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Driving across India with a few friends, in a rickshaw

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Tori Vail hanging out the right-hand door of their vehicle on the trip across India.

By TORI VAIL, In India
I honked the horn but he just looked at me, standing in the middle of the road as if he was telling me, “I am holy, you have to go around.”
This was an everyday, many times a day, occurrence in the Rickshaw Run. Cows are considered to be holy in India, and they are not afraid to let you know.
A few months earlier, a friend in Australia called me and told be about a race put on by The Adventurists. Their catch phrase is, “Fighting to make the world less boring.” I was in. I was planning on going to India to practice yoga anyway, so the stars aligned.
The race happens three times a year in different locations. We drove from Jaisalmer to Shillong and raised over $5,000 for Cool Earth, an organization protecting the rain forest, and Little Warriors, a foundation helping sexually abused children.
“One rule,” an organizer yelled before we left. “Do not drive at night. It is incredibly unsafe.
“And, please do not ring us.”
Nine hours later, the streets were dark and it was hard to see with all the traffic lights in our eyes. Indians seem to like to drive with their high beams on, headlights that look more like football stadium lights. The rickshaws have only a flashlight-sized headlamp, so we couldn’t see a thing. Our convoy of three rickshaws tried to stay together, no easy task. We wanted to get through the city to a hotel. Within nine hours we broke the “one rule,” we drove at night. Our number one rule, make it 3,000 kilometres alive.
Sharon, an Australian-Canadian, Elena, a German, and I were driving the ‘Beast.’ Sharon drove while Elena and I sat in the back praying we would make it to our first destination alive.
“Sorry Mom, I have a habit of getting myself into these near-death situations,” I thought.
I held onto the bar of the rickshaw with a death grip. Roaring by were semi-trucks that don’t seem to notice us. In India, if you are bigger, you have the right away. A rickshaw is a three-wheeled, seven-horsepower glorified lawnmower.
Men pointed, truckloads of people driving by smiled. One man, reached out to hold my hand while driving on his motorbike. Women don’t drive rickshaws in India, so a rickshaw filled with three blonde girls driving on their own was quite a sight.
Then our second rickshaw’s lights burnt out, so we had one of the rickshaws behind and one in front while someone in the back shone a flashlight on the road. Then the third rickshaw’s brakes failed with 20 kilometres to go.
When we got to the hotel, everyone jumped out and hugged one another, our first bonding experience.
The next day, there were a few upset stomachs from something we ate the night before. Our convoy of three, which we named Team FBI (F’ed by India), hit the road to Varanasi, India’s oldest city.
“Look what I got,” a team member shouted at a red light and held up a duck.
“I saved him, and he was only 100 Rupees ($2)!”
We named him Agent Quack.
We made Agent Quack a seat, fed him and let him out at the gas stations. He followed us around, never wandering away. We couldn’t go anywhere without crowds gathering around for photos.
One of the rickshaws stalled again. We tried to run and push it to start it in second gear, which had worked previously, but this time, no luck.
A little garage fixed the rickshaw, but we were left sitting around for most the day. There was no bathroom, so I asked a young Indian man who spoke a bit of English where I could use the toilet.
“Come,” he said, grabbing my hand with a big smile on his face. I hesitated, but followed.
I walked into his house and into the bathroom, a hole in the ground with a bucket of water. When I came out, his mother and five sisters were gathered around smiling. They all wanted a photo with me, he explained. The mother took my hands and washed them, then made me some tea. One at a time his sisters came up and took multiple photos.
After half an hour, one of the girls on our team found me. The rickshaw was ready to go.
We packed up Agent Quack, our bags and waved goodbye to the crowd of approximately 50 Indian men who had gathered around to help us.
We almost made it to the next stop for the night when I looked in the rearview mirror and didn’t see the other rickshaws behind me. We turned around and met the other rickshaws on the side of the highway with big trucks speeding past.
“Looks like the Beast isn’t so hardcore after all,” a team members said.
The rickshaw wouldn’t start. We tried push starting it.
“One, two, three, go!”
We pushed the rickshaw as fast as we could on the side of the dark highway and waited for Sharon to start the rickshaw. Not this time.
It was 11 p.m., and we had been driving for 15 hours. We parked our three rickshaws on the side of the road, put down a tarp, cuddled together to stay warm and slept in the ditch as huge trucks, cars and motorcycles zoomed past us dressed in our animal onesies. I was wearing a monkey suit.
“We do cool shit,” Sharon looked over and said just as we were pulling up to the finish line in Shillong. We met up with the other teams and had an ending party organized by The Adventurists. We noticed we had all lost a few pounds. The next morning, most of us went our different ways, some heading back home, some continuing to travel.
Returning home to Canada, I stayed at the first nice hotel I had stayed at in months. I had food that didn’t consist of curry. I don’t mind staying in $5 hotels with hole toilets and a room that looked like a basement with cracks in the walls in India, but to be in a nice hotel again was OK too. I’d gone from sitting by the street with a local Indian man with cows walking by, to sitting with a businessman in a hotel in Canada talking over a $7 beer.
They say India changes you. And it does.

