How my adventures abroad became my own personal “Travel School” -- leading me in the right direction and eventually leaving me with no choice but to start a curated private driver-guide business.
by Janet Grey, Founder and CEO, TravelDrivers*
*(scroll down for her highlighted hard-learned “travel school” lessons).
I love to celebrate my birthday! Every year I have a big Hat Party to celebrate making it through another year and commemorate having the opportunity to do so. I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s become a highly anticipated ritual. I call it my Hat-Tastic Birthday Extravaganza and, on average, 100 guests attend. As you can imagine, everyone must wear a hat, and it’s always fun to see what they come up with (this is no baseball and knit cap affair!).
When the cake comes out, I always give a speech — and what I say never changes:
"I believe in celebrating Birthdays in a big way because we are all SO privileged to have them! We have all lost dear friends who, if given the chance, would have loved to continue to celebrate their own birthdays, but sadly their lives were cut short. Rather than lament the fact that our ‘number' is increasing, let’s be grateful that we have the opportunity to continue living, experiencing, growing and having fun!”
As I celebrate my own special day, I think of all of them, my passed loved ones, and feel them around me and remember our wonderful times together while being surrounded by and having a fabulous time with those I love and enjoy now in my life. What could be better?
I suppose my gratitude level is, perhaps, abnormally high because it could very easily have gone quite the other way for me...
Looking back at 2005, the year started out quite wonderfully! I’d just returned from a glorious, colorful month in India. By early summer, I’d lost a bunch of weight, dyed my hair back to blonde (as it had naturally been in my younger years) and I was basically experiencing that “blondes have more fun” kind of life — at least for the most part. Unfortunately, one area of my life was not going quite as swimmingly. I had started feeling…. not quite right in the female way. To be very candid here, my periods were ridiculously long and, well, just bad. On top of that, and for me even worse, sex was painful. I am saying this so openly to be of service to anyone reading this who may wonder what signs to look out for.
I’d go to the doctor and say, “Figure out why sex is painful” and then, “Oh, and by the way, my periods are very bad, too.” Ironically, that was how my priorities were lined up for the first time in my life. As it turned out, many doctor appointments and tests later, I was diagnosed with two simultaneous primary cancers: ovarian (stage 3) and uterine (stage 2).
I am what they call an HSP, which stands for “Highly Sensitive Person.” It can be a completely annoying in some ways, but it also allowed me to actually feel my cancer. Despite the fact that my multiple medical appointments in 2005 at first came up with nothing, once the holidays came around, I was in such extreme pain in my lower right side that I actually couldn’t even stand up! As it turned out, I was actually feeling my ovarian cancer — often called the “silent killer” of women. And because I’d already been going to so many doctors for those other issues, the dots were connected in time to save my life, despite the fact that it had metastasized to my lymph nodes (often a death sentence).
The fact that it was discovered was a very "happy accident" and now, 13 years later, I’m here, alive, to tell the tale, explore the world and pursue my dreams… WOW, how lucky is that? To me, it’s nothing short of a true miracle, deserving of all the gratitude I can possibly express.
Once I got through that “journey” as it’s often called, I, like so many others, was changed in many ways, but what stood out to me was this: I had many more fears in life — of so many things... and yet I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I had to overcome those fears, especially when it came to travel. Cancer made me so aware of my mortality and the ephemeral nature of life in general. Our days are numbered! We damn well better take advantage of them! For me, the best way to do that is to see and experience as much of the world as possible.
And so, each time I started thinking about a trip and related fears started to set in, I purchased a non-refundable ticket to force myself to embark on the next adventure.
It’s strange to now be my 58 year old self looking back at the me I was at 14 — catching the travel bug in a huge way when, shockingly, my parents agreed to send me to summer camp on Kauai, Hawaii. We camped out in tents on all the beaches of the beautiful, untouched island, and I was forever changed (though I did not become a fan of camping!).
