Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Wait! I Know That Cow!"

I do not like rollercoasters.  Never have.  I can’t say exactly why but I always have a bad feeling around them, either like you’re tempting fate getting on that thing or the thing itself has some bad juju about it.  This dislike was solidified the first time I agreed to get on the “Double Looper” at what used to be the Dade County Youth Fair in Miami and ended up watching a man get crushed by our train. 

That rollercoaster started with a very high peak and a steep decline that provided the momentum for the two loops that gave it its name.  I was with Elena, then girlfriend and now something akin to twin sister, since “friendship” alone understates our relationship.  She was very excited and had insisted that I must (1) keep my eyes open and (2) not hold on to the security bars that held us in our seat.  I obliged and when the full weight of the coaster succumbed to gravity in that steep decline I realized that when moving that fast you really can’t change your position: my eyes were locked open and my arms out.  Elena, meanwhile, was contorted into something that loosely resembled the fetal position, knotted over the security bars, face hidden between her boobs.  I’m fairly certain her eyes were closed.  Bitch.

In any case, the shock of that drop and the two loops was sudden but momentary.  But as the train pulled in to the waiting area, the first man in line, drunk and holding his beer in hand, fell into the track.  I started to scream for someone to get him out but by the time the next guy in line had grabbed his arm to pull him up, the train had pulled in and, though I couldn’t actually see much from my point of view, based on the bump I can assume we’d run over part of one of his legs and from his position when he was laid down alongside us, that we’d pinned his thigh against the wall.  When we came to a stop, he was lying right next to Elena.  For the first few moments, his eyes and his mouth were wide open but he wasn’t saying a word, clearly in shock.  I wrapped my arm around Elena and told her to keep her eyes closed.  A young parademic appeared within moments of the accident but the moment he was able to clearly view what had happened, he turned around, crouched and vomited towards the crowd.

It is never a good sign when a paramedic vomits.

I realize this isn’t the kind of entry you expect to see on this type of blog but I had to relay it because this moment, with all its detail, was precisely what went through my head when I got into an auto rickshaw for the first time last Friday. 

Auto rickshaws are the transportation of choice for those who do not have cars.  They are small, 3-wheeled motorized vehicles that have zero structural protection against impact, no seat belts, no doors, and though designed for one driver and two passengers, often carry four or five people.  They are fast, agile in the hands of an aggressive and creative driver, and able (and more often than not manage) to squeeze in the inter-lane space between larger vehicles.  In one word: dangerous.

I’d been warned by one of Kevin’s friends about these things.  We were at a company party, chatting about my upcoming trip, when she decided to explain how, during her work visits to hospitals in India, she noticed that at least two thirds of the broken bones, dismembered limbs and other forms of trauma induced physical deformity had resulted from rickshaw accidents.  “Don’t you dare get on one of those things!.”  

I remembered those words and my experience on the rollercoaster as I stood at the side of the rickshaw, driver staring at me with a perplexed look on his face, not sure of why I was hesitating.  But there are moments when you really have no choice.  Or rather, the only other options aren’t good or reasonable ones.  And this was one of those instances:  A classmate (Elyssa) and I had gotten lost trying to find a restaurant, Sangheeta, that we frequent for lunch in order to meet a couple of classmates and head to a shopping mall to check out the stores.

We were standing at a corner neither of us recognized.  Andrea, one of the people we were meeting, called. 

“Where are you?” 

“I have no idea,” I told her, “All I know is we’re right across the street from a Fresh O’Fresh.” 

“What is a Fresh O’ Fresh?”

This was not going to be resolved easily. This was the first time I’d attempted to head out somewhere I was not familiar with in the middle of the night.  In Chennai the streets manage to get even busier as the night progresses.  Rush hour doesn’t exist here.  Activity begins before sunrise with handfuls of people an cars on the streets as early as 5:30a.m. and this activity intensifies throughout the day, culminating at around 8 or 9p.m. when it’s virtually impossible to walk the street without bumping into people, motor cycles and cars on your way.  The only saving grace is that nobody, people or cars, can move too fast.

