Last month my buddy Lars and I made it back from India, in one piece thankfully, from a thoroughly ridiculous event known as The Rickshaw Run.
It’s an absurd concept – where your fine self and a pile of other madwomen and madmen start at the top of India and race alllll the way to the bottom… In an auto-rickshaw. A silly three-wheeled lawnmower of a vehicle with a top speed of roughly ~30mph downhill on the highway.
They are notorious for breaking down, tipping over, falling apart, and of course – being the most fun way of possibly seeing the Indian subcontinent.
I’d first heard of the thing years ago, when my buddy Roam About Mike told me about it. Needless to say – the idea was stuck smoldering in my head ever since.
But things only got moving when I made the mistake(?) of telling Lars about it last summer… He immediately jumped on the idea and proceeded to hound me about it every day until I finally relented.
And I’m so glad he did!
After a bit of refinement we pitched the idea to our employer, CoverMyMeds, as part of their annual ‘CoverMyQuest’ competition. We wanted to take part in the adventure while raising money for Doctors Without Borders, a great NGO that delivers healthcare in places no-one else will go. (and we wound up raising over $10k – THANK YOU donors!)
The judges loved the idea and we walked away winners with a mini-grant to help turn our wild idea into a reality. That covered our entry fee, and the rest was up to us.
Since we only had one year until the event, we promptly set off to prepare for our trans-India adventure.
Just kidding. We didn’t do a damn thing.
Some thoughts on India
Since telling you about India would might just miss the whole point, I’d rather try and tell you what it felt like.
India will definitely challenge your preconceptions about what’s necessary for happiness, society, and life.
India is like haphazard time travel. There might be an oxen pulling a wagon on your left, and a Mercedes on your right.
A man there told me that Stanford Business School is currently studying India because they don’t really understand how it works. As in, they don’t quite understand how the country functions.
And you know what? With something like 6 languages and 2 million gods crammed into a country ~1/3 the size of the USA, with 4x the population…
Neither do I.
And that’s all the more reason to go! Because after driving (and riding) across that incredible country I feel like I understand why there are all of these mystical connotations and associations with India – and stories of people going there to find themselves. Whether it’s The Beatles visiting Rishikesh to discover Eastern spirituality, and then help introduce it to the Western world; or the guy I met named Dan who has spent the last ten years riding across India on a motorbike, living with the babas and practicing meditation… It’s a real thing.
And although I’ve traveled to many other places that were strange, interesting, and different – India really felt like another world. It felt unreal. My time there left me feeling open to new ideas, experiences, and philosophies. It was a vivid reminder that life can be very different, and that the untamed human spirit, the Indian spirit, is a beautiful thing.
Visiting India is an incredibly visceral and introspective experience.
So if you’re chasing that feeling yourself, I really recommend saving up for some airfare – or perhaps even signing up for the Rickshaw Run if you’re feeling frisky. Or if you’re feeling a bit more domestic at the moment, picking up a copy of Shantaram wouldn’t hurt. It’s a book I read during my month in India and it immediately sucked me in. I can’t quite tell if being in India made reading Shantaram better, or if reading Shantaram made being in India better… Probably both. But the book certainly does a great job conveying the spirit and energy of the place.
So no matter how you get the chance to visit, perhaps even just by reading about India, I think it’s well worth the time.
Some thoughts on the Rickshaw Run
The run was fun, absurd, and undoubtedly one of the best ways to see the country. It particularly resonated with me because lately I’ve been wanting to spend less time on the ‘tourist-trail’ while traveling – and I’m starting to think that having your own set of wheels is the best way to actually make that happen. It gives you the ability to spend less time on busses and trains, to travel less in guided tours, and to spend more time in places that tourists rarely go. It gets you out of the areas where there are lots of support systems for travelers, which keeps you just uncomfortable enough to actually learn something.
So for future trips I’ll definitely be trying to give myself more time to roam and my own form of transport. The independence is intoxicating – and I don’t really want to return to travels without that sense of freedom and autonomy.
