The Rickshaw Run is adventure travel on steroids. It is intense, unconventional and most of all, occurs in a country known to be chaotic, infuriating and intoxicating. You will not leave this journey without learning something about the inner workings of India and how you manage under extreme stress. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read our intro post here.)
Having already lived in Mumbai for 5 years, we were at an advantage while doing the Rickshaw Run. We had a much better sense of how the country worked as well as a bit of the language under our belt. We saw some fellow teams suffer unnecessarily along the route without an insider’s knowledge of India. So, without further ado, here are some tips to help make your journey a little easier!
Doesn’t make sense does it? Well, get used to it. That is how India operates, always a dichotomy! There are two schools of thought on route planning, either plan your route some or not at all. Some people prefer to fly by the seat of their pants, meet other teams and see where the crowds take them. I didn’t want to get caught up in the masses, so instead planned a basic route, meaning I knew which areas of the country I wanted to drive through. For our run, it was either the coastal road or through the middle. I knew I wanted to go through the middle. That’s about as far as you can go in route planning to be honest. Map out some roads to get an estimate of your total kilometers, and create daily targets so you will know about how many kilometers you must do each day to make it to the finishing party.
Expect major delays with either the roads, the rickshaw breaking down or both. Just factor it in, it will happen.
Spend some time each evening, assessing your location, your kilometers and where you want to go the following day. It helps, but doesn’t always work out. We never made any of our targets to be honest, but we still made it to the finishing line at #19 with plenty of time to spare.
Paper maps? You might be asking with wonder, but yes, get the Indian Road Atlas either before you leave (to plot your route) or when you arrive in India. It will save you, I promise. GPS on your phone cannot be relied upon all the time as there are many dead spots throughout India and it will surely be when you needed it most. This is also a great planning tool. Not fool proof by any means, but very helpful.
Supplies from Home
There are some items that are best bought in India and some that are best brought from home. Some of the items we found useful to import from the US were: a sleep sheet, a compass, duct tape, bungee cords, swiss army knife or leatherman, headlamp, warm clothes and gloves (and a strong left hand!) for the winter routes.
Supplies from India
Some items are best purchased on arrival to India. Head to a chemist and purchase a first aid kit including burn ointment, bandages, cleansing wipes, tweezers, rehydration packets and plenty of band-aids. These kits are much cheaper in India than elsewhere and typically include everything you will need.
Other items to purchase in India upon arrival include: wool blankets for cold weather, gas canisters (always keep extra liters with you), funnel to pour in petrol, spare parts for the rickshaw (spark plug, and other bits and bobs that will go out easily), a compact screw driver set and pliers.
When the organizers of the Rickshaw Run give you a spiel about how fast you should go on the first day of your journey, how to slowly wear in the new engine, listen to them. It really does make a difference. We didn’t and ended up getting our engine completely rebuilt on day 3 after being towed 80 kilometers by a bigger rickshaw. Nightmare. Take care of your engine by going the speed limits (set by the auto), prepare your petrol properly and keep your baby well oiled. Even with a new engine, we still broke down multiple times per day, every, single, day. That doesn’t mean you will, but if you do, don’t worry, this is when you are most likely to experience India in all her greatness.
Even if you have chosen an ‘easy’ route that does not require long days, the best time of the day to drive is the early morning before the chaos of India takes over. Plan to hit the road by sunrise every day. The roads are quieter, which means you can make decent headway on your kilometer count without tons of traffic. It’s also just beautiful in the early morning. The lifting fog up north make for beautiful photos and the cool crisp air down south make it a pleasure to drive before the unbearable heat takes hold. Plan extra time each morning for packing the rickshaw; it takes longer than you think!
No Night Driving
Rule number 1 on the Rickshaw Run is: Do Not Drive at Night! So many vehicle accidents occur at night because people are tired, there are no street lights and less than half the vehicles on the road have functioning headlights. In addition to vehicles on the road, there are people walking on the side of the road, bicycles, bullock carts, you name it! Our rule (which we only broke twice) was to find a place to sleep before the sun set. You never can tell how far the next town is with accommodation, so start planning your stopping point well before sunset.