Elyssa and I knew that we were close to Sangeetha’s but we also knew that we had no clue where we were and that in the process of trying to find the place we might simply get further away.  So when the rickshaw stopped infront of us and the driver asked if we needed a ride, Elyssa and I both looked at each other and considered that we might get to where we needed to faster if we got on and let the guy take us there.

“Sangeetha?”  we asked him.

He nodded and said something in Tamil.  We had no clue what it was.  We asked him how much it would be.  “15 rupees.”  This is essentially 33 cents and we figured he knew exactly where he was going because it was so cheap (usually you pay 10 rupees per kilometer).  We got in, my heart racing, but my mind trying to quiet it.

It’s only a few blocks away, it said.  How bad can it possible be?

Famous last words.

The moment that rickshaw took off, I knew I was in for something stupendously frightening.  First of all you can feel every bump in the road and with the more severe ones which make your butt rise out of the seat you get the sensation that you’re about to be thrown out of the vehicle.

This man had no need to drive that fast or that crazy but it felt like I was back on that rollercoaster in Miami as he swerved from one side of the road to the other, driving around people who were walking along the street, cyclists and cows. 

Chennai’s smaller streets are not well lit and at night you count on the car headlights to offer lighting as much as any street light so we’d see nothing for a moment and then suddenly a car would turn the corner towards us, we’d see its lights and within moments it would whiz by, missing us by just a few inches.  Our driver did not seem disturbed by this.

I gripped the bar between the driver and passenger seats a little harder.

Within moments we knew that we were off course.  We didn’t recognize where we were going and it had been a few minutes, which meant we should’ve already come to a neighborhood we knew, if not gotten to the restaurant.  I tapped the guy on the shoulder “Sangeetha?” and he nodded and said something else in Tamil.

This was not going to end well.

Elyssa had a nervous smile on her face. 

I looked at her.  “This is just getting worse by the moment.”

“Yup,” she said.

And then it really got bad. 

The driver made a quick turn and we were thrust into a multilane road.  There are few of these in Chennai and they constitute major arteries in the system of roadways which get you far across town faster than any other way.  They are the busiest roads where the autos move fastest and they are generally avoided unless you have to drive long distances in the city.  Let me say here that there was absolutely no need for us to get on such a road based on the fact that we were only a few blocks from our desired restaurant.  So we were clearly headed somewhere much further from where we needed to be.

The opportunity for close calls increased exponentially here.  Every few moments someone would cut us off and our driver would honk at them and swerve, trying his best to get ahead of them anyway.  In the process he’d throw our vehicle against the car next to us, which would honk in return.  At any moment we would be within inches of the vehicle next to us, with one car coming up behind us, honking so we’d make enough room so they could get by.  If we didn’t move, they’d simply try to squeeze in.

From my point of view, it is laughable that this city requires driving lessons for you to get a license because there really seem to be no rules on the road.  Cars don’t abide by stop signs or lights (when they manage to be there… most intersections don’t have them at all), they switch lanes at will and often ride the divider lines (if they’re painted at all), right AND left turns can occur at an intersection at any moment, there are no speed limit signs anywhere so speed seems to be ruled by how busy the road is, and all manner of vehicles can use any lane on the road, be they motorcycles, trucks, buses, rickshaws, bicycles, or horse and carriage.  And that doesn’t speak to the pedestrians.  Anyone at any moment can dart across a road (or meander, which many prefer to do) and cows often wander out with little concern for the traffic.  Sometimes it’s just a cow, sometimes the bull or cow is pulling a cart.  Today I even saw a man pushing a large wheelbarrow with a woman in it.

