Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Roads and the bus ride

I am terribly behind in blogging--between sporadic internet and just no time! So I will add these thoughts from two days ago...

Monday was a strange day for many reasons. First–and this not be overlooked in judging my reactions to what follows–is that it was long. We arrived at the hotel from the airport at 5am, jet-lagged and exhausted (always a bad combination!); most of us were down for breakfast by 10am.

After that, we had a little while to check just how absurdly nice our hotel compound was before we started the drive to Pondicherry, a drive that took up much of what was left of the day.

I sat as far forward as I could in the bus, as I always do because I like to see out front and follow the action. And there was action. The first hour took us out of Chennai. The roads were in a bad state. Even worse than Boston if that can be believed.

As we came out of the city, we were confronted what I would call many a "juxtaposition" if we hadn't decided to ban that word from the blog–take a bunch of academics to India and it gets overused. We did see many contrasts, mostly that between the extraordinary personal industry and entrepreneurship exhibited on every side and the seeming chaos of unfinished or crumbling buildings.

Indeed, it was often difficult to tell which was crumbling and which being built. This led me into all sorts of musing about the western aesthetic of a modern street, and others about the way in which the likes of Wal-Mart has swept all small businesses away into big antiseptic boxes.

After a visit to a lovely craft museum (about which several of my colleagues have blogged) we continued southwards along a single carriageway toll road. It was here that my position at the front of the bus allowed me to appreciate the wholly different driving mores of this county.

It seems there is an assumption that the faster vehicle has a right to get past the slower one: thus, when the bus (which was one of the fastest things on the road) would come up behind something, the driver would swing out into the other lane into a gap much, much smaller than I would ever over-take in, sounding his horn to warn the driver of the vehicle being over-taken that he was coming through, and putting the onus on him to brake or move over to the shoulder of the road should there be another vehicle coming in the opposite direction.

This system worked better than one might imagine, because the vast majority of traffic was bicycles, motorbikes, and motor-rickshaws, so the speed difference between the bus and what was being over-taken was substantial. Nevertheless, there were plenty of hair-raising moments (for this timid Englishman) when the margins seemed awfully close.

I cannot properly express the busy-ness of this hundred-mile-long rural road. There were tall, lean men riding bicycles slowly in a very erect manner; other men, usually in pairs and seemingly more thickset riding motorbikes; crowded tuktuks and minivans; and goats and the famous feral dogs.

And then there were, of course, the cows. There they were, hanging out by the side of the road, chewing on all sorts, and, more often than not, wandering into the road, sometimes at a moment that would upset the delicate dance of bus, motorbike and bicycle and almost cause a collision, sometimes just plain walking into the way causing a squeal of brakes.

Dusk and then darkness fell as we approached Ponchicherry, and distances became harder to judge, not least because plenty of vehicles had no lights on. We did finally encounter an accident (not ours, thankfully) as we came into the city. Traffic cops blithely directed us into the other lane, and we passed a furious argument going on over a fallen motorbike.

There is a sad postscript to the story of the bus ride. The last group inhabiting the margins of the road were the pedestrians. In particular, I was struck by the number of school-children, in their uniforms, walking along in groups, much too close to the road for my taste (thinking of my own girls, of course). Yesterday morning, the local edition of The Hindu had a front page story about a terrible crash in which eleven school-children and their driver were killed in the morning fog. More on Monday to follow, because if I don't put this up now, I'll never catch up!


  1. Did your group get to see Mahabalipuram or Kancheepuram? Kancheepuram is a living temple city.

  2. I was born in India but grew up in the US. The last time I was in India was in the late 1990s visiting relatives and touring. I'm still amazed at how I survived several encounters in the streets of Calcutta, on buses, in rickshaws (man and machine ones) and trains. I've never been so exhausted traveling than I have in India but you certainly feel your mortality and you appreciate how smooth the roads are (even the bumpy ones) once you return to the US. Yet for all the chaos and the seemingly non existent traffic rules I'm still awed by how things do flow and how people get from Point A to Point B. Enjoy!

  3. My sense is that there is at least one clear principle that orders the seeming chaos of the streets in Tamil Nadu - the bigger vehicle always has the right of way! Plus there is also this really fascinating code of beeps - some loud blares, other little toots, some singles, some doubles. It often does feel like chaos, and there are far too many traffic fatalities, but I would not say it's sheer disorder.