Learning how to drive a beat up rickshaw and race it around India
We receive our keys today. I sort of want to puke, but the nauseous feeling may be thanks to the ridiculous heat in Kochi. This morning when I woke up, my analytical part of my brain was ridiculously engaged because it knew it was going to learn stuff today — important stuff. My brain was not only going to relearn what side of the road to drive on, but it was also going to relearn how to drive a manual transmission vehicle. Insecurity is oozing out of me in the form of sweat in the intense sun. If only the insecurity was as easy to wipe away as the sweat.
Today I learn how to drive an Indian rickshaw. Most tourists in India are intimidated to even ride in a rickshaw, but I am going to drive one. And I’m not just going to drive it across town or in a little secluded village. I am on a real transportation adventure, driving it for 2,000-plus miles from Kochi in southern India to Shillong in northeastern India as part of the Rickshaw Run, a 3,500-km/ 2,174-mile race that pits teams in auto rickshaws against each other. Instead of seeing the sights of India, we are immersing ourselves in the day-to-day transportation culture — a place where foreigners rarely go.
The first day is always the hardest; some people get an adrenaline rush when they take on an adventure or something new, but my stomach is in knots. Even though neither my teammate nor I are completely comfortable with driving the rickshaw yet, or even starting it for that matter (we kill it often), we somehow make it out of Kochi, onto a ferry, and venture out into chaotic Indian traffic. With absolutely no mechanical knowledge, and no planned route except the name of the town we are hoping to make it to, we start our 12-day adventure.
Once on the road for a couple of days, dealing with being lost, finding hotels, asking for help, and fixing breakdowns with the locals’ help, I find myself worrying less about driving the rickshaw and worrying more about simply finishing. This isn’t a race where there is a winner; instead it is a battle of stamina and patience. If you make it to the end with the rickshaw intact, then you are successful. At the end of the day I feel like I ran a marathon. My body hurts, my eyes sting from the pollution, my ears ring from the noise, I have a headache from inhaling petrol all day, and my mind is exhausted from trying to simply survive in India’s traffic. Even though this is adventure travel in a vehicle, it’s some of the most physically hard adventure travel I’ve done.
“A rickshaw shouldn’t be driven more than 100 kilometers per day,” the mechanic tells us with a lecturing tone. He is fixing our engine that apparently is leaking oil causing our clutch to grind and no longer work. Yes, I do know that engines need oil to run, but I didn’t know that ours was missing an O-ring, causing the oil to leak out. Charlie and I exchange looks and silently laugh as if we are school kids getting scolded. We are both well aware we are pushing this little 7-horsepower engine way beyond its limits every day going between 300 and 400 kilometers per day, unless of course we have breakdowns. And yes, there are many breakdowns: leaky engine, broken starter rod, broken engine mount, as well as spark plugs and tires to change. Maybe the mechanic is right, but even if he is right it doesn’t matter; we have to cover 300-plus kilometers per day in order to finish. Adventure travel is not a place for following rules, and rules like stopping for a red light in India are merely suggestions — so we keep going.
A guy barges into our hotel room without knocking, wanting to know if we want chai and subsequently demanding a tip. Lesson learned: Always lock your door immediately. People had warned us excessively about traveling as women alone in India, but like most things I’m told not to do, it just gives me more reason to want to do them. We didn’t run into any of the forewarned troubles as female travelers in India; maybe we are lucky, maybe there’s safety in numbers, or maybe we look badass enough that people don’t want to mess with us — I’m not sure. However, we did cause a huge stir every day as two women driving a rickshaw through India. First off, you don’t see foreigners driving rickshaws in India, and you definitely don’t see women foreigners driving rickshaws. It is as if we are aliens operating a hovercraft and beaming up cows. The look on people’s faces as we drive by is pure astonishment.
Stopping causes even more of an uproar. We stop for lunch or petrol in a small village and within minutes of stopping, we are surrounded by men unabashedly staring at us, surrounding us, and asking for our picture. The race leads us way off the tourist trail into small villages that never see tourists or tourism dollars. We ask the chai-and-dosa vendor how much we owe for breakfast and he tells us the local Indian price. He doesn’t even know he can take advantage of us and charge us more as tourists. It’s refreshing and makes me want this adventure to last longer. I wish I could slow down and stay in these towns longer to experience this part of India. It’s these pure cultural experiences I normally strive for in my travels, and they are becoming harder and harder to find in the world. However, we are on a tight schedule and the finish line beckons.
When we hit the highway today, the highway hits back. I can barely even call what we drive on for hours and hours a road — it is a minefield of rubble swallowing our rickshaw. Backbreaking, jaw-jarring absurdity they call a highway in India. The further north we go the worse the roads are. However with each day we get closer to the finish and our ability to deal with the unpredictability and chaos of India increases. We haven’t seen the traditional India, in fact nothing about this trip is traditional, but that’s what I love about it. We are traveling close to the ground, close the real day-to-day culture. We are reliant on the locals to get us a step closer to the finish line most days, and they never disappoint. They are always willing and eager to help us and of course take our picture.
The big banner on the left side of the road reads “FINISH”. I wiggle the handle of the rickshaw into first gear, let up on the clutch just right, and provide a little throttle while taking my foot off the brake. We take off like a bullet towards the banner and I think about how far we have come since day one of leaving Kochi where I could barely start this vehicle. We drove 2,300 miles in 12 days, the length of India in a three-wheeled, 7-horsepower rickshaw — insanity. We did this all in temperatures well over 100 degrees every day and slept an average of five-and-a-half hours a night. We had three major breakdowns, a few minor ones, hit a gate, rear-ended another rickshaw in front of us, and I accidently ran over a dog’s tail, but no major accidents. And the best part: We raised over $15,000 to bring 750 people clean water.
Sometimes I just need a reminder that I’m much stronger than I initially think when put to the test — and India and the Rickshaw Run certainly put me to the test.
Sherry Ott is a long-term traveler, blogger, and photographer with one goal in mind — to make you wish you were somewhere else. She seeks out unique travel experiences and writes about her around-the-world adventures on Ottsworld. She has spent a year living in Vietnam, wrote an e-book about her hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal with her father, participated in cultural exchange programs in the Middle East, drove 10,000 miles from London to Mongolia in order to raise money for the Mongol Rally charity, walked the across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, and recently drove a rickshaw across India.