Backpacking is certainly not a high class way to travel and in the past few weeks we’ve been discovering how low can we go. Bus rides. Himalaya Mountains. Days and days of jam packed public buses swerving up and down the steepest, most dangerous roads in the world.
Surprisingly we weren’t the only people deranged enough to travel for over 76 cumulative hours in cramped, claustrophobic vehicles with crash-prone, slightly stoned drivers. On one particularly grueling, disaster-prone ride there were 7 other countries represented on our bus. It was like the mini-UN with three security council members on board – this helped delude me into thinking that we were safe. After all, what has ever gone wrong at the UN?
Here, today, presented for your amusement and our overwhelming relief that this part of our trip is complete, a run down of our Himalayan bus ride adventures.
Rishikesh to Manali – 19.5 hours of public bus battering
One would think that after viewing our chariot that we would turn around and head back to Delhi. Instead we boarded early, sliding across the cracked, oil-stained bench seat to grab a spot by the window. When the three-person bench seats were stuffed full and people were standing in the aisle, the bus lurched out of the station.
It was difficult to breathe; diesel and dust mixed with the fresh air that managed to flow through the small window opening. The whole bus was oddly silent; everyone seemed to be concentrating on the driver, silently supporting him to continue on through the night.
Across from us was a bench packed with four adults and a diaper-less, naked baby who peed out of the window. Occasionally young kids would board the bus, sing at the top of their lungs and beg for change. At one point in the voyage a young woman leaned across several seatmates and began throwing up out of the window. We slid shut our only source of fresh oxygen to avoid the run off.
The bus got stuck in hours of traffic. We did not sleep that night.
Left at 1:45PM: Arrived at 8:30AM: 18 hours
Manali to Leh – Breakdowwn! The 14 hour journey that took 2 days.
We hoped never to repeat the above scenario ever again so instead of taking the much cheaper public bus, we grabbed a minibus to Leh. A caravan of minibuses depart Manali at 3AM and they tend to stick together for the entire 14-hour journey. Our caravan was especially colorful, it included drivers under the influence of mind altering substances, a passenger who nearly died from altitude sickness and lots of momos. (Any trip involving dumplings can’t be THAT bad.)
One of the drivers showed reeking of booze and breath mints – he was absolutely dead drunk. The mini-UN of international passengers rioted, cops were called and after several hours the driver was replaced. This did not ease our mind that the journey over some of the highest mountain passes in the world would be a safe one. Especially when we began to notice the drivers take quick charras breaks…
But the drunk, stoned drivers weren’t the real problem- those men can drive! The problem was rain. The mountain paths are 98% dirt and gravel, a monsoon quality downpour can bring traffic to a halt and keep it there for days. Our minibus caravan ran into a three-hour traffic jam at the Rohtang pass where the mud was knee deep. In the misty morning fog with visibility at exactly 0.06% and the single lane pass covered in mud, I was pretty certain that we weren’t going to make it to Leh. This suspicion was confirmed ten hours later when we ran into the next major roadblock- two trucks stuck in a roadside waterfall.
So with little else to do, the driver turned around and dropped us off at a tent on the side of the road. The inside of the tent was lined with cushions where you could sit down and enjoy a meal or a chai. These cushions also doubled as beds for the displaced.
That night in the snowy Himalayan mountains at 4,000 meters above sea level, we slept in a circus tent beside 60 other travelers.
Left at 3:00AM:Arrived at 5:30 PM the next day. Total time in van=26 hours, total time traveling 40.5 hours
Leh to Srinagar: OMG! It’s love!
One thing that I did not mention about the minibus is that it’s very, very uncomfortable. The narrow dirt roads are severely pockmarked, causing vans swerve to left and right to avoid the holes. There isn’t much room to swerve on a one way road 3,500 meters above sea level therefore not only do you NOT miss the potholes, you actively hit them – hard. Your ass is blue upon arrival and your head is spinning from the combination of lack of oxygen and being thrown against the glass window several hundred times.
Faced with these conditions, we upgraded once more. With a packed public bus out of the question and the prospect of another minibus ride causing night tremors, we spent big bucks on a miniVAN!
