The Rickshaw Run - Crossing India in a tuk-tuk
*(For the Documentary, go on this page where you'll be able to watch it)
**(Not all days have been described, only a few of them)
The Road to Kochi
We joined Raphaël and Pierre in Delhi airport on August 1st. They came from France, we were coming from Kuwait. We met at the gate from which we'd embark on a plane to Guwahati. We were all very excited. Yet...
Day 1 -
4 days later, we left Shillong, on our newly pimped rickshaws in dashing rain. We had one more friend to pick up and here we were driving back to Guwahati. We arrived at the airport and saw the look of astonishement on the faces of all the locals. Five europeans driving two multicolored rickshaws and passing through a local airport was not a common sight. Alex had just lived the awesomest pick up of his life! We had just done the awesomest pick up of our life!
It was close to 5pm. The sun would soon set. Alex was exhausted from his 20 hour flight. But we decided not to stop at that guest house. Why ? We wanted to cover more ground, we were too excited and we still were idiots. Did you ever drive a rickshaw when it is dark ? It doesn't seem like a real problem but... It really is... And we did that mistake on and on again. This time because we were stupid, the next other 7 times because we had no choice
So why not drive at night ? For a start, you cannot see through the windshield of your rickshaw. It has some physical properties that spreads all rays of light coming in, onto the entire windshield. As a result, whenever you have someone in front (which you always have in India) you absolutely don't see him/her/it.
And then you have moskitoes. Moskitoes in india are not the same then in Europe. They are the size of a potatoe, hang out with their other potatoe sized friends and have orgies while drinking pints of blood out of you. Somehow my blood tastes better to them than my friends. I take it for compliment but I don't like compliments.
We drove 2 hours that night and couldn't find any lodging. We were starting to think that we'd have to sleep in the rickshaws but then came a man on his royal enfield:
"Can I help you?" "We can't find anywhere to sleep" we replied "Follow me, I know where you could stay"
And like this started the first argument in the group." Should we follow him or not ?" "He is probably waiting with a bunch of friends to rape us"
I am a little ashamed to have had prejudices whereas he was actually a lovely person. He brought us to the communal office of the village and we could sleep on the floor for free. What a fantastic first night on the road!
Day 3 -
By now, we already had broken the rickshaws several times each. But it didn't matter. Being able to work on it on the side of the road from where you could see thousands of rice paddies and mountains all around was dreamy. Not that we enjoyed breaking down, but it seemed like part of the adventure we were on and it would really just begin to bother us a couple days later. The interactions with the locals were going pretty okay until then. Eventhough, weirdly enough, rural India doesn't speak english so much and most of our conversation were done with hand signs, we enjoyed our misunderstandings and their curiosity.
The sweating was kind of getting to us though. We were constantly wet from top to bottom and when we were sleeping at random places (like the first night), we usually couldn't take a shower. Falling asleep in dripping sweat is something one needs to be comfortable with when attempting this journey.
Day 4 -
We left Siliguri, where we had serviced both our rickshaws completely. It took more or less 3 hours and therefore we had to catch up for the time lost on the road. It must have been the third time we were driving at night. But this time we were near the highway and roads were pretty good. So we stopped and asked at each village where we could find a hotel.
The first thing to know is that during that night we understood that a hotel in India means a restaurant. So we had been indicated many hotels 10 or 15 kms further but each time we'd find a restaurant and no actual hotel. We lost a considerable amount of time by figuring that out. So we carried on until we found a "Lodging cum bar" just before we'd cross the highway in the middle of nowhere. It was probably 11 pm (the sun sets around 6pm), but we were happy to finally find a bar. Oddly enough, alcohol is not a common thing either in India, at least not in the areas we crossed (and this remained true until we reached the coast a few days before the finish).
We all went towards the loud music and took the first beer in four days. Plus there was a live performance by beautiful young women. Wait.. they are not singing..
There were 10 women, all very lightly dressed, dancing to the music. While Pierre was falling in love with one of them, we were all debating if they were prostitutes or just dancers.. until we decrypted what was going on there.