This craziness on the roads is enhanced by the fact that sidewalks here are not used for walking.  People look at me funny when I walk along on them, which I did initially because I thought it was safer than walking alongside the cars.  Everyone walks on the street.  The sidewalk is instead a multifunction entity.  It can be used by street vendors, who can park their carts there or who sit on a blanket on the sidewalk with their merchandise organized around them to facilitate a sale, or store owners whose merchandise often spills into them (some stores even use the sidewalk as storage space).  Or they can be used for napping in the middle of the day (and I’ve determined it’s not just the homeless who do this).  There are even instances where the sidewalk is the public toilet.  I walked into one of these areas by mistake and was bitchslapped by a stench that made the Balboa Park public men’s bathroom (easily the nastiest bathroom in the city, where the guys with the worst aim choose to piss) seem like a botanical garden.  Once I was walking behind an old man wearing a dhoti, a traditional wrap that (usually older) men wear, on the sidewalk when he came to an abrupt stop, raised his dhoti up his leg, squatted down and began to shit.  Right there.  Infront of everybody.  I turned and started walking along the street.  Since then I’ve noticed that some of the feces on the road is too large to be a dog’s and too small to be a cow’s so I suspect the old guy was not an exception.

Maneuvering through the city then is an exercise in risk evaluation: brave the cars, which are constantly swerving to avoid hitting or being hit, or risk stepping on shit or tripping over carts, dogs, people or merchandise laid out in blankets.  I’ve done my best to avoid using objectionable language in this blog, but there are times when colorful words are due and this is one of them: Chennai’s streets are a clusterfuck. 

The only rule here seems to be the horn.  Cars honk all the time.  Bikes all have horns, in some cases added later.  The horns vary from funny, to muffled to piercingly loud.  And they are going all the time.  When I first got here it felt like the horns were just going in an uncoordinated cacophony but since then I’ve learned that they can mean a variety of things, among them:
  1. I’m coming up behind you
  2. You’re getting too close to me
  3. I need you to move
  4. I’m about to pass
  5. You can pass me
  6. You’re in the wrong lane
  7. I’m in the wrong lane

Always contextual, thankfully most of the time the horn is quite brief.  On the rare occasion where the horn is sustained, it simply means the driver thinks you’re an asshole for doing whatever you did which clearly got in his (I say “his” because aside from private vehicles, women don’t drive here; there are no women taxi or rickshaw drivers) way. 

But when careening towards disaster in a rickshaw, the subtleties of the horn are not very comforting.

At intersections it was especially bad.  I got very good at saying my Hail Mary’s quickly as we’d approach an intersection.  In this city there are few stop signs and almost no stop lights, so that vehicles negotiate who gets into the intersection when.  This is all well and good in the small streets where nobody can speed, but in these multilane roads everything turns into a video game.  We’d be on the right lane and as we’d cross a vehicle would almost t-bone us as it tried to get into our lane.  Our driver would swerve and move quickly onto the next lane over, which naturally would have another vehicle in it so we’d get a honk and they’d swerve and the chain would progress across the street.

It’s only a few blocks awayHow bad can it possible be?


Elyssa and I just shook our heads.  This was going to be a long night. 

I used one hand to dig through my bag for the cell phone.  There was no way I felt safe enough to let go of the bar completely.  I even had my foot pressed up against the back of the driver’s chair so I’d have enough tension between that and the back of my seat so I wouldn’t slip on the cheap vinyl seat whenever we’d turn or change lanes.  I called Andrea back.  “Bad news.  Our rickshaw driver doesn’t know where we are going so we’ll try to fix this and get to the restaurant as soon as we can.”

Our driver finally came to a stop.  I peaked out of the rickshaw.  “Sangheeta” read the sign above me.  I looked around.  Nothing rang a bell.  Not the right Sangheeta.  So we both told the guy that this was not the place.  He had driven us across town, far enough away that there was actually another Sangheeta vegetarian restaurant.  If this was Starucks, I wouldn’t feel so bad.  But it’s not.  There isn’t one in every corner.

Finally the driver looked concerned. 

He stepped out, talked to a few people and got back in.

“He’s asking for direction,” Elyssa said.  I’d heard that this happened sometimes.

He got back in the car, drove out into the middle of the large road and without signaling or giving even the slightest indication of his intention, he immediately did a U turn, stopping every car behind us and on the other two lanes on our side of the road as he tried to get onto the other side.  The screeching of cars was deafening.  If I’d reached out my hand I could've touched some of them they stopped so close.

