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A Passage Through India

The tuk tuk, a rickety three-wheeled contraption, is best suited for short trips in traffic-clogged cities. Taking one for a 2,000-mile spin across the subcontinent is not for the faint of heart.

Author Richard Knapp Photography Courtesy of Richard Knapp

MISTY MOUNTAIN STOP The author’s “rick” during a pit stop on the road to Darjeeling.

THERE’S A SAYING IN INDIA that’s often repeated to newcomers: “If you come here without patience, you will learn it. If you come with patience, you will lose it.” I’m about to lose mine in a big way.

I’ve spent the past four hours clutching the steering wheel of a tuk tuk, or auto-rickshaw (“rick” for short), a three-wheeled vehicle of dubious reliability and a maximum speed of 35 mph (downhill). Aaron, one of my oldest friends, is sitting behind me eyeing the road dubiously. “You’re going to have to drop down to first gear again,” he says. And he’s right. The road we’re on is a maddening conspiracy of unpaved sinkholes that threaten to snap our axle.

We’re exhausted and hungry and have been vibrating violently for most of the day. We’ve almost been killed a half-dozen times. And at the moment, as I’m slowly negotiating a ditch, a lorry is on my tail (imagine a giant dump truck painted in vibrant colors and bearing messages, prayers and the eyes of Ganesh emblazoned across its grill). The driver lays on his horn, not so much to ask me to move as to indicate that he is not going to stop, and that if I don’t get out of his way, I’m done for.

The next thing I know, Aaron is dragging me back toward the rickshaw. He looks worried.

“What just happened?” I ask, dazed.

“You flipped. You just started screaming, ‘I can hear you!’ Then you got out of the rick and chased him. I’m pretty sure you were going to try and fight the lorry.” He takes a deep breath. “Do you need me to drive?”

“Yes. Yes, I need you to drive,” I say, calming down. Later, it would become all too clear how truly dangerous such trucks can be, but that lesson is still four days and 600 miles down the road.

At this point, we’ve been in India for 15 days as part of the sixth Rickshaw Run. Each year, a group called the League of Adventurists signs up 60 teams from around the world to race 2,000 miles across the subcontinent. The league is specific about the rules: There are none. If you get arrested- tough. Hurt-nice knowing you. Lost- well, isn’t that what you signed up for?

We started in Pondicherry, a former French colony on the southeast coast. After a few days of prep and a crash course in the intuitive art of Indian driving, we set out. The finish line was to be in Shillong in the hill provinces northeast of Bangladesh. Of the 60 teams, four decided to head inland instead of taking the coastal route: Rick Dangerous, the Midnight Riders, a team comprising an Aussie and a Canadian who couldn’t seem to agree on a name, and The Dehlicious, which was us.

We traveled in a loose pack, losing each other and reuniting at random intervals on the chaotic, often unmarked roads. Most nights we would rendezvous at a hotel and gather for drinks before hitting the sack early and setting out at dawn together. Communicating by cell phone, we helped each other through breakdowns, exhaustion and missed turns.

Our first stop was Gingee, a village of dirt streets filled with small vendors. As we pulled into town in the waning light of our first day, an ancient Chola fort rose above us. It was a heart-stopping sight, but sightseeing wasn’t our goal. We’d come to see the India hidden from the tour buses and hotels designed for Western tourists and weekend Buddhists. We were after complete immersion.

Which is why, later that night, when Garreth of Rick Dangerous suggested grabbing a beer, we didn’t hesitate to follow a stranger down a dark alley to a drab little room lit with flickering fluorescent bulbs. Gingee is for the most part a dry town and the room wasn’t a bar so much as a quiet gathering place. Locals ran off to grab us beers and pints of whiskey from a store farther down the alley. Though they added a reasonable markup, the evening was an unforgettable introduction to the kindness of the Indian people. Our brand new friends crowded around, confused as to what nine confused looking Westerners were doing in their speakeasy and entranced by Garreth’s bright red beard, which he grudgingly let the boldest among them stroke.

Back in the hotel, we filtered water from the tap, struggled to adapt to the nuances of Indian toilets and then wrapped ourselves in sleeping bags and went to sleep.

The next morning we rode out into a countryside bathed in sunlight. Cattle herded by young men grazed in fields that spread out for miles, interrupted only occasionally by a stand of trees or an errant rock formation. The road quickly turned from broken pavement to dirt and carried us farther away from the scattered towns we’d seen in the early morning. Before long, we realized we were completely lost. After regaining our bearings and retracing our steps we headed north, this time on the right road.

We had been warned at the start about driving at night and resolved to make our daily goals before nightfall. This resolution lasted through the first day, after which we were always behind schedule and continued plowing along well past sunset. While driving during the day can be slow due to traffic, it’s fairly simple to accomplish once you master the vehicular pecking order (ricks are above pedestrians, cyclists and motorcycles but below cars, lorries and buses). Night driving is another story, involving a complicated semaphore of honks, flashed headlights and muttered curses.

I let Aaron handle Chittoor on that second night, not yet feeling confident in my driving ability. After two hours, he was an emotional wreck. We decided to stop for the evening a couple hundred miles short of our goal.

