Laura Coughlin, an editor at Explorer, writes, manages and edits activity & residents’ guides for the spirited folk in the UAE and Oman who are hungry for adventure and escapades. If she is not up to her elbows in deadlines, she will be reviewing the latest dune buggy or trying out the newest wakeboarding centre.
Here is her diary
I recently came back from an epic and intense three-week trip where I traveled the length of India in my very own rickshaw. It was the greatest, most beautiful, yet terrifying journey of my life.
Working for a travel publisher affords me the luxury of traveling to some wildly beautiful and exotic locations. And while I’ll never say no to a luxury hotel review or a mini city break, I often feel I do a country a disservice hiding away in a resort or simply exploring one tiny part of a country. Last year, I began to have itchy feet; craving an epic quest that allowed me to really, truly immerse myself in a culture and a country foreign to my own, and as I trawled through travel magazines looking for a grand adventure to take part in, I finally came across The Adventurists. These guys organise some of the most incredible – and plain ridiculous – journeys around the world such as the Europe to Mongolia Rally, the Siberian sidecar tour and most importantly for me, the annual Rickshaw Run in India, a 3,500km race from Rajasthan to Kerala.
Before I knew it, I had signed up to drive a rickety, spluttering tuk tuk over three thousand kilometers with some 300 other crazy travelers, in one of the most congested places on earth all in the name of saving rain forests and fabulous future-long story-telling. Perfect.
Stayed in Hotel Maya
For the most part we were at the mercy of our rickshaw. On a good day she could travel 250km (that’s about eight hours sitting in a 7hp glorified lawnmower), but other days she’d get a puncture, have electrical failure or crash into a cow (all true stories) and our distance would be miniscule. Because of this, we could never truly plan where to stay. Sometimes we made it to a hotel, other times we found shelter in restaurants. Some like the eco lodge, Hotel Maya in Ranakpur were wonderful drops of comforting heaven; others were mosquito-ridden holes. It was the luck of the draw.
Month December & January
We traveled in December and January. It’s pretty damn cold in the north, so you’ll want to bring gloves, scarves, a hat and a thick jacket. But as soon as you move into India’s next southern state, you’ll be in flip flops and a t-shirt. Thankfully, it didn’t rain once, too. I’m really not sure our rickshaw could have coped with puddles.
In your suitcase
Since trunk space in a rickshaw is about as big as a glove compartment, a rickshaw runner must be frugal with their packing. My tiny rucksack consisted of two t-shirts, two shorts, one sweater, one pair of tracksuit bottoms, one swim suit, a few pairs of underwear, a head torch and packs and packs of baby wipes. Did I look good? No. Did I smell okay? Absolutely not. Did I care? Not one bit.
Most days we’d be up even before the crack of dawn. We’d pack up the rickshaw, fill up the tank and get on the roads as quickly as possible. It was our favorite time of day. Away from the cities, mist would rise up above the mountains in tune with the rising sun. It was peaceful and quiet and more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. Usually we’d make a stop an hour in, find a man selling Chai tea and buy by the bag load. This became our breakfast ritual. Then we’d drive. We’d drive from sunrise to sunset. We’d stop to take photos and we’d stop to pose for them too. Intrigued locals would sit with us and invite us to eat with them; schools kids would cheer and wave at us as we chugged along in our colorfully painted ‘shaw; and cows would ignore our incessant honks of our horn. Such was daily life for three beautiful weeks.
Our journey saw us travel from bitterly cold but beautiful Rajasthan with its colorful forts and colonial buildings through the imposing military grounds in Gujarat and beach roads of Goa to the lush landscapes of Kerala. Everyday offered different scenery; everyday another adventure.
Dined In You know what we realized pretty quickly? Price meant nothing. The pricier the dish didn’t necessarily correlate to a tastier one. We were told hundreds of times to steer clear of street vendors to ward off the dreaded Delhi belly. But for us, it was those cheap, piping hot street food stalls that made our team the happiest. We’d scarf down vada pav (potato fritter burgers), munch on bowls of fresh sweet corn and gorge on vegetable pakora like it was our job.
Tips While all the rickshaw runners have different experiences, you can be certain of one thing: hair-raising vehicular moments that will make you want to coil into the fetal position, close your eyes, and scream like a chimp on fire for your mama. Follow these simple road rules, and hopefully, you’ll be just fine.
Rule #1) Be wary of the pecking order
Here lies the unspoken pecking order on the roads of India and it is absolutely crucial that you understand where you fit within this. In order to keep alive on India’s roads there is one rule that matters most of all: It is your responsibility to get out of the way of anything that comes above you in the pecking order.
Official/Unofficial Pecking Order:
Rickshaws (THAT’S YOU!)
Men driving carts pulled by oxen
Shepherds ushering sheep/goats/cattle across the road
Rule #2) Always keep moving
Buses will charge at you head-on. Cows will step into the road in front of you. Large, honking, insane traffic circles will suddenly appear from nowhere and you will be forced to drive straight into them. You will want to slam on your breaks. You will want to come to a stop before pulling into an intersection. You will want to coil into that fetal position as described in the aforementioned paragraph above. But doing so would be a mistake.
Indian traffic moves. It fills gaps where you didn’t think there were gaps. Your fellow road warriors expect you to keep moving. Should you stop you will become the kink in the chain that stops the whole mess from functioning. Cry like a baby, and scream obscenities that even Gordon Ramsay would blush at but for the love of God, don’t stop moving.
Has this changed me? Absolutely. I feel humbled and blessed to have met such wonderful people and we were touched with such kindness only our teammates will ever know. You’ll go through more ups and downs in these three weeks than most people go through in 30 years, and you’ll love every minute of it. Acquaintances become friends who in turn become comrades on this precarious adventure and you’ll never love and hate an automobile in such equal measure ever again. But India, and its people, will forever hold a place in my heart.
You can read more about Laura’s journey at www.argybhajirickshaw.com or follow her daily adventures here @LauraLai_K.