Sure, it was slightly less jarring. And yes, we had space to stretch our legs a bit. But this may have been the worst ride of all.
Our young English van-mates had commandeered the radio and choose to play their new purchace, a 51-track bootleg CD titled, “OMG! It’s love” with such classics as ‘Missing you now’ by Kenny G and Michael Bolton, ‘My Love’, Westlife and ‘Home’ by Daughtery. I wasn’t sure what made me more nauseous, the twisting switchbacks on the road or having to listen to John Mayer – twice.
Clearly the driver was equally enthused about 3 hours of music from Jason Mraz and Savage Garden. As soon as the CD began to play the driver drove straight into a motorcyclist.
Left at 4;00PM: Arrived at 8:00AM – only 12 hours!
Srinagar to Jammu to Dharamsala: The horror
Public buses are bad. Sitting in the very back seat of a public bus is worse. Sitting on the back of a 100 degree public bus traveling through Kashmir where the military stops you every 5 minutes and highly-trained snipers wait in the bushes with machine guns is worser-then-worse. During this 22 hour trip a child peed on me and Vinnie was showered in vomit.
That’s all I can talk about, the memories are still too painful.
Left 5AM: Arrived 4:30AM the next day
Final Leg of the trip – Dharamsala to Amritsar: Laughable
Public bus. Five hours. Piece of cake. We are PROFESSIONALS!
76 hours later: Denoument
Emerson may be right that life is about the journey not the destination. But Ralph Waldo Emerson never traveled in India. If he had taken the trip we just survived, he may been quoted for saying something like, “Are we there YET?”
Rishikesh is famous for several reasons: for yogis Rishikesh is the world capital of Yoga, for Shaivas it’s the location of a holy 12 km pilgrimage from the Ganges to a famous temple and for Beatles fans Rishikesh is where the Fab Four discovered transcendental meditation and wrote the BEST ALBUM EVER.
The Beatles stayed in Rishikesh for several months where they zenned out, wrote music and chowed down on pure veg food. Rumor has is that the Ringo hated the food and left early – he was probably as constipated as were are after a week of eating nothing but dal.
The other members of the band left after a falling out with their guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The song Sexy Sadie, originally titled ‘Maharishi’, was inspired by the departure from the Ashram.
The Beatles put Rishikesh in the hippie guidebook but these days you will only find monkeys living on the property. Chaurasi Kutia Ashram has been closed since the mid-nineties and has receded back to the wild. There are huge signs across the front gate warning against trespassing. Rumors abound that the gate is guarded by a bribe-accepting official but we didn’t see anyone so we jumped the wall.
The path in front of us was overgrown with flowers and weeds, the air was still and it was 41 degrees. Although this might not seem like the setting to a ghost story, it sure felt like one. India is not a quiet country and the silence surrounded us. I was sure that we were soon to be accosted by a crazed Beatles-loving hippie, government employee or the ghost of John Lennon. It was creepy.
The entire Ashram is runover and crumbling. One story stone igloos that were once set amongst the woods have now become part of the forest. Larger residential buildings were crumbling, rooms were full of glass and naked electrical wires. Beatles graffiti decorated everything. Paths laced with spider webs and thorn bushes led to frustrating dead ends. We hiked the property for hours, not really sure what we were looking for or understanding what we we found.
On top of a large compound of buildings sat squat white cones structures with ladders leading the the very top. From this perch on top of the world you could see from the small clusters of igloos on the property all the way to the Ganges and beyond to the mountains in the distance.
We were just two of the millions of Beatles fans have trekked to Rishikesh to find the Maharishi Mahesh ashram and somehow it felt like we had discovered something new and exciting. Perhaps we felt this way because there are no directions to this place, as if it’s some hidden secret. We searched for hours trying to find a map, a guide or instructions on how to find this ashram before finding it just 500 meters from our room.
So here you go, here are the directions to the Beatles Ashram.
Walk across the foot bridge to the Swarg Ashram area of town. Continue along the water, passing Parmarth Niketan ashram and the bathing ghats. Walk beyond the Sri Ved Niketan ashram and keep going even when the road turns to dirt and the cows outnumber people.