A few years later, I was exposed to real photography when an angelic friend of my parents (who I still wish I could find to thank) insisted they send me to France as a “cure” for a bout of adolescent angst, and she offered up her Nikon for the trip. And thus my deep lifelong passion for the travel/photo combo was born and relentlessly consumed me. I did whatever I could to arrange to take off on increasingly longer adventures, camera in hand, no matter what else might be going on in my life. That became my top priority.
As the years went by, I traveled more frequently, extensively documenting my experiences, the people and landscapes, the beautiful bits and pieces. I went to college at UCLA, and then moved to France, where I started working in the music business. I traveled around a lot when I had a bit of time off using trains and buses and occasionally my thumb. Eventually, I realized that I was much happier when traveling alone, able to make my own decisions, to do whatever I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, without being rushed, without compromise. It just felt right to me.
India was my ultimate dream destination. I’d always been drawn to the culture, the colors, the music, the food! But I knew I had to be ready and wait for the right opportunity. It seemed so large and exotic and, well, overwhelming! It also seemed rather dangerous. It definitely wasn’t a place I felt I could navigate on my own, as opposed to the various European countries I’d come to know quite easily.
My first opportunity to visit that enchanting country came a bit too soon. Still in my twenties, I moved back to the U.S. and was working for a record company called Rhino. During my time there, I’d flown to Costa Rica (where we rented a car and had many misadventures!) and Paris — both on PanAm. And then the news came that the airline was going out of business. Thankfully, I’d signed up for their mileage program (standard for any serious traveler) and was informed that with those miles, I could either go to India or Africa (Kenya, to be specific), and that my only chance to use those miles was to leave within the next two weeks!
This was a huge decision. Yes, I wanted to go to India, more than any other place, but my gut told me that it just wasn’t the right timing. I was still a very “unskilled” traveler. I’d not really had a lot of experience with the developing world. I reasoned that, at least in Kenya, I could go on a safari, something that was led by someone, and that way I’d be taken care of. I didn’t even consider the possibility of doing that in India, largely because I never even considered group tours from my early traveling days forward. It just never seemed like my way to do it. I knew that when I did go there, I wanted to do it my way — to go to my chosen places and see everything I was interested in, rather than be led in a pack to places that might not be for me and be rushed and, really, controlled and restricted uncomfortably. I didn’t want to be “force fed”, nor I did I want any limitations.
And then there were my two good friends who had just returned from Kenya with a lot of enthusiasm, one so much so that she decided to join the Peace Corps and go back. They both fiercely encouraged me to go, agreeing that Kenya was completely safe for me to travel to on my own. I myself made the mistake of forgetting to consider the source. Both these girls were strong athletes from our college Crew team. They had gone together, not on their own. It was really quite the “apples to oranges” comparison, but I had a decision to make and I went for it. Somehow I convinced my boss to let me go, and soon I was flying to Kenya alone --- far too naïve for such a giant leap.
So unseasoned was I at that time that I had no idea that people would arrange for cars to pick them up at the airport. I didn’t know what a “transfer” was. It’s funny — as I write this I realize there really isn’t a “travel school” to speak of! No one really learns to travel except by doing it and making the same mistakes that most others also make — learning the very hard way.
My own Travel Schooling had abruptly begun…
Lesson 1. Arrange for a proper “transfer” upon arrival, complete with a sign bearing your name (it’s the best way to start out in a foreign land).
I finally got a taxi to my reserved hotel, the “Nairobi Hilton”, which I found to be shockingly and disappointingly in disrepair — literally the wallpaper was peeling off and yet I was paying $200! A girl on the plane had recommended an alternative at a much better price and that’s where I went the next day, just when the malaria pill (to be taken once a week) kicked in in a very bad way. My new place was acceptable, but the phone in my room wasn’t working and I didn’t have a safari booked yet…
I had no choice but to stand at the tiny front desk (not a chair to be had) using their only phone to call the few safari companies I’d come prepared with (remember — no cell phones!) — and as I made those calls, my knees were buckling under me and the room was swirling around — so intense was my bad reaction to those malaria pills!
