Rickshaw Run Through India

Before we knew it, we were registered with The Adventurist, the organization putting on the race, and Frank Water, a project that we were fundraising for which would bring clean drinking water to India. At the basic level, we were to be given a rickshaw at the starting line and told where the finish would be. The 3,000km in between, whether it was accommodations and food, engine problems and encounters with the police, or anything else we could fathom, would be completely up to us. We assembled two teams; Grabby and Pat added Nick and Eric (both friends of Pats) and called themselves “Shaw to Curry Favor” (STCF), and I teamed up with Mike and Justin and dubbed ourselves “Triple Threat” (TT).

Four of us arrived at the Delhi Airport in India. Since we had a few days to kill before the race started, we decided to do some touristy things. At this point it was just Grabby, Mike, Justin and myself. We had a driver reserved that picked us up from the airport and took us to our hostel. As one could imagine the country seemed like complete chaos as soon as we arrived. Sensory overload was instant with all of the sounds, smells, and sights zipping past us. Upon arriving at the hostel the first thing we had to do was check to make sure our trains for the next few days were still good to go. They weren’t. We hadn’t made it onto any of the train lists so we had to cancel our reservation. The great staff at the hostel decided to help us out and give us a taxi and a driver for the 900km we had to go. Because of the mishap with the trains, our stay in Delhi was cut very short, and so, in order to at least see some of the city, our hostel arranged for a driver that would take us around town that evening. We went to a few temples and monuments where he snapped some photos of us before taking us to this excellent India restaurant called RDX for dinner. We had to call it a night at this point because the next day was an early one.

At the crack of dawn our cabbie picked us up (late of course – as everything seems to be in India) and we started our trek to Agra in order to see the Taj Mahal. After hours of long drives through the desert, many pit stops for road side food, and beggars with monkeys that wanted photos for which they charged through the roof, we arrived in Agra and spent an hour driving around as our cabbie tried to find the hostel we reserved. It was a nice hostel but hidden away, under construction, and freezing cold. The caretakers slept on the floor behind the reception desk. This is actually something we noticed a lot of in India. It seems that many people sleep at their place of employment. So many times we’d pull up to fuel stations and restaurants early in the morning just to wake the staff so that they could begin their workday.

We arrived at our hostel and our cabbie disappeared, so we decided to go for a walk. We found a Pizza Hut and of course went in to order some pizza and copious amounts of beer. The entire staff, about 12 of them, stood around our table and watched these white guys devour enormous pizzas and lots of beer, only serving the other customers when necessary. They took photos and entertained us, and one of the staff members actually asked to take a photo with Grabby and his shirt off – They were impressed with his physique. After this gong-show, we grabbed a cup of coffee and stumbled back to our freezing hostel because the next day was going to be incredibly long as well.

In the morning we visited the Taj Mahal. This was an interesting experience because it is such a legendary place and our tour guide had so much useful information, but we couldn’t see anything. The grounds were rifled with fog and the typical “perspective photo” that every tourist takes at the Taj was just four guys standing against a foggy wall. Ha! Going into the Taj Mahal was fascinating as we saw all of the huge marble slabs that were transported there by elephant and the embedded gemstones that glow in the moonlight. But as everything so far in our trip we had to wrap things up and start moving on. We had 14 hours of driving ahead of us that day. Bikaner was our next destination.

We soon realized that until now our friend Justin was being ignored everywhere we went. We deduced that because he was brown (somewhere in his family lineage he is of Indian descent), most Indians didn’t think he was a tourist but instead our driver. They wouldn’t take his order, speak to him, or even give him a menu. In addition, we noticed that our driver was never around. He didn’t eat with us nor did he sleep with us. He always had some local version offered to him. In order to figure out this discrepancy we decided to make friends with him and found out that we had one wild driver. Now that he had friends, he decided to start driving like he usually does: with traffic, against traffic, through red lights and on sidewalks. Upon arriving in Bikaner our driver crashed into a few guys riding a moped, spoke with them, and just brushed it off and moved on. When we arrived at our hotel we had some dinner in the lobby bar while watching a musician play a sitar. Next thing we know our driver stumbles in with a bottle of whiskey and a package of cigarettes ready to party. There was obviously no partying going to happen, so we took him back to his trunk, where he seemed to have set up camp, and talked him out of a series of immanent bad decisions.

