Surviving the Rickshaw Challenge
The BMW that picks me up from Mumbai Airport to take me to the JW Marriott is an absurdly, unnecessarily luxurious machine. Little bottles of water gently perspire in its perfect air-conditioning; it has televisions in the backs of the seats, and a power-assisted boot, negating the need for manual work. It has its own Wi-Fi network. The car also provides a little, if not total, shielding from the diabolic symphony of Mumbai’s traffic noise.
It’s hard to imagine how a person could be more comfortable on these streets, just as it’s hard to imagine how different life will be once I start the Rickshaw Challenge, a 14-day tear through India in a shuddering, second-hand auto-rickshaw, a three-wheeler which shares the road and precisely nothing else with the BMW.
In general, life on India’s roads is dictated much in the same way as it is in the wild – the bigger you are, the less likely it is others will mess with you. The drivers’ manual for the Mumbai Xpress, the rally I’m about to begin, states this as rule number two: “Larger vehicles always have right of way.” The first rule is: “Do not, no matter what, hit a cow.” There are no more rules.
Aside from following those instructions, participants are left to do as they please, which in a country like India means there’s a lot of flexibility. The founder of adventure tour company The Travel Scientists, Aravind Bremanandam, pioneered these “minimal assistance” adventures in his homeland. Aravind’s idea was equal parts simple, daring and reckless: like their foreign pilots, the rickshaws aren’t built to undertake long journeys through the Indian countryside, but wouldn’t it be fun to see what happens when they try?
That was in 2006 and the Rickshaw Challenge has been popular ever since. Now, throughout the year there are around five rallies of varying lengths in different parts of India. At two weeks, The Mumbai Xpress is the longest and probably the most testing, especially as it’s purposely scheduled to coincide with the rainy season.
“These people, they’re really the gluttons for punishment,” Aravind tells me a little conspiratorially the morning the rally starts in the heart of Mumbai. “It’s monsoon, it’s two weeks… It’s tough.”
Challenge is not in the title by accident: participants are given destinations, but not directions to each nightly checkpoint; there are no translators; the auto-rickshaw, though a simple machine, is famed for its lack of reliability. Over 2,000km of semi-paved, semi-sane roads lie between here and the finish line in Chennai. This is to say nothing of the traffic or weather.
And first we must navigate out of Maximum City, one of the world’s most over-populated and polluted conurbations. Twenty million people live here, a Madrid on top of a London on top of a New York City, and every one of them must interact with the roads in some way. We rally members spent a grand total of three hours training in the rickshaws – and that was two days ago. Now we are turned loose to master the mayhem, as vulnerable as baby turtles navigating their first beach.
Old Bombay, where everything is moving, a city in which the air has you salivating in one street, confused in the next and, at some point, retching under a bridge. Our colourful tuk-tuks are immediately separated from each other, quashing any hope of riding in convoy. With no-one to follow, myself and partner Katy desperately cling to Google Maps for salvation, but those first hours in the rickshaw are a relentless, terrifying experience in which all senses are engaged at every moment.
Before setting off, I spoke to trip manager Princely Jeyachandran. Princely is a man with thick glasses, a big laugh and a powerful moustache. He comes with us on the rally (Aravind does not) in the comparative comfort of a car, and each morning briefs us on what to expect and any challenges we must complete. These include giving locals lifts in the rickshaws, posing for pictures with police, and finding historic temples. More generally he’s supposed to be there to reassure people, but has a habit of saying things like: “The adventure is the roads in India. We are adventurous people by birth…” then pausing to bellow out a laugh, “…but we have absolutely no sense for driving whatsoever!”
It’s true that the concepts of lanes, signalling and traffic lights are all very fluid in India. The roads are packed with chaotic sights: ageing trucks belch out fumes onto a family of five balancing on a motorbike like a demented circus act; a man on horseback pushes his poor beast through the lunacy, around another who is inexplicably herding buffalo in the middle of the city. And they stare at us, like we’re the nutty ones.
But of course we get a lot of attention – the sight of a blond, pasty foreigner behind the handlebars of this most Indian mode of transport creates quite a scene. At one point I stall halfway up a speed bump and it feels as though all of India’s billion-plus inhabitants are looking at me, and probably laughing too.
An hour passes, two hours, and it doesn’t get any easier. Then it starts to rain and suddenly the thought of fighting this war for another fortnight feels like a ludicrous impossibility…
The auto-rickshaw was invented in the 1940s, a natural progression from the bike- and man-powered versions which had preceded it. They found their way to India sometime in the mid-1950s and have multiplied like mosquitos since. These days, every month the city of Delhi alone unleashes another 5,000 rickshaws onto the roads. Mostly used as taxis, they officially take three people, but with a little determination can fit a whole lot more. With less than 10bhp produced by its noisy two-stroke engine, it is a machine of incredible practicality, if not aesthetic beauty.
