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Dec 29, 2009

Day 7 (27/12/09): Traffic management and German tourists

Spykey woke up still feeling a bit tired but much improved on yesterday. While she was packing her bag I ducked out for a sly masala chai on the side of the road. Standing in the mornin

Spykey woke up still feeling a bit tired but much improved on yesterday. While she was packing her bag I ducked out for a sly masala chai on the side of the road. Standing in the morning sun amongst a group of men – office workers, rickshaw drivers, street vendors – holding my scalding hot glass and watching the morning traffic dance its crazy Indian ballet only centimetres away, I took a moment out from making love to my chai to draw in the smells around me. Besides the heady, pungent and peppery smell of the tea, there was the chai vendor’s cooking gas, two-stroke fumes from rickshaws, wafts from an open sewer somewhere nearby, a hint of livestock, delicious aromas drifting across the street from the deep fried yummy snack man, and that ever-present taste in your nose from the dust. And all this as a morning pick-me-up to make you feel alive for a measly Rs. 6. Beats any Melbourne latte den hands down.

Walking back to the hotel I witnessed a brilliantly hilarious example of Indian traffic management. A crowded street had gridlocked with two opposing flows of traffic – cars, trucks, hand-drawn carts, rickshaws, bicycles and pedestrians – coming to a complete standstill. The air was filled with the sound of a thousand horns blaring, and for once the Indian vehicle horn had utterly failed to make the traffic move. More traffic was piling into the melee from both directions and pressure was building dangerously at the eye of the storm. I was standing very close to the action and part of me was eagerly awaiting the explosion, keen to see what was going to happen. Right at that moment, a solution arrived in the form of a traffic police truck with a bullhorn mounted on the roof. Sitting inside the truck was a driver and a maniacally-grinning passenger holding a microphone. As the truck drove purposefully straight up the middle of the road, pushing all in its path to the side, the now-laughing passenger started barking instructions into the microphone, the bullhorn dutifully relaying those instructions to the snarl of traffic at over 100 decibels. For about 30 seconds the mass of humans and machines seemed to vibrate in oscillations of increasing intensity, building to a point that I thought must surely mean somebody was going to get hurt, but somehow – I simply don’t know how – something that the giggling traffic policeman shouted down the microphone worked, and the intricate knot of traffic started to untangle itself. As my chance to pass through came, I walked away from the scene in delightful awe.

Lisa and I hopped a rickshaw to the bus station on the other side of town and asked around for a bus headed to Mamallapuram. Settling in for the trip, we negotiated the tight urban streets of Pondicherry, headed for the East Coast Road. The moment the bus pulled away from the station our conductor commenced a shouty and aggressive conversation on his mobile phone, causing him to gesticulate wildly and frequently startle the driver. This conversation continued for the entire two-and-a-bit hour journey, pausing only long enough to allow him to occasionally get up and sell some tickets.

For Rs. 60 each you not only get transport from one city to another, you also get a theme park ride. Disneyland should open an attraction called “The Indian Bus Experience”, featuring hair-raising games of chicken with other buses, death-defying three-abreast overtaking manoeuvres, a steady blast of cool, dusty air in your face, and a grinning driver who pays little attention to the road, and even less to the speedometer because it doesn’t work.

As we left the dense cityscape of Pondicherry, the scenery quickly changed to vast floodplains. Most of the land is given to fields of rice, and there are so few trees that we at times could see clearly to the horizon. The bus frequently passed villages of varying sizes, some more developed than others, and many dozens of shrines and temples. A surprising number of shrines are located by the side of the main road, seemingly isolated from any signs of residential living. Some of the shrines are nothing more than a statue (always draped with fresh flowers), while others are large buildings, intricately decorated and showing obvious signs of constant visitation. At least three times we passed games of cricket being played by large groups of adolescents on makeshift dirt pitches, the boundry of the ground marked with pieces of rope or flags stuck in the ground. As we drove though a mid-sized village I noticed a petrol tanker at a service station bearing a hand-painted sign on the back: “Highly inflammable”. I love Indlish.

There are a couple of by-elections coming up in this part of the country and we drove past a large political rally taking place in a large-ish town. As we approached the settlement I noticed large political flags sticking out of the ground at intervals of about five metres. These flags went on for at least a couple of kilometres, and were complemented by large posters bearing slogans written in Tamil. The rally itself was on a makeshift stage just off the main road and it was attended by hundreds of men in flowing white clothes (I couldn’t see any women from our drive-by vantage point.)

Because we were the only two passengers alighting at Mamallapuram the bus dropped us at the side of the highway instead of driving into the town’s bus station. A quick rickshaw ride later we were on the main tourist accommodation street and were comparing accommodation offers from several hotel touts. We picked one of the cheaper quotes, checked the room, checked in, and headed straight out for lunch. Spykey finally satisfied her growing seafood craving with grilled fish and chips and I had a lovely green pea masala. The firm texture and full flavour of the fresh green peas made me realise how normal it is for us in Australia to eat relatively flavourless frozen food.

After witnessing a petulant display of bitching and moaning at another table in the restaurant, and after walking for a while around Mamallapuram, we were struck by the number of German tourists currently in this place. Granted, Mamallapuram is an extremely touristy destination, but the German to non-German ratio of visitors is very high. I’d go and ask one of the Germans why Mamallapuram is so appealing to them but their fashion sense frightens me.

To round out the afternoon we took a stroll around the beach (where a group of university architecture students cornered us to talk cricket and have their photo taken with us) and the amazing rock carvings and temples around Arjuna’s Penance. The many sculptures, temples and monuments in the centre of the town are extremely popular with Indian and foreign tourists. It’s easy to kill a lazy hour or two just walking around and checking things out, or finding a shady spot and relaxing in the lush grass. It’s also very easy to turn one of the corners of the labyrinthine paths and startle a couple sharing an intimate moment in relative solitude.

We took a couple of hours rest in the late afternoon then headed back to Arjuna’s Penance in the evening to watch a free dance concert as part of the Mamallapuram Cultural Festival taking place at the moment. Each night the temporary stage features dancers from a different region of Tamil Nadu, and tonight we saw a variety of performances ranging from a wedding dance to a piece that celebrates the changing of the seasons.

Quite tired from a day of activity and hot sun, we grabbed a quick dinner and headed off to bed.

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3 thoughts on “Day 7 (27/12/09): Traffic management and German tourists

  1. Scott Bridges

    Well, there you go. India: 1, Scott: 0.

  2. dopplereffect

    ‘Highly Inflammable’ (and not flammable) is the correct term. The word flammable was ‘invented’ because it was thought that it might confuse those with poor English, as ‘in’ is frequently used as a prefix to indicate opposites. So in this case I think the joke’s back on you mister.

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