Monday, October 20, 2008

Getting Around – October 14

Before disembarking at each port, members of the US Embassy give a presentation on the ship. The imminent arrival of 700 college students into their jurisdiction terrifies the directors of each embassy enough to send, without fail, their highest ranking security officer to drill into our heads the mantra of US Embassies everywhere: don’t break laws, don’t wave money around and don’t wear American flag t-shirts (unless you’re in Namibia – then you should wrap yourself in an American flag and sing the Star Spangled Banner as you walk down the street). They also usually manage to throw in a little anecdote of being mugged themselves, or of an American being thrown into prison and them being able to do little more than send a care package complete with KFC (more prominent than McDonalds in every country we’ve been to) and soap, hold the razors. At the end they throw out a few taxi rates at us so we have an idea of what to negotiate. These rates are inevitably misinterpreted to mean “per person” when they really mean them to be “per cab” and we spend the rest of the trip overpaying by five times each amount. (But…it’s so hard to bargain when all you’re arguing over is 50 cents.)
India’s talk was a little different. Although the fact that the drinking age is 21 and those found using fake IDs can be prosecuted is a little terrifying – it’s simply too hard and too expensive to find alcohol in this state to even worry about that. Instead, the Indian embassy workers took the opportunity to warn us about the number one public safety concern in Chennai: crossing the street. Sidewalks, one of the workers warned, are a “mere afterthought that come to abrupt ends.” He suggested that we just walk in the street and deal with the honking – because if a car is honking at you it at least shows that it sees you. And here I use the word “car” very liberally to include rickshaws, motorbikes, pedal bikes, busses, ox-drawn wagons, and thousands of 1950s model cars. “Honk” is similarly used liberally to include a regular car horn, a musical horn (think of downloading ringtones to the horn of your 1950s car), yelling, beeping, poking (seriously), whistles and bells.
He then finished with two pieces of advice: to speak Tamil, just add an “-ah” to the end of every word and neither pedestrians nor the cars with a green light have the right-of-way: he with the most guts has the right-of-way.
**If there is a reason that Dartmouth does not approve SAS credit again after this trip it should not be because the classes are too easy or because the curriculum is too fun: it should be because Dartmouth can only stretch its luck so far with sending kids to Chennai before one dies. …I think that with the way we’re used to crossing the street, it’s a guaranteed 20% risk…and there are five of us here right now.**
I would lie to say that I felt prepared for the streets of Chennai. But I did honestly think I’d be more prepared than I was. Because it was ridiculous. I cannot fully express in words what it was like. When we asked everybody what they did during their first day in the city, the most common answer was “survived.” We piled four people into an auto-rickshaw, only to have the two on the edge (hi, that was me) pushed to near decapitation as there is nothing, nothing designed to hold you in. In one particularly congested area, our rickshaw driver found a rather clear street and zoomed on down towards our destination, only for us to realize too late that – fuck – we were on the right side of the road and the opposite light just turned green. But remember Rule #2. It was like the chase scene in an action movie as he weaved us through five lanes of oncoming traffic without even flinching. And then there was that time when he went to pass a bus on a narrow side street, only to get into the other lane and see a car coming right at us. …yet our driver still somehow managed to sneak between the two and temporarily fit three abreast. And yet, neither of these are extraordinary situations.
I’ve already started to treat each rickshaw ride like a rollercoaster. I jump in my seat and brace myself between the drivers’ seat and the poles provided, both holding on for dear life and encouraging the driver to go faster faster! The best part of this type of roller coaster ride is that there actually is a fear factor, because it actually is dangerous, because you actually could die, because there actually aren’t any seatbelts. Oh, and that at <1usd>


Bags said...

I wonder how Mom would handle the rickshaw?

lonepine said...

Not well. At all.