One of the benefits of their ubiquity, and one of the reasons these rickshaw rallies can take place at all, is that no matter how remote you find yourself, no matter how foreign you feel, even the smallest of villages will have someone familiar with their simple mechanics. (Failing that, the Travel Scientists have a support vehicle following the rally and issue Indian mobile phones so people can send out distress signals for roadside assistance.)
Before starting, participants can also order an almost limitless number of customisations for their ride – Pimp My ‘Shaw – including, but not limited to elaborate paintjobs, under-lighting and a fridge. Perhaps the most popular is the addition of a sound system. We’re grateful for it in our little red rickshaw, and for the chance to steel ourselves with blood-stirring tunes such as Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”. That’s followed by Orff’s rollicking “O Fortuna”, which has us clinging to the belief that a phalanx of furious angels has our backs as we bounce over a pothole.
Mercifully, it feels as though the need for divine intervention falls away after the first day. Later, everyone from the 17 teams (each with two or three members) will acknowledge that Mumbai represented the nadir, and that from there on, things improved day on day.
The route approximately follows the west coast of India for the first week, before a rest day in Goa. It then makes a sharp turn east to spend the second week trundling all the way over to Chennai and the finish line. The road days rarely require fewer than five hours of driving, which can be a test in the auto-rickshaw, but which are made easier by the Indian countryside and its inhabitants. The sight of foreigners rattling along in a mechanised samosa brings a thousand smiles, and the scenery, far from the madding crowd, is of the kind so vast and colourful that it’s difficult to properly absorb and appreciate. The roads never stay the same for long, either. At times they require scrambling up mountains, at others whizzing through flat pastoral land, then zig-zagging through impossibly congested towns or cities.
Most rally-goers would prefer to stay out in the countryside, but passing back through these dense pockets of humanity allows them to see another side of the rally’s work. This isn’t just an exercise in allowing privileged white people to power through villages and towns and ending up on strangers’ Facebook pages – on the Rickshaw Challenge, as on all the Travel Scientists’ rallies, charity work is taken seriously. Almost a decade’s worth of these adventures have seen participants raise over US$250,000 for the Round Table India, an organisation that specialises in helping disadvantaged Indian children. Rally members are encouraged to fundraise as much as possible before they arrive in the country, then to visit some of the orphanages and schools supported as they go.
But all of the altruism and the discomfort and the considerable risk, none of it would count for much if the rally wasn’t also loads of fun. A lot of it is provided by the Indians, but the Mumbai Xpress has participants from all over the world who are variously mischievous, hilarious, and fundamentally decent. Above all, they are excellent travelling companions. Each evening people meet at the designated hotels to share meals and stories, scarcely able to believe what they’ve seen on India’s roads, often double-checking their photographs to make sure it wasn’t all a dream or nightmare.
Mike Day, of Team 001, the Axles of Ignorance, was supposed to be one of two drivers in his fancily decorated white rickshaw, but the day before they were due to leave Michigan, his teammate’s father-in-law died. Mike ended up making the mammoth journey alone. He started the rally alone too, somehow navigating the bedlam – the utter bedlam – of Mumbai’s traffic, solo.
Like many of the rally’s participants, the 54-year-old automation engineer feared that if day one set the standard, it was going to feel like a really long two weeks, especially without a team-mate.
But since then, he’s had company. Perhaps because of the difficulties of getting out of the city, people have united with a kind of Blitz mentality, a community spirit in the face of the shared trauma, which has seen those in three-man teams volunteer a squad member to share the American’s rickshaw. That Mike has so many people willing to help out, people who were strangers just a few days previously, is one of the most gratifying elements of the rally.
By the time I catch up with him in Panaji, Goa, he’s made several new friends, co-drivers and, in one incident that required zooming away from a corrupt police officer, a partner in crime. “Now that I’ve got people riding with me and we’re driving in convoys, it’s much better,” says Mike. “Sharing the experience, going to lunch with people, it’s more enjoyable.”
The humble rickshaws, at once unreliable and incredibly durable, have impressed him too. “Man, these things can take a beating! If I drove my car over these roads, I’d be in the shop with thousands of dollars of damage,” he chuckles, his shoulders bouncing. “They’re amazing – almost the perfect machine for this environment. Easy to fix, can take a lot of punishment… You can just pound them, and they go.”
Of course it’s not been easy – it’s not supposed to be – but the American is already considering coming back to India next year for another go with his absent teammate. He’d even consider doing the Mumbai Xpress again. “It’s a driving adventure. If you like to drive and you want to hone your skills…” he trails off before deciding there’s no better way to put it. “This is a driving adventure.”