After spending a week in Auroville with Ravi and Jeff it was time to continue the adventure and get a rickshaw! Rickshaw, auto rickshaw, tuk tuk, auto, they are all the same thing.
Here are some specs of a rickshaw along with our route:
- Engine displacement: 150cc
- 7 Horsepower @ 5000 rpm
- Transmission: 4 forward and 1 reverse
- Fuel tank capacity: 8 liters (2 gal) including 1.4 liters reserve
- Mileage within a city: 18 to 20 km/liter (45 mpg)
- Mileage on the highway: 25 km/liter (60 mpg)
- Average cruising speed: 50 to 60 km/h (35 mph)
This idea has been a long time coming, I first got addicted to the idea when I was in Central America and Hendrick, a Norwegian guy who I was travelling with showed me and a few other Canadians this video of a rickshaw race across India and said we needed to do it next year. Well fast forward two years later and here I am. The dates didn’t work out for doing the race but I thought the next best thing is just doing it with me and Sara. I could tell Sara was hesitant to the idea and it took a little convincing but I think she is glad we did it. It added a different, new way of travel that she has never experienced. For me it was almost all new too, I’ve bought a motorbike in Vietnam, and rented a camper van in South America but nothing will get you ready to drive a rickshaw 1500 km in India. I thought the traffic in ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam was bad but India for sure tops it.
The adventures started about 10 days ago when myself and Jeff took a bus from Pondicherry to Chennai where I was picking up the tuk tuk and Jeff was boarding a plane to Mumbai to continue his India travels. We left Pondi at around 11 in the morning and didn’t get to the office of the rickshaw place until 4:30! My plan of driving back to Pondicherry that night was slowly fading. After signing a few papers I was handed the keys to the rickshaw and once I had a quick 5 minute lesson on the basics they bid me farewell. Just like that Jeff and I dove head first into Chennai rush hour traffic and let me tell you it was madness! We needed to get to the airport ASAP so Jeff wouldn’t miss his flight and when Google maps told us the trip was going to take a hour and a half I immediately channeled my inner Indian and started driving like all the locals, aggressively. I figured out you just need to stay with a group of people while driving and you kind of work as a group to get around the city… if you need to go through an intersection just wait till the group goes and go with them. During our drive we got so many looks, waves and smiles… it was hilarious. Once we arrived at the airport the shit show continued, there was a pay toll that we strolled up to and immediately everyone was yelling at us, telling us ‘no auto, no auto!’ so we told them we would just turn around once we got through the toll. When they let us through Jeff just told me to drive right up to the door and drop him off and that’s exactly what I did, which is exactly what I wasn’t supposed to do. I rode up the ramp to the departures gate and was the only rickshaw there. It was loud and obnoxious but Jeff was happy he got right to the door service, so I was happy with the decision even if it was against the rules. We said our goodbyes and off I went to the pay toll to try and weasel my way out of getting yelled at. Once I got to the pay toll they weren’t happy and I just told them I didn’t understand and I ended up paying the toll fee and everything turned out fine. At this point the sun was set and it was dark. The light on the front of the rickshaw sucks, I think my phone light is brighter then it. I wasn’t about to drive three and a half hours back to Pondi so I opted to stay the night in Chennai and planned to leave early the next morning. Finding a hotel proved harder than I thought, without another person navigating for you. I ended up taking a wrong turn down this night market street with literally thousands of people. I couldn’t turn around so I just accepted that this was where my first accident was going to be…. would I hit a person? A cow? A food stand? A motorbike? Surprisingly nothing. A few minutes of me going 2km/h down this market road a man tries to strike up a conversation with me, I wasn’t ready to take on a conversation with a guy walking beside me so I told him to get in the back seat. His English wasn’t very good at all so communication was tough. I tried to tell him I needed a hotel to stay at and he nodded his head like he knew what I was talking about. He kept pointing further down the road and I kept creeping along asking him ‘hotel?’ and he agreed. After driving with him for a few minutes he stops me and gets out, there wasn’t a hotel in sight. I ask him again ‘I need to sleep you know a hotel?’ he nods his head and walks off. I drive away. I’m pretty sure this guy just wanted a free ride down the road. Eventually I found a hotel and got to bed early, the next morning I started driving to Pondicherry at 6:30 in hopes of getting back to Sara by around 9:30. It was going good until I ran out of gas. The guy at the rickshaw place said that a full tank would get me around 250km per tank so I should’ve been able to make it from Chennai to Pondicherry no problem. I didn’t. I was about 50 km from Pondicherry when it just died. I flagged down some people passing by and one guy stopped and I got on the back of his bike and he took me to the nearest gas station, once I filled a water bottle up I hitched a ride back to it. Once it had some fuel it started up but my throttle was stuck on full and it wasn’t moving so I quickly shut it off to fix the problem. I flagged down a fellow rickshaw driver to give me a hand but he had no idea what he was doing, he told me to go to the mechanic about a km down the road. So I turn on the rickshaw when it is fully revved and make my way to the mechanic where he did some trial and error and eventually fixed the problem. The whole process took about an hour, and when I asked the mechanic how much for his work he replied 100 rupees ($2 CAD) I love India! When I made it back it was too late in the day to start our road trip so we opted to head out the next morning, plus it gave sometime for Sara to practice and Ravi also gave it a go.
The first leg of the journey was from Ravi’s house in Auroville to Karaikal. Well, our original plan was to go to Tharangambadi (an Old Danish colony) but once we got there they didn’t really have much options for accommodations so we opted for the next town south called Karaikal which had a beach and lots of choices for hotels. We went to the beach boardwalk for ice cream and a beautiful sunset. We were lucky to have nothing go wrong on the first day!
The next morning we wanted to get an early start, our next destination was Trichy, which was about 150 km away. Google maps gave us two options; we took the shorter and faster route by 50 km. Yes it was shorter but no it was not the most comfortable ride… for the first 20 km or so I was weaving around potholes, speed bumps, animals, people and traffic. This highway was the worst road I’ve ever driven by far! I would say our average speed for the first part was around 10 km/h… it was pretty brutal. It got better though, and eventually we were cruising at 40 or 50 km/h through little villages still on a ‘main’ highway but this highway was only one lane wide. Luckily we didn’t encounter many big trucks so that made for easier driving and passing. Soon we were on a toll road and it was smooth sailing from there UNTIL…. we went to fill up at one of the highway gas stations and the woman who worked there probably didn’t know what she was doing. The rickshaw needs mixed gas at a ratio of 50:1 (50ml of oil to every 1 litre of petrol) and it needs to be mixed! This lady started putting the oil in the tank while the pump was getting used, she was supposed to put in 300ml. (I think it was more like 600ml) while waiting for the pump to become free the oil was seeping where oil shouldn’t seep. She filled the rest of the tank with the petrol, I paid and it started no problem, not even one minute into the drive the tuk tuk died. Great. I tried to troubleshoot the thing but at this point I had no idea what the lady at the gas station had done. The guys who were helping us fix it really had no idea what they were doing and basically did some trial and error and came to the conclusion that spark plug wasn’t giving any spark and even when we replaced it wasn’t doing anything. They said they couldn’t fix it and told me to take it to the mechanic and the nearest one was in Trichy which was 25 km away. All of their English was minimal so communication was tough, we all came to the conclusion that I needed to tow the tuk tuk to Trichy, which was my only option. He called his buddy with a little truck and before we knew it there was a rope attached to our tuk tuk and we were getting pulled 25 km by this truck to the mechanic. We paid a pretty penny to get us towed, he wanted 1000 rupees ($20 CAD) but when I told him no he brought it down to 800. I really had no choice and he knew it, it was kind of a shitty situation but in the end it only cost us 16 bucks so whatever. The mechanic did some magic and showed me part of the engine that had a pool of oil in it and said that was the problem, he managed to get it started and again the mechanical work only cost 100 rupees ($2 CAD) after thanking him we drove to our hotel which was centrally located which allowed us to walk everywhere and not drive around the city at night. We went to the biggest silk showroom in Asia while in Trichy and let me tell you it was HUGE it had everything you ever needed. Jeans from 8 bucks, bags and purses for a few bucks and sarees and suits for really cheap. Surprisingly Sara didn’t buy anything which still boggles my mind because she loves shopping.