From here you will see the sign pointing towards the Beatles Ashram (it’s about 1/2 mile from the foot bridge). When the road ends at the beach, turn left. Soon you will see the gates to the Beatles Ashram on your right. Enjoy!
That damn Beatles ashram was difficult to find. Instead of spending a lazy afternoon exploring the abandoned grounds where the White Album was written, we followed thousands of charras-smoking Shiva pilgrims on a 12km hike to the Neelkanth Temple.
The road immediately turned into a dirt path heading straight uphill. At each turn we were convinced that the destination lay just a few steps ahead. We had a vague idea that the orange devotees were heading to a holy waterfall but had no idea where that waterfall was located or what else we would find.
After an hour of walking straight uphill, dripping with sweat, barely able to breathe, we halting asked someone where they were headed: how far is this damn walk? For the first time in India, no one spoke English.
“Twenty kilometers!” someone shouted at us as they walked past.
Now we’ve been in Asia a long time and we have learned that no one willingly walks 20 kilometers in 100 degree heat at 2,005m above sea level. We were fairly certain he meant two. Two kilometers.
So we continued to climb. And climb. And CLIMB. By the time we had climbed 8km, we had lost our will to live. So when a posse of stoned Shaivas called for Vinnie to join them for a rest in the shade, he willingly acquiesced.
The group of guys had traveled from Goa and Delhi to make the holy trek together. This was the Indian version of a Cancun spring break with a religious twist. All the pilgrims carried two things: a bottle of water from the Ganges and a black fanny pack filled with charras, papers and matches. The water is poured over a stone at a temple at the top of the hill. The charras was to help make the climb a little easier.
The men sat under a tent, buying individual cigarettes from the vendor and roll a joint. Not just one joint. The men rolled one after another sharing the hash between each other and dozens of other men walking up the hill. Who knew that pot played such an important role in spiritual enlightenment!
They excitedly chattered away about their quest and the charras. The leader of the group turned to Vinnie, repeatedly asking, “How do you feel, are you happy?” “Be Happy!” demanded.
Together with the men we continued up the hill, albeit very, very slowly. The steep winding path was lined with garbage bag tents on one side and a sharp drop on the other. We may have been in the middle of the wilderness but it was never silent. Exuberant boys who had already reached the top ran downhill blowing on whistles and shouting “Bum! Bum! BOULE!”
We passed babas playing drums and asking for money, “Hurry, do not stop!” the group warned. Serious pilgrims slowly climbed the hill performing arduous prostrations – kneeling to stretch their body against the ground, then standing up to repeat the action until they reach the top.
Every few steps another joint would circle around; when it’s effects were felt, we would take a break to buy water or food for the monkeys.
Depending on the level of stonedness, the men would either marvel at their environment (“Oh my God. Oh my GOD. Look! Look my friend! Amazing!”), or discuss God (“You know God? God is great. GREAT!”).
It took us over four hours to reach our destination and like most things the best part was getting there. Hundreds of pilgrims had carried water and offerings for miles just to lay them at the temple. At the temple’s entrance we took off our shoes only to walk across wet garbage, bottle caps and discarded offerings. Every step produced a wet squish as your weight crushed the remains beneath your feet.
We followed the line of people into the temple where two men watched as pilgrims poured their Ganges water onto a stone. After only a few seconds we were ushered out of the main temple into the outdoor courtyard where incense filled the air.
Dozens of people stood at the base of the temple emptying their water bottles and throwing the plastic into a pile. Behind the temple people were preparing to take a dip in the small pool.
I looked around, did I miss something? Was that IT!?I had expected something more.
Yes, that was it. Thousands of men walk for hours, chanting and smoking copious amounts of ganja, only to stand in line and pour water on a stone. I can’t claim to understand this particular religious rite.
Dusk was approaching, Vin’s high was wearing off and my feet were killing me. The men had fulfilled their spiritual quest and now, much calmer, were preparing for the walk down by rolling yet another joint.
It was time to take the easy way out – we called a cab!
