The Rickshaw Run:
We started this journey in the South. We were eager and excited about the Rickshaw rally we were about to embark. Sixteen months in the making of this. Countless nights in LA talking about how India would be our biggest challenge. After completing our bike tour in Europe we categorized it as just training for India- this place that both intimated us and drew us in. Now we were here, four days prior to setting off in a rally that would show us up and take us from the southern tip of India to the northwest near Pakistan.
We arrived in Cochin on a Sunday a little nervous excited. Our first night we spent in a mosquito infested hot-box of a “hotel.” It was cheap and I spent the entire night fighting the mosquitoes as I conjured up ideas on how I was going to convince Jonathan we needed to move to another hotel. Or at least one that would have functioning mosquito screens in the windows. I was lucky enough that he also spent a miserable night and agreed on the change.
After that we set off “pimping up” our Rickshaw. We had one of the veterans of the pack. She, Ellie our rickshaw, was clocking in 60,790 km. It was not her first rodeo. Only one more Rickshaw in the fleet of madmen and women had more Km than ours. We asked the mechanics to evaluate our steed. That consisted in a three second glance at the motor and a thumbs up. Being “expert” Rickshaw drivers from our previous 3 weeks driving Ruby we felt we at least had that part down.
The thing is Rickshaws are like cats, or anything finicky really. Ellie had morning moods and mid morning sounds. The shifting changed as the day went by. The sounds and vibrations were always changing. I was attuned to her to the point I felt a different vibration pattern on my ass and low and behold our muffler had detached. She growled and panted up hills and purred in cool morning drives. We were just there to cater to her needs and feed her gas. She was there to take us 2,700 km up a crazy country.
Back to the start though.
We quickly decided our kindred spirits in travel were Cathy, Amanda and Barry from Team “Ewe Only Live Once.” We had coincidently chosen each other and like nervous kids asking someone on a first date we approached each other waiting to see who would make the first move and say “hey would you guys would want to travel together?” They said yes.
After pimping the teams would reconvene to share progress and plans over beers. We were all excited and nervous. Everyone sharing what “extras” one would take- shifting cables, spark plugs, zip ties and oh yeah duck tape (savior of all things). We had a ridiculous New Years eve party. Our DJ, a thirteen-year-old boy and no I am not lying on this, he was wonderfully awful. In true Indian experience the hotel had two small blocks of ice on top of a tub of warm beer in fruitless efforts to cool it. We all still drank it. Jonathan and I danced and partied and rang the New Year sweaty, happy and excited of what was to come.
India quickly showed us that we naive drivers had no clue where we really where. I mean this in both ends of the spectrum, both beauty and horror. I was surprised on how different the landscape really looked against my uneducated expectations of the place. Kerala state was lush and green. We crossed bridges and the rivers below bellowed as they glimmered in the sunlight. It was beautiful. It was nothing like I thought it was.
On our first day we were invited to a family’s home and just given the best Banana fritters I’ve had. Then just as the good came the bad roads came after. It just seemed that state highways were in perpetual construction. Off-roading in a rickshaw is not necessarily the smoothest ride and remember these things have no doors or windows. We had to tie down everything inside the cab from fear it would fly out. We did lose a water bottle or two in the shaking. On our second day we got our second flat just as the sun was coming down and the road just decided to be unpaved, muddy and hilly. We couldn’t stop, only thing to do was laugh and pray a little.
Why couldn’t we stop you ask? Ellie had such a lovely windshield that if driving in the dark all the lights hitting it would refract and blind you. I love star watching. I do not love seeing said stars come at me 80km an hour honking the colorful horns of a lorry speeding our way. Oh yeah haven’t mentioned Lorries.
Here goes a break down of Indian traffic “laws”.... well Traffic Food Chain in India.
1. Biggest Lorries- up to but not refrained to 48 wheels.
2. Big Lorries
5. Mini Buses
8. Rickshaws- YAY!
10. Herds of Cows/Water Buffaloes
12. Farm tractors
13. Animal pulled wagons.
Also two lane roads were closer to 5 lanes: Shoulder, lane, middle lane, lane, shoulder. Maybe 6 lanes if you squeeze bike here or there. The directions of said lanes varied at any given time from 2 to 4 ways- even if it was a one way.
There is one universal rule though, HONK! There was a mighty honk we quickly got attuned to, a lorries musical styling. The Lorries just lay on the horn and plow through but their horn is a music horn. You find yourself trying to figure out where the death song is coming from and get the hell out of the way. They will not stop at the sight of our mighty Rickshaw.
Round about- Honk
Straight road- Honk
Passing a car- Honk
Acknowledge the passing car- Honk
Thumbs up- Honk
Get car coming at full speed – Honk
Cow on the road- Honk
Papaya road hand off- Honk (please see video)
For god sake just HONK!
Barry, a professional lorry driver in North Ireland, and Jonathan kept us on an early schedule. The best meals were in the middle of nowhere breakfasts and lunch. Chats with local waiters as we broke down our order only to unavoidably get only 60 percent correct if we were lucky.
Early mornings revealed another side of India. The air down south was cool and offered a reprise from the humidity. The morning “fog” (I say “fog” could it just be pollution) would diffuse the light in the most beautiful beams. The lorry drivers, being late raisers, also didn’t start singing till a few hours into our drive. We would see schoolchildren walk to their early classes. Markets setting up and bull pulled wagons trudging their massive bodies and cargo. The run allowed for us to see the rural side of India that was absolutely beautiful.
Then there were the cities. The traffic was as bad as you think it would be. Actually to take a line from the Real World “You think you know but you have no idea”. The traffic was mental. Cars so close to each other you can reach out and touch them. People coming up to us As we drove into the more populated areas the slums would greet us first as the outliers of the cities. Piles of trash and abandoned materials served as playing grounds to children. Dogs, pigs, goats, cows all running around in the mix. Open sewage smell wafting in the air mixed with smog, cow dung and spices. However all the bad then India turns around and shows you it’s other side.
After some amazing back door goggling skills Cathy found an unregistered hotel by a beach. No signs, just a little trail directing us towards the ocean. It was a little oasis just off the dirty loud roads. It was paradise. It was a beach straight out of a Pinterest. No one around but us for the 4km stretch of beach, AC rooms, beer and food. We stayed the night and in the morning woke early to go swimming at sunrise. The pink glow reflected off the white sand and wave ripples. If there was ever a “rose color world” moment this was it.
Other highlights included free-wheeling down a mountain as the road was flanked by huge families of monkeys mad-dogging us as we rolled down. That was fun. The smiling faces of kids as we drove by were always a mood booster. Meeting other teams in different locations when we thought we were the only ones choosing that road meant we weren’t the only idiots taking that obscure way. In one occasion as we accidentally found ourselves going up a mountain range in the search of a waterfall we never found, we ran into team LSD in this mountain resort that resulted in a great evening dinner and chat. As we decided to trail on one day and ended up in middle of nothing town meeting up with others teams was like a safety blanket after the unknown. In Udaipur a rooftop restaurant found itself overwhelmed by an impromptu gathering of Rickshawers needing cold beer.
And just like that India taketh away. On day thirteen, 160 km from the finish line: Ellie our loyal steed finally broke down.