Three Wheels On My Wagon
Words Matthew Holt, Pics Matthew Holt, Mandy Ramsden
Passing villagers paused to inspect the brightly-painted auto-rickshaw, with amusement verging on incredulity. With no oncoming traffic, potholes or cows in the road, it wasn’t immediately obvious how the vehicle came to be down in the ditch, suspended in a bush. As the responsible driver, I duly shrugged and smiled, though I was quite anxious how we were going to reach Kanyakumari.
For the discerning traveller, each place has its quintessential mode of travel. In California, it’s a convertible, in Venice a gondola, in the Caribbean a yacht and in India an auto-rickshaw. Known elsewhere as a ‘tuk-tuk’ or ‘moto-taxi’, this two-stroke, three-wheeler is the backbone of India’s public transport system.
Rickshaw and sacred cow.
As I stood contemplating our stricken vehicle and my co-pilot disassociated herself from the embarrassment, a small truck pulled alongside. Gesticulating that I should stay put – though I had few other options - the driver returned after five minutes with a rope, which he hitched around my vehicle and tied to his tow bar. And when several villagers in flip-flops slithered down into the foliage and started to push, I felt obliged to clamber into the cockpit and steer. With much grunting, revving and tyre spinning, the rickshaw was hauled back onto the road and, after a round of handshakes, we were on our way again.
Maps were of limited use.
We were taking part in an auto-rickshaw rally, over nine-days and covering some 1200km, depending how badly you got lost. The starting point was Chennai, formerly Madras, where in 1639 the East India Company set up a small shop that morphed into the British Empire, punkah wallahs, tiffin and G&Ts. The small colonial fort looked lost amidst the congested, chaotic sprawl of India’s fourth largest city, with the only remnant of the Raj being an obsession with cricket.
Visiting Thanjavur temple.
The day before the rally started, we attended a practice session on the outskirts of the city. The founder and organiser, of sorts, Aravind Bremanandam, gave us the keys to our vehicle plus some tips on cultural etiquette and survival. My co-pilot, Mandy, was bereft of mechanical and navigational skills, but she did have a penchant for fancy dress and our rickshaw looking resplendent in South African colours. While neglecting to bring a tool kit or GPS, Mandy had remembered makarapas and vuvuzelas.
Handling the rickshaw took some getting used to. Excepting the brake pedal, everything was operated by hand, including the all-important horn and manual windscreen wiper. Nonetheless, after a cursory driving test - which we passed despite stalling - we were declared roadworthy.
The next morning, all the teams gathered in the hotel parking lot. While I didn’t spot Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso, there was a German team calling themselves the ‘Shawmachers’; two Aussie bodybuilders dressed as superheroes and both named Bob; a pair of Scots sporting kilts and hangovers; three European girls in tight-fitting, red overalls branded ‘Masala’; Santa and his elf; a couple of ducks; and a trio of languidly-spoken English public schoolboys, who were to leave a trail of destruction and hush money. In total, there were 21 teams, each comprising two or three members. One by one, we climbed aboard, yanked our ignition levers, revved our wailing engines and – accompanied by camera flashes and ironic cheers - kangaroo-hopped down the hotel driveway into the maelstrom of Chennai’s rush hour traffic.
The scenic route to Tuticorin.
The first hour was, quite frankly, traumatic. The triple carriageways carried at least eight lanes of traffic, plus occasional vehicles coming the wrong way, pedestrians, goats and cows. Meanwhile, the only law of the road was Darwinian, with articulated trucks as the apex predators, travelling flat out, horns blaring, forcing everyone else into the gutter. Cyclists and pedestrians were supposedly beneath us in the hierarchy, but we’d been warned to avoid any collisions since, as ‘feringhis’ we’d be to blame. It was a fraught hour before we escaped the city and found the more sedate coastal road towards Puducherry.
On the main road to Manapad.
The rally wasn’t an all-out race as such, with teams required to make each day’s destination before a cut-off time, earning points by visiting obscure landmarks along the way. The daily stages were typically around 150km, which - allowing for a cruising speed of 50kph, fuel stops, breakdowns and navigational blunders – generally took us six to eight hours. While we weren’t too bothered about winning, the event was an ideal way to explore the birthplace of four major religions, yoga, the Kama Sutra and vindaloo.
Bemused cyclist in Manapad.
Over the next eight days, we travelled south through the heart of Tamil Nadu, past intricate temples, abandoned forts and flooded paddy fields, where women in elegant saris worked up to their ankles in mud. In the former French colony, Puducherry, we boisterously celebrated surviving the first stage; at the next overnight stop, Thanjavur, we crashed into a bollard and knocked over a row of motorbikes like dominoes; and in Madurai, we spent New Year’s Eve visiting the ancient temple.
At Thiruchendur, we were blessed by a rheumy-eyed, old elephant, which took our 10 rupee donations in his trunk and passed them to his handler, before deftly patting us on our crowns. In Tuticorin, we stayed down by the harbour, which had an unhealthy fishy pong; in Tirunelveli I spent the night sweating and shivering with fever; and in Kanyakumari, we watched the sun set into the confluence of the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.
Traffic jam in Tirunelveli.
There’s a saying, ‘If you don’t hate India, you haven’t spent enough time there,’ which eventually might prove true, but our experience was just the opposite. The longer our journey went on, the more we enjoyed it. Initially, we’d been terrified at the prospect of breaking down. After the second day, however, when our rickshaw had stuttered to a halt and we’d been ushered to a back-street garage where they stripped and cleaned our engine, and offered us lunch - all for US$ 4 - we almost looked forward to technical mishaps and the ensuing social interactions.
As 'feringhis', we even had to give way to cyclists.
Similarly, we got used to being hopelessly lost. With road maps of limited assistance, the only means of navigation was to stop and ask directions from locals, who would invariably smile, say ‘Yes’ and wobble their heads.
We even became cavalier about regular near-fatal collisions, dismissing them with a sanguine shrug. Four teams rolled their rickshaws during the rally, with the English public schoolboys managing to do so three times, shatter their windscreen twice and collide head-on with a motorcyclist. On reflection, it was a miracle nobody was maimed, or perhaps it was due to visiting all those temples.
Roadside repairs on the way to Kanyakumari.
The final stage from Kanyakumari into Kerala took us past green hills, coconut trees, hyacinth lakes and sandy white beaches. Reaching Trivandrum, we pulled up at St Joseph’s Cathedral, where all the teams eventually gathered, save for the English public schoolboys who’d reportedly crashed again. From the cathedral, we’d been requested to proceed in convoy to a hotel just around the corner, where the local media was assembled to record our triumphant arrival. Competitive spirits got the better of us, however, and the procession quickly became a mad-cap race, cutting each other up, squeezing through gaps and jumping traffic lights. We screeched up the hotel drive on two wheels, only to find the press had gone to the wrong venue.
Now how did that get there?
Later that afternoon, over a tub of iced beers, Aravind declared the winners to be the three shapely girls from Team Masala, who received a free entry into the next rally. Reluctantly surrendering our keys and bidding farewell, we caught a taxi along the coast to Varkala. As our taxi driver darted between cars and swerved round trucks, we didn’t even flinch. We were veteran Indian road hogs ourselves now. The next few days were spent lounging in cliff top bars, dining on pesto tuna and quaffing mojitos, which was very pleasant, if hardly the real India. You need an auto-rickshaw to experience that.
Welcome to Kerala with a speeding fine.