I dropped my head.  I couldn’t look. 

He finally got onto the other side of the road and we were off.  His driving was even more frantic this time, something I didn’t think possible. 

He kept looking out of his vehicle, scanning the store names.

“He has no clue where he’s going,” I told Elyssa. 


He stopped his car again where there were a group of people, peaked his head out and asked something with the word “Sangheeta” in it.  They pointed in the direction he’d come.  He shook his head.  Then they started to argue with each other. 

Chennai is full of complications, not the least of which is the fact that nobody knows where anything is here.  The city itself, along with many other Indian cities, has changed names, in an attempt to erase the influence of British rule in the country.  Chennai itself used to be called Madras.  But that wasn’t enough.  Street names have all been changed as well to accommodate names that reflect local culture rather than imperial rule.  Add to this the fact that this city has not experience urban sprawl the way that many California cities have but rather has remained the same size and simply increased in density, with houses and businesses popping up in between existing houses and businesses, and you begin to understand that it is impossible for them to have a chronological system for addresses.  When house #29 on that street has popped up between houses #1 and #2, you have a problem.  The fix for this, if you can call it that, has been to renumber some of the districts; but because it would confuse everyone to have a business or house suddenly change numbers (and as a consequence, an address change location) the answer has been to associate every house with two numbers (so that addresses look something like this: Old Number 21/New Number 5).  This makes it especially frustrating when there’s just one number on the house and you don’t know if it’s new or old or what.

So everyone, including cab and rickshaw drivers, need to ask directions from locals.  And when you complicate matters with a culture that values giving any help, even when it hinders, rather than admitting that you can’t help at all, you’ve got the perfect setting for a comedy of errors.  What I have been told is the way to get anywhere is to ask multiple times along the way.  You’ll get some good directions and some bad directions and you just hope each time you’re a little closer.  The best scenario is asking a big group of people because they will argue with each other about the right directions and, more often than not, the actual correct directions will prevail.

The men finally came to consensus and the driver repeated a couple of times the directions they’d given.  Then he brought his head back into the rickshaw, started up the car and pulled out into the middle of the road with the same wild abandon that had been the theme of the first part of this ride.  He kept looking to his right at a road that he clearly wanted to get to but couldn’t because of the median which separated the lanes going in opposite directions.  When he came to the intersection he pulled the sharpest U-turn yet and I swear at least one wheel lost contact with the ground.  He was gunning for the street he wanted. 

I saw some headlights pointing at us, spanning the entire width of the street that we were in the middle of.

“Are some of those cars coming right at us?”

Elyssa was a little more flustered now: “It’s ALL oncoming traffic!”

He sped up, intent on getting to his street, but it didn’t happen before the traffic got to us and we had to swerve around a few cars that were coming at us.  I was glad I had not eaten or drank anything anytime recently because it would not have stayed in my system.

He came to another sudden stop.  I peaked out.  The sign above me read “Sangheeta Hotel.” 

“It’s not even the restaurant!” I told Elyssa.  “Let’s get out and find someone else.”

When we stepped out I gave him his 15 rupees.  He was upset because the ride had taken longer than he’d bargained for.  I was livid.

“You got us lost!  This isn’t even where we wanted to go.”

He said he’d used a lot of gas.

“That’s your damn fault for not knowing where you’re going!  We have to now pay another rickshaw to get us back to where we were!”

Mind you, he had no clue what I was saying.  The gesture and tone of my voice was really what was doing the communicating.  But in these situations I’ve learned that’s all that’s needed.

Elyssa was right infront of him and he tried to argue back, handing the money to her.  I started to walk away and told Elyssa that I was going to check the hotel to see if there was anyone there who could help us find our way back.  The guy tried to reason with her and she just handed him the money.  “This isn’t where we wanted to go.”

She caught up to me and asked me “Are we going to get arrested?” 

“No,” I said with a smile.  “He got us lost.  Some people wouldn’t have paid him anything.”