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BANGKOK BLACKJACK

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Gwydion in Koh Samui eating a bag of grubs, crickets, and grasshoppers!

By Gwydion Morris
The first thing I noticed about the old man was his hair, it was much too dark for his age. It wasn’t a wig, but he had definitely dyed it too much. Moments later I realized I was here to take a lot of his money.

It was the third day into my travels and I was in Bangkok. I was fresh off of a harmless scam involving tuk-tuks, suit shops, and a fake Buddhist holiday, yet I was still eager to explore the city.
I was walking around Terminal 21, a large mall near my hostel. As I was making my way up the escalator, I heard a voice call out behind me.

“That’s a nice backpack. Where did you get it from?”

As far as backpacks go, this one was pretty unremarkable. But I turned around just the same. I doubted they knew about the bargains at Winners, so I just said Canada.

The Thai couple seemed normal enough. They were well dressed and they spoke good English. They introduced themselves as Raymond and Anna.

We got to chatting and Raymond explained how Anna’s sister was soon moving to Vancouver to be a nurse. They asked me questions about Vancouver and I answered the best I could, seeing as I live on the opposite side of the country, but they didn’t seem to mind.

Talk went on for a bit until they invited me to their house for lunch where I could meet Anna’s sister and answer any of her questions. Being new to the country I couldn’t pass up the chance to have lunch with locals, so I graciously accepted and followed Raymond and Anna out of the mall. I had no idea where I was going and nobody knew I was gone.

We took the subway until it reached the last stop then took a taxi for about half an hour. The city fell behind us as we got into some suburbs. After a dozen twists and turns we reached their house.

It looked just like the house to its left and to its right. I guessed this was the average middle-class Thai house.

I left my flip-flops at the door and was welcomed into a large living room. Anna quickly left to prepare lunch and Raymond offered me a seat next to an old man on the couch. His smile was almost as big as his belly. He looked like Buddha. The three of us talked for a bit until another old man arrived.

This was Roger, the big player. I got up to shake his hand with my right and he shook it with his left. He apologized as he held up a right hand which only had a thumb, no fingers.

Roger joined us and we kept on with our friendly conversation. Once we were all familiar, Roger told me he was the head blackjack dealer in a casino on a cruise ship. He was proud of his ship and invited me aboard sometime. Doubtful I’d ever go on a cruise ship, I nodded and said that sounded great. After writing down his number for me, Roger said we’d do business. I had no idea what he meant, but again I nodded and said that sounded great. Over the next ten minutes he said we’d “do business” about half a dozen times.

The talk turned to blackjack, as Roger said he had invented a new version of the game. He offered to show me while lunch was being made and I was curious enough to accept.

Roger, Raymond and myself went upstairs and entered an empty room save for the small table and chair conveniently set up in the middle. Roger produced cards and chips from somewhere and dealt out a regular game of blackjack. Even with his missing fingers, Roger was able to command a deck of cards.

I barely know how to play, but I did my best, and we played a few rounds. Nothing special. We chatted a bit as we played, mainly about Roger’s casino. He said he was the top blackjack dealer in all of Asia in 1995, but had an accident in 1996 that claimed the fingers on his right hand.

