If you have found yourself here, chances are you are considering or have already signed up for the Rickshaw Run that happens several times a year in India. If you have an adventurous spirit and a little bit of the crazy gene, a desire to see India in a way most people don’t and are willing to risk limbs for it, then this is something you should aim to do. Don’t panic though, it will be amazing. Driving an auto rickshaw across India in the name of charity continues to be one of the most adventurous things I have done in my life. And it ruled. Ok. Truth be told, it actually probably sucked more often than it was awesome at the time, but now looking back, it was the most exhilarating adventure I had in my many years of living in India. Even with years of Mumbai living under my belt, the Rickshaw Run is what truly opened my eyes to the greatness of India and her people.
In the years since doing the Rickshaw Run, we have been asked the same questions over and over, so I decided to finally collate my years of emails and share the answers here with you.
Not sure what the Rickshaw Run is? The Rickshaw Run (operated by The Adventurists) is an adventure trip, a charity fundraiser and a life changing experience. Upon signing up, warnings tell you “Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high.” Scary. No one has died on the run yet, but the risks of navigating potholed, non-roads in a glorified lawn mower, close to the bottom of the vehicle totem pole, are very real.
This is usually the first question people have when planning the Rickshaw Run. The short answer, whichever one you want! The long answer depends on what type of adventure you are looking for. This is the beauty of the Rickshaw Run. You are not being told where to go, how to do it or when to arrive. It is all up to you. Daunting I know!
During our trip, there were teams who took the most direct route, driving only a few hours each day while sight seeing and partying the rest of the day. Others (like us) took the least direct route possible on tiny roads filled with potholes of adventure for 14 hours a day. Taking the least direct route ensures long days of driving with little time for sight seeing, but with tons of craziness along the way.
Did You Stick to a Schedule?
The short answer is no. India in general is not known for schedules, and driving something as unreliable as an auto rickshaw across the country pretty much means you can say goodbye to any real schedule. That said, it’s still good to have a general idea of your plan and thoughts on where you hope to stop/stay/sleep, but don’t get disappointed if that all goes flying out the window on day 1, because it most likely will!
If you have any must see places, figure them out in advance and make adjustments to get there as needed. I had several must see’s and we only ended up doing one of them! It’s not the end of the world.
If you are a planner like me, the best you can hope for is to create targets on how many kilometers you need to drive each day. This will give you a general sense of whether you are on schedule or not. It’s not great though because very often you end up on a road you didn’t know you were on and things go haywire from there. We never met one daily kilometer target during the 2 weeks, but we still managed to arrive to the finishing party at #19!
The worst ones possible! I chose the ‘yellow’ roads. I say this with the thought that you will understand me after you take my advice and purchase the essential Indian Road Atlas. From Pondicherry to Shillong, we could have gone the ‘easy’ route up the coast on a thick white road (in the atlas), but that felt too bland so instead we chose a path straight up the middle of India using only ‘yellow’ highways – national highways. Mistake? Not sure, but it definitely proved adventurous!
My suggestion is to avoid the major highways when you can as they are full of long distance trucks, fast flying cars and even dogs sunning themselves! With the smaller highways you will still find the same, but the traffic will be lighter and won’t be going as fast. You might even find yourself on a road all to yourself experiencing parts of India no other foreigners have ever been to.
Keep in mind that even though a road is slated as a national highways, it in no way means they are actually roads! We drove on dirt path “National Highways”, we had one highway end in a brick wall over a dried up river bed that we then had to cross, and most national highways were so narrow, that one lane of motorcycles could barely pass without falling into the potholes. But would I do it again? Yes! Although I might mix it up with a few of those fancy white roads as well!
Anywhere and everywhere! The first thing to note is that “hotel” actually means restaurant in India. We made this mistake once. We ended up actually staying at the “hotel” only by the supreme kindness of the employees who gave up their beds for us. Otherwise, you need to remember to say guesthouse.
Our MO was to roll up into a town and ask people on the street for the best lodging or 5 star hotel. Of course none of these towns ever had a 5 star hotel, but that usually meant the locals would direct us to the most expensive hotel in town. We stayed in total mosquito infested road side hotels for less than $5 a night to a fancy 4 star hotel with everything in between. If you are planning on a budget, plan to spend $10-20 a night with a few splurges thrown in when you happen across them. Trust me, that hot shower (not bucket bath), clean sheets and AC/Heat will be a welcome relief.
