Bicycles, Buses, and Fitting Eight People in a Rickshaw

This is part 9 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.

Day 6 in India

Today is another day of work for Mónica. Since I can’t log in to my work through the network at her school, I’m going to stay home to see what I can get done. We get up at 5:00 again for yoga, and I decide to take advantage of the timing to check out the sunrise from her rooftop. It’s a beautiful morning.

Sunrise in Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai, India
Of course, any sunrise shot of Chennai isn’t complete without a crow flying by.

Crows in Flight at Sunrise, Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai, India
The crows of Chennai are so ubiquitous that it doesn’t take much effort to find cool shots like this.
Once Mónica’s off to school, I catch up on work until it gets close to lunch time, then decide to see if I can fix her bicycle. When she moved here from Maine in July, she had her mountain bike shipped in a crate with a bunch of her other belongings, but she hasn’t ridden it since it arrived because the tires are flat. Also because the traffic and roads here are kind of terrifying.

I find her pump and a couple tools and get it back in working order. The brakes need adjusting, but I can’t fix them without any allen wrenches. At least they still work. The front one is just rubbing too much. Time to go for a test ride. I figure I’ll just ride straight down ECR for about three and a half kilometers to get some lunch at a place called Tryst Cafe that she’s recommended. I also need to get some cash and will see if I can find some allen wrenches and pliers somewhere.

I find an ATM as soon as I get on the main road and set myself up with 5,000 Rupees (less than $100 US). Luckily, after having so much trouble getting cash in Buenos Aires, my debit card works just fine here. Unluckily, the store here where I wanted to look for tools is closed. Business hours are a little quirky here in Chennai. A lot of shops close for hours around lunch time. And a lot of restaurants close for hours between lunch and dinner. It just takes a little more planning ahead to get things done. I start biking down ECR to the cafe.

If you’ve followed some of my previous stories, you have some idea of how crazy the traffic is here. If you haven’t, let me just tell you that it is not for the faint of heart. Aside from there just being an overwhelming amount of traffic on the road – motorcycles and rickshaws and cars and bikes and buses and pedestrians and cattle – there are hardly any apparent traffic laws to speak of, except for: Drive on the opposite side of the road from what you would normally do in most of the world. Well, usually at least. It’s very common to see people (especially rickshaws) driving for blocks in the wrong direction up a major road because they want to avoid crossing to get to the other side of a divided highway. Also, there are no sidewalks or shoulders to be a safe haven for pedestrians, so they’re constantly playing frogger with all the other vehicles.

My ride down actually goes pretty well. There are many close calls and lots of honking, but none of the other vehicles gets any closer than a couple inches to pass me. Some do pass me on the wrong side, or going the wrong way, but by the time I find Tryst Cafe, I feel like I’ve weaved through the cows and dogs and people and rickshaws like a local. It’s kind of like riding a bike through a field where six teams are all trying to play soccer at the same time. It just requires constant vigilance.

Tryst is a European-style cafe that has some pretty good looking loaves of sourdough bread on display. I would try one, but we still have plenty of the sourdough that I brought. What they have that is much more exciting is some imported quality butter from France. Now we’re talking. Of course, this butter is ferociously bucking the trend of most food in India being dirt cheap. This butter costs about $10 US for what’s about an 8 ounce block. I get some anyway. If ever there was a luxury item that I would be happy to splurge on, butter qualifies. I also grab a big puffy spinach-filled quiche-like pastry for my lunch. I’ll take it back to the apartment to eat. It’s about 90 degrees outside and I’m pretty sweaty from the bike ride. Besides, it always feels a little weird to me to eat in a restaurant by myself.

My ride back up ECR goes almost as well as my ride down. I only get hit by one car and I only knock over one pedestrian. The first collision is actually pretty mild. A car deliberately bumps into my back tire a couple of times at low speed. I think it’s to get through an intersection ahead of the driver next to him. I wobble around a bit but manage to stay on the bike through that one. Less than a minute after, though, I’m cruising by a group of people standing on the edge of the road when one guy jumps right in front of me without looking in my direction. He couldn’t have timed it better if he tried. I don’t even have time to touch the brakes before I hit him square on and we both go down. He yells at me in Tamil with a “What the Hell, Man?” expression. Neither of us is hurt, so I help him pick up his things while other vehicles whiz around us, then I do my best to communicate, “Sorry man, but look before you jump in the road” with only body language.