The following morning we began the last leg of our drive to Jaisalmer but not before having to pull aside in the freezing cold morning desert to fix a flat tire. We checked into our beautiful desert rooms and met up with the other guys of our seven-person rickshaw brigade and started to explore Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer is a gorgeous city built inside and around an old desert fortress. With narrow walkways and vast culture enveloping the atmosphere, it is the perfect place to start our race. We walked out to the starting line and obtained our rickshaw. We had designed it with our faces all over the front and the back. To our shock, not only did we obtain the best of the hired artists to paint it but it was also the most difficult one there. It caused the artists to draw straws for painting it. This was the day for pimping our rides. Along with 70+ other rickshaws, we had it pained, installed disco lights, novelty horns, stereo systems and even some decorations and tassels for the inside and out. The evening finished off with a party at the palace.

The next day was followed up with some more pimping and a cricket match. Mike, Justin and myself went into town and found a local cab driver that took us deep into the causeways of the fortress to find a shop where we could buy some authentic Indian clothes for that evenings new years festivity. We bought identical pants, shirts and turbans – and boy was it ever a hit. We met up with STCF for an amazing camel ride into the desert to see the sunset and interact with the nomadic desert people, who, regardless of how poor they seemed, all had fully functioning cell phones. That evening we celebrated New Years Eve at the palace where the music was loud (and terrible), the fireworks were loud and colourful, and the alcohol was plentiful and served by staff that didn’t know we were bringing bottles back to our tables. It was a great night that prepared us for the beginning of the race the next day.

We woke up on the first of January and headed to the palace to get the race started. We arrived at the starting line to see everyone scrambling around to put the finishing touches on their rickshaws. Instead, we found that ours had a flat tired and a stolen battery. We replaced the tire and the battery and joined the procession line that was led by some heavily decorated camels and a marching band. But, as luck would have it, our rickshaw started to putter. We pulled over with STCF at the first gas station and filled up. Back on the road the putter didn’t stop and we lost STCF as well as saw all 70+ teams fly right passed us. Just 4km out of the starting gate and we were already broken down. Three westerners in Indian clothes and turbans, from the night before, sitting on the side of a road in the desert: what a sight. We managed to pull someone over on a motorbike that took a look at the engine and told us we had to go back into town. So I waved down a rickshaw cab and went back to Jaisalmer to find a mechanic and bring him back to the TT rickshaw. He said we had seized an engine ring and had to go back into town for a rebuild. So be it. He got into the taxi rickshaw and he pushed our rickshaw back to his shop with his foot. This is where we sat for the next 6 hours doing absolutely nothing except waiting and watching as he removed the engine and took it apart and fixed it and cleaned it.

At this point it was now dark and dangerous to drive anywhere, but we realized that we had lost our friends, were behind everyone else, and we’d only made it 4km from which we had to turn back. In true TT spirit, we bundled up for the cold desert nights and drove all night to catch up to the guys in the city of Barmer. We drove in the cold and darkness only to arrive in Barmer and be pulled over by the police. They told us our lights were out and we had to stop driving immediately. OK fine. We found the first hotel and took the one room they had which was a single room with one double bed to which we fit 3 large and hungry (we hadn’t eaten all day) guys. Luckily in the morning Grabby called us and STCF was staying just across the street. We had breakfast together and started dealing with our rickshaw issues.

As all of the other teams pulled out of Barmer to continue their journey we stayed back to get our lights fixed and STCF had their tires repairs. There was another team of British girls that broke down and allowed the California boys surfer team to chivalrously disassemble their carburetor on the roadside. That was a bad idea… they had to go back to Jaisalmer as well. This is where we first experienced the celebrity status that we would have for the whole trip. While at the electrician’s shop we attracted a small crowd of about 20 people. They were excited to speak with us and bring us masala chai tea and even give us tours of their work place. This race was fascinating to them. It was our first taste of the hospitality that the Indian culture would share with us: second to none.