The following days were a full immersion in parts of India rarely seen by tourists. As we cruised past sunflower fields that extended to the horizon, locals pulled up alongside us to converse at full speed. “Where are you from?” “Why are you here?” “Where are you going?” We were always treated with kindness and given directions-usually correct ones. At one point we lost a bolt that held our muffler in place, and locals appeared and fashioned a sling from banyan leaves and wire.

By the end of the fourth day of racing we had reached Hyderabad. Our hosts for the evening were Daniel and Shirley, the parents of a friend of Aaron’s who had invited us stay at their home. They had been told about the race, but I doubt anything could have prepared them for nine of the dirtiest, most exhausted and starving people they had ever seen stomping into their apartment. They watched in awe as we decimated the entire menu of a local restaurant (twice), but in a testament to their hospitality, they refused to allow us to contribute to a bill that was large by American standards and astronomical by Indian ones.

After an evening of hot showers, air conditioning and beds with clean linens, it was hard to leave, but we had a schedule to keep and five days to reach Varanasi, one of the major objectives of the trip. When the Midnight Riders’ rickshaw blew a tire just 20 minutes outside of Hyderabad and we made only 70 miles on the day, we knew there’d be some serious traveling ahead of us.

We did what we had to do, taking three-to-four-hour shifts and pushing 12 hours each day. In the mountains we crawled through misty passes and dense forest, the blur of green punctuated here and there by clusters of wildflowers, or the bright reds and yellows worn by women working in vast cotton fields. At night we slept in roadside motels on mattresses riddled with bedbugs or, if the city were large enough, the nicest hotel we could find. We awoke before dawn to pack our gear and hit the road, generally gulping down a few cups of chai for breakfast.

We pulled into Varanasi at dusk, eager to experience one of the world’s holiest cities. For well over a millennium, Hindus have come to Varanasi to cremate their dead on the banks of the Ganges. It is a city in which the fabric of life appears frayed with age, revealing each thread and layer-sometimes to an overwhelming degree. At night, trash fires burn in the streets as cattle mill about aimlessly, eating what they can find. On every corner, women holding screaming infants grabbed at our clothes begging for money. Men approached us reaching out to shake hands-only to keep the hand and provide unsolicited massages, expecting a tip. Children are everywhere, hawking beads and flowers. Inevitably, perhaps, given the city’s history, death permeates everything, at once a spectacle and a business. In the morning, Aaron and I found ourselves standing over a burning body. “We’re just tourists at a funeral,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”

It felt strange to leave, as we’d placed so much importance on the city during our planning. One thing we’d already begun to realize, however, is that the places you’re told are sacred aren’t always the ones where you actually feel touched by the divine.

After a brief stop in Bodh Gaya, we headed north, aiming to spend a day in Darjeeling. We were confident now. We knew the ropes, and the days flew. Passing through vast tea fields we drove in silence, lost in our own thoughts as the golden sun set to the west. On a steep mountain road, we paused to stare off into the distance where the highest peaks of the Himalayas are visible, Everest shrouded in fog somewhere among them. In Darjeeling, we found a shrine at the top of the city and a rare moment of silence. In a small town just days from the finish line, a restaurant owner kept his establishment open late and fed us a vegetarian meal of chili paneer, dahl and naan that tops anything I’ve eaten in New York’s most elegant Indian restaurants.

On our last day of driving, passing through a hilly stretch near the finish line in Shillong, we encountered four of the other teams-cheering and yelling to one another like old friends reunited after decades apart. We were almost there.

That’s when, out of nowhere, another lorry appears and nearly kills us all. Barreling down the hill at top speed, it causes two teams to flip their ricks. For a second, it looks as though the trip is ending in tragedy. We sprint down the road toward the crushed ricks, our hearts pounding as the lorry speeds away without a glance from the driver.

Miraculously, no one is injured, but the ricks are crushed. With a little creative demolition we rip the canopies and cracked windshields off the vehicles, and the beleaguered teams putter along in their convertibles for the last 30 miles as we follow close behind.

Aaron and I wind up in 25th place, but so what? The trip was never really about winning. Not only had we raised more than $3,500 for charity, we’d gained something ourselves-though even now it’s hard to say just what. I do know that landing in New York three days later, I would wonder where everyone was, why there wasn’t any noise or color to speak of. I would miss India.

RICHARD KNAPP will be returning to India in the spring. This time, he’ll be traveling by train.

4 Responses to “A Passage Through India”

  1. Rebecca Rolfes Says:
    November 18th, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    I spent a month in India earlier this year and tooled around in several tuk-tuks but 2000 miles! And in that traffic! Brave or insane? Very entertaining.

  2. Grant Hughes Says:
    December 1st, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    Hey guys. Heard about this from a friend who was flying. Don’t recall if we met you guys, but great article! We took the coast to the other side of Chennai then cut inland on the same rickshaw run! Don’t recall if we met, though I’m sure we did at the New Year’s party.

  3. Grant Hughes Says:
    December 1st, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    Oh yeah, our route, blog, and twitter updates, as well as full gallery are still online at http://www.teamzusa.com if you’re interested.

  4. Mark Malsom Says:
    December 1st, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    20th for us, but like you said, not a race.

    Great write up and it was a pleasure to meet you guys. I agree though, I found places other than Varanasi to be more peaceful.