The waiter was collecting bills from the entirely male clientele of the bar. The male would then stand up and leave through the back door. Later the waiter was bringing the money to the chosen girl who would discretely leave the scene aswell. All this would happen within 10 minutes. And after ? Well after, we could only make assumtions, but you probably can imagine what 6 europeans guys, who had found beer again after 4 days, were thinking.
At the beginning of the journey, many people warned us and even told us not to cross Bihar, the indian state. We didn't know so much about India and we didn't really know the way we would take except that we wanted to get to Varanasi. And somehow...
We had arrived in the middle of Bihar and we got stuck in traffic. So we decided to give the rickshaws a quick fix, so that they would be up and running again. We stopped at the side of a road in a village like we usually did and two dozens of locals encircled us and watched us with curiosity like it usually happens when Europeans drive two rickshaws in the middle of rural India. It took quite some time to get the parts but we were up and driving again two hours later. The traffic next to us hadn't moved an inch though, so we decided to drive on the muddy path next to the road until we'd reach the beginning of the line.
There, an oil tanker fell on the side in a huge pothole. On the same road we had 4 petrol station next to each other. The firemen and the police were there in order to try to get the oil tanker back on the road. They used some kind of cranes to pull the tanker from the hole. We were staring at this scenery when suddenly the mettalic structure that was in contact with the road created a flame (You can see that episode on the video). The crowd that was already agitated from the maneuver, started shouting and began to run away. I was filming at that moment when people ran passed me in total despair. I started running away shouting to the rest of the team "Run! It's burning! It will explode!".
We ran for a few minutes until we became more aware of the situation. We had left all our belongings behind us and we were starting to worry. Not that we thought indians were thief, but even in France I wouldn't leave a rickshaw with all my things. Actually, particularly in France I wouldn't leave my rickshaw with all my belongings unattented. The firemen finally took control of the situation and managed to pull the oil tanker out without any consequences for us.
After this scary event, we drove to the first hotel we saw and decided to rest. Many of us thought that it was the end. That we'd all die in an explosion in India, through which, noone would be able to recognize our burnt bodies. But luckily nothing happened and the one thing we all did was to call our relatives that night.
We left Bihar before the sun rose. This would be a long day. We wanted to do 450 kms before the sun would set and reach Varanasi. We had 13 hours to do so. It would mean to drive at an average of 34kms/h. We thought it was possible.
It was midday when we were a little ahead of Patna, Bihar's capital, and we stopped to repair the exhaust pipe. We had a screw problem for the last couple days and the pipe was about to fall each time. Our routine was pretty much set when this would happen. One of us would go look for a store that had cigarettes and coke available. Another would go get lots of water for everyone. Another one would try to get some food for eveyone and the rest would get the spare parts and try to fix the rickshaw. It was an oily process we had put in place. But at this particular stop, an old man told us to take another way because the roads were better. Crappy roads were bad for our exhaust pipe at the moment and we wanted to reach Varanasi to do a full service of both rickshaws so we listened to him.
But the usual happened. You cannot trust the locals when you ask for your way. We still didn't figure out if they liked to lie to us or if they just don't know and don't want to seem helpless. It was a pain in the ass and at sunset we were still 200 kms from our destination, driving in the worst terrain we had yet encountered and furthermore we were lost in the nature until we reached a village.
We were desperate. We didn't know where we were and we hadn't eaten the whole day apart from some dried cakes. We had no more water and we were beginning to get a little scared. So when we arrived at the village, we stopped in order to find indication on which way to go. Quickly the curious villagers outnumbered us but none of them could speak any word of english. We tried to explain them what we needed with hands and key words without any success until one of the villagers arrived running and shouting:
"I can speak English!"
He was a young man probably around twenty that was the reincarnation of Timon (from the walt disney) and his positive energy. He had a huge smile and seemed so happy. We showed him the map and asked him where we were and which direction we should follow to reach Varanasi.
