A Supposedly Stupid Thing I’d Totally Do Again
There are easier ways to see India than pinned inside a tiny rickshaw. But to truly experience the country, that’s the way to go.
Hello please sound horn please.
These words are painted on the back of a truck passing me on a highway in the state of Kerala, in southwestern India. It’s a massive truck, a blue whale of a truck compared with my minnow of a vehicle. And it’s not alone.
I’m driving a seven-horsepower, two-stroke, three-wheeled auto rickshaw—ubiquitous in Indian cities, and designed for ferrying passengers a few blocks, not for trekking across the country, which is exactly what four friends and I will attempt over the next two weeks. We’ll travel 2,500 miles to Shillong, in northeastern India, in a pair of vehicles whose average speed is about 25 miles an hour. These are tiny machines; my 6-foot-3-inch frame barely fits in the driver’s seat, and to tap the brake, I have to stick my knee through the opening to my left, where, on a less crazy automobile, you’d expect to find a door.
We’re on the first day of the Rickshaw Run, a triannual event put on by The Adventurists, a U.K.-based travel outfitter that offers creative journeys ranging from the surreal to the insane. About 70 teams from around the world are participating, and though no prizes are at stake, the goal is to reach Shillong within 14 days. Our entry fee covered our rickshaws, which we could paint and customize as we desired, and access to the opening- and closing-night parties. The race organizers provide little else: no route, no support, not much advice—and that’s the whole point.
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.
Oddly, no one is very disappointed. It occurs to us that the Rickshaw Run is the ultimate journey-not-destination. The Run is an intense, exhausting, and sometimes terrifying experience. (Driving on Indian roads is no joke; the country has the most reported traffic fatalities in the world.) We feel like true explorers, far from the tourists’ trail, facing hardship and calamity but also stumbling into the sorts of surprises that turn a mere trip into an adventure—like the next day in Kurnool when we happen upon a streetside glass-casket funeral after getting caught up in a political protest.
Toward the end of the first week, we learn that most teams are several days ahead of us, and we admit out loud what we’ve quietly known for days: at this pace, there’s no way we’ll reach Shillong in time for the closing-night party. We rise early on day seven, but our hope to clock serious miles is dimmed by an inevitable bout of food poisoning visited upon a teammate who ate spaghetti the night before—the only Western meal of our trip. This is our lowest point; we briefly consider putting the rickshaws on a boat or a truck and shipping them the rest of the way to Shillong.
But we soldier on, like Amundsen on his quests, and by midweek, miles have become the currency of our lives; we measure our self-worth by how far we can push our mustachioed rickshaws each day. One day, we drive a whopping 300 miles in 17.5 hours. The next, despite our pledge of no more rush-hour driving, we conquer evening traffic in Kolkata. Victorious, we then battle a horrendous trucking highway north of the city. Narrow and crumbling, it’s lined with behemoth trucks driving at dangerous speeds, their ranks growing with every mile. Somehow we stay safe, trudging on toward a region called Bodoland, which we learn is home to separatist rebels. Two days later, after pulling into a small town named Bijni and checking into a decrepit hotel called Fame City, a local man advises us to talk to the armed soldiers patrolling the streets if we “feel trouble.” We are not exactly reassured.
By the time we hit the homestretch, we’ve gained confidence on the road—and valuable skills. Though none of us is mechanically inclined, we’ve picked up a few tricks to get the ’shaws running when they stall. And so, on the last day of the race, as we turn onto a mountain road a mere 25 miles from Shillong, we’re undaunted when one of our rickshaws breaks down on account of a faulty spark-plug connection. A mechanic gives us a hand with a crude fix: liberal amounts of tape and glue. Still, every few miles, we break down again. Each time, we tinker and adjust and apply more tape. Finally the rickshaw behaves. Then the rain begins.
We’re 10 miles from the finish line, moving slowly up a winding road, when a surprising tinge of melancholy settles over the end of our Odyssean slog. We roll into Shillong—2,473.5 miles from where we began—just before the party starts, following a truck with mud flaps that read Destination: Anywhere.