The Trouble With Rickshaws

This is part 8 of the story of my trip to India in 2014. You can check out the story index for the whole trip, or go here to start from the beginning.

2014-10-27
Monday
Day 5 in India

Well, vacation is over. At least, Mónica’s fall break is over. I’m still going to be in India until next Monday, but now Mónica is back to her regular schedule of teaching at the American International School in Chennai. I plan to get some work done, too, so we’ve now transitioned from the full vacation part of the visit to more of an experiment in normal daily living in India. We wake up around 5:00 to do yoga, which is an inspirational part of Mónica’s normal routine. Then we both get ready to go to the school. I’m certainly curious to see where she works, and there should be a good place there for me to camp out with my laptop and work in one of the libraries.

Mónica usually shares a ride to school with a couple of her co-workers, but it looks like their regular driver isn’t going to make it today, so we walk out to ECR and flag down a rickshaw. The rickshaws serve as the main taxi service here. They all have meters which are supposed to be regulated, and we always see billboards saying that it’s illegal to charge more than the metered rate, with a number to call to report abuse. But this is India, and Mónica and I are not Indians, which means we are forced to haggle over the fare. This morning is one of the first times we’ve had to do this since I’ve arrived, and it immediately becomes tedious and exhausting even though I’m not even the one paying. It should cost less than 150 Rupees to get to the school, but the drivers start the quotes as much as four times the normal rate. Mónica aims for paying no more than 50 Rupees over the metered rate and we eventually get somewhere in that range. It can take several minutes to haggle over what is probably less than $5 US. And we have to do it every time. Like I said, tedious and exhausting.

American International School of Chennai

Arriving at the school means getting checked over by a security guard before being let inside the gate. It’s like going through airport security except the security guard is armed and wearing what looks like an army uniform. In fact, there are armed guards everywhere in the gated compound, checking people and directing them on where to park or which entrance to use. It reminds me of when I’ve been to military bases in the US.

Once we’re inside, though, the campus is extremely nice. There are beautifully landscaped courtyards, stone sculptures, and tropical trees. There are buildings for the grade school, middle school, and high school, along with soccer fields, tennis courts, competition swimming pool, sports center, and an auditorium in the arts building that would be able to host an orchestra concert for a small city. It’s certainly an impressive place to work or send your kids to school, and seems a little other-worldly compared to the poorer surroundings of Chennai just outside the gate. It makes me wonder what their funding model is like.

As Mónica shows me around, we say hi to Fer and Shauna and Priya – all friends we’ve been hanging out with the last few days of vacation – and I continue to meet more wonderful and interesting people who have come from all over the world to work here. When it’s time for classes to start, I settle in the middle school library only to find that the ports I need to log in remotely to my work computer are blocked on the network here. So instead of getting work done, I take care of other errands, like buying my New York to Portland flight for when I return home next Monday, and looking at train tickets for a possible trip down to Madurai this weekend.

For lunch, I join Mónica in the cafeteria and meet more of her co-workers. Being the food snob that I am, I have to say that throughout my entire education experience from kindergarten through college, I never really ate any of the prepared cafeteria food. I always found it repulsive. Of course the schools I went to in Kentucky and Ohio weren’t serving curry, so I decide to give the food at the school here a shot. The Indian non-veg meal option is served in about a dozen small metal cups on a big platter. I don’t know what everything is. There are chutneys and lentils and vegetables and soup and some kind of curry. There’s the usual smell of Indian spices, and some of it tastes fine, but overall there’s still this same strange bland chemical flavor that I’ve always associated with cafeteria food. Even here. What do they do to the food in cafeterias to suck the life out of it?

Mónica shows me some more of the campus before lunch is over. We bump into Mr. Cary, the middle school band director, and chat a bit. (Teachers here are called by their first names after Mr. or Mrs.) When he finds out that I used to be an orchestral bass trombonist in a music conservatory, he gets really excited and asks, “What are you doing at 2:30?” Um . . . I’m not sure what’s coming next, so I give him the disclaimer that, whatever is going on at 2:30, I haven’t played in about 15 years. He says he has a brass ensemble class then and that the kids would love to hear me. He says they’ll be impressed no matter how out of shape I am.

