Sunday, January 24, 2010

Road Rules: Tips for Driving in Kerala!

Following the confounding success of my earlier post about traffic rules in Bangalore (read the post here), here is a write up about traffic rules in Kerala. (Surprisingly, I found people across the state following the same rule, unlike other states where rules change for each city - Kerala truly rocks!!!).

Before you get on to the road, you need to understand the following facts:
  1. Kerala is among those states across the world with the leading rate of accidents.
  2. Kerala has the maximum number of F1 racing champs - due to paucity of vacancies, they are now employed as Private bus drivers. There are over 15000 private buses on the road in the state. Although not as competent as private bus drivers, we have over 5000 KSRTC buses handled by a similarly trained set of drivers.
  3. Kerala is one state that takes overtakes through the left very seriously - I have witnessed cops penalising drivers for overtaking through the left on the highway - so overtakes on the left are at your own risk.
  4. Kerala is one state, perhaps, that allows bikers to drive the way they want. You can overtake through the left, right or over your vehicle if you are on a bike.
  5. Kerala is one state, perhaps, that has by-passes running through cities and towns, having more traffic than the core areas of the city itself.
  6. Kerala, perhaps, has the narrowest roads in the country. While other states make a hue and cry over narrow roads, God's own country goes to a standstill when the government talks of road widening.
  7. Kerala is, perhaps, the only state where Electricity and Telephone poles are placed smack on the road and not the shoulder! So be prepared to hit on something if you stick too much to the left.

So, are you all set to drive you vehicle now? (If you intend to drive a bike - please "quit". There is no point reading more since the rules apply only to vehicles having more than three wheels, not counting the spare wheel). So, switch on your engine, wear your seatbelts and start the crawl!

Here are the traffic commandments for Kerala:
  1. While driving on Kerala's road, keep a look out for Cyclists. They own the road, and have all rights to cross the road at any point of time, without any signals whatsoever. Drive more vigilantly if its at night - Cyclists find reflectors a non-essential "accessory" to their vehicle.
  2. Stay away from bikers - you might end up damaging your body for no mistake of yours. They would zig-zag at will, and you would be at fault if you hit their superbikes.
  3. Drive at the centre of the road - fortunately Kerala's roads are often too narrow to have lanes earmarked on them. Don't give way if a vehicle behind honks - afterall, you are driving at the nation's highway speed limit of 40kmph.
  4. If a vehicle tries overtaking you, step on the gas pedal instead of the brake. How dare he overtake you - when you are driving at the legal speed limit? Also remember to crawl "rightwards" to ensure the other guy is required to either brake or go off the road.
  5. If you want to overtake a vehicle - Arre! Simple boss! Move to the right lane, take you vehicle to a speed equivalent to one kmph over the speed of your victim. Keep crawling till you vehicle finally manages to head across. Reduce speed immediately to one kmph below the speed of your victim. Confusing, eh! Simple - if you want to overtake a vehicle running at 40kmph, take your vehicle to 41 kmph and keep going. Finally at one point, your vehicle would run the length of the other vehicle and reach in front of the other guy. Now slowdown to 39kmph and stick to the centre of the road.
  6. Never mess with KSRTC drivers - they are the worst lot if you irritate them. Give and take respect.
  7. Overtake buses only when they stop at bus stops - it isn't possible to overtake them otherwise.
  8. All toll booths in Kerala give "return" ticket - ensure you get one if you plan to return the same day.
  9. Oops! I forgot this very important point - never bother looking at your rear view mirrors if you want to cut right or left - those are unnecessary parts in your car, just to increase the cost of repairs. Ensure you keep them shut, so that they would not get broken.
  10. Enjoy your drive - never mind if you are going slow. Just ensure you never give way to others.
Its fun driving in Kerala. Driving 60kms per day is now fun - just ensure you stick to the commandments given above!

And when in cities, never bother searching for "Parking lots" - No Parking boards are kept to inform you that you may park at the place :)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ekleeps....

The grand event of the millennium - the longest Solar Eclipse, not expected to be overtaken until 3043 - happened today. Solar Eclipse in a phenomenon that occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and the Earth so that the Sun is fully or partially covered. This can only happen during a new moon, when the Sun and Moon are in conjunction as seen from the Earth. At least two and up to five solar eclipses can occur each year on Earth, with between zero and two of them being total eclipses.

The last Solar Eclipse that I remember seeing was more than decade ago - perhaps in the early 90s, during my schooling days. Being from a semi-conservative background, and staying in a very conservative society, I still recollect that day - it was a holiday, and I remember seeing the sun using a couple of X-Ray films for protection. Between the mentioned period and today, quite a lot of eclipses have taken place - but not a single one that I could witness.

