Seeing India while racing down pothole-laced roads in a three-wheeled rickshaw
THE AUTO RICKSHAW labored down the ink-dark road. Oncoming giant trucks barreled toward us, blinding us with their headlights. The rickshaw dangled within centimeters of the road’s shoulder. My driving partner, Keith King, and I were beyond exhausted. It was nearly 10pm and we had been on the road for 12 hours. And we were still many kilometers from our hotel.
This was day six of our 12 day odyssey. Keith and I drove 2,000km from Mumbai to Chennai in India. We were participating in an organized rally known as the Rickshaw Challenge. The organizers of this event endeavored to boost the challenge quotient. First, they provided us with a tired auto rickshaw. The rickshaw is a 7 hp vehicle more suitable for quick jaunts around the city with its lawnmower-like engine with a top speed of 50kph. Second, the race was held during monsoon season – violent, incessant rains. And the final challenge was the horrifying roads and traffic. The Indian people maintain a stoic equilibrium to endure the viciousness of these roads.
Why were we here? What were we thinking? According to Wikipedia, India has over 240,000 traffic fatalities a year. Aravind Bremanandam, the organizer of the event stated: “Something has already gone wrong, you just don’t know about it yet! This is India.” Our goal was to experience India at the ground level, as a local. We believed this rickshaw rally was the perfect antidote.
The rally started in Mumbai where we met the other five teams and were given our rickshaw. We were trained in the basic operation of the vehicle and for a half day I drove it in an endless circle in a dirt lot while locals stood by and gawked. The short training did not adequately prepare us for the challenges ahead.
The next day the starting flag was waved and we were launched into the steamy madness of Mumbai. We spent nearly the entire day trying to escape the clutches of the city, thwarted by traffic, poor roads and misdirections – the traffic nearly swallowed us whole. We drove in circles and every other conceivable shape until we successfully exited Mumbai. One of our challenges that haunted us throughout the entire trip was encountered on our first day of navigating Mumbai – running out of petrol. The rickshaw is a bare bones machine with no fuel gauge so to measure our fuel level we would slide our dipstick into the tank, which was filled with a combination of petrol and oil. Despite continual measuring of the petrol, Keith and I set a rally record of running out of petrol 16 times. We eventually attained a jerrycan several days into the rally which helped our situation, but did not solve it.
During the humid afternoon on our first day, our contraption puttered and stopped in the middle of a busy road in Mumbai. I skipped out of the backseat and started pushing the rickshaw to the side of the road as Keith steered. I muttered silent prayers that no one would ram into the rickshaw as I pushed. I quickly waved down another rickshaw who bought me to a nearby gas station where I was to learn that all gas stations were staffed by a minimum of ten smiling men. After a lot of gesticulations, a plastic bottle was produced and filled. I made my way back to Keith and saw him surrounded by two policemen. I held my breath as I approached. Thankfully, the police were of the friendly and curious variety and after a couple of pictures we were on our way. We were completely exhausted and frazzled when we reached our first stop, the small town of Alibag. Alibag was less than 100km from the starting line, yet it had taken us over 10 hours to cover this distance – an indication of future challenges.
Day eight was a very well-needed day of rest in Panaji, Goa, known for its famed beaches. The racers joined with the Goa Round Table later that afternoon. Round Table India is a philanthropic organization. Local chapters throughout the country have combined to build over 5,500 classrooms and benefit over five million children through their Freedom Through Education mantra.
We were to spend an afternoon at one of their Round Table India’s local projects, a home for abandoned boys. Keith and I channeled our inner Muppet. I dusted off an old Halloween classic, Elmo, while Keith transformed into Cookie Monster. These costumes were part of our provisions we had brought from home. The costumes would hopefully induce some smiles upon our visit to the boys’ home. On our way to the home, we received some funny reactions wearing a costume while driving a rickshaw in India in 35 degree Celsius weather.
A dirt clearing sat in front of the home where a dozen spirited kids kicked a football around the pitch. Upon seeing us, the children quickly congregated around and started grabbing, tugging and jumping on us. Then the picture taking began: handshakes, high fives, and a plethora of smiles. Names were shared, and quickly forgotten.
We were escorted into a darkened, grand room in the house and the kids were put through their songs and dancing. The entertainment pulled at our heart strings. After a rewarding afternoon, we all departed and headed back to the hotel. We had one more night of rest before we hit the road for the second half of our adventure.
After another week of amazing highs and some brutal lows, we limped to the finish line in Chennai. I exhaustedly vowed never to drive a rickshaw again. The closing ceremony was hosted by another Round Table India school. Keith and I were the proud winners of the Bonkers Award. In this global league of nations, India stands alone as a unique outlier and we experienced it all at the ground level.
To capture the magic and the madness of the adventure, the team created a full- length documentary Hit The Road: India that tracks their 2,000 km odyssey through India.
The Travel Scientists, based in Budapest and Chennai, organize events around the world and multiple rallies across India. One of these rallies is the Mumbai Xpress – a 14-day event from Mumbai to Chennai, covering 1,950km. Costs begin at 1,750 Euro per team. This year the event starts on August 8, so start planning!
BIO: Ric Gazarian is a travel blogger at GlobalGaz. He is on a quest to travel to every county in the world. He enjoys off-the-beaten path locations, unique experiences and must-see places. He is the producer of Hit The Road: India.