Since beginning my latest job three and half years ago, I’ve had to get used to a daily commute. I have a drive of about 45 minutes to and from the office. Most of that drive is on a major interstate, with very few turns, and I quickly found that the drive was quite easy and (even though it shouldn’t be) a relatively mindless endeavor. The drive time has surprisingly been less of an issue than I expected it would. The cost of gas, on the other hand, has added up quite a bit. I’d prefer to be on a train or bus. But on the whole, on the drive I’ve caught up on a lot of good quality NPR and music that I’ve neglected for lack of time, and have come to find the time useful to prepare mental notes for current research and lectures.
At the moment I am in the thick of a highly different kind of commute, a piece of which I’d like to share with you. At the end of this entry is a clip of my daily commute these days from my hotel in Guruvayoor, Kerala (South India) to my fieldwork site at a gurukula near the town of Venkitangu.
The commute is 10.3 km, on small-ish local roads, takes about 30-40 minutes, and I typically make it on the back of a motorcycle driven by one of the students in the gurukula where I’m working. I’ve been working here, and staying in Guruvayoor when I do, off and on since 2004. I’ve made this commute, always as a passenger, on motorcycles, buses, and auto rickshaws.
Mostly I’m on the back of a motorcycle. Anyone who’s been in any kind of vehicle in India knows the roads here can be pretty hectic. The lines in the middle of the road carry very little organizational weight, and there are often multiple kinds of vehicles — cars, lorries, construction vehicles, bicycles, auto rickshaws, horse-drawn carts — and animals populating roads at any given time. In Kerala, on non-highway roads (and sometimes on highways), in addition to speeding, horn-honking vehicles one often encounters people, cows, goats, dogs, and elephants. More often than not, in my experience animals do not cause many serious problems; other than slowing down the flow of traffic occasionally, which is typically a good thing, they’re innocuous. The speed and (seeming) wild abandon of the drivers of lorries, buses, cars, and motorcycles are much more disconcerting. Take, for example, my taxi ride from the Kochi airport in Kerala to Guruvayoor the other day. Speeding down a highway at around 130kms per hour (apx. 80mph), my taxi was brought to a screeching, tire-smoking halt because the driver in the car in front of us decided to stop — in the middle of the “fast lane,” with cars whizzing past us — because he didn’t like the way my driver was going back and forth with him, overtaking him off and on for about about 3 kms. I didn’t notice this “too fast, too furious” driving, to be honest. But I did snap this photo of my driver, who got out of the taxi and argued with the guy who stopped his car, after the other driver (who’s wearing sunglasses in the photo below) stopped his car — in the middle of this very busy thoroughfare — and marched back to my taxi to yell at the driver.
My daily commute nowadays is not on a highway, thankfully, but it’s still filled with interesting sights and near-misses. Riding on the back of a motorcycle definitely adds to the buzz of these streets and village scenes. I took the clip below the other day while riding on the back of a motorcycle, skillfully driven by a student at the gurukula near Venkitangu. It’s a rather mild example of the street activity one sees at any given time around here, but I think it nicely captures one of my typical views. Hope you enjoy it!