Today was a very great day in life - Radio stations were blarring news about the solar eclipse since morning - the speakers were busy clearing mysteries about how food would turn toxic if you have them during the eclipse, and how one could develop skin allergies if exposed to the sun during the eclipse. Gossips galore, our college canteen did not have any food this afternoon :(

Being very curious to know how the sun looked, I was madly in search for some kind of a semi-opaque substance. Little did I know that a lecturer from our Pharmaceutical Analysis department had "invented" his own Eclipse Goggles. He had coated smoke (from an unknown chemical) on glass slides and used them to look at the goggles. He was kind enough to lend it to under-graduate students to let them have a look at the sun.

This was what I saw this afternoon... sorry for the watermarks - can't help it given the plagiarism across Indian media.

Given the huge turnout to the look at the sun, our lecturer got another slide prepared so that more audience could have a look. The queue got longer with teachers and office staff too joining in. In between the queue, I somehow managed to get hold of the slide to get some images. By then, the "ring" had been broken. Nevertheless, the chance to photograph the celestial event was not to be missed.. is it?

So, How was it to be at college during the eclipse? I had a very busy start to the day. Lots of work and too little time to even peep out of the window. I looked out for the first time at around 1100 - the sunlight appeared much dimmer than normal. As the clocked ticked towards 1200, the light started getting dimmer. By 1300, it appeared like a very cloudy day - a cloudy evening to be precise. It was fun watching the sun though :)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fly-by-road in a Sleeper coach!

It has always been a long-standing dream to travel by a sleeper bus. For once, I avoid traveling by Sleeper class in trains, just for the condition of the coaches these days. Sleeper bus always evokes mixed response among passengers - some love them, while some others throw-up at the very thought. Every time I planned of a journey by bus, Sleeper buses were never an option - they either did not operate on the route I wanted, or they offered only non-ac variants. The only AC Sleeper service does not drop me inside Thrissur, but only at the By-pass. Traveling from the by-pass to the bus station is a nightmare, and is best avoided unless essential.

Cut short the crap: While searching tickets for my trip to Bangalore, I came across this new class of service on the Karnataka SRTC website - "Corona AC Sleeper". I almost jumped up in joy on seeing this. However, I had to ditch the sleeper halfheartedly to travel with my classmates in a normal bus (a Volvo, albeit). After my classmates withdrew from the trip, it was all my choice to select on what ever bus I wanted to. I headed straight to the reservation counter (Thekkel Enterprises, Ernakulam) to make my reservations. The online booking system does not let you travel on different classes when you book up and down tickets together. However, the agency's access allows you to book on different classes on each leg.

Reservations were quickly made on a Volvo for the outbound, and the Corona for the return. Booking both legs together gave me some savings in the form of a discount. The outbound journey was described earlier (Read Here). My return bus was scheduled to depart from Shantinagar at 2045 (the bus starts from Mysore Road Satellite terminal at 2015). Given the punctuality record held by Karnataka SRTC, I was expecting the bus to turn up no earlier than 2100. But, not willing to take chances, I left home by around 1950, accompanied by my Brother and sis-in-law. Roads turned out to be empty, very unusually, and we reached Shantinagar by around 2010 - a distance that usually takes no less than 45 minutes during normal days.

Shantinagar Bus station was a beehive of activity, with a set of buses parked in every possible corner and another set continuously entering and departing. Two police constables were seen standing guard and a couple of KSRTC Security Guards managing traffic. The high number of passengers at the bus station meant that the drivers had to be doubly-cautious in every movement they made - lest they run over someone. Buses originating from Shantinagar were brought for pick-up as much as 60 minutes in advance - buses that were to depart at 2140 were already at the bus station, by 2030.

The clock ticked past 2040, and I made a quick visit to the enquiry to just confirm that I was standing at the right place - they replied positive. A Rajahamsa heading to Ernakulam arrived around this time. My bus arrived at 2100 - I was glad my belief came true. There was a chaos during boarding, with the conductor no where in sight. He turned up all of a sudden and started checking tickets. The driver was insisting we board the bus only after the tickets were checked. There was another confusion with their tickets not mentioning if their berths were lower or upper. My first impression on getting into the bus was - WOW! Never expected an Indian upstart company to make such a quality product. I waved off my brother and settled on my seat (err! Berth) - that was #6 a lower berth. The bus slowly inched forward at 2107.