Lesson 2. Anti-malaria pills come in various forms. Do NOT take Quinine (malarone, much less harsh, did not exist then). Don’t believe the doctor when he says “you must have just caught a bug” when you are really having an extremely bad reaction to the pill you just took.
But I found myself a safari to join, just as I started feeling better. I loved being picked up each day, always having knowledgeable people protecting us and leading the way. I loved the variety in the trip, and I loved that they allowed me to choose my own places to stay — different from those of the others (better, in this case). But what I didn’t like was that being-with-the-others part. They certainly were not people I’d normally spend my time with, and worse, they were very unhappy with my own arrangement (and I couldn’t blame them). Each day their time was interrupted by my special treatment. I’d be taken to and picked up from my superior accommodations, and all that time took away from theirs. In their position, I would not have liked it, either!
I learned a lot from this trip about traveling in a group vs. solo, as I was doing a bit of both. I was totally on my own to make friends with others in my various interesting sleep spots, from a glamping camp to an animal salt lick called “The Ark” and others — each one unique and special. And then I was with the group, and mainly just tolerating it. It was not for me.
Lesson 3. Group touring situations are not for everyone and definitely not for me! I like doing my own thing - to have total freedom while traveling – to stop where and when I want to take my photos; to eat, stroll and shop in my own time with no one’s agenda holding me back, limiting or trying to control me.
My next big trip was to Bali. Friends had gone and described it like true paradise. They weren’t wrong! This was my first introduction to using a private driver. I wanted to explore more of the Island and had no intention of driving myself at all because: a) they drive on the “other” side of the road there, and b) the roads were crazy, especially after the rains, and c) just NO! How would I know where I was going? I asked someone for a recommendation and was on my way.
Lesson 4. Use a Private Driver (but Do Not get into a car with just any old driver – check him out!).
After Bali, I took several trips during which I used private drivers, and the lessons kept coming, but the one thing I kept being convinced of was that this was my way to travel!
My chance to go to India finally appeared in the form of a casual invitation to the wedding of a friend’s daughter. No doubt he never thought I’d accept but, again, I’d been waiting for the right moment for so long, and I knew the time was right.
After the first driver was less-than-acceptable, I was finally “gifted” with Ganesh!
The difference between the two was shocking! Ganesh made everything better! He spoke beautiful English, he stayed with me, protected me, explained everything to me, stopped whenever I needed or wanted him to, showed me hidden treasures and the most beautiful roads, waited patiently for me, took me to the best, safest and cleanest and most beautiful restaurants (which seemingly appeared out of nowhere as if he’d literally conjured them!) and on and on! This driver made my trip (while the other was breaking it!). I always knew my belongings were safe no matter where I was because Ganesh was also protecting them. My previously very stressful trip immediately became careFREE!
Lesson 5. Not all private drivers are created equal. A great one makes it all amazing! Be more specific and ask for what you want and need!
This was my first extremely positive driver-guide experience and it left me wanting more. It also taught me the most important quality that every driver must possess: the ability to communicate clearly — to speak with and to understand the client very well.
Lesson 6. Driver must speak English (or a language in common with the client). This is non-negotiable.
In Laos, a trip which also got off to a rough start, but eventually smoothed out, my driver, Noi, accompanied me on hikes I’d never imagined I’d be able to do (and the length of which I didn’t know until they were done!). Two tiny lines in my guide book about a secret obscure temple with a single tattooed monk led to the adventure of a lifetime. I asked him to drive me to the trail. I never expected him to join me on it, but I couldn’t have been more relieved that he did! Climbing up slick volcanic rock hills and stepladders crafted out of tree branches in my patent leather heeled sandals was not what I’d planned.
Thankfully, a tractor finally picked us up and snaked straight up the treacherous landscape to the precipice where we could look down from the boulders at the grove of trees stretching for miles thousands of feet below us. Breathtaking — literally. I was so flabbergasted upon my arrival that I could barely speak with the monk, who surprisingly spoke perfect English. Had I not recently fallen upon the photos, I might not believe this story myself. Later, my wonderful Driver, Noi, said I’d pushed him as much as he’d pushed me! We both benefited from that “relationship” and experienced things we’d never have done the one without the other — which is as it should be! I so wish I could find Noi and Ganesh again...