That night as we returned to our room, we could easily hear the shouts of “Bum Bum Boule!” from the street outside. Pilgrims were just returning from their epic hike and clearly had enjoyed every moment. We did too.
India is not a country where you can simply observe, you’re compelled to participate. If you don’t join willingly, there are a billion people who will take you by the hand and physically persuade you to become part of this country.
We dropped by Haridwar to find a city full of orange-clad men chanting and parading down the streets. Their excitement was contagious so we hurried behind, trying to find an inch of space in the crush. That’s when we arrived at Har-Ki-Pauri and had out first look at Mother Ganga.
The sight was shocking. It felt like we had left modern India behind and had stepped into the spiritual soul of the country.
Women sat fully clothed in waist deep water furiously splashing their heads and washing huge swaths of fabric. Bare chested men in their underwear waded into the rapids and struggled to gain their footing before being swept downstream. Thousands of families clung to metal chains as they dipped together to wash away their sins.
We hesitantly dipped our toes into the FREEZING COLD water. It felt like every person in the bathing ghat was gauging our reaction, staring to see if we would brave the Himalayan water. Before we could make the decision for ourselves, a group of boys made the decision for us; they began splashing, laughing at our sputtering outrage.
We spent the entire day dipping and swimming against the strong current. A nearby group of women chastised me for not holding onto the chains, grabbing my hand to ensure that I didn’t float away. Upstream children shouted for Vinnie to join them as they jumped from a bridge into the water and floated downriver. Every five minutes another smiling face would approach us with a photographer in tow, “Sar, sar! One picture!”
One picture became five pictures, which became twenty pictures and then forty. Strangers would approach us and jump into the frame. “One more!” they would scream. And people didn’t just want our photo, they wanted US to take THEIR photo.
As night approached, people dried off and huddled together waiting for the ceremony to begin. Old women, sadhus, children selling mendhi and the mandatory cow were all packed on the marble steps leading into the river. Men in blue uniform scouted the crowd for donations, yelling at people to take off their shoes and not to use banned plastic coverings. Overhead the speakers were blaring music and announcements.
The jovial party atmosphere turned more introverted and personal. People clutched prayer beads, chanting and bowing into the Ganges. Others lifted a cup of milk and while mouthing a prayer, emptied it into the water. Flowers and coin offerings floated downstream until they were upended in the rapids where entrepreneurial young boys waited with magnets and rope.
An excited young guy turned to us and asked, “Are you ready to see the most amazing thing in all of India?”
As the sun set and the rain cleared, several men brought down a large diety and the Aarti of the Goddess Ganga began. Across the river from us, lamps were light and circled around the deity. The crowd pushed towards the fire, putting their hands into the flame and holding the heat to their foreheads.
Six minutes later the ceremony was over. We had waited in the rain with thousands of people to witness the most amazing thing in India and it lasted as long as a commercial break!
All at once the crowd stood and lumbered towards the stairs. We moved with the people, crossing the bridge to look out to the Ganges. Bobbing on top of the water were tiny flower petals and brightly lit candles. Small boys waded into the water to grab the coins before they were upended by the rapids.
In that huge crowd, surrounded by so much activity, I realized why the day had been so special: we had joined in, not just watched. We may not believe that our souls are wiped clean but there is this a lingering sense of togetherness and belonging. We held hands with people, laughed at their jokes and chanted along together. We connected.
For the record, not everyone loves their dip in the Ganges.
India is a study in contrasts; for ever unequivocal statement about this country, the absolute opposite is often true. The only absolute thing you can say about India is that there are a lot of cows.
Prior to visiting this country I had always pictured India as a predominately Hindu nation with a small minority of Muslims. And this may be true to some extent, on paper at least. But as with everywhere else we’ve traveled, we’ve learned that things are always as they appear – 13% minority in India is over 160 MILLION people. That’s the world’s third largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan!
The rich Muslim history of India was on full display as we traversed India’s golden triangle – Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. We toured massive sandstone forts built by Shah Jahan, gorgeously ornate mausoleums that predated the Taj and the ruins of one of the oldest cities in the world.
