Whilst in many countries we foolishly believe that a single line down the centre of the road marks two lanes, in India I soon learned there are actually four/five lanes running in whichever direction pleases that current swarm. For many, the right indicator remains on, reserving the right for the driver to impulsively overtake at will and/or remain on the wrong side of the road.
Most of the time, you won't hail the tuk tuk, they'll hail you. However, on the rare occasions this doesn't happen, all you'll have to do is faintly wave a hand and one will manifest and whisk you away. Before you get going though, it's best to agree on a rate.
When it comes to fare meter vs fixed rate, it's a no-brainer. Fare meter is by far cheaper. However, it's next to impossible to get your driver to use the meter because he knows he can get a higher fare from visitors. I'm OK with this to a reasonable extent, but when opportunistic drivers look to triple a rate you just paid for the same journey whilst telling you the meter is "broken" it's time to politely remind him that he is full of shit.
We accidentally got the opportunity to compare fixed rate vs fare meter in Kochi when we agreed a fixed rate of 250Rs for a ride to the train station, but the driver forgetfully left his meter on. What we discovered was that locals would have paid around 130Rs for the same trip, but we'd agreed the price before hand so coughed up the not-so-discreet "tourist tax" again.
Whilst pointing out the inconvenience of being over-charged 120Rs for a trip, it's important to remember that the difference adds up to about US$2, so it's not really worth worrying about. However, if you're looking to keep things fair, you'll often find "Auto Booths" will help, where a man dishes out the correct rate for set distances. Another money saving tip, if you're not in a hurry, involves taking a driver up on his offer to go via a shop if he knocks down the price. They usually get commission by way of petrol for bringing in tourists to select stores and you're not obligated to by anything.
To someone from a country where horns are used mostly as a display of aggression, the roads in Sri Lanka and India seemed to be experiencing some significant anger management issues. This really isn't the case. Here people beep to say "hello", "kindly move" or even "this song on the radio is off the hook!". After a month of examination, I've come up with the following translations:
One short beep: Hello / Here I Am / I'm overtaking / I see you're thinking about pulling out. You probably shouldn't because I'm not stopping.
Two short beeps: Can I offer you a ride? / You're in the way and might not know it.
Two long beeps: I'm annoyed / You drive like an idiot / Please go and fuck yourself.
Many short beeps: Hello my very good friend, it is most excellent to be seeing you / This place, song, person or thing is maximum exciting.
After market accessories are big in the tuk tuk world, as owners craft their noble steeds to fit one of several editions. This has absolutely zero affect on how fast you'll get to your destination, but it sure is entertaining.
The Off-Road 4x4 Edition: Complete with shovel, roof rack and chunky tires, these rigs look a little overdressed for the tarmac, even if there are a few pot holes and speed bumps to tackle.
The Fast and the Furious Edition: Riddled with neon lights and speakers that shake the fillings out of your teeth, these also feature stickers of pure fiction which say things like "turbo" and "luxury".
The Bob Marley Edition: Found around the coastal regions, the reggae edition is red, yellow and green from top to bottom with stickers of the great man himself and interestingly spelt quotes from his songs.
The Old-school India Edition: This corker comes with centre pieces that'd look at home on the ceiling of a Victorian ballroom and more tassels than you can shake a stick at.
After witnessing the sheer absurdity of these rotund, frantic vehicles, I had to take one for a spin. Elle looked a little nervous as I asked but, without hesitation, our driver agreed to letting me pilot one home.
For anyone familiar with riding a motorbike it is, unsurprisingly, very similar. There are three gears which are all found by twisting the left handle, with the clutch lever in the same spot. There is only one brake, which is on the right foot and headlights and windscreen wipers are often decorative, as it's not uncommon for neither work.
My first real observation was that the turning circle is tiny. "Left here", our brave enabler shouted as we approached a hair pin. I went to swing out to give a decent angle for the turn, but he laughed and just thrust the handle bars left and, sure enough, round we went with room to spare. "Well shit, that was easy" I chuckled with a new and entirely unfounded sense of invincibility. It was time to add some velocity to the scenario.
All else that was really required of me was to apply the horn liberally and swerve around vehicles that made it onto my side of the road...simple.
The comical meets the useful in the world of the tuk tuk, where roads become a malleable mass of metal and rubber, which ebbs and flows almost defying the laws of space and time as your driver finds non-existent gaps to thread through.
And if you're a nervous passenger? Well it's time to knock back that cocktail of Valium and diazepam before you jump aboard as you're not going to want to be compos mentis for this. Just throw your life into the hands of whatever gods/deities are sprinkled across the dash board and soon you'll start enjoying yourself.