"So you follow this route and then you turn right and after you reach the village right again. You cross it and then you take the third left. At the next village you take the lane going right and then..."
Our brains were no longer working so we asked him directly if he could come with us in the rickshaw and show us the way until a real road. Of course we'd pay his way back to his village. He agreed without a hesitation and here we left with him in the rickshaw. As we were driving passed his village, he was shouting
"Good bye my villagers ! I am coming back soon!"
He was so happy and told us that we were the first foreigners in his village. He said that he would be a hero when he'd go back and his father would finally understand why he was learning english. His dream was to travel out of India.
While we were driving, he was telling me that he was going to a University 40 kms further. He told me that he loved singing and he sang hindi songs all the way.
His english was pretty okay but we had still difficulties understanding each other. He told me that he was trying to read english but couldn't afford books. I asked him if he was also getting moskitoe bites and he replied
"Moskitoes? Ah yes they are horrible. Sometimes I can't sleep because there is too many. Especially now" (rainy season was jus ending)
We drove over 2 hours with him until we reached a little town which had tarmac roads. There we continued a little bit until there was a police check. He asked to stop before and he would go back home from there. He didn't want to speak to the police men. So we stopped 50 meters before them and said good bye. I offered him an english book so he could practise and 500 roupies so he would be able to afford 20 rides back home.. You know.. In case he gets lost or something. His eyes were glittering. He thanked us and said:
"I will never forget you"
It was 11pm when we said good bye and left. We still had 130 kms to do before we'd reach Varanasi and our exhaust pipe was looking pretty bad. We passed the police check when they stopped us and told us the road was blocked due to a hindu festival. We could see thousands of people dressed all in orange walking along that road until they'd dissapear in the night. I don't remember the name of the festival. I think it was called "bolbang" or something like that. The local were shouting this name while walking.
As a result of this, we had to take a detour once again and the policeman kindly told us the way to take. And then it happened.. The exhaust pipe fell and the noise the rickshaw was making was unbearable. It was like the noise of two lawnmowers trying to destroy a bush of some king of thorn flower hiding kittens. The noise was so loud, we must have woken up the entire state of Uttar Pradesh that night. And when we went through villages, which were a lot more numerous since we were getting closer to Varanasi, they must have thought the army was coming. It made me think of the disney movie "aristocats" when the bad guy is fleeing at night with the stolen cats on his loud bike.
Finally we reached Varanasi at 4 am in the morning. We had woken up at 4 am the previous day to do a 24 hour drive through India. We were exhausted but it was not finished yet. Because of that "bolbang" festival, the whole city was closed and we had to find somewhere to sleep around. We ended up finding a rickshaw driver who was high on paan (beteljuice) and who knew the city. We asked him for help because we were too tired to look around and even if we knew he would ask for a commission. We split in two groups so one could rest. Antoine and I went with the driver and visited 2 hotels before finally abandoning the search to the third one. We decided to take the next day off in Varanasi in order to rest and assist to the festival.
Day 14 -
It was an early morning rise like usual. We had left the state of Chattisgarh and entered Odisha pretty quickly. We were extremely tired because those 13 days were hectic. We slept rarely more than 5 hours and we were not eating properly. Usually we had one meal a day and we had to get used to the spice if we wanted to eat. That day we had found a restaurant on the road. It was nowhere near anything and the card was amazingly varied. It made us question the freshness of the products but who cares ? We'd have two meals that day and this was amazing. I took a Palak Paneer, which had become my favorite, with a few butter rotis.
Once our stomach were well fed, we hit the road again to cross a 100 kms long national park. There was supposed to be one village at the middle of it and we needed this information to be true because our reserves of gazoline had dissapeared. Upon entering the park we could see the difference in vegetation and landscapes. We had gone from fields, rice paddies and flat areas to hills with jungle. It was one of the few days when the sky was blue at times and the contrast was amazing.