Anyway, back to the run itself.
We traveled as a group of four fairly experienced travelers in two separate rickshaws – and it worked out great. I couldn’t imagine some of the teams that had three big dudes and their luggage all crammed into a single rick. Four our route we chose an inland path on our journey from Jaisalmer to Kochi, since there was some serious rain and flooding along the coast.
It turned out to be a great idea, immersing us into less traveled areas and avoiding the rain entirely. The rain was no joke, the flooding and destruction that ensued in the southern state of Kerala was record-breaking. Hundreds of people lost their lives, and the international airport in Kochi was closed for over a week.
The situation was so bad that The Adventurists (the group that puts on the Rickshaw Run) made the tough call to move the finish line from Kochi to Bangalore halfway through the run. In the ten year history of the event this was the first time they’ve ever had to move the finish line.
Safely tucked inland, our weather was great. And aside from a spare tire we had nothing stolen, broken or any of those other travel horror stories that people love to share. Even mechanically, we only had to adjust a carburetor and change a tire… Perhaps it was the best luck in the world, but despite the reputation we really had a smooth time of it.
Was it a challenge? Sure.
But I just mean to say that there wasn’t nearly as much sleeping at truck stops (none!), mechanical failures, bowel issues, theft, bed bugs, malaria, or anything else that so many might be afraid of.
So really – if you’re even kinda considering it, you should just take the plunge and go for it. ?
A note on selfies
As a brief aside – if you’re a white westerner you’ll definitely pass through some regions where you’re a bit of a rarity… So much so that you could draw a bit of a crowd. We felt like there were roughly two types of stares you’d be likely to get.
You’re a celebrity
Congratulations! You’re probably going to take lots of selfies, and at some point you might even realize that being famous isn’t actually something you’d enjoy at all – just in case you had any delusions about this. Maybe you’ll love it, or perhaps you’ll take so many selfies that you decide to never take another one; essentially becoming that ‘dick’ of a celebrity who won’t sign anything or take pictures.
And you’ll 100% understand how they got that way.
I’m not kidding, we even had people ride up next to us on motorbikes asking us to pull over to take photos with them. I remember one person in particular, a father, riding alongside us with his whole family on the scooter with him. We were flying down a terribly bumpy dirt road, covered in potholes, as he was inching closer and closer beside us. The dude was risking his entire world just to get close to us for a photograph.
As a potential pro-tip, I think that the desire to take the selfies was really more about proving that we were there, and that they actually saw/met us. Thankfully we happened to have a stack of postcards with a map of India on them, along a picture of a rickshaw, and a link to our website for the event along with us. I found that handing someone one of these was a really effective alternative to pulling over to take a photo and it generally made folks go their own way.
You’re a space alien
This is really quite similar to being a celebrity, except that you’re even a few clicks rarer to see. In fact you’re so strange to even exist in this place that people might not come up to you or try to take selfies at all- just in case you’re not real and rather a figment of their imagination instead. You’ll still attract stares and wonder as if you were a celebrity, but it feels quite different.
Also, you’re an alien who can manipulate time.
When you pass through town old men quit pouring chai, children will stop playing in the streets, and bustling markets slow to a crawl. Every scooter rider, rickshaw driver, and passenger stares, transfixed, as you pass through an intersection.
And frankly driving around back home is kind of a bummer now.
And I’d do it again
Although I don’t necessarily feel the need to go back to India anytime soon, I would go back; in fact, some part of me feels called to return again. And that says a lot because I’m usually pretty content to not return anywhere – instead opting for places I’ve never been.
But India… There’s something special to it.
Thank you to India and its people for all the hospitality, smiles, memories, incredible food, and wild adventures.
I’ll be back someday.
I expect to write a bit more about India in other articles, and to create some (hopefully) helpful resources for people who are considering taking on the Rickshaw Run, or India, themselves.
If that pans out I’ll make some updates and add links to this article.