OK . . . . It’s a nice thought, but I’m still a little off-balance from thinking about suddenly doing something that I used to take so seriously, in front of an audience no matter how non-critical, when it’s been so many years since I’ve played. Playing a brass instrument is not like riding a bicycle. It’s a skill that requires constant maintenance, even more so than playing something like piano or a stringed instrument because of the different physical demands. Anyway, it’s not like I happen to have my instrument with me anyway. Mr. Cary has a solution for that of course. Apparently the school has a bass trombone tucked away in the instrument room. He says I’ll be the first person who’s ever used it. Well, now that there’s no excuse available to make the decision for me, I have to seriously consider the invitation. I tell Mr. Cary that I’ll think about it.

I do think about it. Hanging out in Ms. Mónica’s classroom during her prep period, I know that I’m not the kind of person to say no to any new or unique experience just because it might be embarrassing. In fact, it’s quite amazing to consider how many of the most important things in my life today exist because I once said yes to something unexpected.

I go see Mr. Cary several minutes before the brass class starts, to his delight. The bass trombone he has is a Yamaha student model horn that’s much smaller than my own instrument – almost more like a large-bore tenor trombone. Still, I’m impressed that a middle school would have something like this at all, never mind a middle school in India. I wonder again at how well-funded this school seems to be.

The class is made up of about 13 sixth-graders with trumpets, trombones, baritones, and tubas. I’ve warmed up enough to almost sound like I know what I’m doing, and we take part of the beginning of the class for me to introduce myself to the kids, talk about how a bass trombone is different from a regular trombone, and do a little demonstration. Then I sit in and play with the group for the rest of the class, occasionally pitching in to help a little like an assistant instructor. It’s a good time. Mr. Cary jokes about convincing me to become a band director. Later on, he sends me this sweet video from the kids in the class.

After school, another episode of haggling over a rickshaw is required for Mónica and I to get home. There we drop off our stuff and get ready to head back out. We want to check out Saint Thomas Mount. We visited the Tomb of Saint Thomas back on my first day in the city. The Mount is a large hill in the southwestern part of the city where the Apostle was killed in 72 AD. It’s supposed to have a nice view of the city and Mónica hasn’t been there yet. We go back out to get another rickshaw.

Now, at this point, I need to explain something weird about the rickshaws in Chennai. Besides the fact that the traffic is so crazy and they do everything they can to take advantage of foreigners, there’s also a serious communication problem. Most of the rickshaw drivers speak almost no English. OK, that’s fair. We are in a foreign country after all. A lot of them seem to be illiterate as well, though. There are several times when a driver is looking for something and we’ll point to a sign that’s in English and Tamil and the driver just shrugs at us helplessly, apparently unable to read it. Even this is understandable, really. India is a much poorer country than I appreciated before coming here. At least illiteracy isn’t a barrier to all forms of employment.

Here’s the kicker, though. For some reason, none of the rickshaw drivers in Chennai know where anything in the city is. And addresses are useless. You might as well get into a taxi in the US and tell the driver the latitude and longitude of your desired destination as to try to find something with an address in Chennai. They never know where any specific restaurants are, and often they don’t know the names of the major roads. They’re almost entirely reliant on their passengers giving continuous directions like a GPS navigation system. Adding all of this on top of the constant haggling makes getting around much more stressful than it should be. It’s so draining that Mónica has been thinking about buying a car and hiring her own personal driver just to avoid the whole fiasco, even though it would be many times more expensive in terms of money.

The driver we get to take us to Saint Thomas Mount doesn’t know where the Mount is. This is surprising, since it should be one of the major landmarks of the city. At least I’ve looked at a map beforehand. I try to tell him that it’s on the other side of Guindy Park. Guindy Park is a national park located in Chennai on the former site of a 17th century governor’s game preserve. It’s several hundred acres of forested wilderness in the southern part of the city, almost the size of Central Park in New York.

He doesn’t know where Guindy Park is. Seriously? At this point, I’m about ready to give up and go find another rickshaw, but we’ve already done the haggling with this one, so we’re kind of invested. And honestly, it’s a crapshoot whether another random driver would be any better. Oh, and did I mention that the rickshaw drivers can’t read maps and don’t know what north, south, east, and west are? Like me, you probably take this so much for granted that you forget that it’s a skill that needs to be learned.

