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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Traffic #5: A smattering of mini-stories

Happy Pongal everyone!

Pongal is a local Tamil holiday that celebrates the start of the sun moving northward, in essence, the return towards summer. The holiday is 4 days long with much of the city shut down since Sunday (I wrote this Wednesday). One the first day, the house is cleaned and old clothes and materials are thrown out and burned. On other days, cows are given thanks to, crops and sugar cane offered at shrines and rice and sweets made and given. According to my housemate John and the morning paper though, this last day is a day for getting out and picnicking. Hundreds of thousands will descend on the beach today with dozens of drowning deaths and incidents of hooliganism every year necessitating a 5000-strong police presence. Yup, family fun for all. And we thought the Vancouver fireworks were bad!

For more on Pongal: and

Pictures on Flickr

Being a small office, we only took the Monday off and I have to work today, so I unfortunately can’t share any personal insights into the chaos of the festivities, but on the plus side, the quieter streets make for a smoother and faster commute. Since I spend so much of my time in the autos, I’ve amassed a large collection of shakily jotted moments, insights and observations and I thought I’d share a collection of mini stories from my various commutes over the last few weeks.

Quack, sssqquack! I chuckle quietly. As is not uncommon, the horn of my morning rick is broken and has been replaced in this case with a plastic hand-squeeze bulb. It works fine enough to tell people you are there, but it isn’t exactly a “get out of my way” warning, sounding as it does like a strangled duck call. You know, like the ones that are always featured in TV shows where the out-of-his-element urbanite tries the hunters duck call whistle but only manages to call something involving a sight-gag. The driver uses it with abandon anyway, which does make me a tad nervous since that also means he is only driving with one hand. I assume optimistically that the increased likelihood of an altercation with another vehicle is offset by the fierce warning of his killer mutant mallard call...

We turn left onto a major road and into a canyon of giant billboards. Advertising is simply everywhere here and in a variety of formats and plasters on spots I never dreamed of even in media drowned North America. From tiny lawn signs sprouting like weeds from every patch of dirt and garden, to corporate logos attached to traffic signals, bridges and road signs, to a bewildering collage of competing store signs to these giant billboards that dominate the thoroughfares. My colleague refers to these as the ugly “life-sized posters”, but these towering, well-dressed muses advertising the major brands are rather significantly bigger than real life. Ever since he made that comment I keep thinking, “Life-sized, eh? I wish my boxer shorts and cell phone were that big…” ;-)

The rick pulls into a gas station on my way home. It is annoying when they do that, but it is one of those things you have to take in stride: they only seem to hold like a litre of gas in the tank so it happens fairly often. What I do like about the gas stations though is that besides the usual pumps and concession centre, each has a little wooden desk and chair set up where they take and process your money. I love the little nods to formality and standards everywhere in India that are throwbacks to their Colonial period. Everything else looks like it has been beaten with an iron rod, run over several times by large trucks and never cleaned since it was installed (which are certainly possible), but yet there is this cute little desk with a man sitting serenely at. Unlike the young Brits who seemingly have chosen to celebrate their nationhood through brilliant humour, snogging and being unruly at football matches, the Indians still retain vestiges of the original sort-of-stuffy yet sort-of-charming attachment to custom.

Taking the bus can be a dangerous proposition – not of riding it per se since as I explained before, the buses are built like tanks – but of catching it. At most stops and intersections the bus seems to simply slow and men run over and hop on or sometimes just jump and grab on, riding along on the outside. At major stops, the bus will actually stop, but unlike the paranoid drivers in North America that won’t open the doors until you are stepping onto a platform for fear of a lawsuit, here the bus stops wherever it is in the street somewhere near the stop and it doesn’t stop for long (and they don’t have doors anyway). So to get off, you have to hurry and jump down quickly, that’s right: into moving, turbulent traffic. Yup, the most dangerous part of the bus ride is getting off mostly because of auto drivers like mine. The bus is stopped. We both know people are therefore going to get off, but to him, it is just a good chance to pass, weaving through the exiting passengers. A blur of yellow and red fabric goes by as I shake my head. At least he slowed down some.

