Auto-rickshaws I have known

Blogging challenges, India

I am giving you two different people for Just One Person Around the World this time: both of them are auto-rickshaw drivers in India. Here we are in Chennai. Just discharged from hospital, I’m on the first leg of my journey home to England. Look out of the front window of this auto-rickshaw and you’ll see the crowded streets that were more or less my last view of India.

My rickshaw driver in Chennai

This driver was an amiable enough companion, but on my very first day in India, jet-lagged and more than thirty hours without sleep it was a different rickshaw driver who offered me my first taste of Indian hospitality and friendship as I tried to come to terms with the impossibly busy streets of Bengaluru. You’ve seen this photo before, but my first friend deserves his fifteen minutes of fame.

My first friend in Bangalore: the rickshaw driver who took me on a tour of the city, standing in front of ‘his’ Parliament Building

Here’s what I wrote in my diary that day. ‘When I finally set off with the intention of exploring for the morning, I hadn’t gone too far when I was picked up by an auto-rickshaw driver. He could see ‘Arrived this morning’ tattooed across my forehead. He offered to show me round for Rs 10. Well, I wasn’t so green as to believe that’s all I’d spend, but I was exhausted and it wasn’t an unattractive proposition. It was such fun! He proved an amiable guide, whose English, while obviously hugely better than my Kannada often led to mutual incomprehension. He had an endearing habit of describing all the sites we passed as his; ‘This is my Parliament Building … This is my Royal Palace’. He hared me round a variety of sites, and waited while I ‘did’ Bengaluru Palace’ – slightly seedy and where I was personally shown round by an Aged Retainer, and where I noticed a herd of cows in the Royal Gardens.

You see the price? RS 200? Well, my driver in the end asked for Rs. 100, for showing me round for three hours. I gave him twice that and I still got a tremendous bargain.

It was that morning that I discovered that all auto-rickshaw drivers have entered into Arrangements With Shops. The kind of shops, selling textiles, carvings, carpets, jewellery that tourists are expected to make use of. It is their duty to take unwitting passengers there. Reader, I got off lightly (though I did buy something, and kept my friend happy), and learned an important lesson, that ‘No’ must be said with conviction, especially on Day One of a one month trip. What backpacker can lug bedspreads all over South India for four weeks? Later that day, a less accommodating rickshaw driver, on realising that it was fruitless to try to tempt me out shopping dumped me without warning in the middle of a poor part of town (Where? Where?) and left me to get on with it.

Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed this somewhat basic mode of transport. My friend had had his for fifteen years, and I see no reason why it won’t still be going strong.

It was only a week later that I found myself sharing an auto- rickshaw, designed to take two passengers at most, with three other people. But really, we weren’t trying. Any morning that I was out and about as school started, I would see auto-rickshaws, in total denial of any kind of Health and Safety considerations, disgorging four, six, even ten children at the school gates. Look at the rickshaw here, behind those smartly turned out schoolgirls.

Schoolgirls

Later, when I visited Thanjavur, I found traditional rickshaws drawn usually by one very wiry, elderly man on a bicycle. While understanding their need to work, I couldn’t bring myself to have them haul me around, and in any case, the town was manageable enough on foot.

I look back on this mode of transport with great affection. Nippy, affordable, and with opportunities for cheery conversation, I can’t think of a better way of getting round the confusion which is an Indian city.

Monday Window

Indian Journeys: The Auto-rickshaw

Blogging challenges, India

I arrived at Bangalore airport at about 6.00 in the morning. There were several hours of baggage handling, airport confusion and a taxi-ride through town, with auto-rickshaw drivers weaving and buzzing round us like angry wasps, before I reached my small family run hotel in a quiet residential quarter of town.

The garden at Terrace Gardens Guest House, Bangalore.

I stepped out of the car to the calls of loud birds yelling and whooping, and shortly after, found myself escorted to a roof terrace, where I gazed at distant huge birds with enormous wingspans (eagles?  vultures?) coasting lazily on the thermals. Attentive staff served me with unending supplies of small soft spongy pancakes – idli – with thin aromatic and spicy dipping sauces and much-needed coffee.  It was 9.00, but my body knew that back in England it was 3.30 a.m.

Unable to rest, I set off to explore the quiet back streets near the hotel.  Dozens of women were out in the back streets, crouching over their handle-less brooms, sweeping and re-sweeping the pavements.  Stallholders on street corners sold bananas, brown and well past their sell-by dates, or coconut juice straight from the shell.  A few bored monkeys sat about on air-conditioning extractor pipes.  At a building site, a bullock stood patiently while two men shovelled rubble into the cart it drew.

Delivery from the Builder’s Yard. This picture was actually taken in Pondicherry a couple of weeks later. But it’s a scene I often saw.

Then I reached the main hub of Bangalore, MG Road (Mahatma Gandhi Road) with the pavements, such as there were, thronged with pedestrians.   In the road itself, cars, vans, trucks, auto-rickshaws, all constantly blaring their horns raced along, over-taking, under-taking.  However would I find the courage to cross? Answer.  By finding a group of others also wanting to get to the other side and introducing myself into their midst.  There’s safety in numbers.

I hadn’t wandered too far when I was picked up by an auto-rickshaw driver.  He could probably see ‘Arrived from Europe this morning’ tattooed across my forehead.  He offered to show me round for 10 rupees.  I wasn’t green enough to believe that, but I was exhausted, and it wasn’t an unattractive proposition.  It was memorable – and fun.

My first friend in Bangalore: the rickshaw driver who took me on a tour of the city.

He proved an amiable guide whose English, while obviously hugely better than my Kannada, often led to mutual incomprehension.  Still, he hared round a variety of sites introducing me to the city he loved. ‘This is my Parliament building.  This is my national bird.  This is my Rajah’s Palace.’  And he waited while I ‘did’ Bengalaru Palace, one of the homes of the Raja Wodeyar.  As the Lonely Planet says, you are personally shown round by an aged retainer, who is rather keener to show you fly-blown pictures of the Royal Family than the quirky furniture and fittings.  Seedy but fun.  It’s not often you see cattle grazing in royal gardens.

In front of Bangalore’s Parlaiament building. My friendly driver took this shot.

He was in the pay of various shops.  Of course he was.  And he took me to some.  I was quite clear that I was not going to buy anything.  Not on my first day.  This proved to be an effective bargaining tool to bring prices tumbling to the level the shopkeeper planned to sell at in the first place.  Reader, I bought a couple of things, and nor did I regret it.

My new friend urged me to ring him whenever I needed transport in his fifteen year old rickshaw.  I didn’t.  But later that day I wished I had.  A different driver saw me puzzling over my map, and offered to help.  But his help turned out to mean trying to persuade me into shop after shop to buy. When he realised I really wasn’t going to buy anything, he dumped me.

I was in a poor part of town (where? where?) and with a 500 rupee note as my lowest form of currency.  When the average meal costs seven, I knew that offering this note in shops simply wasn’t an option.  I trailed round back streets busy with rickshaw drivers repairing their trucks, vendors splicing huge melons and squash to sell, garland makers fashioning powerfully scented jasmine garlands for Diwali, sheep drinking at doorways, solitary cows chewing at a pile of rubbish, tent villages…. until I finally found a travel agent, where they changed down my note.

And then I took a third rickshaw, asking for an address near ‘home’.  He took me directly there.  Food, an internet cafe, and home to bed, long after dark.  Night falls in a matter of minutes, at 6 o’clock.  My exhausted body knew quite well that the day was over.

 

This is my contribution to today’s Ragtag Challenge: Taxi