We went to the hotel, spoke to the guy at the front desk about our situation and he laughed with us and said he’d get us a “car.”  Elyssa happened to have the address of the KYM, which is near Sangheeta (the right Sangheeta) and he said he knew where that was and he’d make sure the driver knew.  Within moments another rickshaw pulls up to the door.  I was mortified.  The driver came in, spoke to the front desk guy and it seemed he knew where to go. 

So it was back on the rollercoaster.  At least at this point, the entire experience was beginning to be funny.  We got back into the rickshaw, showed the guy the address one more time and we were off.  This driver hit the road with less speed but more gusto.  The swerving was even more pronounced and he seemed to make more turns than could ever be necessary.  He then pulled into a gas station.  Elyssa and I followed him with our gaze, hoping to God he wasn’t asking for directions. 

“Is he pumping gas?”

“I don’t think so.”


He stopped a couple more times and then seemed to catch an old man whose eyes lit up the moment the driver mentioned the KYM.  The old guy gave him some involved directions (at least it seemed that way from the many hand gestures he made) and the driver took off again.

Elyssa and I were a little more relaxed now.  I called Andrea again.  She and Julianna were having dinner in Sangheeta.  “We’ll be here until you get here, honey.”

That’s one of the many reasons I love that girl.

The driver drove for a bit and then stopped at the side of a dark road.

“Oh no,” I told Elyssa.  “He still doesn’t know where he’s going.”  But then I realized there was no one around.

He turned to us and said “One minute.”

We watched him walk away, step up to a wall about 50 feet away and take a piss.

Elyssa shrugged and relayed that it was a good sign that this was the only reason we were stopping, odd as it was to be in this situation.  She then mentioned that she was happy I had such a good attitude about being in this situation.  I told her I was happy that she was taking it well, too.  As bad as being lost and driven to a far away area of town we didn’t recognize was, the situation would be infinitely worse if you were sharing it with somebody who couldn’t laugh about it. 

The driver got back in and we were off again.  At this point we were an hour and a half late so we became a little more involved in the process, looking around for anything we recognized.  Unfortunately the streets of Chennai seem to change character depending on how they’re lit so that an area that is incredibly familiar during the day can become completely alien at night. 

The driver started to drive more slowly, looked around more often and we got the sense that he thought he was near the right place.  So we started to look more intensely as well.

“I don’t recognize any of this,” Elyssa said.

Neither did I.  None of the buildings looked familiar.  Then, as we turned a corner I saw something that caught my eye.

“Wait!  I know that cow!”

I would pass this cashew colored cow every morning.  I know it because it stares at me anytime I get near and I have to watch it as I pass to make sure it doesn’t charge.  I was elated. 

“These things don’t wander much in this city,” I told Elyssa.  “We’re close!”

She giggled at the thought that we'd used a cow to determine where we were.

The driver saw a group of people and stopped to ask directions and then we saw the ever familiar front wall of the KYM.  “There!”  The driver pulled up, we paid, and then started to walk to Sangheeta. 

When we got there, Julianna and Andrea were there.  We sat down, I ordered a sweet lassi, my drink of choice in this city (a lovely sweetened yogurt mixed with water that is both comforting and functional, as it helps reduce the heat of the spicy food more effectively than water can).  We apologized for being so late, then laughed about the adventure Elyssa and I had been on and decided we still had enough time to make it to the mall.  So when the bill was paid, Elyssa and I had to face the reality that we were not done being on a rickshaw that night.  But since Julianna and Andrea were the ones who knew where the mall was, Elyssa and I split up.  Andrea and I got on our rickshaw, a bit distracted by conversation as we chatted about how crazy the night had been.  I honestly believe she was just trying to ease my mind a bit with conversation so I didn’t focus on the fat that I was getting back on a death-mobile.  But as soon as our rickshaw pulled out into the road, wheels squealing, we realized this driver was nothing short of psychotic.