Once fixed up we departed Barmer. After a few kilometers of driving, Justin pulled out his iPhone to check his digital compass. He cautioned us that we were going west instead of south. I pulled out my manual compass and confirmed this. So, TT and STCF pulled over to start analyzing maps to see where we went wrong. It wasn’t long before the military pulled over to see what we were up to. They said that we were 5km from the Pakistan boarder and aren’t allowed in that area. They instructed us to turn around otherwise they would have to arrest and detain us. So back to Barmer we went where we managed to get on the right track and start heading south again. We managed to finally stop at a roadside from some food, where, of course, we attracted enormous crowds again before pushing to our destination for the night, Sanchor. In Sanchor we had a decent meal and a good nights rest.

The next day was simply just driving. I started the push off by taking us from Sanchor to Palanpur. We stopped for a quick break in downtown Palanpur. The rest of the guys went to acquire some street samosa while I entertained the crowd. At one point, from the third floor of a plaza complex, Justin counted over 100 Indians surrounding me and listening to the stories of our trek. We were posing for photos, signing autograph, even the municipal councilor came out and brought us some special masala chai tea and offered his assistance in anything we needed. Our initiative grew some interest from a local NGO. The president of which brought out his biologist and chemist to meet us. Soon enough we were on our way. We passed through Ahmedabad where we met another Canadian team from Winnipeg (Jess, Brie, and Rich – The Goose) who joined us in creating a convoy of three rickshaws to push on. Eventually it started getting dark and we all realized that we either had no lights, front lights, or just back lights working. We lined up our rickshaws in an order that would keep us visible and pushed to Vadodara for the night. Our hostel was quite poor in condition. The toilet was a hole in the ground, the windows were open air that let mosquitoes eat us all night in addition to the bed bugs, and that wasn’t with out the odd used condom laying around. Oh yes… it seemed to be used as a private space for pubescent boys as we found out when we opened our doors.

On the fourth day of our race, having now gone through the provinces of Rajasthan and Gujarat, it was time for me to take us through the boarder into Maharashtra. And so I did. At around lunch time we decided to mix things up so Jess and I got into the back of the TT rickshaw with Justin driving while Mike jumped in The Goose and STCF continued the way they were. As the first two carts pulled out of the stop and went through a right hand turn while passing on the left (this was correct – they drive on the left hand side in India), Justin followed, but at a very high speed. The shoulder was rocky and sandy and Justin lost control heading straight for a parked transport truck. At the last second he reefed on the controls and turned to the right, bringing us up onto two wheels and smashing us into the fuel chamber on the side of the truck. Justin escaped with a few scratches on his shoulder, Jess with a few bruises, and myself, who took they majority of the hit and originally presumed dead, had a gash in my hair from a soaring piece of rickshaw frame and a bruised shoulder. Naturally we started attracting a crowd. Justin got on the phone to call the other two rickshaws around, while I dealt with the police and crowds, who after taking some photos asked if I wanted to go to the hospital or file a police report. I declined both. Jess stood there shaken up and ready to help me take apart the rickshaw. Once the other guys arrived we began dismantling the rickshaw and assembling whatever we could. Because we had a completely new engine from a few days earlier and three working wheels, all we had was aesthetic issues: no windshield, no roof rack, very little roof left, a shattered frame that was held together with cactus and medical tape, and an electrical system that wasn’t connected to anything (not that it worked before). But we could still go forward. We pushed to Dhule for the night.

Upon arriving in Dhule we found one hotel that had a room, which Pat took. A gang escorted us through the streets after we refused accommodations from the locals and met up with the Aussie Team: Sitar Heroes (Mel, Felicity, and Phil) until we found a hotel. It was filthy with flickering lights and disgusting beds. The ironic thing was that it was called “The Comfort Inn.” We all tucked into our beds while Mike wandered the streets with the gang until the early hours of the morning, searching for whiskey and discussing business opportunities for them in Canada.

Early the next morning Sitar Heroes and The Goose departed at the crack of dawn to the Ellora Caves where we would meet them later on. TT and STCF went back to pick up Pat who had a little meltdown about the recklessness and was ready pack up and go home. We had a few mature conversations and managed to convince him to stay. We pushed onto the Ellora caves but not without any engine problems. As usual, a local stopped to help us out – They’re all mechanics. TT had a fuel issue and STCF couldn’t get into 4th gear.

