Why would you want to drive 2.000 kilometer in an old auto rickshaw through India? This was by far the most common question when people heard I was planning to travel India in an unorthodox way. Can you imagine their surprise when I told them about my travel partner; my 61 year old Dad.
This might be a good time to start at the actual beginning. In the summer of 2009 I was writing my thesis and in an effort to avoid everything around that certain topic I came across the Bombay Challenge. I immediately knew I had found my new adventure. The challenge had one goal; to travel the 2000 kilometers between Mumbai and Chennai with a 10 year old Rickshaw. With this trip we would raise money for Cordaid Kinderstem who would use it for several projects with street children in India. So I called a friend if she would be interested to join me on this new endeavor. She was all ears but decide to go for a less stressful vacation when the time came to sign up. By that time I had already boasted to my parents that I was going to do India by Rickshaw. As I planned to start searching for a new travel partner my Dad immediately jumped at the chance to fill the spot. We were given team number 13 that we soon referred to as lucky number 13. And we started to mentally prepare…
It was march 2010 and we were in Mumbai, India. I had travelled through Asia before and was more accustomed to the smells, sounds and traffic of the Asian city life than my poor dad. This soon proved to be a trip we would never forget. The day before the start of the challenge it was time to meet the other teams and pick up our own little rickshaw. There would be 17 teams of 2 persons, each traveling the same route. Old rickshaws proofed to be just that, very old rickshaws. This made the short 4 kilometer trip back to the hotel and starting point of the challenge quite an adventure. During rush hour and on one of the busiest crossings in the area our new ‘friend’ decided to call it quits. It must have been hilarious to see two sweaty white people trying their best to push their bright blue rickshaw of the road. We managed to get it to a gas station and were happy to find some other teams there as well. We were even more happy to find some handy team members present. Eventually we managed to get it started again by giving it a bit of a push. We managed to travel the 4 km in just under 2 hours! What a start….Arriving at the starting point for the challenged we had one more chance to provide the organization with a list of necessary repairs. Needless to say the list wasn’t very short.
The next day we started with good faith. Unfortunately some fellow challengers had less faith in us. They told the reporters that were present to see the start that surely unlucky number 13 could never make it the whole 2000 km. We started to believe them about 10 km in. The rickshaw refused to keep running in neutral, leading to me jumping out at every stop to give it a little push and then sprint back next to the rickshaw to jump in the back. About 10 more km in it stopped all together on a bridge (this time I had to push up so we would not roll down backwards) and we watched the other teams move on. So much for team spirit…. However we found one team that volunteered to give us a little pull. Unfortunately their rickshaw broke down 1 km down the road. About 4 hours and a gearbox later we were good to go the long way to Pune, our stop for that day. Driving the city by night was not to easy. About time to learn the first useful tip when driving in a city you don’t know; hire a local rickshaw driver to drive in front of you to your destination.
Over the next few days our luck changed and we drove through India without major incidents. It is funny how you start to notice that your driving style is changing. When it first takes you an half hour to cross a busy market village, within a few days we’d push our rickshaw through traffic like regular Indians. Crossing cows were anticipated and we started to look so normal in the day to day traffic that many locals tried to hail us down for a ride. There is only one thing that we could not get use to; trucks. You hear the stories about foreigners and near death experiences. I can vow for it; they are all true! You see, trucks don’t care where they take you over. And if they, while they are taking over, come across a car from the other side, they also don’t care if they drive over you, or in the best scenario, push you of the road. So not big on trucks ;)
However the most unfortunate event goes to a fellow challenger. Dutch stomachs are not made for spicy Indian food and while I pride myself with having an iron stomach, most participants were not that lucky. So over the 12 days of traveling quite a few emergency bathroom breaks were made. During one of this breaks one of the guys had went out to photograph his friend in a not so charming position. Call it karma, but when he let one rip himself he number two’d all over his clothes. Very juck and hugely embarrissing.
The more south we went the more surprised people became to see a bunch of ‘white’ people driving a rickshaw. I, being on of the few woman who drove herself, was especially an attraction. Doesn’t help that I’m very North European looking with very light skin and blue eyes. I never been photographed as much in my life. It did make stopping for repairs a very interesting experience. We spend one afternoon in a tiny garage with a group of 30 villagers who were taking turns to photograph themselves with us.
As always time flies when you are having fun. Before we knew it we were one day from the finish. The last day proved to be exceptionally boring with good and wide roads, the best we saw in India. So we decided to take a little short cut through some villages to make the last few hours a bit more interesting. And more interesting it got…. About 20 kilometer from the finish we heard a bang and some weird noises. Our little rickshaw motor was lying loose on the rear axle. Time to get our McGuyver on. With some help and lots of tie wraps and duct tape we were able to ‘hang’ the motor again. Time for the last stressful 20 km. We obviously couldn’t do anything wild, since the motor was really only dangling by some tie wraps. But we made it! Over 2000 kilometer in a rickshaw with a top speed op 50 km an hour in just 12 days! That night we celebrated!
The next day it was time to use our little rickshaw for the very last time to drive to the project we donated to in Chennai. All 17 teams drove through the city together causing our own traffic chaos everywhere we went. We were told that our half full tanks would be enough to drive the one way trip to the project but unfortunately this proved to be false. We and 4 other teams had to get some more fuel when our Rickshaw stopped moving. When we arrived at one of the projects we were welcomed by a crazy enthusiastic group of boys that showed us around their home. That afternoon we played volleyball with the kids and visited the slums of Chennai to listen to their stories. An overwhelming experience. And then our last night with the rest of the teams came. Me and my dad would move on to Agra for a few days to see the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort before moving on home.
Looking back I can only grasp how special this trip has been for me. First of all India is an amazing country! Everywhere we went people were so kind to us and eager to know our story. Because we drove the rickshaw ourselves we were not just tourists that only came to visit the usual places. We came to experience India how it really is! I found myself sharing rickshaw drive tips with a rickshaw driver outside of the Taj Mahal. He had never heard of a girl driving a rickshaw before. Second of all, though we had enough off moments, doing this with my dad really made the trip so much more special. He made me so proud! I mean, I have a (then) 61 year old father who does a crazy rickshaw trip with his daughter. And last but not least, even though I was on the trip with my dad I managed to score myself a boyfriend out of one of the other participants and we have been together ever since. Don’t worry. My dad loves him!