The Art of the Auto Rickshaw: E. Briel in Action

Sometime I’ll attach a photo of this green-and-yellow wonder called the “Auto Rickshaw” but just imagine it for now: driver sits on what is essentially an enclosed motorbike, and behind him is a bench for 2 passengers. I’d read stories about the Bargaining Powers of the “auto” drivers: they will try to charge you double, they will try to convince you to take a sidetrip to “my cousin’s shop”…
Elizabeth and I wanted to go 2.8 kms, according to my gps (I love that application: worked in the S. of France, works – so far – in the south of India).
Four of the 10 uniformed Hotel Attendants hovering over us as we left said it should cost “30 or – at most – 50” rupees to go by taxi…or did we want to take “an auto”? Same price. I thought, well, a private automobile would be nice…then I looked up, saw the line of AUTORICKSHAWS, and E. and I w/o a word to one another, got into one.
Halfway to Spencer Plaza, the mall where we would search for a phone (me) and a Kameez (E), the driver told us it would be 50, not 30, b/c there was so much traffic. There was traffic the likes of which I’ve seen only in Slumdog Millionaire, and that means not just people and buses and motorbikes and scores of other autorickshaws/taxis/bikes/trucks, but the noise that all those generates. As Kathy G. told me, “Clearly, the Indian drivers use their horns instead of turn signals.” So, the inflated price seemed worth it,as it seemed a fun, new, first experience, something to write home about, heheheh.

Then we finished our shopping (2 lovely Kameez for E, no phone for me, b/c no Passport Photos…at this rate, I may give up the whole phone idea). We walked out into the southern Indian sun (81F), and an autorickshaw “stand” – think Outside Any Airport in Any City in America – rose up before us. There was one man who, we later determined, was a sort of AGENT (think Godfather). No, he would not drive us, therefore could not quote us a price, but “Here, Madame, here is a driver, just for you ladies…” And so we got in, and E. asked the price to return to our hotel at the end of Anna Salai (remember, 2.8 kms). “For you ladies, just 200 rupees (remember, it cost us an outrageous 50, going).” We told him this, and one of us, probably me, said, “OK, 100.” He was clearly (!) insulted, explaining that he would have to go far, far out of his way to get to the other side of the road and head back down Anna Salai. This made [a little] sense to me, as I looked across what might have been 10 lanes of traffic, if anybody in Chennai believed in lanes. I could tell Elizabeth was not convinced, but she deferred to my Mother Compassion. But not the Autorickshaw driver. In the end, he said, “You will see…we will have to go far, far, far out of the way to reach the hotel…” and he gunned his motorbike and we flew off. He negotiated the traffic and noise, and after about 10 minutes, pulled up behind another stopped autorickshaw and said, “You ladies paid too much at Spencer Plaza…I will take you to much better shop, much better quality authentic Indian cotton, and you will see…” Elizabeth smiled radiantly and said, “No.” I was mentally re-reading chapters in guidebooks, postings on travel-blogs, and so I shook my head, too, and said, “Oh, no…to the hotel!” He grumbled, said, “200 rupees,” and we were off.
We pulled up to the armed guards (ever-present, like the searches and security checks every time we walk into the place)outside the gates of the hotel. Elizabeth gave me a gentle shove out the door and said, “You go ahead, I’ll pay.”
I leapt out, she handed him folded rupees, and I turned around to see the driver flipping through the bills and cursing E., who smiled at him, smiled at the guards, and joined me.
“How much?
“Fifty – that’s what we’d been quoted as the maximum in the first place, and anyhow, HE JUST INFURIATED ME.”

13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ann
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 03:10:40

    Oh this was so fun to read. I cant wait for the next installment I could picture the scenes very clearly- and good for Elizabeth. Hope you learned something ,”mother compassion”

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  2. Trish Briel
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 04:01:13

    Keep the postings coming because I’m enjoying every single word!

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    • mebtravelling - US to India & Back
      Dec 28, 2010 @ 05:56:04

      Trish,
      Thanks for writing. Today (28th) is a little downtime, something we thought we’d do more of here in Pondicherry, but oh, well. E. is returning to a publisher, we’ll meet at our favorite shop, then look at lunch options.
      The oddest thing? I’m so accustomed to phoning to say, “I’m running late/I’m in the Women’s Dept, where are you?” While have a phone, E. doesn’t, so those options are out; instead, we just have to attend.
      All good, I think.

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  3. Colleen
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 04:09:21

    Enjoyable!!

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  4. Kathy
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 13:22:01

    You go girls!! Your descriptions of bartering for the rickshaw as well as the traffic bring back so many recent memories . . . and remind me to tell you the story about the hawkers selling pictures of us on the elephant. I am certain we, too, were cursed.

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  5. Helen
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 19:10:10

    Wish I could have been there to see and hear the bartering! Looking forward to the next installment. Wishing you a wonderful holiday and peace. Helen

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  6. judith oberhauser
    Dec 25, 2010 @ 22:55:52

    Mary Ellen. I loved your description. This has got to become a book! It is classic. Keep up the good humor. It sounds like a real pilgrimage. Hidden somewhere in all the chaos is the golden nugget. I am so happy you are sharing your first impressions. You are in my thoughts and prayers. Happy Ashraming..Judith

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  7. Megan
    Dec 25, 2010 @ 22:56:11

    It reminds me of something that happened to Sheila and me in Cairo way back in 1982. Sheila had been told the amount to give a taxi driver for a certain route and insisted despite his protests. Finally she just tossed the money at him and we got out of the cab and ran for it. Later the same day telling the story to someone she was told that she had given half of the right fare….
    Merry Christmas to you both! Think of us in just-thawing London.

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