The experience of touring a World Heritage site per day made our heads spin – though it could have also been the heat. Delhi in July is very, very hot.
J’adore Indian style from the saris and bangles right down to henna painted hands and feet. Even the most casually dressed Indian woman leaves the house wearing perfectly matched earings and a scarf thrown casually around her shoulders. It’s beautiful.
As a backpacker with two pairs of pants and a black dress, it’s hard not to get caught up in the wild display of color and beauty. In every town I find myself inextricably drawn to the sari bazaar; lane upon lane of small shops selling nothing but gorgeous, brightly colored fabric.
The stores are nothing more than small rooms. Men sit on the floor in puddles of fabric, looking out at passing shoppers. “Come in, come in. Only looking, no selling! Come look!”
Nothing in India is done without first sitting down and having a chat. You can’t simply point to a sari and ask how much. Instead you take off your shoes, climb onto the raised shop floor and join the crowd of other women on the floor.
“What color you like? Red? Blue?,” and suddenly yards and and yards of fabric are thrown in the air. The fabric doesn’t even float to the ground before more saris are taken from the shelves and thrown into the air. Then the niceties begin, “Where are you from? Ahh! very nice country! You like India?” After ten minutes of chatter and looking at fabrics, you finally get to the point, how much does this damn thing cost! “Ohh! Handmade embroidery. Very nice! 600 ruppes.”
Never pay the first price! That hand embroidery is not really hand made! First you must listen to the lies before you get to the truth.
Ten more minutes of debating colors and fabrics – most of that time spent just trying to understand what bullshit line they’re feeding you – you finally agree to a price that makes both people happy. And that’s how business is done. Sit down, chat, lie to each other, bargain and pay.
This process is the same for everything from bangles and bracelets to hotel rooms. Nothing happens quickly. You’re always offerer a seat, you’re always fed a line and you’re always asked to pay more. Just keep calm and remember, it’s India!
It was time to get a move on and since we had to hand over the keys to our rickshaw, we were faced with only one way to get out of town – train. Train travel is generally not horrible, but train travel in India is a whole different level.
Just getting to the train was an event. We jumped on a moving subway that had no doors, shoved ourselves into the mass of men and exited to find ourselves face-to-face with a multi-acre slum. Also, there were sheep on the platform. SHEEP.
There are shacks and people living on the street all throughout Bombay but this was the first sprawling, 2-story slum community we’d come across. And we didn’t just see the slum from above, we got to walk right through it!
The subway exit is not a far walk from the train terminal, but what an interesting walk it was. Monsoon rains had caused a minor flood and the passing buses sprayed us with stinky, fetid water. We tip toed through mud and cow shit while tuks tuks screamed around us. Birds sat on cows who were busy eating piles of garbage and on the side of the road kids played cricket. It was 40 degrees.
And when finally arriving at the terminal we discovered that our wait listed ticket never got off the waiting list. We couldn’t get on the train! So we had to turn right around and do it all over again the next day, only this time we had a real ticket and it was worth exactly what we paid – 10 dollar to travel 1,100 kilometers in a non-AC, second class sleeper.
This may not have been the cleanest place to lay your head but it was certainly interesting. The train was packed. People without tickets had boarded early to claim their tiny spot on the floor, lying down newspapers to sit on and opening containers of home cooked food to eat for dinner. When the train started moving people appeared from nowhere to shake hands and join conversations, cramming 8 people into a booth or sitting on top of bunks with their legs dangling into the seat below. Even with so many people sitting so close together, the mood was oddly upbeat and jovial, people were laughing with each other, babies were crying and someone played Bollywood tunes from their phone. Everyone was eating and ordering Chai. It felt like a big crowded family party.
After a questionable nights sleep our 22 hour train ride wasn’t even half over, in fact the fun was just beginning. During the day, sellers (wallas) began to walk through the cabins. Chai walla after chai walla yodeled down the corridor. Shoe repair people, women selling fruit, locksmiths and toy sellers all had their own unique sing-songy cry to let you know they were there. Beggars would crawl on the floor asking for food or stare into the train giving you sad dog eyes at each stop. The train was never, ever silent.