“Anna Nager” I say as I lean into the auto, telling him the district where I live.

“No Boss, too far.”

I smile in understanding and he drives off. My place is a ways from work and not all drivers want to head that direction in the evening. Soon enough though another pulls up. “How much?” I ask after he agrees to take me.

“250” he says with a straight face.

I laugh and turn away, waving him to move on. Wow, bold: the price should be Rs 100. At his opening price, it is not worth even starting to negotiate. If he thinks I might get in at 250, I’ll never get him down to something reasonable. The next auto buzzes by with 6 people crammed in the back. Hmmn, I’m not having luck tonight. It happens. Yesterday, I picked up one as soon as I stepped out from work, no hassle. Today it takes 10 minutes and I still end up with a guy I can tell isn’t fully happy with the final price (100 of course) and will try to renegotiate at the end. Doing this every day, I’ve become good at sensing what type of driver I’ve gotten. Oh well, such is life taking the ricks. You have to be willing to play the game or be willing to pay more.

Ouch! My teeth click audibly as we go over a speed bump too quickly in the dim light. This brings my attention to sharp focus to three common elements of Chennai traffic:

- Streets are generally very poorly lit. Along with traffic signals, painted lines and street signs, the civic department of Chennai also appears to have scrimped out on installing sufficient illumination to see obstacles.

- Only about half the vehicles on the road drive with their headlights on at night. Oh so true to form the other half drive with their high beams on. So while the first vehicle blinds you like a deer with the glare, you’ll totally miss the auto sneaking by. Goodness knows how the unlit and darkly-clad bicycles survive. Then you get about 1% who use their lights to signal they are there, flicking them back and forth from off to high in rapid succession constantly as they drive like some crazed nightclub lightshow. And it is just as annoying. My auto this evening is one of those without lights, hence his lack of sufficient notice of upcoming bumps. I’m not completely convinced of his blamelessness for the speed bump though: it is not as if they move from one evening to the next.

- Speed bumps in Chennai have to be the most well-intentioned but totally unnecessary traffic control system I’ve come across. They’re placed liberally in front of any school, institution or temple whether that is an alley or a 4-lane thoroughfare. Cheaper to install and maintain than traffic lights (and probably with a higher effectiveness) they seem a fine idea for traffic control until you consider that they’re lost amongst a sea of holes, crumbling road work, torn up gutters and random obstacles every 20 metres. It is like adding a lawn chair to a hurdle race – sure it’s one more obstacle to spice things up, but it isn’t going to slow the pace any further.

I’ve gotten the auto to drop me off a couple blocks from my place. He was whining about the distance, setting himself up I know for the predictable scam of asking when we arrive for a higher fare than we negotiated. See, I told you he would. They lay on the guilt, which is one of the few points where I can sometimes lose my temper. Because it is a total scam; they are simply taking advantage of me as a foreigner somehow having all learned that we are susceptible to such manipulations. He knows perfectly well I wouldn’t have gotten in at the price he is now asking since there was another auto behind waiting to snap the fare. But he tries anyway. I can’t fault the trying, but I hate the emotional put-on. It is just one of a whole bag of tricks and scams auto drivers will try though, but I’ll save that for an entry or 6 another day.

But I actually like walking a bit before I get home. It is a nice evening. It would be a nice evening to go for a run actually, but due to the poor lighting, lack of headlights and aforementioned lack of sidewalks, even I’m not daring (or foolhardy) enough to risk running the streets after dark without a blaze of blinking, flashing things fastened to me. Oh well, if only I was a morning person.

1 comment:

slowpoke said...

Awesome stories McKay! Love the insight. Somehow Cambridge isn't quite as colorful.