Anywhere and everywhere. We usually started on the road well before sunrise, so few places were open. We would drive for a bit and stop for chai and roadside snacks for breakfast when we saw something open. We rarely ate at anything resembling a restaurant and definitely didn’t eat any western fast food the entire journey!
I know your next question is “Did you get sick?”. No, we didn’t, but our bodies were probably more used to India than other teams since we lived there already. As a general rule for eating in India, whatever you eat, make sure it is hot, freshly prepared and does not have any water based uncooked sauces. If you want to use extra caution, eat only veg food. Since many rural areas do not have good electrical supplies, their refrigeration is also not the best, which means meat products can go rancid quite easily.
But in general, go for it. Some of the best food we ate in all of our years in India was on this trip. Also note that when you arrive to your hotel at night, you can ask them to order your food in if you just can’t go anywhere else. It is very common and they will make sure to get you the best food in town.
Is It Safe?
As with every question about India – yes and no. We were physically safe during our drive, however we did find ourselves in some sketchy situations. Another team we traveled with found themselves stuck behind a burned out bus in a closed off town for 24 hrs due to terrorist activity.Some teams got into bad accidents and were injured. Some teams got in accidents and came out without a scratch.
Trusting your gut, knowing the local political atmosphere in some states and never ever driving in the dark are some things that will help you stay safe. We definitely saw our share of guns slung over people’s shoulders with no indication of whether they were police or Naxalite fighters! If you show up in a town with lots of guys walking around with guns.. it might be best to move on, which is exactly what we did when it happened to us! We even broke our no driving at night rule to get away!
Lots and very little at the same time. Depending on your route and the season you will be doing the Rickshaw Run will determine what type of clothes to bring. Even in warmer times of the year, it can still get a bit chilly up north and especially driving in an open doored vehicle in the early morning. There were times we literally had on all of our clothes and were wrapped in wool blankets! Otherwise, you probably won’t change your clothes that much to be honest. You will be covered in dirt every single day with no opportunity to wash your clothes, so load up on the undergarments and go light with the shirts/pants as you will just get used to wearing very dirty clothes!
For women, it is best to dress conservatively. If you can purchase a few kurta tops from FabIndia before you venture out, you will find you will be treated much better than if you are venturing around in tight tank tops or t-shirts. Cover with a scarf and try to keep your cleavage and shoulders covered as much as possible.
Otherwise there are a few essentials I would recommend:
- The Indian Road Atlas is a necessity. You never know when you will have phone service or power! This little book will save you, I promise. Or kill you. It’s not always super reliable, but it’s better than just guessing!
- A sleep sheet is something I was so thankful to have. The beds and rooms we stayed in were manky to say the least and at least I had the comfort of knowing I was in my own sheet!
- A compass. I honestly didn’t even know how to properly use a compass, but we used it more often than we thought. Often we would find ourselves on a road, but with no markings we wouldn’t know which one! Using our compass and paper map we eventually could figure it out.
- Bungee cords were very useful for tying down our bags on the roof rack and hanging petrol cans off the side of the rickshaw.
- Swiss Army knife or leatherman will be a lifesaver. We used ours every single day.
- A headlamp is better than handheld flashlights, especially when you are loading and unloading the rickshaw in the pitch black of night.
- A first aid kit with burn ointment, bandages, cleansing wipes, tweezers, rehydration packets and plenty of band-aids will be instrumental. Buy it when you arrive to India as it’s much cheaper.
- Wool Blankets if you will be driving in cooler weather. These are best picked up in small villages along the way for cheap.
- Petrol canister with a funnel. You will need to always carry extra petrol with you since the rickshaw has no petrol gauge. And you never know when you will run into a fuel strike like we did!
- Spare parts for your rickshaw. This isn’t a necessity for some, but was a godsend for us. Our rickshaw broke down every single day and we used many of our spare supplies (spark plugs, etc).
- Duct Tape. A must have, always.
- A small compact screw driver set with pliers.
- Old rags and/or paper towels to wipe the windshield. Our wipers didn’t work, so during foggy mornings one of us would have to constantly wipe down the windows! Sounds fun huh?
We were at a great advantage here, not that it actually helped us much! Since we were already living in India, we decided to take a rickshaw driving class outside of Mumbai. It was immensely helpful especially since my co-pilot had never driven anything in his life! Everyone says “oh it’s like driving a motorcycle”, well I have no idea how to do that! My only experience with anything on two wheels was a scooter in Goa. I panicked and ran off the road into a clothing stall. Oops.
