark web all provide decent starting points for a search. Another often overlooked source of potential candidates are other A-list drivers. They care about their reputation and generally won’t recommend someone who might tarnish it. But while referrals can provide potential candidates, they are not infallible.
The hurdle to finding an A-list driver is two-fold: First, most people think their driver is an Awesome A-lister, and second, there are a limited number of A-list drivers. Most people will tell you their driver is awesome, but few can provide concrete examples of his awesomeness. When someone recommends their driver, ask them for examples of why he is an amazing superhero. If you don’t hear something about his hummus being as addictive as crack, his ability to entertain the kids for hours on end, or his willingness to change the dogs bandages twice a day, stick him in the B-list column until evidence suggests otherwise.
Awesome A-listers are also few and far between. Consider for a moment the driver’s bell curve. Upon driving onto the curve, the first 20 miles finds us surrounded by Dreadful D-listers, their sketchy neighborhood—broken windows, garbage, burned out vehicles on the side of the road—feeling like a wrong turn. After leaving the D-list zombie nightmare, we spend the next 60 miles amid the placid, peaceful Basic B’s, meandering up one side of green-lawned B-burbs and down the other until, at about mile 90, we reach the Awesome A’s and their million dollar, manicured yards with matching old world architecture. Mathematically speaking—not that this is even close to be statistically accurate—the Awesome A’s are in the minority.
You and I’ll just use a little patience…(Guns & Roses)
There are a number of important considerations before the interview—some more negotiable than others. Consider the following questions as a starting point for selecting the best driver:
Does the driver smoke? Drivers who smoke often drag that smell with them into the car—although we are aware of exceptions. If you’re a non-smoker, you may want to consider a non-smoking driver.
Where does the driver live? If he commutes two hours a day to and from work, he may jump at the chance to replace you with someone closer to home. He may also be tired much of the time—a tired driver is a bad driver.
What languages does the driver speak? Most drivers that drive for expats speak and understand at least passable English, although there is still a tendency for things to get lost in translation on occasion. A driver that speaks and understands your native tongue is a huge benefit, but you also want someone who peaks English, Hindi and the local dialect. Good ambassadors are multilingual.
Are there references? References are an easy way to get a feel for what others think; however, caveat emptor. Expats have different needs and different rules—something good driver’s understand. Just because you get a reference, it does not mean the driver is going to be a good fit—only that they were a good fit for someone.
How does he drive? This can be difficult to assess, since it appears that nobody in India can drive—lanes mean nothing, cutting people off is a way of life, older vehicles win every argument, traffic laws are really more like suggestions, driving down the wrong side of the road without headlights is commonplace, the list goes on and on and on. Take a test ride through traffic if possible. Does the driver slow for potholes and speed bumps? Does he yell or comment about other drivers on the road? Does he flash the angry road rage stare as he passes another driver? Is he constantly on the horn?—You’ll get enough ambient horn noise as it is. Is he taking telephone calls and texts while driving? Is he constantly swerving into oncoming traffic just to shave a couple seconds off the commute?—It’s going to happen, but hopefully not when a water tanker is rocketing from the opposite direction. These are the things that can turn an otherwise frustrating commute through Indian traffic into a loud, headache-causing, vomit-inducing, roller coaster ride through hell.
What are your expectations? A driver’s primary responsibility is conveying you and your family pretty much anywhere you want to go safely, efficiently and without incident while maintaining the vehicle in good running order. But the A-list driver is going to do a lot more. It is not unheard of for drivers to:
- Pick up groceries
- Buy plants
- Negotiate prices
- Purchase beer and liquor—but not wine; never, ever purchase wine in India
- Find supplies—like wood, screws, and glue when the paranoid accompanying spouse, aka Chief of Staff (CoS), wants to build safety bars for the windows
- Buy bottled water
- Repair propane tanks
- Replace spent liquid propane gas (LPG) bottles
- Replace the cracked and leaking LPG hoses so you don’t blow yourself to kingdom come
- Walk, bathe and care for the dog—or parrot, if you’re so inclined
- Help with projects around the house
- Cart your mountain bike to and from the shop so often that the store owner finally offers to replace it for free with a newer model
- Help the people who deliver your home gym with the assembly—a task that would have taken two days if left to their own devices
- Give directions to delivery people who are trying to find your house but can’t because nobody in India uses GPS
- Pay mobile phone bills from the car budget when you’re out of town
- Loan you cash during demonetization
- Manage the household staff
- Coordinate house maintenance activities
- Put up the Christmas decorations
- Make the best homemade salsa on the planet
- Decorate for Diwali
- Share part of their Eid al-Adha feast
- Translate conversations with everyone who doesn’t speak english
- Grow vegetables in the garden beside the house
- Drive during charity scavenger hunts
- Laugh when you tell the furniture delivery guys that they are not getting another tip because they mistakenly left one of your items at the shop and had to make a second trip
- And just about anything else you can imagine.
The list of things an awesome A-list driver does is endless.
Let’s say you just rented a 4,500 square foot villa for less than the 1,100 square foot flat you vacated in your home country. The first floor—which is the second floor to Americans—has a very nice balcony, but it’s a little plain. Some plants would really bring it to life.
In the meantime, your wife needs to feel a sense of normalcy amid her fourteen hour days. At home, she would be the one to pick out the plants and you would provide the labor—along with 800 milligrams of ibuprofen and an ice pack on your back for the next three days. But in India, you have a driver.
Your driver takes madam—the term used by most drivers when referring to female expats—to one of a billion local nurseries, helps her pick out a dozen plants that will do well in the proposed location, negotiates prices—saving the equivalent of 40 U.S. cents, but whose complaining—has everything loaded into the van, drives home, carries everything upstairs, waters all the plants, cleans up the floors where dirt fell in the house, and cleans out the back of the van.
Madam gets the plants she wants, the balcony looks lovely, and, unsurprisingly, your back feels great! This is only one of a thousand ways in which a good driver earns his reputation.
Love the one your with…(Stephen Stills)
After outlining requirements and considering important characteristics, it’s time to interview and select. We discussed interviewing here and won’t rehash it for this article. But make sure you come to the table with a salary in mind, including proposed raise schedule, holidays, and pay for overtime and Sunday work. Since salary ranges change all the time, the best way to get an idea of the going rate is to ask around. Awesome A’s might make a bit more than the others—but not necessarily—either way, they are totally worth every penny.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard you look and how much you prepare, you might have to accept the inevitable—there are no Awesome A-list drivers available. Worry not. So long as a Basic B finds his way into the fold, everything will work out fine. You won’t have salsa waiting when you come home, or a house full of plants sans the backache, but everyone will arrive at their destinations safe and sound. Maybe you’ll even turn a B into an A? Stranger things happen in India.
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Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just plain scary. Copyright can be found here for my original work.