And when we entered Rajashtan the drumming began.
Men with deep baritone voices and tambourines sang down the train, stopping to play for 20 cents. The men in our area adored the drummers and suddenly we were in the middle of a concert. 100s of rupees were thrown around, guaranteeing us a show for the ages. The men began dancing, pointing their fingers in the air and waving their hands. More and more people came to sit in our 6-person space, more and more drummers added their voice to the dim. Tomato-onion-cucumber sandwiches were passed around and we all began to sweat in earnest in the 100 degree heat.
This did not stop for three hours.
In India something as simple as taking a train is never that cut and dry, there is always drama. There is some odd farm animal in your way, there are thousands of readily apparent safety violations and dozens of very poor, very dirty people are asking for cents. With all this happening someone gives you a huge smile, serves you a sandwich and buys you song.
This country is crazy full of life.
The Dhobi ghat is a massive open air laundry where hundreds of Dhobi (the traditional washermen) live and work. We heard that it was pretty easy to check out, so we got off the train at Mahalaxmi station to see what we could find. We didn’t have to look far!
Men with rolled up pant legs stand in knee deep water whipping dirty clothes against a stone. Some hung around and watched their clothes spin in industrial washing machines that looked like cement mixers. Inside the small houses piles and piles of clothes sat in color sorted piles. The few women I saw sat inside ironing and sorting clothes.
If you’re staying in Mumbai and your hotel offers to do your laundry chances are good that they’re washed at the Dhobi Ghat. Your pants will return freshly washed and pressed and you’d have no idea that you clothes went on a little expedition to the laundry slum.
India is a shocking place, which may be why I LOVE IT. It really is that filthy, it really is that colorful, it really is that poor or that rich.
I’ve already accepted that I won’t be clean for another two months. After five minutes in the mugggy Mumbai monsoon, your clothes are damp and wrinkled, your face is covered in sweat and the smog has seeped into your pores. What shocks me is not just how dirty I have become, but the savage level of filth that I have quickly become immune to and can calmly ignore.
Today we took a walk along the most famous beach in Bombay, Juhu Beach. This posh suburban area is where Bollywood stars walk their dogs and recently, where a massive tanker has run ashore and it currently beached right in front of the 5-star Marriot hotel.
With these adjectives: ‘posh’, ‘5-star’, and ‘famous’, one would expect a level of cleanliness and possibly serenity. Here is what it looked like.
A great place to enjoy some street food or get a tattoo, no?
The breakdown was bound to happen, it was just a matter of time. What could not have been expected was the side trip to the slum, the instant fame that we would undeservedly receive or the insane ride through Pune rush hour traffic pushing the ‘Shaw to it’s final resting place.
For this we lost the race, but earned the “Bonkers” Award.
Here’s how it went down.
We just happened to breakdown directly in front of a tuk-tuk taxi stand. Instead of calling our mechanics we chose to hire the most sane looking Taxi driver to help repair the Shaw. It just so happened that the man spoke absolutely no english and communicated all day in Hindi and twisty headbobs. It took 10 hours to understand just how badly we’d fucked the Shaw.
Mr. Taxi driver knelt down next to Vinnie – pointing and bobbing and chatting away. After some initial language difficulties Vin finally understood that new parts were needed, but that someone must stay with the Shaw. That left me, a white woman in a sari, alone in a rickshaw that wouldn’t move, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers with camera phones. INDIA INSANITY!
White people in India are always stared at and if you don’t respond properly, the attention can grow until there is a mob of people surrounding you. During the race we quickly learned the best way to mitigate the fame is to smile and then pretend that people aren’t blatently undressing you with their eyes. Being a single woman in India can be slightly terrifying especially when a large group of men surround your vehicle, wanting to touch you, get your autograph or pinch you.
Luckily just seconds after Vinnie left there was a massive, near-fatal motorcycle accident. Watching a man fly head first into the pavement provided more excitement than a white woman in a rickshaw. I would consider this a mixed blessing, but it was only the first death of the day.