Inside the Corona Sleeper...

The engine noise did penetrate deep into the bus - but was not irritating. The bus did appear a bit out of breath at up grades, but the ride was comfortable. Minor potholes were effectively isolated from the passengers. The road had little traffic, unusually and hence the bus kept going at a decent pace most of the time. My bus had only one seat vacant - 31 out of 32 berths were occupied! Soon after the bus pulled out, the conductor came around distributing bottles of water. Blankets were already kept on the berth.

I switched on my laptop and settled watching a movie. The AC vent was placed in an awkward manner - and hence wasn't very effective. The berth was not turning hot in any manner, but wasn't getting cool evenly. The driver picked speed at a mad pace and we were doing speeds in the range of 80~100 all the time. I was so engrossed in the movie that I did not notice crossing Hosur. We stopped for a break at a place called "Ramapuram", just before Krishnagiri - at 2240. The parking area was choked with atleast a dozen buses fighting for space. My bus was parked in an awkward manner, and the driver went off for his dinner. I went about on a Photography spree. We started off after break at around 2305. I was back to the laptop continuing the movie.


The dashboard in a Corona

I finally hit the "bed" at 0030. Oh boy! The berth was absolutely comfortable. The size was comparable with the ones on the Garib Rath - but were far softer. It took me some 15 minutes to get accustomed to the sways of the bus. The retarder was of great help, and helped passengers remain on their berths even when the driver attempted sudden braking. I slept off soon after I hit the berth. I woke up when the Airconditioners switched off all of a sudden - the time was around 0400, and we were near Neelambur Toll Gate, on the Coimbatore by-pass road. The bus quickly pulled over to the left side, and the driver was seen walking around the bus. The engine was shut down, and restarted, but the driver was sensing some trouble.

A Karnataka SRTC Volvo pulled over to check if we needed help - but our driver managed to solve the problem. The AC was back, and we started off. I slept off once again - only to wake up at 0530 at morning. I decided to quit sleeping for the day and sat on my berth looking out. The bus once again pulled over - around 0615 - some where near Kuthiran, between Palakkad and Thrissur. This time, a couple of passengers had requested a "leak" break. I utilised the chance to get some photos of the bus, and had a short chat with the driver. The driver was complaining about some fault with the retarder - which was why the bus had stopped over that morning. We were off soon, and continued our run to Thrissur.


During the 'leak' break, at morning.

The bus attracted quite a lot of curious stares - including the highway patrol. We turned off the highway, and heading towards the bus station. We finally landed up at Thrissur Bus Station, at 0650 - 55 minutes behind schedule. What hit me off for a six was the number of people waiting to pounce on the bus - while only about 5 people alighted, not less than 20 people boarded the bus at Thrissur. The conductor was surely laughing his way to Ernakulam!

To conclude: The Corona is surely a good product - considering the fact that it comes from an Indian company. The product has too many similarities to the Volvo - right from the frontal design to the layout of the driver cabin. However, the product is ultimately a value-for-money proportion for the passenger. The ride quality was amazing, and the bus felt confidence inspiring. Way to go Corona! Hope KSRTC does not disappoint me the next time with bad maintenance.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A quick trip to Bengalooru...

The New Year brought an interesting brochure to the college - a training programme at National Institute of Animal Nutrition and Physiology, Bangalore. I had been wanting to head to Bangalore (er! Bengalooru) for long now - and this programme was the right chance. The registration process was a bit chaotic and misinformed. The initial glitches meant the number of classmates attending the programme nose-dived from a mighty 8 (not including me) to 1 (not including me). The ticketing process too was chaotic, and I finally ended up traveling alone.

The initial glitches notwithstanding, I was looking forward to have a good time traveling and an equally good time at the training programme. The day of my journey came in pretty quick - to be very precise, the journey was on January 07, 2010; Thursday. Private buses were striking on the day (the strike was withdrawn than evening), and traveling to Thrissur from my home was shroud in thick cloud (oh! I just forgot this - I was boarding my bus to Bangalore from Thrissur). I headed out of home at around 1930, to board my bus departing at 2130.

I hired an autorickshaw from my home to Kodungallur bus station - the 2.5 kilometre ride cost me Rs. 45 instead of the usual Rs. 30 - thanks to the private bus strike. I headed to Kodungallur on the hope of getting into a special KSRTC bus that evening. However, there were no buses anywhere in sight at the bus station. However, there were lots of passengers waiting for buses, and this lent some confidence to wait-and-watch. There were a couple of taxis, but no drivers anywhere in sight. After about 15 minutes of agonising wait, two KSRTC buses arrived back-to-back at the bus stop. Unfortunately, both were heading to Irinjalakkuda, and not Thrissur.