We made it to the Ellora caves, took out a few rooms at a really stellar resort (a change from the ordinary) and went to explore – These caves were fantastic. They were made for the goddess Shiva and continue to be excavated to this day. The sculpting and grandeur of what we saw was incredible. We explored them all thoroughly and then climbed up a mountain that overlooked the valley, cracked open a bottled of whiskey and enjoyed the sunset. The things to come next were what we were looking forward to for the longest time: a shower, dinner, beer, and a great nights rest. Oh yes… that night at dinner Justin ate something (possibly the western food that no one else would touch) that changed his trip for the next 5 days – oopsie poopsie!

After a relaxing evening in Ellora it was time to hit the road again. And guess what happened. Rickshaw problems. STCF couldn’t get into 4th gear again and eventually couldn’t get into any gear. So we pulled over in a town and started messing around with mechanics again. We spent nearly the entire day at the mechanics. We got passed around from shop to shop until someone rebuilt the gearbox again. Once it was fixed we tried to push even further to make up time, but again, our lights weren’t working. We realized that each day we replaced the bulb and each day it burnt out. This was because the Indian mechanics continued to connect it to our alternator instead of the battery that isn’t connected to anything. As we sped up, our light got brighter and then burst. So we had to pull over for the night and found a nice clean hotel in Ahmednagar where we ate and slept.

In the morning, after a few stops for masala chai tea we started to push on even further. The scenery became lusher and we started to see more bull-pulled sugar cane carts. The views became more mountainous and the police stops became more frequent. The police were usually annoyed that we had all of the proper documentation and, therefore, let us go, or they were overcome by lethargy as we blew passed them and disregarded their signals to stop. That night we settled into a hotel in Kolhapur and were ready for the next mornings push to Goa.

In the morning it was masala chai tea again and we were off to the races. A bit of the way down the road we hit exactly what we didn’t want to. More gear issues with STCF. A few locals pulled over, as well as another team (the ALIS skateboarders from the UK) and told us we have to get to a mechanic. This time it was tow time. Eric jumped into STCF for steering while Mike pushed him with his foot using TT (as the mechanic did to us in Jaisalmer). Eventually they had to use a towrope that we brought as they navigated through the switchbacks to the mechanic 10km away. The rest of us walked and hitchhiked until we found them. When we regrouped we learned that it would be a few hours to fix the rickshaw so a local man (Pushkar) invited us into his home to get out of the heat.

We shared some coffee and snacks with his father and uncle. He showed us his farmhouse (and later drove to catch-up to us with a bundle of freshly harvested sugar cane that he had promised) with his water buffalo, served us lunch and even had us climb down a 150ft well that his family built for irrigation by hand 30 years ago. It was amazing to say the least! What great hospitality. We learned that Indian hospitality is faith based. To serve a guest well is a deep form of prayer. This explains why the population had been so welcoming to our antics and us. Before we knew it, the engine was fixed and we were on our way. Oh wait… STCF got a flat tire on a mountainside. Of course we replaced it with a whole crowd watching but then they got a flat tire again so we let them take our spare. These rickshaws just wouldn’t give us a break. Finally we arrived at Anjuna Beach (but first we had to drive our rickshaws right through the narrows passages of the pedestrian market in the dark with no lights and another broken gear box) in Goa at around 7pm, unpacked our gear and relaxed on some beach recliners for the night with some cool beers.

The next day was a rest day. We filled it with swimming in the brownish water, shopping in the markets, and exploring the neighboring beaches. Some of the guys from STCF took their rickshaw into the shop to have the gearbox replaced once again. That evening, almost all 70 rickshaws regrouped for an unofficial midway party. There was a DJ from Ibiza, local food vendors (traditional omelets sandwiches on the beach) and plenty of dancing. Eventually we went to sleep but not before Grabby had a run in with some locals. They were on some twisted drugs that seemed to be a meth/heroin cross that caused them to hiss and slither all over the place. Once they started to walk on all-fours and it looked like a scene from The Grudge meets The Exorcist, we knew it was time to “hit the hay” and make sure that they don’t follow.

In the morning after breakfast and watching some cows meander across the beach we decided that it was time to hit the road and go to a beach that was more what we had expected. We picked up the STCF rickshaw from the mechanic and asked if he could fix our lights. He said no because he only works on lights in two wheel vehicles. That didn’t make sense to us so we had some fresh coconuts and got on the road through the jungle to Palolem Beach.