Later, Mónica calls me excitedly on her way home to tell me that her friend just showed her how to ride a rickshaw for 10 Rupees. Wait, what? We’ve been paying 30 times that or more to get around. I get the rest of the story when she arrives. Apparently, there are some rickshaws that, instead of operating like taxis, are acting more like buses. They just keep running around the same loop or up and down the same stretch of road and letting people get on and off for 10 Rupees each. And there’s no haggling? This sounds almost too good to be true.

We get ready to head out for dinner and a trip to the Phoenix Mall. Sure enough, after walking to ECR, we spot a shared rickshaw going in our direction. We can tell it’s one of the fabled shared ones because the back seat has been converted to two tiny benches instead of one normal one and there are already six people riding inside. We wave it down, squeeze in, and hand the driver two 10 Rupee notes like we’ve done this a hundred times before. The driver doesn’t haggle! I try to take a picture of what it looks like with eight people in a rickshaw, but can’t quite pull it off. A couple of the ladies we’re sharing the small space with smile at us with an almost congratulatory expression, like we’ve just joined some secret club. One asks us where we’re going and we tell her to the Phoenix Mall in Velachery. She says, “We go to bus station. Get off. You take yum seven tee.” We can’t tell if she’s saying 17 or 70, so we have to clarify. The “yum” turns out to be the way they pronounce the letter M here.

We get off at the bus station and start reading the signs on the front displays of each bus. There are probably more than 50 buses here, constantly coming and going in what is basically a big unpaved parking lot. We see one that looks right and it indeed says Velachery on it. We find seats inside and a uniformed man with a satchel comes to sell us our tickets. It’s 8 Rupees each. Mónica and I are practically giddy at this point. We feel like we just graduated from tourists to locals.

The bus we’re in feels like it was made in the ‘50s. We’re riding in a metal box with some seats bolted to the floor, and the shaft of the gear shift is so comically long that I laugh a little each time the driver reaches down to shift gears. It’s getting increasingly crowded inside as we head west. By the time we get to the Velachery road, it’s so crowded on board that I’m not even sure how we’re going to get off. Luckily, a lot of people get off right before we do.

Crowded Bus Stop in Chennai, India
The buses are quite crowded.

There’s a restaurant called Haven Sampoorna about a block from the Phoenix Mall that I saw good reviews for online, so we decide to get off there for dinner. The restaurant is closed. Just like yesterday, we’ve arrived a little before 19:00, which is apparently the universal dinner start time. They let us in early and we start exploring the menus. It turns out that Haven Sampoorna is an all vegetarian restaurant, which is very common around here. We pick out three dinner dishes that look good along with some Kashmiri Naan.

Mónica with dinner at Haven Sampoorna in Chennai, India

We have some Malai Kofta Curry, some Dal Makhani, and something with peas in it. Each of the dinners costs about $3 US. It’s all excellent. I could eat like this every day and never get tired of it. We manage to finish off everything that we ordered and are stuffed by the end of it. Stuffed and happy. Next stop is the Phoenix Mall.

Mónica has described the Phoenix Mall to me only as a big shopping center. I’ve been picturing something like the department store we went to on my first day here. I’m not prepared for what we see when we round the corner. First of all, it’s huge. I had to look this up later. This mall has over one million square feet of retail space. That’s 23 acres, or about 10 Walmarts. Second of all, it’s extremely modern. Light shows are continuously playing on the outside walls. If I were to see this mall in the middle of Manhattan, I would think, “Wow, that’s a modern building.” In India, the contrast with its surroundings is shocking. Immediately adjacent to the mall is an unfinished concrete structure with bamboo scaffolding that is half falling over that looks like it’s been abandoned for decades.

