I took hundreds of photos on my trip to India’s Rajasthan, where dramatic hilltop forts and ornate palaces tell the story of the “Land of the Kings”. Now home, I look through them and admire the Mughal architecture and glittering palace interiors, but it’s the photos of the people I met which I most appreciate. If the historic sites tell the story of India’s past, the people tell of its present.
I was met at the Delhi airport by a young woman named Savita, a driver for Women on Wheels, an all-ladies taxi service. “G Adventures?” she asked, holding up her sign. When I nodded, she and her friend looked at each other with such excitement, I might have been Beyoncé, rather than a tourist from Denver. The other driver went in search of her passenger and Savita insisted on pulling my suitcase to her little car, parked next to a sign indicating the spot was “Reserved for Ladies”.
Women on Wheels helps young women with limited resources, mostly aged 18-35, to earn a living as a driver. Savita expertly navigated the chaos that is Delhi traffic, while answering my many questions. She had an opinion about everything, and sometimes punctuated her thoughts with the charming declaration: “This is my way of thinking.” I noticed the stares of men who drove past. They were mostly curious, but some of the looks were distinctly disapproving. When I asked her about it she shrugged and smiled: “They are not so used to seeing women taxi drivers.”
At several of the historic sites, we encountered groups of girls who sat in the warm open air, talking and laughing. They offered happy smiles and typically enjoyed having their photos taken. Although many had their own phones, seeing their image in ours elicited giggles. I was struck by how happy and carefree they seemed, despite the challenges that girls face in India. Less than 21% of them complete high school.
Selfies were also popular; the twist being that Indian teens actually wanted photos with us. (Something my own teens find hard to believe.) On a walk through a small village, one boy was particularly enamored with my sunglasses and asked for a selfie, the caveat being that he wear the glasses.
He didn’t seem to notice that they were prescription and took several photos with my phone, deleting each until he was satisfied with this one. I love the memory of that moment, birds flying low over a field in the late-afternoon sun and the local families finishing their work for the day. We said goodbye and I walked away, without my glasses, which he thought was hilarious.
In all the villages the children would gather around us and point at our phones requesting, “one photo, one photo.” They never seemed to tire of seeing themselves. They were adorable and we only wished we had a Polaroid camera to share the images with them.
There are also the photos I wish I had taken. At my hotel in Delhi, a young housekeeper asked if I needed more towels, each time I passed him in the hall. He spoke slowly and deliberately, clearly practicing his English. When he appeared at my door with the requested towels and a bottle of water, I said, “Thank you, Sonny.” His eyes widened in surprise at hearing his name. I smiled and nodded toward his name tag; he glanced down at it and laughed.
I wondered if he was new to Delhi; thousands of people move to India’s cities each week, in search of economic opportunity. I can’t imagine all of the challenges for someone new to such an enormous and chaotic place. I wanted to know more of his story and asked a little, but our language barrier kept communication brief. I have no photo and now can’t remember what he looked like, but I have thought of him.
At breakfast on my final morning of the trip, an enthusiastic young waiter named Dharvesh noticed us eating pancakes and brought an Indian dosa to the table. I love dosas but had had many over my three-week trip. He seemed pleased when I took a bite and pulled a photo from his pocket and handed it to me. “Married, four months,” he said. He looked proud, standing next to his wife.
I commented that she was lovely and he glanced happily at the image before returning it to his pocket. “I stay in Delhi to work, and return home only once a week,” he said. He was matter-of-fact, he was newly married but had to spend most of the week away from his wife. I thought how so many Indians have to make significant sacrifices just to earn a basic living. I don’t have a photo of Dharvesh and wish I did.
My time in India was a colorful blur of amazing experiences which passed too quickly. Similarly, my taxi ride with Savita was over too soon and I have only one photo of her in which you can’t see her beautiful smile. I regret that when we arrived at the hotel and said goodbye, I didn’t ask her for a photo of us together. I would trade many photos of forts and palaces, for one of Savita, the brave, lady taxi driver.