Roger mentioned a man played at his table on the ship a few nights ago and won $80,000 and refused to play again, walking away with all that money. Safe to say Roger’s bosses weren’t happy with him. I said that was too bad, and thought nothing more of it.

Then Roger started showing me his special version of blackjack. His version was less of a game and more a way to cheat. It only worked if he was the dealer and I sat opposite him. He’d hold the deck of cards in a way where he could stick the top card out for me to see what was coming next, letting me know exactly what to play every time.

I was a little confused at this point and was starting to hope lunch would be ready soon. Maybe this is what Roger meant by us doing business on the ship, I thought. Better I stay on dry land then.

We played this rigged game for a while and I still had no idea why. Suddenly Roger stops and says, in a serious tone, “Are you ready to do this for real?”

“What? Of course not, I’m just here for lunch.”

“What do you mean? Don’t you have the confidence to do this in a real game?”

I laughed and shook my head awkwardly, hoping to God this was a joke. I was starting to get hot. Roger sat back in his chair looking disappointed. Raymond hadn’t said a word the whole time.

A knock on the door broke the silence. Lunch is finally ready, I thought. But it was Anna letting Roger know he had a guest.

An old man walked in wearing an ill-fitting black suit, and hair that was obviously much too dark for his age. He kept his briefcase close and joined us at the table. This wasn’t lunch, this was something else. I got even hotter.

Roger perked up as soon as the old man sat down. He clapped his hands together and said in his cheeriest voice, “Ok, are we ready to play some blackjack?”

The realization hit me like a cruise ship. I was instantly sweating. My heart either dropped or stopped, I couldn’t tell. My vision went in and out.

This was the man from the casino. The one that cost Roger a lot of money. I was here to make sure Roger got his money back.
I was numb in my seat. Their mouths moved but I couldn’t hear anything. My fight or flight instinct was kicking in, I had to leave this house quick. My mouth worked and I spoke. I asked what time it was. Raymond said it was 4:30. This was my chance.

“Oh shit, I have to go. I’m meeting my friends at 5,” I was out of my chair before I’d even said anything.

I didn’t wait for a reply. I opened the door, fully expecting there to be a thug blocking my escape. Luckily there wasn’t and I didn’t look back once as I made for the stairs, leaving that poor dark-haired bastard to be cheated some other way.

The way to the front door went past the living room, where Anna and the Buddha uncle were watching TV. They didn’t look at me as I went by. It dawned on me there probably never was a lunch, or even a sister.

I got my flip-flops on and made it to the street. I had no idea where I was but I started walking to put some distance between that house and myself. My adrenaline was pumping. I was ready to run back to my hostel at this point.

Suddenly Raymond catches up and puts his arms around my shoulder.

“Hey man, are we cool here? You’re not gonna say anything?”

“No, whatever, I just want to get out of here.”

Satisfied I’d keep my mouth shut, Raymond left and I grabbed a cab. It all sank in as the cab started moving and I had a nervous laugh to myself.

Later that evening, safely back at the hostel with a drink in hand, I was trying to make sense of it all. I still am today. For the rest of my life I’ll be wondering what would have happened if I’d played along in that blackjack game.

Chances are I would have left Bangkok giving the thumbs up…just like Roger.

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How to Bike Across North America… Twice

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By Jillianne Hamilton
Matthew Lawrence, a bearded twenty-something, biked across Canada during the summer of 2011, traveling from British Columbia to his home province of Prince Edward Island. That’s 6700 km/4163 miles.

And then he did it again this summer. Matt biked from Prince Edward Island this time, finishing his journey in California. This most recent trek began in late April and, after biking 7498 km/4659 miles, he arrived at Comic-Con in San Diego, a dream come true for comic fan Matt.

As a part of his journey, he donated a bunch of comics and encouraged people to donate to the PEI Literacy Alliance. He also kept his followers up to date on his blog and on a Facebook page.

Matt and I have been friends since we took Journalism together in college, so it only made sense that I ask him a few questions about his most recent cross-continent adventure. I started with the most important question of all.