Fortunately though, another bus was seen in the horizon, and that turned out to be a special to Thrissur. The bus was RT340 (KL15/5518) of Thrissur depot. The conductor had the traditional ticket rack instead of the newer Electronic Ticketing Machine. The conductor was seen searching through the list of stops to find what stage did I board at, and the good-old procedure of searching for the ticket of the appropriate denomination and then marking the correct stage happened. The driver was already ripping through, and the bus made the characteristic Cummins whistle everytime he depressed the accelerator. The crowd inside the bus was moderate. We crossed KSRTC buses in the opposite direction, pretty frequently - a sight I loved very much! I've always been a fan of KSRTC buses, and have been waiting to see KSRTC buses on the Thrissur-Kodungallur route for long.

The bus dropped me at Thrissur KSRTC bus station, dot at 2114 - about 55 minutes since the bus started from Kodungallur. This running time was lesser than the running time usually taken by Private buses - but the ride was far more comfortable and felt safer. My bus was scheduled to arrive/depart at 2130. I still had about 15 minutes to go, and decided to have a walk around inside the bus station. Buses were being "double-parked" (I mean one parked behind the other) at each platform, and the crowd departing out by each bus was heavy. The heavy rush of Sabarimala pilgrims made matters worse.

The clock ticked past 2130, but there were no signs of my bus appearing - that was pretty expected since it was a Karnataka SRTC bus. For some reason, Karnataka SRTC's buses never seem to stick to their schedules. This mars the overall image of their service, despite a stain-less and professional service offered inside the bus. A couple of passengers waiting for my bus passed a remark that the bus was "perhaps late" - to which I replied, it never is on time. The clock ticked past 2200, but there were no signs of my bus. Around this time, the Kerala SRTC Volvo to Bangalore came in - this bugger was just 10 mins late, despite having run over 250 kms since origin. The wait was getting tiring, and frustrating.

The 2100hrs Rajahamsa to Bangalore arrived only at 2200 - this kind of explained what more was in store for me. However, the more-or-less on time arrival of the Kerala SRTC bus just proved that there were no traffic problems anywhere enroute. The bus finally rolled in at 2240 - over 70 minutes late. Given the fact that the service was introduced only recently, I expected a newer bus to turn up - but what turned up was an early MKIII bus - KA01-F-8297. This bus was clearly over 3 years old, and showed signs of ill-maintenance and aging. We pulled out of Thrissur only at 2244 - thats a delay of 74 minutes. My co-passenger was hell-bent on not letting me sit or sleep properly - the not-so-gentle man kept dropping his hand on me very often, and sat with his legs far apart. The window glass was creaking at every uneven surface on the road, and the sound from the front axle was irritating me to no end.


"My" Bus during the break near Krishnagiri

I somehow managed to get some sleep - only to be disturbed very frequently by my co-passenger's snore. The AC was set pretty low - almost obviating the need for a blanket. Sleep somehow overpowered all the factors that were against me, and I fell asleep pretty soon. I woke up only when the bus stopped for a break near Krishnagiri. The conductor shouted aloud about the break, which woke me up. We stopped at 0550, and started off at 0605. The place was closer to Krishnagiri - but could not get more information. The driver took an off and the conductor now took charge. While the actual driver was very lousy, the conductor appeared pretty energetic. This guy kept the bus speeding through the journey.

I dozed off soon after we pulled out of the hotel. I vaguely remember seeing the bus rushing through Hosur. I slept off again. I woke when the bus shook violently as it passed over a rough patch on the road - Welcome to Karnataka, with a roll!!! I was right - were had just passed the border, and we were crawling through Attibele then. I was partially sleeping at this time, and took me pretty long to understand where we were. I called up home to inform of my location, so that my brother to reach on time to pick me up. Unusually though, my brother landed up at the bus stop much before my bus did. The bus dropped me off at Bommanahalli, at 0725 - Almost 140 minutes past the scheduled arrival time! The KSRTC website had claimed that the bus would reach Satellite Bus station on Mysore road at 0530, which is atleast 20 minutes by road (during early hours) from Bommanahalli.

All in all a very disappointing journey, left me re-taking my old decision to not travel by Karnataka SRTC Volvo anymore. On all my recent journeys, Karnataka SRTC ensured that the bus was late - and this journey was no different. Hopefully, my return journey this night wouldn't re-invent the wheel.