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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Traffic #6: Another smatterings of mini-stories

The wine shop has a painted portrait of Pierce Brosnan on its sign. Or at least, it looks like it is of him. I can’t be sure as it is not a particularly good painting. It could be of some Indian man who looks like Pierce Brosnan. Either one is possible here. Signs can have all sorts of seemingly random references, heroes and favourite movie stars featured on them. No way of really knowing. Gives me 3 minutes of levity though.

"Change? Change?" The auto driver asks. This is one of those y/n questions that is actually impossible to answer with a yes or a no because the question could indicate either. Does a yes mean yes, I have change or yes, I need change...

I decide to try "no". [I don’t need to get change] He answers, "change, no?" Hmmn, of course, that clears it right up...

I go for a "yes?" As you might be anticipating, he answers, "change, yes?"

I go back to "no" figuring that that was closer.

...This goes back and forth about 4 or 5 times before we’re sure we’re saying the same thing and he knows, no, no, I don’t need any change. :-)

Here is another little funny traffic story. So I’m in an auto on the way home and the driver keeps looking back at me, checking me out. I’m starting to get annoyed. What the hell is he looking at? ...Then it hits me – oh, he’s not looking at me, he’s actually using his rear view mirrors. Never seen someone here do that before. Freak.

Funny thing though: here, the practice of using his mirrors doesn’t necessarily imply he is a better, safer driver as proven when he nearly heads-on into a motorbike that appears coming the wrong way from around a bus in front of us. Taking your eyes off the chaos in front can lead to trouble. Most cars, if they have them at all, have their side mirrors tucked in flat. They are not using them anyway and out their just going to quickly get scratches or knocked off.

So the stereotype of Asian drivers not using their mirrors is not only true here, it is a vital skill, highly adapted to the very different traffic rules here. When anything can happen in front and to your side, you don’t have time to consider what is behind and the rules of the road are clear anyway: if they are behind, they have to give way.

So perhaps I should have smacked my auto driver for looking back after all...

It took me a long time to be able to follow my route to and from work and know where I was going. I have an excellent sense of direction, but I have come to realise that almost no road in Chennai goes straight, very few intersections meet at right angles or with only two streets meeting at a time (one of the reasons perhaps they opt for the flyway system to simply bypass the chaos and since most vehicles will cheat on traffic circles) and none of the main roads go anywhere useful. So you end up weaving through various streets, backtracking around one-way segments, doing large loops to bypass perpetually congested areas and taking a lot of twists and bends. This combined with the various alleys and shortcuts many autos use and it took me quite a while to sort out. Even consulting a map, I was like, "Oh, that is my route. That’s fucked up!"

I have also come to realise that I have a very skewed view and mental picture of many of the streets. I know my route by billboard and sign (a real problem when they change the billboards). I know the route by traffic circle and stop lights (because their flexible usages never fail to amuse me). I know it by wallahs and construction zones passed at the side of the road (the construction goes at such a slow pace it turns out to be a reasonably permanent marker). I recently got out of an auto in a region I don’t normally stop at and looking up, realised how nice the architecture of the buildings were. I had not idea. In fact, I rarely even know whether a building is 1 storey or 6. I only know what I can see from beneath the overhung awning roof of the auto: a fast, blurred and shaky view of the gritty and snaking ground level.

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