The next morning would be our most interesting drive yet, it included a trek up to the hill station of Kodai which was a winding road up to 2000m. The town had great views and a really nice lake in the center of it where Sara and I rented a paddle boat and we also rented a tandem bike and rode around the 5km lake road. This was the halfway point of our road trip so we decided to spend two nights to relax and get to see the town and surrounds. Once we arrived one of the first things I noticed was that there were no tuk tuks anywhere, I didn’t see one passenger tuk tuk the whole time we were there. I assume it’s because of all the hills, our rickshaw hated me after going up that hill and I could hear it hated me again every time I needed to take us up another hill. So we definitely stuck out like a sore thumb here because the local people hardly ever see these 2 wheeled beasts. On the second day Sara got a chance to drive the rickshaw around the lake road because it was a lot less busy and hectic. She did an awesome job and I was trying to convince her to drive the next 700 km but it didn’t happen. While I was driving back to our hotel we hit a pothole and BANG the muffler came loose and was sitting against the metal frame… it made the rickshaw SO MUCH LOUDER!!! It was obnoxiously loud, like deafening loud. I took it to the mechanic and he told me I needed to get the welder, so I drive this loud vehicle to the welder and if people didn’t notice the white guy driving the tuk tuk before now they noticed. The welder took one look at it and in broken English said something along the lines of, “take the engine out then bring it back to me…” I brought it back to the mechanic and told him the engine needed to come out, and that’s exactly what he did. After the engine was out I carried it over to the welder so he could do some work on it. 10 minutes and a few bucks later I was handed back my engine which I brought back to the mechanic, he worked for 20 minutes or so I paid him 150 rupees ($3 CAD) and my tuk tuk was back to its normal sounding self. The next morning got out early for our longest drive yet, 263km. The first part was awesome cause it was down the massive mountain we drove up two days prior, I zigzagged down the mountain and after about 6 or 7 hours of driving we finally made it to Salem where we checked into our pretty fancy 4 star hotel and began our 40 hour R & R. I spent my time lazily lying in bed in the A/C watching movies and Indian TV, catching up on some work and trying to get the hum from the tuk tuk out of my head. After our two cushy nights at our fancy but cheap hotel we made our last long journey back to Auroville, thankfully nothing happened to our tuk tuk and we arrived safely at our guesthouse.
I drove solo from Auroville to Chennai to drop it off and again nothing went wrong, except for Chennai traffic, it was brutal. So to wrap it all up, we drove a glorified lawn mower 1400+ km though the cities and country sides of south India, only truly breaking down once. We thankfully didn’t get into any accidents but there were a few close calls. My conclusion is that this was crazy! It was not a walk in the park, India IS the craziest place in the world to drive, there are no rules. A stop sign? Haven’t seen one yet. Speed limits? If your vehicle can reach it, the driver will go faster. Lines on the road? Just decoration… no one uses them. Overtaking? Anytime, anywhere. Red light? Look both ways and just lay on your horn before going through and people will stop for you. In a hurry? Its India, everything will take double the time. If you’re driving on a divided highway or any road for that matter, you always need to be aware of what’s in front of you because it’s extremely common you will have traffic coming at you in your lane. They will honk and flash there lights to tell you to move, everyone just accepts the fact that there are no rules but yet somehow it works at the end of the day.
If anyone is on the fence about buying, renting or doing the actual rickshaw challenge I would say do it! You will not regret it and you’ll have some great stories after you survive. The company I went through was great! If you have any questions you can check out their website at Rickshaw Challenge