I navigate us to the general area where the Mount should be, but we quickly get lost after that. Our driver is stopping in some neighborhoods that are run-down even by Chennai standards to ask people for directions. Cows and goats watch us while rummaging through garbage. I later realize that even when we were about a 10 minute walk from the Mount, people didn’t seem to know what we were talking about. Everything around us is named after Saint Thomas or the Mount or both. On the way over here, Mónica and I were talking about how it’s too bad we would be there too early in the evening to see the sunset from the hill, but now it’s actually looking like we might miss it.

We finally end up on the right road and start driving uphill. Then the rickshaw runs out of gas. The driver doesn’t even tell us what’s wrong at first. He just gets out and holds his hand on his head like he doesn’t know what on earth to do. We tell him we’ll just walk from here. He immediately starts haggling aggressively again. He wants the whole price we agreed on before, or maybe more. I’m only half paying attention, but it sounds ridiculous. I don’t even know what Mónica ended up paying him, but I don’t think any of us left the transaction happy.

Saint Thomas Mount

As we climb the road up the mountain, we are greeted by an ominous sign which implies that if we break the law, we can expect retribution before the authorities even get involved. There’s also one of the tiniest puppies I’ve ever seen hanging out nearby. The stray dogs in this city all tend to act like hopeless homeless people, and in fact this puppy is probably starving since it keeps shivering and there’s no sign of it’s mom around.

Caution Sign at Entrance to Saint Thomas Mount in Chennai

Sad Stray Puppy at Saint Thomas Mount, Chennai

There is a shrine and an old church at the top of the hill, with guard-railed platforms all around for viewing the city. The sun is going down in a cloudy sky to the west, where it looks like rain is on the way. When he sees us taking pictures, a man in the shrine comes up to us and points to the sign that says photo permits cost 10 Rupees. We hand him the cash and get a little blue ticket stub with nothing written on it.

View of Chennai from Saint Thomas Mount
Looking north toward the center of the city. Even with the cloudy lighting conditions, the colorfulness of the buildings is striking.
Mónica in front of a Banyan Tree on Saint Thomas Mount, Chennai
This is a Banyan Tree. It’s the national tree of India, and there are huge stunning examples of these out in the country where we were driving over the weekend. This is the first time I’m able to snap a photo of one while standing still.
Alton and Mónica selfie overlooking Chennai from Saint Thomas Mount
Trying a selfie with my DSLR camera.

We enjoy the view for a little while more, letting off the stress of the rickshaw ride over, and at one point, a group of teenage girls who have been pointing and staring at us finally come up to ask to have their picture taken with us. I’m pretty sure they’re smitten with how beautiful Mónica looks today.

Mónica on Saint Thomas Mount, Chennai

As it starts to get dark, we head down to look for a rickshaw that’s hopefully a more productive experience than the last one. We want to check out a Thai restaurant called Benjarong for dinner, over in Alwarpet. We soon find a driver who doesn’t know the restaurant, but at least knows how to get to the road that it’s on. Once there, we just start cruising up and down TTK Road until we spot the restaurant, which takes a pretty long while. Of course the restaurant is closed. Darn. My restaurant curse strikes again! We’d still like to try this restaurant when it is open, so we look to see if the hours are posted somewhere. While snooping around the front door, a man smoking a cigarette in a car nearby walks up to us and says, “Open at seven.” Oh, it’s about 18:45 now. Perfect. As we’re thanking him, he opens the door and motions us on inside. They let us take a table while they’re still getting ready for the restaurant to open.

The ambience of the restaurant is very nice, with lots of dark wood and low lighting. The menu is sprinkled with fun facts about Thailand. As soon as we place our order, a waiter brings us a tasting platter with dishes of peanuts, toasted coconut, ginger, onions, lemon, and chillies on it. She shows us how to roll a sprinkling of everything into a curry leaf and eat it as a kind of amuse-bouche.

DIY Amuse-Bouche at Benjarong Thai Restaurant, Chennai

I have a Tom Kha Goong coconut milk soup and a Choo Chee Curry with Prawns for dinner while Mónica has the Pad Thai. Without any instruction from us, the waiter serves both of us some of each dish to share. Everything is excellent. We’re still the only ones in the restaurant when we start eating. It feels very intimate and romantic. Smiling and sharing each other’s food, we realize how happy we are despite a few stresses through the day. And even though I didn’t actually get any work done, it feels like our first day of trying out daily working life in India together is a success.

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