[box]Dusk was setting in when we pulled up into a small town in Jharkhand (one of the few states to avoid!) only to find that there was not one hotel or guesthouse that would allow women. We also appeared to be the only people without guns slung over our shoulders. This was when we trusted our instincts and headed out even though it was getting dark. It was one of the most stressful drives crossing the border into Orissa on a sandy path in the middle of nowhere, but we knew we made the right decision when we heard of Naxalite (terrorist) activity not far behind us.[/box]
India is a very in your face country, which makes it difficult to know who to trust. All I can say is trust your instincts. Overall, outside of big tourist centers, the people who approach you or who you approach are trustworthy and genuine. That said, never trust just one person on directions! The general rule in India is to ask at least 3 different people about how to get somewhere and go with the majority.
During our journey, we did things that we would ordinarily warn others against, but you know what? We trusted our instincts rather than what we have been told about big, bad India (even from local Indians!) and experienced nothing but kindness. From the stranger who spoke no English, but stopped and changed our flat tire without saying even two words to us, to the family who provided us a place to sleep while waiting for our engine to be rebuilt, to the man who carted my husband off on his motorcycle to the nearest town to get supplies for a broken rickshaw, to the restaurant workers who let us sleep in their beds when we mistakenly thought we were arriving to a hotel late at night and so on! As a result of the trust we gave to the people we encountered, we were rewarded with precious memories which we will carry with us forever.
On the other side of that coin, also trust yourself when you feel threatened. See the box above. We trusted our instincts to get out of dodge and drive at night, rather than stick around what felt like a very unsafe and unwelcoming town.
One of the biggest things visitors to India don’t realize is that they just need to ask for what they want. When you pull over for a night in the middle of nowhere, tired and hungry, ask your hotel what they suggest for food and if they could get it delivered. Almost everything is available for delivery in India, even in the middle of nowhere at tiny side of the road hotels. Having your food delivered while you clean off from a long day is a godsend. Make use of it!
Also, talk to truck drivers, taxi’s and long distance auto drivers (in the larger auto rickshaws) and ask them which are the best roads – least pot holes, etc. I cannot guarantee that they always give the correct information, but we found that more often than not, they knew the best roads to avoid being on in a small rickshaw. The locals you shouldn’t trust with directions are the drunk villagers – they will lead you through rice paddy fields. We know this from experience!
We learned the hard way that anything left in your colorful, easily spotted rickshaw is up for grabs during the night. Even if you have a locked gate between your rickshaw and the outside world, take EVERYTHING out. For us this even included our spare tire after it was stolen on our second night (and we needed it our 3rd day!). It’s a pain to unpack and repack every day, but it is worth it to not loose things that you will inevitably need!
Hotel Means Restaurant
This is one of the funny Indianism’s that you won’t know until you end up at the completely wrong place. We saw this over and over with other teams and even had it happen to ourselves! Even though we knew how to ask for a hotel, at the end of a long day, exhausted and ready to stop, we forgot. We ended up sleeping in a restaurant because of this. Our MO was to roll up into a town, ask for the best guesthouse, 5 star or most expensive place to sleep. We never paid more than 500 Rupees a night! Granted we were staying in tiny towns well off the beaten track, but it got us to the best of each town. This will not work as well if you are stopping in major towns, unless you really do want that 5 star! Which you just might after many days on the road sleeping in dingy guesthouses.
Because we broke down so much, we felt like we were so far behind all of the other teams, so we ended up pushing ourselves a lot. This resulted in even longer days with major sleep deprivation. Live and learn. If I were to do it again (which I would), I would take my time and not worry so much about making it to the finish line party on day 14. Maybe I can say this only because we did make it, but if any cliche is appropriate here, it is that the journey is the point of this adventure, not the final destination.
The Rickshaw Run is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so take a few extra days if you need it, and soak it all in. As hard as each day was, as we approached the finish line, we only wished we could reverse and go back on the road for a few more days.
Embrace the crazy that is India. If you try to resist, she will chew you up and spit you out. It is not always easy, but try to enjoy the constant staring, the lack of personal space, the overly friendly helpful bystanders and all of the things that are ‘cute’ and ‘fun’ the first few days, but that will quickly lead you to irritation! Wave at the locals as you drive by. Smile. Laugh. Enjoy the craziness that is India. What else can you do when you are driving down a road and see that it is covered with drying chili peppers? Laugh. Or when you see the elephant walking down the highway? Smile. When you happen upon a National Highway to see that it’s a dirt path. Crack up laughing. If you can do this, you will leave India with a magical experience.
This is an arduous, sometimes tedious, exhausting journey, but it will be one of the most amazing adventures of your life. I think about it often, waiting for the day I can return with my son. Enjoy!
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