Wednesday, January 26, 2005

First Auto Ride

After breakfast Navin found an auto-rickshaw driver, Suresh, who was to prove a great boon to us. And off we went to Spencer's Plaza to buy the things we needed for the trip.

Of course, today was Republic Day holiday, which is not one that has great celebrations of any sort. However it did mean that the traffic was different than usual - quieter at some times, busier at others.

And what traffic it is, viewd from your first ever auto ride! It appears to be nothing short of madness, as cars, auto's and bicycles pull out in front of each other without warning, stop, start, turn, drive in the wrong direction, all seemingly without care, concern or any method. They drive so close to each other, the auto drivers seem to know the exact dimensions of their vehicles to the millimetre, and utilise every space to its full potential. "If you see a gap, posses it!" seems to be the rule of the day. U-turns are spectacular affairs, more fun than even the best white-knuckle rollercoaster ride as the auto spins round in front of a crushing cavalry charge of oncoming trucks, cars and motorcycles.

This charge has no effect on the auto driver as the pitiful put-put of his two-stroke engine drags you fully into their path with no hope accelerating to escape. Just as death is certain, the charge draws level and the auto reaches the same speed, is absorbed into its rightful place at the head of the charge, then is carefully engulfed and passed by the faster vehicles.

And so we arrived at Spencer's Plaza without harm, only to find that Republic Day affects more than the traffic. Many of the shops in this very Westernised mall are closed, mostly the kind we were looking for. I needed sunglasses (to shield my poor Scottish eyes from that big bright yellow thing, not sure what it is ;-) and a watch to replace the one that broke at Heathrow (a sign perhaps?). The mall was much more than a shopping venue though, more of a community centre as it was filled with many people doing not very much shopping, chatting and socialising throughout. Once more it is very reminiscent of Saudi Arabia, like a larger and slightly more modern version of the (now burnt-down) Shula Mall in Al Khobar, so I felt slightly at home.

One of these modern stores is Landmark, sort of a department store with books, cd's, watches, mobile phones, pretty much some of everything. Navin wouldn't let me spend 20 pounds on a watch, saying we could get one much cheaper. The bookstore there is amazing - rows and rows of books on yoga and other spiritual systems, all at the bargain price of about 250 Rs (3 pounds). I found the book I am currently reading, which cost about 11 pounds, for that same price. I predict a large purchase here at the end of my trip :-)

A quick Mirinda (brand of Orange soda, also found in Saudi) at the food courtrevealed a dissapointingly Westernised face to Chennai culture. Pizza Hut sat alongside several other variants of Western fast food stores, offering anything from Chinese food to the delights of Indian fast food at Tandoori Express. Navin told me the food was expensive, but at 80 Rs a meal who can complain? More surprising was the extent of non-vegetarian foods in this supposed bastion of vegetarianism. Navin and friend will both eat meat, though not in the same vast quantities as we Westerners, and their diet seems to be mainly veg with the vaguest hint of flesh. Still, with the arrival of chicken wings a la "KFC" how long can they hold out against 10-piece-bucket-for-one-syndrome?

Colin and I were still stuffed from breakfast, but Navin was clearly hungry, so we left Spencer's to find somewhere good for lunch.