Joy Ride by Rickshaw
2,000 miles through India on a tuk tuk.
His face appears like a flare in a midnight sky.
One minute we’re paused on the side of the road in an 18-mile traffic jam outside Patna, India, contemplating our odds of survival; the next, a man in front of us is beckoning, leading us back into the fray with his kind brown eyes and impossible smile.
I lean into the handlebars of my auto-rickshaw — a little three-wheeled vehicle with an even littler engine — and follow my new friend’s lead. No matter that he’s nearly hanging off the back of a truck, with 10 men in the truck bed next to him; he can somehow sense what lies ahead and direct us through it.
At times he holds out a hand to one of the hundreds of lorries clogging the highway, buying us just enough seconds and space to squeeze in after. At other times, his hand is directed toward us — come, come, come, it beckons.
The beauty of driving in India is that normal rules don’t always apply; at times we swing off the road and move forward by tackling its muddy shoulder. “It’s like eight hours of traffic jam,” my Mexican friend and teammate Citlalli comments, filming from the back seat. As my hands grip the handlebars ever tighter, I keep in view the face of our angel of the road.
After three hours of potholes so deep they feel like moguls on a ski slope, the highway splits. We veer left, away from downtown Patna, and wave goodbye to our friend as his ride heads right.
Running with rickshaws
Our journey through India didn’t begin outside Patna but in a remote northeastern corner of the country, five days earlier. There, in the old hill station of Shillong, Citlalli and I gathered with 70 other teams, each composed of two or three people, for an adventure called the Rickshaw Run. Far from being a race, the run is less concerned about finishing first and more about finishing at all.
Organized by a U.K.-based company, The Adventurists, the Rickshaw Run is one of seven adventures the group offers to intrepid — or should I say foolhardy? — travelers. From a Mototaxi Junket in Peru to an Ice Run across Siberia’s frozen tundra, each trip is designed not only to raise money for charity, but also to get back to what adventure travel is all about. As such, there’s no guidebook, no GPS and no guarantee you’ll make it to the end.
The vehicle of choice in the Rickshaw Run is a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw, whose 7-horsepower engine is comparable to that of a lawnmower. Known elsewhere in Asia astuk tuks, rickshaws are typically driven for short distances around cities. Never fans of the “typical,” The Adventurists have us covering an unthinkable distance of more than 2,000 miles in these flimsy machines.
Held three times a year, the Rickshaw Run rotates its start and finish points, and so Citlalli and I found ourselves attempting to drive from Shillong to the far western city of Jaisalmer, mere miles from the country’s border with Pakistan.
“It’s like getting married,” Citlalli said about the race, the night before we launched. “If you think about it too much, it just seems crazy.”
Watching the country change
Shillong is the capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya, whose name in Sanskrit means “abode of the clouds.” As we descend 1,500 meters (4,950 feet) on our first day, gossamer strips of white hovering above the region’s densely jungled hills give some hint as to the name’s origin.
Our second day brings us into the neighboring state of Assam, well known for its tea. We start each day before sunrise and so share the road with tea workers heading to their various estates. Tea plants line either side of the highway, as evenly manicured as hedges in an English garden. I can almost taste the cardamom-infused chai as we speed past.
Assam’s tea plantations soon melt into the rice paddies of West Bengal. Verdant fields stretch out to the horizon like shimmering folds of green silk, shifting from chartreuse to deep emerald and back again. Though many words of advice are given when planning a visit to India, I was never warned of its beauty, about how moving it is to spot a lone woman in a pink sari crouched below a black umbrella, planting rice seedlings in the noonday sun.
Each change in state and scenery begets more change: new colors of school uniforms, new crops growing by the road, new styles of dal (lentil stew) at the tin-roofed dhabarestaurants. This trip had seemed absurd, impossible even, in concept. But now that we’re here it feels entirely natural — as though there could be no other way to experience the immense diversity of India but by rickshaw. From heady incense in early mornings to garlands of sweet-smelling jasmine blossoms sold outside temples at night, each day is as much a journey of the senses as it is of the miles.
Our route is punctuated by some of the country’s most celebrated spots, like charms on a bracelet: Varanasi, which revolves around the sacred Ganges River; Agra, where we race to the Taj Mahal at sunset; and Rajasthan, famous for its maharaja palaces and forts. Despite long days of driving, we manage to see each city for at least a few hours before jumping back into our rickshaws the next morning.
And despite the size of the country, we continue to bump into other teams, delighting when we arrive at a guesthouse to find other brightly painted rickshaws parked outside. From the very beginning, Citlalli and I form a convoy with two other teams — one composed of an Irishman, an Australian and an Indian, and another of three 20-something guys from Bahrain, whose national flag streams out from the team’s roof rack. Our camaraderie with these new friends becomes as much a part of the adventure as is our exploration of India.
Reaching the desert
The last change in landscape on the Rickshaw Run comes 10 days later as we enter the state of Rajasthan. Gone are Assam’s tea fields and Bengali rice paddies; in their place, the brush-covered dunes of the Thar Desert emerge, scattering sand across our path. On the final stretch into Jaisalmer, we share the road one last time — not with tea workers but camels, whole herds of them towing two-wheeled wooden carts, heading home with their owners beneath a sinking golden sun.
The finish line is alive with story swapping and celebration, and yet I’m reluctant to hand over our keys. While I will surely return to India, it sadly won’t be to the front seat of a rickshaw — where every day brought a chance to share a cup of chai with locals, sit next to lorry drivers in the dhabas at day’s end, and revel in the ever-shifting, ever-stirring beauty of this country.
With desert dust still on my skin, I think back to the traffic jam outside Patna and to the moment just before our angel of the road first appeared. After zipping in and out of lorries on our own for an hour, I had pulled over, desperate to catch my breath.
As a crowd quickly formed, the white-haired shopkeeper in front of whose stall we’d stopped had walked toward us bearing two tiny cups of chai. Citlalli and I politely declined, attempting to explain that we, being out of small change, couldn’t pay for his steaming, milky tea.
He had placed the cups in our hands anyway, saying, “I may be poor, but I still have a heart.”
It is this vantage point — a glimpse into India’s very heart — I will miss the most.
Glimpse Into India’s Heart
In this country where people welcome a friendly stranger with openness and warmth, here are some ideas for how to connect and make friends:
More Than Namaste | While there are 22 official languages in India, Hindi is the most widely spoken. After greeting an Indian with Namaste — literally “bow to you” in Sanskrit — test out more phrases. To learn someone’s name, ask them, Aapka naam kya hai? (AAP-ka NAAM kya hey), which can be shortened to just Aapka naam, (AAP-ka NAAM) or “Your name?” To really impress, if they ask if you speak Hindi, respond withthoda-thoda, (THO-ra-THO-ra) or “little-little.”
Get Your Wobble On | The classic Indian head bobble — a nonverbal gesture that is an essential part of communicating in India — can mean yes, no or hello, or just provide a sign that you’re following the conversation. While it might feel natural to wave at locals, instead try tilting your head to one side; watch them break out in a smile as soon as they see you’re up on this countrywide custom.
Trust Their Kindness | When traveling, it’s not always easy to know if you can trust a local who initiates a conversation or offers to help. By and large in India, though, the locals are just as curious about you as you are of them. They often ask where you’re from and how you like India, and they might even want to have their photo taken with you. Feel open to trust their kindness, allowing them to welcome you to their country.