Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Synonym of Randomness - Traffic Calcutta!

Driving in Calcutta is like going to War! No I am not exaggerating, it is literally so.
You have to not just fight the traffic, you have to fight the pedestrians, you have to fight the potholes, you have to fight the signals and you have to fight the police. If I am misleading anyone, please don't be misled.

Traffic includes all the different kinds of vehicles you can or cannot imagine - normal vehicles like cars, buses, motorcycles. Other vehicles like trams, bikes, cycles, rickety vehicles like rickshaws, manually pulled rickshaws with things poking out, then some weird kinds of pushcarts, then vehicles with 8 wheels, 10 wheels, 12 wheels, 3 wheels, 1 and half wheels, no wheels, and a special category of vehicles called Auto rickshaws.
I know some of you may not have heard of a few vehicles mentioned here. Look at the innovations of the people here -amazing isn't it?
And drivers of all these kinds of vehicles have their own way of driving (call it driving, floating, flying, zig zagging, or whatever you like).
Yes, each and every driver thinks that the more hap hazard his motion is the more money they are going to earn and their life depends on making the best zig zag line possible or impossible. Anybody doing Lane driving is not normal. "Lane driving is not Sane driving"! So the more number of times you can switch your lanes, more chances you have of being awarded the "Driver of the Day"!

Let me put it this way, driving here is like playing a modern PC game. Your objective is to get from Point A to Point B and score the maximum points without dying. One of the ways of earning points is to switch lanes without indicators like a person in a fit. But there is actually a good reason for drivers changing lanes like madmen. Welcome to driving in a metro city without roads. Well, actually they are roads, but you will find something in them called potholes, in the layman's language. But from technical terms they don't deserve being called potholes. Potholes are one or two holes or breaks in the tarmac. But these are actually hills and valleys and some of them look like deep wells. I think you can actually start digging them for oil. If you don't believe me, drive down the EM Bypass, drive from Ruby to Gariahat, drive from Hooghly bridge towards Kona Expressway and you will see a spectacle on the roads. Cars and buses bobbing up and down on roads and drivers looking for the best possible motorable way amongst those hills and valleys. If you hit the potholes, you loose score in the game. Hence drivers are forced to switch lanes and score more and give the adjacent vehicle's driver in the next lane a heart attack. By the way, these were just a few examples of the roads. Please ask the roads department for the full list of roads with hills and valleys.

Now I come to the most difficult obstacle in this Game. Should we call this game "Hit pit - drive in a fit”? I let you come up with the best names possible for this game so I can suggest this to EA Games to release this new product. Its sure going to be a hit and driving schools can use the game as simulators to teach their students.
Anyway, the most difficult obstacle in this game, which has the highest IQ and is lethal, is pedestrians. They have their own mind, will, needs, and wishes; actually they really do. Since they are humans. Some of them are dogs and cows too. But they are pedestrians too. They need to cross roads or sleep on the roads too. So they are the differently-abled pedestrians.
The main objective of these pedestrians is to jump in front of a vehicle when the driver least expects it. If the driver can dodge the pedestrian, stop the vehicle or use any other evasive measure without harming his own vehicle in any way, he gets bonus points.
Sounds easy? Try it when 10 cars, 20 auto rickshaws, 3 cycles, try shooting out at the turn of the signal to green honking like vikings, and at the same moment, all the pedestrians who were waiting beside the road, plan to cross to the other side, at the slightest hint of a slowdown on the part of any vehicle, and at the same moment you find that unavoidable pothole right ahead. And in case you brush against any of the pedestrians, doesn't matter if it was the pedestrians fault, you are in for a treat. Be ready for guerrilla warfare. You will instantly find around 100 men in lungis* surrounding you. Where did they come from? All the bunch of unemployed people hiding beside the streets, just waiting for some kind of action, emanates from the ground to give their judgment. This judgment is from the downtrodden for the people who are capable enough to buy cars. How dare they drive around in cars while they ride around in their lungis? If you can escape the capital punishment of being lynched, then you have just been reborn. And did I mention while the driver is being lynched and his car is being broken to pieces, what the police were doing? They were chewing the Pan masala* and taking bribes from the truck drivers and feeling happy about how everything is running normally.
Let us also study this intriguing obstacle in this game, called the police. They are handsome men in white uniform with stars on their shoulders, who protect the people and maintain law and order on the roads. (Kindly read “handsome” as "short, potbellied, pan masala chewing police officers with uniform which hasn't been washed with Rin ki Safedi*"). It doesn't matter whether you have a driving license or not, whether you have flouted traffic rules or not, if they catch you the only way to go back home with your license and in some cases your vehicle, is to have moolah in your pocket.