Shaw repairs continued but the crowd refused to dissapate. Mr. Rickshaw driver had Vinnie drive his taxi while he coaxed the Shaw one block down the road into a small wooded alley. We spent the next 3 hours in the rain, trying to figure out just what could have gone so terribly wrong.
The problem with the Shaw went from having muffler issues to having no muffler. From spark plugs not firing to a complete meltdown of the alternator. Basically we needed to buy a new Rickshaw, simple repairs were not going to fix the beast.
We also needed more help. Mr. Taxi driver convinced his friend Mr. Repairman to enter the fray. (Mr. Repairman also spoke no English). Together they needed to drive the stalled Rickshaw three miles to Mr. Repairman’s shop.
Just how do you drive a stalled rickshaw?
It turns out that you can’t drive a stalled rickshaw, you must push it. And since no one wanted to push a rickshaw for three miles, the men came up with an alternate solution.
That’s right. He pushed it WITH HIS FOOT for THREE MILES! Along the way he also stopped to pick up a fare!
Vinnie, me, Mr. Repairman and a random woman crammed into the Taxi Rickshaw. Mr Repairman floored the gas, driving straight towards our Shaw where the Mr. Taxi driver sat waiting. Within inches of hitting the Shaw, Mr. Repairman stuck out his foot and began driving while pushing our stalled rickshaw through traffic. WITH HIS FOOT.
Needless to say this was exhausting. The traffic surrounded us, blowing their horns, cursing and shouting at us. We stopped twice. Once to drop off our passenger and second time to grab a quick chai.
As we finally approached the shop, Mr. Repairman changed his mind. Instead of driving us to the repair shop, he drove us to his home, where he felt that I would be more comfortable hanging out with his wife and mother.
Specifically, Mr. Repairman drove me to his slum, where we walked through goat shit and dirty laundry to find his very small, dirt floor single room abode. Outside the room was a metal bed of springs, where an old woman lay, mouth open, trying to breathe her last breath. A younger woman appeared from the room wearing Lycra gloves covered in puss, clearly in the middle of caring for this dying woman.
“My wife!” Mr. Repairman smiled and motioning to the dying woman on the bed, “My mother.”
The old woman was covered in flies and stared at the ceiling gargling. His wife stared at me in horror, saying something to the effect of “your mother is dying on our only chair. This white girl can not stay here, and besides there is there is no place for her to sit.”
Thank God in heaven that Indians strongly respect marriage. “My husband!” I cried. “I can’t leave my husband! We’re married! We stay together!”
I was pleading in English and the Repairman only spoke Marathi but somehow this seemed to translate. With a huge measure of relief, we were once again off to repair the Shaw.
The repair shop was more of a street corner. A street corner where a man stood all day pressing clothes, and an old woman sold spices. The corner had never seen such a sight! Women in burkas would slow down to stare, others gathered on balconies to point and shout. At once point school let out and crowds of children gathered around just to witness the reality of white people dressed like Indians. I have never received so many compliments in my life, “You look like beautiful woman!” or “You’re a proper lady!”
With the day coming to a close, there was only one problem. None of the electric worked and the Shaw was essentially hotwired. We set off once more to find the right pieces, ending up at a temple where goats, cows and hundreds of little kids spent their day.
This proved to be the ne plus utlra of fame. We gave stickers to the little boys who surrounded us. They put the stickers on every available surface, including the side of a goat and cows ass. One the stickers were gone, they ran back asking for more! and more! Each movement was tracked by hundreds of curious adult men who motioned for us to give them a sticker and take their picture. Soon everyone from the street was crowded around our rickshaw, shaking our hands, asking for autographs and blocking all other traffic.
We also witnessed some type of funeral procession.
We drove off with children running alongside the still-hotwired Shaw. That’s right, it was never fully repaired. It was the end of the day and had begin to rain. We were too exhausted to care that the Shaw was still broken and after 10 hours called it a day.
This proved to be the most fantastic part of our journey and the ‘real’ part of India. The part where strangers spend 10 hours repairing your vehicle and invite you into their homes. Where women are treated like little ladies who must be protected and shouldn’t help the men with their mechanics. And where kids and agricultural animals roam around the streets with stickers on their head.