If the first drivers had been bold on the road, this one had a death wish.  I have never seen a driving video game or a movie car chase that has come close to how this maniac drove.  I moved in closer to Andrea and from the nervous look on her face I realized we were in trouble.  Andrea lives in China and is not unfamiliar with crazy-ass rickshaw drivers.  So if she was nervous, there was reason to be. 

We shrieked a few times as we were presented by one near miss after another.  Here a motorcycle that came to close.  Here a car that we were trying to speed past.  Once a truck bullied us onto oncoming traffic as it tried to get into the turning lane.  Now and again this guy would pull into the wrong side of a momentary median, headlights coming at us, as he tried to pass traffic.  We would be lucky if we made it to the mall in one piece.

“It’s amazing to me that there aren’t more accidents on these roads,” I marveled.

“Yeah, I haven’t seen any yet,” said Andrea.

Not moments after this comment our driver tried to squeeze between a car and a motorcycle.  He made a fast move and didn’t count on another car trying to pull in behind him.  He lost his focus for a moment and a motorcycle seemed to come out of nowhere.  He pulled away, and BAM hit a car that came up behind us, bounced off of him and hit the motorcycle afterall.  All cars came to a stop.  Our driver scolded the motorcyclist and the car driver scolded our driver.  It seems that the status of the vehicle and not the driver’s maneuver is what establishes fault in these cases.  The motorbike took off with no damage and so did the car.  And our rickshaw driver just cranked up (yes, there is a crank on these vehicles) the car and kept going.

We finally got to the mall and when we met up with Elyssa and Julianna we told them what had happened.  Julianna gets this great look on her face when she’s told things that seem this surreal.  “Crap!  You’re not having luck with these things tonight.” 

Nope.  I wasn’t.  And during the entire 30 minutes that we shopped (the mall was close to closing afterall) I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that we still had a rickshaw ride back to the hotel ahead.

I’ve since, of course, been on a rickshaw plenty of times.  It is no less crazy and no less scary than the first time around.  Whenever I think I’ve gained some level of comfort with these things, some new and more belligerent driver manages to surprise me.  I’ve been on rickshaws that have run children off the road, almost sideswiped cows (remember these things are holy in this country so it’s not insignificant) and bullied other rickshaws and motorcycles into a median.  Mid street U-turns and driving into oncoming traffic have become a regular event for me.  But there is no option in this city if you want to get anywhere so it’s just as well that I get used to it, or as used to it as possible.  There is always that “Oh hell” moment when I get on one of these things, but it’s become part of the experience itself rather than something that would deter from it.  As is the fact that anytime I give a driver an address and he says he knows where it is, there’s no guarantee that he does.  He just wants the money.  If it takes longer than he suspected then whatever fee you agreed to at the beginning of the ride (there’s no fixed price and no meter, you have to bargain each time) will be too small and he’ll try to get more.  I’ve learned to not give in.  All I need to do is get ethnic.  When I start pointing and raising my voice they just drive away.  I thought this was because it was such an unfamiliar response to them but since then I’ve seen a few old Indian ladies go apeshit on rickshaw drivers and that’s pretty much what they look like.  The old ladies always win with that technique.

This place is all about learning to deal with life.  What is proper in other places doesn’t so much matter.  What gets you through your day here may require a very different approach.  That may be walking along the road to avoid the sidewalks-turned-toilets, using livestock as landmarks when you’re trying to find your way back to a familiar path, or learning to sit back in a rickshaw and let go of the fear.  I haven’t managed the latter yet.  Not completely anyway.  But I hope to before I leave.


  1. kiss that cow for me--- she's gonna be your good juju and keep you in one piece!

  2. holy shit dude! your story was giving me heart palpitations and i wasn't there! please don't lose an arm in one of those contraptions, that dictation software isn't that reliable and I'd miss your writings :-D

  3. Wow! The honking of the horns and their interpretations, the crazy driving, and so much more there are so many that reminds me of Iran where I grew up. But you're totally correct when you say, this place is all about learning to deal with life and what is proper in one place doesn't mean the same or matter in another! You have come such a long way just in a couple of weeks and What a joy to read your writings.