Potbellied police officer: "Rs. 600/- for jumping the signal."
Driver: "But the fine for jumping a signal is only Rs 150/-."
Potbellied police officer: "Are you going to teach me the law? Ok then come to the XYZ Police station and take your license."
Note: Chances are you won't be sure where XYZ police station is and to search for your license there, is taking leave from your office, and using public transport to go to the police station, since its risky to drive without a license. But who said it isn't risky driving with a license?

Did I talk about the so called Auto rickshaws? They should be added to the list of wonders of the world. Actually the habits of Auto rickshaws all over India are the same. Its one big national union. There is no road, no pass, nowhere on heaven, hell or earth
which is not passable by the Auto rickshaw. They are little green goblins, which make their own rules on the road - from driving down the wrong side, taking U-turns in the middle of the road, making the best zig zag possible, overtaking huge cars due to the sheer power of fear created by the various steel junks poking out of their sides, like the gladiators' chariots from Rome - they are the super powers of the roads.
You don't mess with the Auto rickshaw. Do you think that alley is too small for your motorcycle? Wait for the Auto rickshaw, and its going to take you to the other side. The gap between the 2 vehicles is too small. Who said? The Auto rickshaw is going to
squeeze through. If in case it scratches your car, do not think about asking the Auto rickshaw driver to pay up. If you do so, you will find a hundred Auto rickshaw drivers emanating out of nowhere to give your their judgment. Even God can't save you from the judgment.

You even have the chance to solve riddles in this game. Often you come to a junction where you find a varied array of signals which are more in number than there are roads.
Your problem is to find out which signal is intended for you. Chances are that you didn’t notice the alleys which are also meeting the junction, and for which a few of the signals are intended. But then again the signals are pointed as if every driver is cock eyed.
So if you flout a traffic rule here, you win another date with the traffic police, who are lovingly called “mamas” and you loose score. You need to practice harder.

I heard some people say, traffic in Mumbai, Pune and few other metro cities is horrible. Well, smart guys, you have seen none of it. I have seen both sides so I can compare.

So then, I guess the rules of the game are clear. I recommend everyone to try this game out once. The real war game, where the only way to survive is to drive tanks. Did you just buy a new car? I suggest you keep it in your showcase or stop bothering about any scratches or dents that your car may get soon.

I hope we soon get a new showroom for military tanks beside the OSL Prestige BMW showroom. Because driving here is going to War!

Drive safe, drive sane, drink water, not alcohol!

Lungis: A very airy bottom half worn by some Indian males
Pan masala: Chewing tobacco
Rin ki Safedi: A popular tagline for an advertisement for a washing powder

Friday, February 11, 2011

Trip of a Lifetime

This was a trip to Goa, India in December 2010 (25th – 1st Jan 2011). It may seem like, what’s so remarkable about a trip to Goa! I’ve already been there 3 times! But this time it was a bit different - somehow, in someway…actually in a lot of ways!

Before I proceed, I'd need to give a short introduction to what Couchsurfing(CS) is.
CS is a community for travelers which helps people to connect with people from different cultures, evokes intercultural exchange, sharing of experiences, eventually leading to a virtual dissolution of political boundaries. Locals can host travelers from outside and thus this also leads to a cheap mode of travel. But never the least, it always helps building a new connection, a new friend.

I was pretty new to CS in terms of hosting people but my best experience till now
was when I had hosted a guy from Germany. I’ll just call him MS here. He wanted to tour Asia and had arrived in Mumbai, India. I am from Pune, India and somehow he contacted me and I was ready to host him.

Actually we had planned to drive down to Goa, and he wanted to join us, looking for the cheapest way to Goa. There couldn't have been anything cheaper than sharing a ride with us. So we asked him to come down to Pune from Mumbai, hosted him for around a day and a half at my place and then 2 friends of mine, MS and myself embarked on our journey to Goa. This was a first for me – driving to Goa. Driving being my one of my favourite pastimes, I always wanted to do this. But we didn't know what was in store was us....I'll come back to that soon.
(My Ride)
We had planned this trip one year back and after a lot of difficulties in making ends meet - time constraints, friends' availability, etc, the time had finally arrived. We were just 12 hrs from embarking on this journey. And the main reason for this trip was to attend the 3 day Trance music festival - Sunburn, which is held in Goa once every year. And when I told MS about this festival, he immediately bought his tickets online. Now that's how I could show how India parties too. From then on we were counting the seconds till the start of our journey.

Finally, the time arrived - 25th Dec 0100 hrs. (Merry Christmas folks!) I started my car and off we went - MS, myself and 2 friends of mine.