It’s crazy and we love it!
India is a damn crazy place to drive. At first glance it appears that there are absolutely no rules, it’s pure chaos. You quickly come to realize that there are rules and they’re purely based on size and speed. You can pass anyone, anywhere, at anytime as long as they’re moving a tiny bit slower than you. But beware of oncoming traffic, they will hit you. Especially the lorries, do not mess with the truck drivers.
Rules of the road in India
- There really are cows on the highway. Do Not Hit a Cow.
- There are no stop signs or traffic lights. Even if there is a traffic light, ignore it.
- Each vehicle at the four way intersection has the right of way and will not stop. They will simple enter traffic at full speed.
- It is perfectly acceptable to cut someone off.
- Use your horn for everything, always.
- Trucks drive into oncoming traffic while flashing their lights. This is Indian-speak for “I will kill you, please give way”
- You will be run off the road. Expect this or deal with the consequences (death).
- There are no “lanes.”
- Only look in front of you, never behind you. Mirrors are unnecessary.
- Turn signals are never used.
- Yield to ox carts and marriages
- It’s perfectly normal to pull beside another vehicle and scream out thhe window,”Where are you going! What are you doing!” while driving down the highway.
- White people don’t drive rickshaws, particularly white women. This may attract some attention.
- Watch out for hop ons, God knows you’re gonna get hop ons.
In India one of the first things you must adjust to is the level of shit: cow shit, garbage on the street, the waft of urine from the slums as you deboard the plane in Mumbai. It seemed appropriate, given the massive amount of shit in India, that we drive the ultimate piece of shit vehicle – a two stroke, three wheeled Rickshaw.
Goa to Bombay. Seven Teams. Eight Days. Monsoon Rains. It’s the Rickshaw Challenge!
To learn how to drive our new ride we were led to the local parade grounds or what some would call a swamp. The monsoon rains had begun and we were soaked, mud crept through our toes and the smell of compost soon overwhelmed the senses. The fun had begun!
It was here that we realized that driving a rickshaw is not nearly as easy as one would expect. A rickshaw is a bit like a lawnmower, you must pull up on the starter to start the engine. From there you use hand gears to shift and accelerate and a foot pedal to brake. It takes some getting used to but by the second day, it feels like you’ve been driving for years.
It turns out that learning to drive is only 1/100th of the Challenge, the other part is figuring out how to repair your shaw. A rickshaw is an authentic piece of shit, breakdowns started on the first day. One team had an engine that was not mounted but rather tied on to the frame. Another team lost their muffler during the race. Many of the Shaws didn’t have a working odometers or speedometers or lights! Our big problem, initially, was that our rickshaw did not like neutral.
These may sound like trivial concerns until you’re stalled in traffic, surrounded by motorbikes, massive trucks and farm animals. Everyone is beeping and staring, and you don’t have a clue what’s wrong. You don’t know how far you’ve gone so you don’t know if you need gas, or possibly the engine came unmounted. Maybe you’re totally fucked and muffler fell off or the alternator burnt out. Or you’re simply not in neutral.
Figuring out just what has gone wrong is part of the adventure. The rest of the fun is figuring out just where the hell you’re going.
Directions in India are a big joke. There are no real street addresses instead a place is located “next to the Church” or “Near the Taj”. Once you know what landmark to ask for, figuring out how to get there is next to impossible. Everyone will always tell you to go straight. And when you attempt to confirm the directions, you are met with the famous Indian ‘yes, no, maybe so’ headbob.
What are you supposed to do when someone both shakes their head up, down, back and forth all at the same time. THIS MEANS NOTHING!
The headbobs, the breakdowns, and the directions, these are all just warm ups for the real Challenge: Driving in India. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer terror and exhilaration one feels when passing an ox-cart while driving in oncoming traffic down a 25% incline. Particularly when you’re staring right into the face of a shipping container on wheels.
India is a crazy country, and only someone mentally insane would decide to travel 1,043 km from Goa to Bombay in a Rickshaw. But we did it, and it was fantastic.