Lesson 7. An excellent driver-guide will not let you do anything dangerous alone. You never know what you might encounter. When in doubt, or venturing into the unknown, bring your driver along.
The next time I experienced having an exceptional driver-guide was in Turkey. Like India, this was a place I’d been warned about. Don’t go alone as a woman, they all said, so I arrived with some amount of trepidation. I knew it would be up to the quality of the driver for me to feel comfortable on that trip.
I decided to be extremely specific with the travel agency helping me with my itinerary this time. Each time I’d previously ended up with a great driver, it had started out rough and I just didn’t want any of that to happen this time. My list of specifications was long, and detailed, including such things as “excellent hygiene” and “does not ever smoke, even when I am not with him”. I did not want to smell smoke — not in the car and not on him. I thought this particular request was probably a very tall order for a country that is known for their pipes! Besides that, I stated that he must be “young and fun”! I just didn’t hold back. And the result: This driver, Yusuf, was everything I could have possibly asked for and more! The trip was nothing short of EPIC.
So impeccable, wonderful, fun, knowledgeable and smart was he that I couldn’t begin to count all his additional attributes… And it was in telling a girlfriend all about him, and the experience of having such a driver, that it suddenly occurred to me that there was a business idea here. Having a quality driver-guide made everything on a trip so much better but finding a high-quality private driver was just so challenging, whether or not you were finding the person yourself or through an agency or hotel. You just never knew what or who you'd be getting. As I say on my site, it’s a veritable “needle in a haystack” experience! My thoughts were: Why must it be? What can I do about it? Why not make it easy? And who better to choose and screen and vet such drivers than a persnickety, persevering, rigorously selective, experienced, mature traveler like me?
And thus the idea for my TravelDrivers business was born!
But that was Back in 2012, and though I loved the idea, I never dreamed I’d actually bring it to fruition. I had no idea whatsoever how to do it and no ability to even give it a try at that time. My Mother had recently died, I was going through related family trauma and legal drama, working as an independent Interior Designer and experiencing lots of ups and downs with the economy. Time just went by.
By 2014, I was sick, tired and depleted. I desperately needed help and healing. When I became jealous of my friend’s trip to Bali, it suddenly occurred to me that I could simply buy a ticket and plan my own trip there — and so I did.
I returned to Bali — the paradise I’d first experienced in my twenties. It had changed quite a bit in those 22 years but remained gorgeous and special — you just have to search a little harder behind those streets and storefronts for the real, true Bali now, and the best way to do that is with an excellent local private driver-guide — a TravelDriver!
On that trip, through a friend, I ended up with the veritable driver of my dreams! He truly embodied everything I’d ever hoped to find in a private driver.
On our website, we call this driver our “Spiritual Guide”. His voice and demeanor are warm like a hug. He is a deeply spiritual person and his calm is contagious, but he’s extremely silly, playful and fun, too. He shows great interest in other people and really enjoys getting to know them better. He is a person who will push you to go beyond your limitations but only in the gentlest way. When I wanted to go in a glass bottom boat to see the tropical fish, he laughed at the idea and had me snorkeling in a matter of days, after years of fearing it. He took me to numerous cultural ceremonies and events where I was the only tourist -– the only person with a camera! Those experiences are truly priceless. Every day he surprised me with something wonderful, new and unexpected.
Spending time with him was magical, and made my trip amazing in ways I couldn't have imagined — so much so that I felt inspired to start thinking about this crazy business idea again. I knew there had to be so many more simply incredible driver-guides out there, each one with special skills, knowledge, interests and personality traits that would enhance every travel experience, but in different ways to appeal to different kinds of travelers.