The journey was supposed to take us maximum 10 hrs by road.
But it was already 6 am and we weren't even half way there. Where did we go wrong?
On the other hand, I was lucky to take MS on this trip as it allowed me to show the real beauty of India. The fields, the hills, all looked beautiful in the early morning.
Then suddenly we came up on bad roads which slowed down our progress to almost 30km/hr. And on top of that, being winter time, we were hit by fog. And man I had never seen such dense fog before. It wasn't possible to look beyond two arms' length. But we drove on. We were all mesmerized by the beauty of nature through a simple thing like fog.
(The Fog)

Unfortunately I came to know that I was the only one who could drive.
From 1 am till 8 am I continued, non stop. We had crossed the fog now and we were greeted by the most beautiful roads I had ever seen.
These were awesome roads and we were on top of some hills, and way down we could see the clouds. Scenes which cannot be depicted completely through a camera. A short stopover for taking photos and off we were again. It was 10 am; we were back on plain land and still driving. I was now starting to feel the effects of fatigue. No sleep the previous day and constant driving for such a long time. The passengers were still able to take short naps, but none for me.
 (Beautiful Roads)

At 11 am, I spotted a small motel, tucked away in the jungle beside the road. I had to take rest, or else it would've had become fatal. MS still couldn't believe how I was able to drive like this. Neither could I.
Fortunately, I took a nap for 1.5 hrs only and off we started again. Feeling slightly better, I started to enjoy the drive again. Crossing miles after miles, seeing how the pattern of land changed as we went further west towards the western coastline of India.

25th Dec 4 pm - I was still driving. A Police checkpost. Routine checking, MS thinking we have reached Goa. But no my friend, this is only the border or Goa. I drove on with determination to reach our destination (Vagator, Goa), and to party that night as previously planned.
25th Dec 5 pm - we were near our destination - crossed city traffic, and now I could feel the wind again - the smell of sea breeze. We were near! MS and my friends were coming back from the dead, but I was already a zombie, I guess.
25th Dec 6 pm - after a drive of 17hrs, we had made it!
Our car finally drove into our hotel.

Now here was the problem. MS had tried to get a few hosts in Goa for his stay here. But none were available somehow. We asked him not to worry, because in our presence we can't let our guests get into any problem. On top of that we had booked only one room in the hotel which would’ve had been shared by us 3 friends. No other rooms were available anywhere since this was the peak tourist season in Goa.
We went into negotiation mode. Me and my friends talked to the hotel management, and after some 15mins we were able to convince him to allow MS to share our room with us at a cheap price – just a few bucks extra.
All settled, MS gets a place to stay in Goa! Work done, time to play! But none of us had the energy that day to party as planned and I was dead enough not to be able to show him the nightlife of the party capital of India. Good Night then!

Next day, we hit the beach in the morning - Sun, Sand and Sea...life begins! After some frolicking in the sea, and lots of fun, it was finally time for Sunburn.

27th Dec - We arrive at the 9th largest trance festival in the world - Sunburn 2010. We were overjoyed, drooling, thinking about the audio boost we were about to get.
And it begins, afternoon Sun, party on the Sand, music in the air, we couldn't have had a better party. This was worth the 17hr long drive.

For 3 days from 2 pm – 10 pm, we just forgot our worries and danced. I am thankful to MS for one more thing here. There was an alternative stage here at Sunburn which played Drum n Bass and Dubstep. I didn't listen to this genre much, but after MS asked me to hear a few of the tracks, I totally got the hang of it.
Voila, I had just widened my taste in music - advantages of being open minded!

So we partied on till 31st Dec - New Year's eve on Anjuna beach at a beach party.
I really enjoyed showing various parts of Goa to MS. In the process we came to know a lot of people whom we had met either at Sunburn or other places in Goa. Few were Germans like MS. We were also able to attend a Couchsurfers meet at Sunburn one day. Another German guy we had met had got into some problem. He was sharing a place in Goa with some other guys but he didn't have a mattress or sleeping bag to sleep on. We can't let the guests of our country have an uncomfortable sleep! So, even though it was 11pm and most of the shops would have been closed, we still found out a place for him, from where he could buy a mattress and thus he had a good night's sleep.

Our trip was coming to an end. 31st night, we had the last party. A party on the beach, right beside the surf – amazing music, amazing weather, sand beneath our feet, wind in our hair. What more can one ask for?
(Anjuna Beach)
1st Jan 2011 afternoon - it was time to say goodbyes.
But MS needed to stay on in Goa and move south. We then gave him directions how to move ahead to Palolem in South Goa.

Final goodbyes said, we started on our long journey back home to Pune. But this time it took us 12hrs. We came to know that we had taken a wrong diversion and had driven for an extra 100kms and thus it took us so long, plus the bad roads and fog, while going to Goa. So the actual distance should have been 460kms instead of 560kms.

But alas our trip comes to an end and the end of a CS experience too. What all did we get from this - trust, new taste in music, intercultural exchange, but most of all, a new friend and a life changing experience.