After a few hours we arrived in Palolem Beach to see what we were expecting… long wide sandy beaches with clean blue waters, a calm beach atmosphere and even fresh seafood. We parked ourselves in some beachside huts, killed the cockroaches, and played poker and drank beer at a private table on the sand at the waters edge for the night.

In the morning we paid a local to take us out on his private boat through some dolphin water and to a secluded beach called Butterfly Beach. In a hidden cove with crystal clear waters and a white sand beach, we spent the day swimming and watching all of the international wannabe models take portfolio photos that we knew would just end up being a Facebook profile picture. After swimming for a few hours we decided it was time to do some cliff jumping. But there were no cliffs to be found. So we engineered one. We wedged a log between two boulders that you’d have to shimmy up to get to the top. After a few guys accomplished the feat and had a great jump I figured it was my turn. Boy was this a bad decisions. Nick and Grabby and Mike, the guys who went ahead of me, were taller, and therefore could make the leg spread that was needed to get up. I, on the other hand, slipped and tumbled 9 feet between the boulders into a rock water dungeon. I bruised my ribs, took a piece of flesh out of my heel and caused my elbow to swell up to the size of an orange. Butterfly Beach was so great that we decided to stay an extra night instead of driving off that afternoon. So we went back to Palolem and spent the night on the beach playing candlelit poker and setting off over 300 fireworks.

In the morning we were on the road again and into the province of Karnataka. It wasn’t too long before we had our first breakdown again. But this time it was TT with the engine problems. A local pulled over and told us that we had a bunch of crud in our engine and needed to get it cleaned out. So here we go again. A few of us hitchhiked and some towed. Eventually we regrouped at breakfast while TT was getting repaired across the street in a small town. The mechanic took a solid wad of disgustingness out of our engine that was blocking the fuel intake. This all came from the air.

The air in India is like something I have never seen before. There are no emissions controls on the vehicles so they all drive around spreading blackness into the air. None of the hotels we stayed in had trashcans. All of the trash was thrown onto the street and the burnt at night. We woke up each morning to smoldering plastic and garbage in the air. Each day the bandanas covering our faces were black and not reusable. My nostrils were filled with some sort of soot and a good deal of us developed a hacking black lung cough.

Before no time we were up and running and booked it as fast as we could to Mangalore. We were all eager to finish and get out of these rickshaws by this time. We barely made it to Mangalore when the sun went down and we couldn’t drive any further because the mechanic that day fixed our lights that morning did it the same way as every other mechanic… simply by replacing the bulb instead of connecting it to the battery, regardless of what we told them. So we spent the night in a hotel in Mangalore, which was actually quite nice.

The next morning TT was super eager to just finish the race and be done with our rickshaw. STCF felt the same. So we got into our chariots and booked it as fast as we could. STCF stopped for a few meals while TT continued on – we just wanted to be done. Zipping past palms trees and elephants we’d stop every so often to refill our gas tank. We filled it full of petrol and then added some 2-stroke oil to the mix and shook the cart like a boss. It was quite humorous to see. As we pushed to the end, our lights died again and we had to spend the night in Thrissur. We pulled up to the hotel took a room and then went on a hunt for food. Evidently on Sunday’s everything was closed and we couldn’t find a place to eat. Our last shot was at a small coffee house where we ordered copious amounts of everything. The wait staff couldn’t believe it and just kept smiling and bringing us more.

The next morning we pushed our way through the traffic of Ernakulam and made it to the finish line in Kochi at around noon. We placed 23rd, which isn’t bad considering the fact that most people aimed to be there on the 14th day since there was no prize for being first – as mentioned before it was a charity event. It was nice to check-in, shower, and relax. After posing for a few pictures and watching the finale cricket match, we explored the town and bought some ice cream. We went to meet STCF in the late afternoon when they arrived. Once everyone was all dolled up we grabbed some beers and took a ferry over to Bugatti Island.

Bugatti Island is an island with a massive palace on it that The Adventurist booked out and decorated for us as our finish line party. This place was gorgeous at night and was all ours. There were Keralan martial artists doing a display and even an awards ceremony (which we won for the most acrobatic rickshaw as a result of our accident). The night continued on with more dancing and drinking and craziness including a massively bloody toe from a nasty stub on the palace grounds. We all basked in our accomplishment and enjoyed the evening before we had to fly out in the morning to our next adventure. But that’s a different story.