That said, it actually wasn’t too hard once you get the hang of it, which you do quickly after 14 hour days. The biggest complaint is a very sore thumb.
Organizers of the Rickshaw Run will give a quick group presentation on how to operate the clutch and basic functions a few days before it officially sets off, so you will have time to practice. If my partner could drive it with no driving experience ever, then most people can do it!
Chaos. Insanity. Craziness.
From the outside there seem to be no real rules of the road, but once you get into it you will find that there are actually many rules of the road, just not what you are used to! Some tips to keep in mind when driving in India:
- Always know where your horn is. It is your guide to tell people you are behind them, next to them and coming up to pass. Upgrade to a big truck horn if you can so no one misses you!
- Rickshaws are very low on the totem pole, which means you will be pushed off the road anytime something bigger wants to get by you. Be prepared.
- Lane markings (if they exist) mean nothing. Do not count on them to protect you, they won’t.
- If there is space in a traffic jam, it will be filled up quickly. Pretend you are in a game of Tetris and move where you can fit.
- Blinkers are not used to communicate turns, they tell you when the person in front is slowing down (both flashing) or when you can pass!
- There are no real rules of the road, so have fun!
Any way we could! Our rickshaw literally broke down every single day, some days multiple times. My partner nor I are even remotely knowledgable about mechanics so this was a challenge in some ways, but we learned along the way. Thankfully in most places there is an auto repair shop of some kind. Since an auto rickshaw is typically used for short inter-city distances, small rural villages may not have anyone who can work on them. We found our best bet was to go to a motorcycle repair shop if there weren’t auto rickshaws in the town/area.
Multiple times we relied on the absolute kindness of strangers. One many stopped and changed our flat tire without speaking any words to us. One man stopped his motorcycle and took my husband 20 minutes down the road to the nearest town to get a part we needed. MANY bystanders offered their help and advice even when they didn’t have a clue!
And sometimes, we just used duct tape and hoped for the best.
Yes and no. We weren’t traveling with any other teams as a plan, but we found we were taking the same route as a few other people so we did try to stick together. It didn’t work though! We broke down so often that our fellow teams had to go on without us. We would sometimes catch up, sometimes not.
For several days we were on our own, feeling a bit desolate and depressed thinking we would never get to the finish line, feeling like we were days behind any other teams. Then out of nowhere another team showed up behind us! It was a miracle. And lifted our spirits immensely. Apparently our milage gauge wasn’t working so we thought we were much further behind, but they informed us we were more than half way! This was music to our ears! From that point, we were able to stay pretty close with that team for the remainder of the drive which made it fun while out on the open desolate roads (yes they do exist in India!) where we did things our mothers would not want to know about!
My advice is if you can convoy with a few other teams easily, it will make it more enjoyable. However, know that an unspoken rule is that when you break down if it takes long to fix, you are on your own. Many teams will stop and see if they can help you out quickly, but they are also on a timeline and don’t want to get behind.
Was There Internet?
At the time of our rickshaw run, there was not a ton of internet available outside of major cities and tourist hubs, which meant we had NO internet on our route. We had hoped to update our blog during the run, but found it wasn’t possible. We wrote a paper journal instead and send text updates to a friend who would update our followers. I think things are probably a bit more accessible these day, but I wouldn’t count on it very much. Be happy when you do get it.
Oh my gosh, so many hilarious stories. The locals reactions to seeing two pale skin foreigners driving a colorfully painted rickshaw through their villages was unforgettable. Seeing people standing on the side of the road with their hand out to flag us down, to then get closer and realize we were foreigners was priceless. The hand stuck in the air, the mouth wide open in awe. Compared to the few who flagged us down, hopped in as we slowed to cross a speed bump and didn’t even flinch that they were being driven around by foreigners! To the drunk villagers who would want to hitch rides and tell us stories in a local language we could never understand. The entire journey was priceless, literally.
In a heartbeat! I am actually dying to take my son when he is old enough to do it with us. It’s a long time away, so I hope they still have the Rickshaw Run by then.
I could probably write for days on this. The Rickshaw Run was one of the most amazing experiences I have had. It definitely sucked some days. Driving through a rice paddy field was hilarious and scary at the same time. Driving in the night away from a town filled with armed men through sandy paths in dense jungle was terrifying. But being surrounded by village children saying hello and wanting our autographs, watching the world go by at 30km/hour in a land where time seems to have stopped was unbeatable. An experience of a lifetime. If you have any desire to do it, then do it!
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