Jutten is a 39 year old tuk-tuk driver who works from 6.30am - 2.30am, 6 days a week to support his wife, two children and two sisters who are unable to work. Every day he would drive us volunteers to and from school. He would wait for us if we were late and he would drive right up close to our front door if it were raining. I was lucky enough to form a really nice friendship with Jutten, something that I will appreciate for a long time to come.
There were days when we had to squeeze ourselves into Jutten's 2.5 seater tuk-tuk. This usually meant I would sit at the front with him and share his driver’s seat because nobody else would volunteer to be placed in that seemingly dangerous position. Nonetheless, I loved doing this because not only was it exhilarating in that very cliched way, but he was a great conversationalist and we would chat about anything and everything: his moody son, his 4-year-old daughter named Kavya which has a vague meaning of 'poetry', my students, the Toyota Yaris that I drove back at home, the fact that he needed to get his speedometer fixed, what present I would give to him before I left (I promised something more impressive than a handmade keyring he received from a previous volunteer but I ended up gifting him a very impersonal, albeit expensive box of chocolates - A HUGE regret).
After he discovered that I had a boyfriend back home, he chuckled and had this gleam in his eye as though to say he was proud of me. When I showed him a picture of Matthew, his immediate reaction was to smile widely and nod, saying, ‘Yes I like him. He has a kind face. He's good to you, I can tell. I knew you would pick someone good for you’. In turn I asked him about his wife, also his high school sweetheart. Bringing her up in conversation became a weekly occurrence just so I could see him get that sparkle in his eyes, giggle and place his hand over the left side of his chest, as though he had just been on their first date as opposed to being married for 14 years.
When my last days crept up, Jutten made it clear that I should sit with him in his tuk-tuk on my final day. There was no question about it, even though I knew it would be an emotional attack on my already vulnerable state. And it was. At first, I was completely fine saying my last words to all the children I had taught over the eight weeks. I was sad, but content and fulfilled. Of course however, as I edged closer to the school gates and high-fived all the children who had come to say goodbye, that really heavy lump that I managed to keep out of mind all day was creeping up into my throat. It wasn't until I was on the other side of the gate and got that first glimpse of Jutten standing by his tuk-tuk that I really let myself go, much to the dismay of the parents sitting around on their motorbikes.
So as I sobbed like a maniac in the back of a tuk-tuk, sweaty and unable to catch my breath with tears streaming down my face and a sympathetic yet very awkward hand on my shoulder (another kind volunteer), Jutten gave me a lecture on why I shouldn't be crying because he knew I'd be back one day soon. 'Of course I will', I told him. ‘Good. I will miss you, Thao. You were the only volunteer who shook my hand and introduced yourself to me’, he smiled and nodded but continued to look straight ahead whilst driving me home for the last time. When I finally got my shit together because I had realised how much of a scene I was making, Jutten tried to make me feel better. 'Want to stop for fresh coconuts?' he'd ask, smiling sheepishly and slowing the tuk-tuk down. I smiled but shook my head and he would just nod, smiling back. Soon after we drove past a brand new ten-seater Tata van, Jutten's 'dream vehicle'. He said if God was kind enough to bless him with some money, he would buy a van exactly like that and I would have to come back to India and take all my friends so he could drive us around Kerala.
Later that night, Jutten would come to our house and say goodbye to me before my taxi would pick me up to take me to Cochin International Airport at 8.15pm. He arrived at 8.10pm on the dot holding a nice big brown paper bag. He must have known I was about to go into a spiel of thank yous and goodbyes because he immediately cut me off with, ‘No, nope. No goodbyes today. I am not here to say goodbye to you because I know you will be back. So take this half-kilo bag of banana chips for your family and give them my love’. After that he so kindly took out a bar of chocolate (Cadbury Fruit and Nut - my favourite, no less) from his pocket, shook my hand and promptly left. That was it, the end of Jutten.
I got into the taxi and tried to smile and act okay which only made things more uncomfortable for the taxi driver as instead I would sporadically burst into tears. When my taxi driver and I had reached the toll booth before the motorway, I casually looked out my window and there was Jutten, waiting outside the toll booth and having a chat with the guard. He saw me roll down my window and came closer with a huge smile on his face which only confused me more. As the driver paid the fee, I felt suddenly elated and reached out for Jutten's hand, asking him if he was lost. ‘No, I just wanted to see you one last time’, he told me. Not knowing what to say, I forced a smile and waved as the taxi driver drove away.