How many litres of sweat?
Buckets. Buckets and buckets of sweat. There was one time I actually spit on myself and it was cooler. I was like “This is disgusting! But it’s cooling.” That was in Nevada.

Oh yeah. You rode your bike through the desert.
People in Nevada wouldn’t call it a desert but it was really hot. They would call it the top of the desert. There were a lot of hills and a lot of flat land, kind of desert-like setting. But yeah. It was hot. I was hot.

A few people have asked me why you decided to bike to Comic-Con instead of flying. *Valley Girl voice* So, like, whyyyy?
It was always a dream of mine to go to Comic-Con and after biking across Canada, I just realized that the best way to go anywhere now is to bike. That was permanently etched into my bucket list from there.

Aside from Comic-Con, what were your top three experiences while biking from PEI to California?
This is nothing to do with biking but on my bike ride, I went to Barrie, Ontario for the National Dodgeball Festival. I don’t want to take all the credit but I helped get our dodgeball group to the festival. That means a lot to me because I’ve been playing dodgeball for at least ten years and I’ve been the president of the Dodgeball PEI group here for the last five. I think that was one of the proudest feelings I’ve ever had in my entire life, just to see that whole group of people.

Another highlight for me would be meeting Kevin Smith in San Diego. I guess that’s kind of part of Comic-Con. I’ve watched all of his movies, even the bad ones. That was great. I’ve been listening to his podcast for years.

Another one is San Francisco. I think San Francisco was a highlight for me because I grew up with Full House and I loved that theme song so much. So every time that theme would come on and I’d see the Golden Gate Bridge I’d think “I wanna friggin’ go there. Man, that place looks awesome.” That’s been instilled in my brain since I was a little kid. Four or five. I was able to check that off my bucket list as well.

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What was your most negative experience?
I freaked out when I lost my wallet. I just bought my hotel room with my phone and I started biking towards that destination. I had about 40 miles to go. I would’ve gotten there by dusk or so. I finished listing to a podcast episode, I tapped my tap pocket and I realized my wallet wasn’t there. I checked my front pocket, wasn’t there. Checked my saddle bags, couldn’t find it. I thought I may have left it at the café I was at so I started biking back. I also thought it may have dropped out of my back pocket while I was biking and I just didn’t notice. I stuck out my thumb and hitched a ride back to the town I was at. He put my bike in the back of his truck. I couldn’t find the wallet on the side of the road so I assumed someone stole it when I got to the café.
So, I thought “Well, I guess I’m going to be cancelling my credit card and trying to get a new ID.” Thankfully my passport wasn’t in there. I had it in my saddle bag. I just had to go about cancelling my credit card. The guy dropped me off and I started biking back to the hotel. As I’m biking, I decide to call the credit card company and cancel my card. And right before they cancel the card, I found my wallet on the side of the road. I was like “Nooooo, don’t cancel my card!” “Really? Seriously?” “Yeah, I can’t believe it either!”

There were sometimes… the people that would host me would stay up all night and have parties. That sucked too much about it since I had a roof over my head.

You mostly couch surfed, right?
Yeah. Sometimes I camped but mostly couch surfed. When I didn’t want to camp or couch surf, I got a hotel room. Honestly, I think hotels and the Warm Showers app really spoiled me to the extent where I didn’t want to camp. When I biked across Canada, I camped all the time. I’d rarely get a hotel room and I was fine with that. I got so used to putting up my tent and taking it down, it was fine. Yeah, not this time.

What happened with the squirrels?
I was in Utah and I was in a good mood. I stop at a tourist stop and there’s some fountains and a pop machine. There were squirrels everywhere. They’re not afraid of people either. They’re really chubby and fat and cute things. So I fed them some peanuts. They were just so cute. I put some in my hand and they started crawling up on me. I recorded a video of it and posted it and one of my friends that’s a veterinarian says, “They’re really cute and everything but make sure you don’t get the plague.” And I said, “Huh.” I looked it up and the last reported case of the plague was in Utah in that same location a year ago. I was like, “Holy f***.” ’Cause one of them had bit my finger. I started freaking out. I wasn’t feeling good after that and it was really getting to me. The person I stayed with that night, I told him, “I might have the plague.” He laughed at me. “You don’t have the plague. I’m sure your fine.” “Are you sure?” “Yes. If you need to go to the hospital, we’ll take you. You’ll be fine.” He thought it was funny.