That was back in 2015-2016. Still, I felt bewildered. I was so passionate about the idea but still had no idea where to even start! Again, I started letting it slide away. But that just wasn’t in the plan…
Later that year, I went to Morocco. I’d always wanted to go but, again, I felt insecure about it. I’d heard women just shouldn’t travel there alone. Still, I felt confident that, with a good driver, I’d be OK. I started looking well in advance, and it seemed all would work out, as a friend with an exotic home furnishings shop referred me to his contact in Marrakech. We wrote back and forth for a while and came up with a price and plan. I was so glad it was all handled, but my gut wasn’t liking it one bit. A month before I was to leave I learned why: The driver demanded I put all the money, for the entire month-long trip, directly into his bank account right then. I couldn’t believe it! A direct deposit? That just felt…WRONG!
I asked if I could use a credit card? No! I asked about several other alternatives that felt better to me. Again, no, no, no. Direct deposit or no deal! I said,“OK, no deal.”
I was left to scrounge around for a driver at the last minute. I talked to my hotels, I talked to friends of friends, and on and on. Either the prices were way too high (for a month-long trip) or there was no availability. Finally, I found someone. Again, my gut wasn’t liking it, but by that time I had no choice. I agreed. The price was right. And I learned that the old adage “you get what you pay for” is true, even in this situation.
Lesson 8: You will get what you pay for, so pay for Better! Also, don’t be afraid to be specific about what your preferences are.
The driver duly arrived to pick me up, but he couldn’t find the first place he was supposed to take me to. It’s true that drivers from one area don’t always know all areas in the country, but in this day of navigation, etc., it seemed quite surprising.
Various other smaller things happened that made me uneasy, but it wasn’t until about three days in that things got much worse. We were on a road that was obviously far inland, when we should have been taking all the coastal roads. I asked him whether we were on the right road, and he claimed we were. I couldn’t help myself — I knew it wasn’t true. I took out my map, found our location, and pointed it out to him, showing him where we should have been vs. where we were. And that set him off.
We were in the middle of nowhere. He pulled over, basically into a field, got out of his side of the car, came over to my side, opened the car door and, while standing over me (he was very tall!), screamed at me. It went on for a while. I think some of it was in Arabic.
At that moment, along with fearing for my life, literally, the thought also crossed my mind that I absolutely had to create this business, a way to find safe, trustworthy, high-quality private drivers, so that no one, especially women, would ever have to experience what I was going through.
When I got to Tangier, where I very quickly made many friends, I told them I felt unsafe with this driver, and knew I needed a new one. One of those people took it upon herself to basically warn him that he’d better take better care of me. I hadn’t asked her for that, and it didn’t help matters at all.
In the next town, sadly the one I had been most excited to see, Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco, I became very sick and bedridden. I knew I needed to try harder to find someone else to drive me, though, because while there, this driver refused to bring the car to the front of my hotel to pick me up, claiming it wouldn’t fit in the narrow lane (not true), forcing me to walk when it shouldn’t have been necessary, in the cold, no less. And he would walk very fast, requiring me to run after him to keep up (lest I get lost), ignoring my pleas for him to slow down as I was sick and coughing and he was making it worse. He was truly a monster! I knew I had to find a replacement.
And so it was that one of those friends from Tangier, who is actually the brother of the owner of my hotel there, met me in Fes, my next stop, to rescue me and take on the role of my driver for the rest of my trip, and the extent to which he helped me can’t even be expressed in a few words. Once I was well again, I injured myself very badly and couldn’t walk, and without him I think I would most certainly have had to cut my trip short.
This driver, Mohcine, is now one of our drivers in Morocco, agreeing to take my clients as a bit of a favor since he is otherwise very busy and doesn't usually work as a private driver. But my experience with him proves that he is truly an exceptional driver, what I now call a true “TravelDriver”, and anyone would be lucky to travel with him.
December of 2016, exactly 11 years after my cancer diagnosis, I returned home from this eventful Moroccan adventure, determined to bring this crazy driver idea to fruition. The first day of 2017 was my first official day of R&D, and by June 2018, the first iteration of the website, TravelDrivers.com, finally went live. We were even able to officially register the trademark for “TravelDrivers”, which was something we were told would be impossible to achieve.
