Any recommendations on hiring a car and driver? I will be doing a 2000km circuit of South India, starting in Bangalore and finishing in Chennai, over 18 days in December.
Write to Compass Tours (http://www.compasstours.com
), describe your plan and requirements, and have them give you a quote. I used their services for my 20-day expedition through Rajasthan in 2007, and they were excellent. (Note: I have had no other relationship with them, direct or indirect.) I gave them a precise itinerary, specified the kind of hotels I wanted, and put down my specs for the car & driver. They came back with all the bookings and a quote. This is a high end agency and there will be a (in my opinion, not unreasonable) premium to pay, but it purchases peace of mind, comfort, and thwarts unpleasant surprises, all of which are important considerations in India (and while on a photography tour, you don't want to clutter your mental space with sundry annoyances).
Since you will be covering 2000 Kms, I recommend an air-conditioned Toyota Innova, similar to the minivan sold in the US as the Toyota Sienna. Humidity in Kerala is 110% and the three seasons in Chennai are hot, hotter, and hell (the Dec season is 'hot'). Have the car temperature set at around 27 degrees centigrade. I mean, the differential between the temp inside and outside should be such that you don't want lenses fogging up every time you step out.
Now for the most important part, regardless of whom you decide to go with: the specs for a driver.
0) A safe driver, who follows the basic road rules. (Who am I kidding? There are no road rules in India.) No rash/fast driving. He must follow your instructions at all times.
1) Ask for a non-drinker. Preferably a non-smoker as well. Absolutely no smoking inside the car. (I'm assuming you are like me in this respect; if not, disregard.)
2) Memo to driver: thou shalt not play any music in the car. Unless you wish to be tortured for 2000 Kms with tinselly post-2000 Bollywood trash-tunes suitable for lower life forms. You should make this explicit to both the agency as well as the driver.
3) Spell out that he will have to be available for pre-sunrise drives.
The Indian driver will size you up in about 5 secs. That means you have 4 secs to establish the power relationship. Be firm without being unkind (but in a way that only the former is visible :-). Once you do that your mental happiness for the rest of the trip is assured. As mentioned in another post, don't ask him for any recommendation (whether it is a restaurant or shopping or...). The only time you will take his advice is when you want a suitable spot to empty your bladder. Do your homework in advance, before you set out. Ask at your hotel etc. Drivers often lead you to establishments where they get a commission. You can tell him that you will give a handsome tip at the end of the trip provided he follows your instructions and delivers service (assuming that you indeed want to give him a handsome tip).
During my Rajasthan trip, Compass Tours provided accommodation/meals to the driver. I let him stay at his assigned accommodations but almost always invited him to have meals with me. I also drove up the entire Kerala coast beginning from Kanyakumari (India's southernmost tip, now in the state of Tamil Nadu). I didn't use Compass here (and almost regretted it). I simply looked up the web and cold-called a car agency. The first driver they assigned turned out to be a surly disaster. After a day I called them back and asked for a replacement. This second guy was a gem. But these car agencies don't give them any accommodation and expect them to spend the night in the car itself. Since I don't like this, I put him up on my own nickel. You will be traversing 3 states (which means at least 3 language zones), so it would be good to have a driver familiar with at least 2 of the area's languages.
Since you hadn't asked I hadn't volunteered: northern Kerala (Calicut and above) is far more desirable than the bottom half. At least it was. Indians are screwing up the environment at a record pace so things might be different now from what they were 5 years ago. No matter, you will have rich photo opportunities in Alleppey and surrounds.
Finally, a piece of gratuitous advice I give to Westerner friends traveling to India:
- Thou shalt not point your lens at an indigent on the street and think you have made a masterful statement of the human condition.
- Thou shalt not come back and tell us of the 'joy' and 'dignity' you saw on the faces of the Indian poor. That is the job of Julia Roberts and the celebrity tribe.
Have a wonderful time, and may the Force be with you.