We have to go through security to enter the mall, which is just as modern on the inside as out. It’s five stories tall, filled with networks of escalators, and easy to get a little lost in. We wander in and out of sari shops, other clothing stores, and gift shops. There’s a lot to see, but shopping in India (at least as an obvious foreigner) means you have to put up with an excessive level of attention from the sales staff. You can’t look at an item on a shelf for more than a couple seconds without having someone rush over to take it down and show it to you while explaining its whole history and how cheap it is. We’re not here to buy every single thing we see, but that doesn’t stop the shop owners from treating us like we are. It gets tedious quickly.

We check out the movie theater while we’re here, which is wildly extravagant. Fifty foot ceilings with crystal chandeliers, black marble floors, fountains, and purple velvet and gold trimmings on everything. In addition to a regular concession stand, there at least two food counters that are serving ice cream. I really want to try some, but I’m still stuffed from our huge dinner. Mónica says that watching a movie here is quite an experience, with people in the audience clapping and cheering and dancing in participation with the action on screen. That’s not in our plans for this visit, but it would be fun to come back to another day. Especially for the ice cream.

Alton in the Luxe Cinema Lobby, Chennai, India
The lobby inside the Luxe Cinemas.
Ice Cream Counter at Luxe Cinemas in Phoenix Mall, Chennai, India
Ice Cream!
Alton in Luxe Cinemas, Phoenix Mall, Chennai, India
Luxe Cinemas main entrance.

Having satisfied ourselves browsing around the mall, we’re ready to go home. Just gotta figure out transportation again. The neverending chore. We’re not confident that we know enough about the bus system yet to get home without getting lost that way, so we walk to a corner where close to a dozen rickshaws are parked, with all the drivers standing around chatting. We tell them we want to go to Thiruvanmiyur. One driver starts the bidding by saying, “Four Fifty.” 450!? Mónica tells him that we only paid 10 to get over here. One asks, “Bus?” and when we say yes, they all chuckle like they just heard a joke. We say we’ll pay 200, which we know is more than the meter rate, but they all start telling us that the price is higher at night because it’s so busy. Yeah, the dozen idle rickshaw drivers are trying to argue a price premium due to scarcity. We roll our eyes and start walking away toward the bus stop.

“Wait, wait!” We stop and look back. A guy says, “Four twenty five!” We start walking away again. Again they try to get us back. We walk away from their offers at least four times while more of them lose interest at each iteration. Eventually, we get one to take us for 250. We tell him to turn his meter on so the police won’t stop him – that we’re still going to pay him 250. Really, we just want to know what the actual cost should be.

To get back to Thiruvanmiyur means we have to cross the canal at some point. The main road by which to do this is north of Mónica’s apartment and the traffic at the intersections of that bridge is always crazy. There’s a slightly shorter way to the south if you know how to find it. It involves a tiny bridge that’s about wide enough for a rickshaw plus a person, and is accessed by equally tiny windy dirt alleyways on each side. When our driver turns south before the canal, we assume he’s taking the shortcut. But he drives too far south. And then he keeps going further. I think we pass a couple of similar bridges to the shortcut we know, and we finally say something to him.

He’s not very responsive. We’ve been bouncing through rough dusty unpaved alleys in the dark that are covered in cow manure and garbage and occasional puddles of standing water. When he finally turns to take a bridge across the canal, we get behind a dump truck unloading a bunch of dirt on the side of the road. The dust has been really bothering both of us and Mónica is rubbing one of her eyes a lot after getting something in it. I’m not thinking about how “dirty” the dirt that’s getting in our eyes could really be. We’re just annoyed at this rickshaw driver. When he finally gets us home, his meter is reading about 270. We pay him the 250 and get ourselves ready for bed. Mónica’s left eye is red and irritated, and we had kind of a sour ending to the evening, but overall the day feels like a fun success. We discovered the secret shared rickshaw system, rode on the buses for the first time, and discovered a very good restaurant not far from the school. We go to bed happy, wondering what adventures tomorrow will bring.

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