In telling this story, I didn’t want to scare you too much, or give you the sense that most private drivers are horrific, like my first Moroccan one, so I left out a few of my other less-than-salient private driver experiences that happened along the way.
Now that you, hopefully, understand the benefits of traveling with an excellent private driver-guide, here are some scenarios I experienced that TravelDrivers clients will be sure to avoid:
My driver on my first Bali trip expected me to share my hotel room with him, and the next one there got too drunk to drive me home, leaving me to drive and resulting in an accident
My first driver in India pulled partially off the road, leaving me to sit there while he slept.
My first driver in Laos spoke no English at all. Turned out he and his brother had done a “switcheroo”!
Drivers in Vietnam just never said a single word to me and hardly spoke English
Being forced to pay for gas when it should have been included in the price.
Drivers on my second trip to Bali rudely forcing me to listen to their horrible loud rock music while they drummed loudly on the steering wheel or incessantly bragging about their accomplishments.
Drivers claiming to know where they were going but getting lost, taking the wrong road and lying about it.
Drivers looking at their phones rather than using a voice navigation.
Suffering through bad body odors and other smells. One driver claimed to be non-smoking, but each time he entered the car it reeked. Another kept spraying horrible perfume to hide the smoke smell. One was also very obviously sleeping in the car and never bathing.
The Hungarian driver who promised to show me “hidden secrets” but only took me to the most obvious tourist traps. He had been described to me, by the hotel who recommended him, as being young and non-smoking but was quite advanced in years and smelled like an ashtray.
The other Hungarian driver who offered to tour me around the city upon my arrival, as though it was a freebie, then demanded triple what I was supposed to be charged.
This list could go on and on if I chose to include every one of my bad driver-guide stories, but fortunately, as my “Travel Schooling” years continued, the balance between the good and bad drivers evened out. And I honestly believe it was my destiny to be forced into situations that really made me look at this kind of travel and want to improve it, so I’m very grateful for all the experiences, both good and bad.
The point is that one just never knows what one might get when seeking out a private driver from other sources — it’s a veritable crapshoot (leading to my hilariously horrible slogan which will never really be used: “We take the ‘crap’ and ‘shoot’ out of the private driver experience!). I know – it’s a ridiculous slogan, but that’s what this business really does! Now, using TravelDrivers, you know these important things:
All drivers have been vetted for safety and curated for excellence.
All drivers speak very good English.
All drivers have been educated about and frequently reminded of our strict standards and required “ways of being” with our clients.
All drivers have as their top priority your happiness, safety and well-being.
I have personally selected all the drivers and I have personally driven with most of them. Those I have not driven with have come to us from trusted sources and have been carefully researched and vetted.
I am extremely dedicated to and passionate about my this business. My hope is that I will, slowly but surely, educate the public about this wonderful way to travel: an authentic and rich cultural experience providing travelers with total freedom from cares and worries as well as time constraints and restrictions. This kind of travel truly immerses you into the culture you are visiting in a way that nothing else can. I trust that, eventually, just like ride and home sharing, it will become natural, expected and appreciated, and that the demand for exceptional private driver-guides will grow and evolve exponentially. And when that day comes, I will be here, ready with my ever-growing list of exceptional, curated and vetted private driver-guides — the best of the best — for everyone to use to their own benefit.
It has been a very long road, but now we are well on our way, with drivers in over 25 countries, and more being chosen and vetted on an almost daily basis. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and we are learning so much and remain so passionate and excited about our future and all we plan to accomplish. We want everyone to be able to travel, even those who always thought it was impossible. People like my nephew, who is one of my main motivating factors. Smart, handsome and in his early twenties, a former star student and athlete, he is currently unable to walk. I dream of him having the opportunity to see the world, safely and comfortably, and hope that this business will allow him to do so. That would be the most gratifying result of all the work this has taken, and I look forward to that day’s imminent arrival!