We had not even done 10 kilometers that one of our rickshaw broke down. We were getting pretty good at fixing the rickshaw. We could dismantel the carburator easily and clean it. We had learned how to change the spark plug. We were good at dismanteling everything and we usually saw were a cable had broken. But this time we had no idea where it was coming from and that road was empty. We had spent 13 days in an India that was crowded up to a point where we sometimes had difficulties to handle it and this time, when we had a breakdown we couldn't fix, we had to be surrounded by noone.
So we waited. We waited 15 minutes until a truck finally passed by. We stopped him and asked him for help. The guy could speak english luckily. He was working on the road we were taking. The state had a project of making it a tarmac road and he was on the project. He went to see the rickshaw and Tadaa! 10 minutes later we were up and running. It is really amazing how they all have a profound knowledge of mechanics. The guy was a truck driver and he could just fix the rickshaw like that. India was impressing me every day, several times a day.
We thanked him and continued driving. The scenery was amazing and the hills were a joy to drive on. I just had my 100th rickshgasm. But this one was like a woman's. It lasted.
We were behind following the other rickshaw trying to take over and then we were in front until they took over again and so on. It was like we were children playing video games. But we had only one life.
And that's when the other rickshaw missed a turn. Alex was hanging on the side of it while Pierre was filming. The Rickshaw went out of the road and Raphaël desperately tried to make the turn in order to join the road again. The river was a few meters away and they would fall in it unless they managed to get back on the road. Raphaël had managed to get control again but with Alex hanging on the side, it was almost impossible to turn at that speed. The river was unavoidable. Alex jumped on the rocks and Pierre on the road. Raphaël was alone in the rickshaw when suddenly it just stopped. 10 centimeters more and it would have been a major catastrophe but somehow Ganpati, the indian god, had saved them.
Luckily everyone was fine. They were all a bit shaken but "more fear than harm". Surprisingly the rickshaw was still working and after we got it back on the road we continued our journey. But this time we had to get gasoline in order not to fall short before we could exit the park. We were almost half way and according to the map, there was a village. Once we arrived, we were looking for a petrol station but none was in sight. So we went directly to some villagers and asked if they had some gazoline to sell. The villagers were nothing like we had seen before in India. They had a thousand rings in their ears and they had a big ring in their nose. We really felt like we were in the remotest place of India.
After a few minutes, the villagers encircled us and one of them braught us two bottles of gazoline. We didn't know if it was mixed with water or not but we were thankful and we just hoped for the best. We started mixing it with the 2 strokes motor oil before we replenished our tank under the flabbergasted look of the locals and we carried on. 50 kilometers to go to exit the park and nightfall was coming closer.
As we were exiting the park, the landscapes were changing. From the jungle we went to a scottish highland type of landscape and it's with those surroundings that we broke down once again. The sun was setting and we couldn't figure out how to fix the rickshaw. We thought it was because of the gasoline we were given. That they had mixed it with water and it broke our engine. We stayed there a few hours trying to make it work again but nada. So we pushed the rickshaw along the road until we'd find a small village. It was a clear dark night and we could see millions of stars. It was pretty amazing how we always broke down in the most beautiful places. We asked one of the villager for a mechanics. He told us with signs that the mechanics was drinking, that he was already drunk and therefore couldn't help us.
So we tried to find another solution. We had 40 kilometers left to the city. So we thought we'd attach a rope on the working rickshaw and tow the deficient rickshaw until the city. We were working attaching everything when a Mumbai resident stopped and proposed his help. He said that we could go to the city in his car and we'd pick the rickshaw the next day to bring to the mechanics. We thought for a while but it seemed like we would lose an entire day if we'd follow his advice.
We thanked him but tried our way and towed the rickshaw for 40 kilometers in the most beautiful of nights. We needed 4 hours to get to the city but this had worked amazingly well and this would become the first of many more towing situation.
Day 18 - 1628
We had made it. 30 minutes before the cut off time, we had finished an adventure that would stay in our memories for as long as we'd live. We were exhausted, finished and completely done but we were accomplished. We had crossed India in a rickshaw in 18 days, and this, noone could take it from us.
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