This fact isn’t lost on us when, on day one, we stall in the middle of the road, then get a flat tire, then run out of gas—twice—all before realizing we’ve been driving on the wrong highway for hours. We’re also still figuring out our GPS, which seems to be still figuring out the Indian geography; it frequently points us to roads that don’t exist or to routes that conflict with our paper maps. We call it a day at sunset in a city called Guruvayur, just 68 miles from where we began. We know that in order to make Shillong in time, we need to average 180 miles a day.
Despite the setbacks, we feel great as we sip gin-and-Sprites in our hotel. After all, these headaches were part of the plan. Or, in our case, the lack of a plan. We christened our five-person team “The Inevitables,” a nod to our patron saint, Roald Amundsen, the mustachioed Norwegian explorer who conquered both poles and is often credited with coining the phrase “Adventure is just bad planning.” What he meant as warning, we adopted as instruction, concluding that the best way to embrace the spirit of the Rickshaw Run was to accept the chaos of India. We painted Amundsen’s face on the front of both of our rickshaws and did virtually no planning in the lead-up to the trip. Adventure, we thus figured, was inevitable.
We wake early on day two and drive east through the low mountains of Tamil Nadu. Before long, we’re lost in a maze of back roads, stuck behind colorfully painted trucks (including one carrying an adult elephant), each reminding us to please sound horn please. Our rickshaws putter up steep roads punctuated with small villages and tea plantations, depositing us in Gudalur, a mountaintop city where we catch a few hours of sleep in a moldy bunker of a hotel room.
At dawn, while driving on a misty forest road, we stumble upon a tiger reserve. A guard stops us at the gate. “Elephant, elephant,” he says, swinging his arm to indicate a trunk flipping a rickshaw. After signing a consent form (and offering a small bribe), we’re on our way through the park. We don’t see tigers, but we do spot deer, peacocks, monkeys, and, yes, a few elephants. Don’t feed wildlife and inflict menace, a roadside sign instructs.
Menace quickly finds us, though, several hours down the road, on the edge of Bangalore—a metropolis of 8.5 million souls that we reach at the height of the evening rush hour. What follows is the most intense two hours of my life. We dodge thousands of buses, trucks, cars, humans, and other rickshaws. We get lost in a slum. We drive in the wrong direction down a freeway. When we arrive at a downtown hotel, we swear through dry lips that we will never enter an Indian city at rush hour again.
We have an epiphany the next day, after we cover 174 miles in 12 brutal hours, then part the crowd of meandering cows and the mob of well-wishers in the main street of a small town called Gooty. Sitting on our hotel balcony, drinking Kingfisher beer, we do the math—the miles to go, the days left—and realize we’re going to have to scrap any still-lingering notion of swinging by some of India’s tourist highlights: the holy city of Varanasi or the Darjeeling tea plantations, for example.