What did you bring with you?
I brought a tent, sleeping bad, a Therm-a-Rest, two saddle bags, two water bottles, a CamelBak, an iPhone, my wallet, two battery chargers, a book. I brought a sweater, biking shorts. I brought a little too much but in Salt Lake City, I was able to send most of it back. The main essentials.

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Did you talk to any of our American friends about their f***ed up election?
A lot of people talked to me about it. I never brought it up because I thought it might be a touchy subject. A lot of people kept saying, “I’m definitely moving to Canada.” “Cool, man.” “Where should I go?” (laughs) “I dunno, Winnipeg? Or come to the east coast.”
As I went through the States, more and more often, I would see the support that Trump was getting and I don’t know what’s gonna happen! Any time an American asked me, I’d say “Hillary” cause I’m not a Trump supporter and I’m never going to be a Trump supporter.

What was your daily schedule like?
I’d try to wake up around 5:30 and start riding around 6:30. My daily eating schedule was McDonald’s, basically every morning. People are like “You eat that garbage?” but it’s the quickest way to get calories into me. They have healthy options. I usually got oatmeal—it’s not the greatest oatmeal but it’s alright. I had oatmeal, some coffee, lots of orange juice and some hot cakes. I would often look for fast food places with Wifi. Sometimes I’d eat lunch or I’d stop at a gas station and get some M&Ms or a Snickers or something to charge up my battery again. Then at night, I’d either go to a sit-down restaurant or I’d go to McDonald’s again. It’s cheap!

What did you get to do in San Diego at Comic-Con?
The thing about San Diego, I only had one ticket. That was for Sunday. I couldn’t pick up my badge until Sunday, so the only thing I could really do was walk around the city and go to the off-site events. If you ever get one ticket for Comic-Con for one day, don’t say “It’s not worth it.” Take it from me, I biked there. It’s definitely worth it.

I checked out the convention centre and saw some cosplayers. I went to the Adult Swim off-site event which was a free carnival. This was this FX horror off-site event—they had a bunch of statues and shit you could look at. They had Paddy’s Pub from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, pouring people water which was really funny. I went to the Eisener’s which is like the Oscars for comic books. I went to HarmonTown which is a popular podcast. I went to Fatman on Batman and Hollywood Babble-On (two Kevin Smith podcasts)… What else did I do? …I caught some Pokemon.
That started up biiiig while you were gone.
Note: it has since died down dramatically.

What about meeting Kevin Smith? What was that like?
That was surreal for me ‘cause listen to his podcasts and I’ve seen all his movies. It was awesome to meet him. He seems like a very cheerful guy. Constantly hugged me, not that there was anything wrong with that. I met him, he gave me a hug, I told him how much I liked his movies, he gave me another hug. I said we should do a picture and he goes “OK, get closer, get closer.” And I got closer. And he says “Closer, closer!” So I thought, “OK, I’m just doing this.” So I turned and put my lips on his cheek. But now that I think about it, I think he was talking to Ralph, the co-host of Hollywood Babble-On. So… whatever. (laughs) It’s a great picture anyway!

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Would you bike to Comic-Con again?
I probably would. I’d take another route, maybe go south, bike down the east coast, bike across the south, get to San Diego and then fly back. When I originally thought about this trip, I wanted to bike across Canada again, hit Vancouver and then go down but I realized that would take too much time. I might fly to Vancouver sometime and then bike down. I always wanted to go through Seattle because I’m a big Nirvana fan.

Was the journey harder or easier than you expected?
Easier. I don’t wanna brag but I had a lot more money this time around. I was going a lot faster than expected. When I biked across Canada, I was by myself and it was my first time doing something like this. I was definitely more confident, I was more capable of knowing what I should do, where to camp, how I should act, stuff like that. The only nervousness I had was going into the States for the first time.

What advice do you have for others considering a long-distance bike trip?
Don’t ever think that you need to bring everything with you. If you overpack, that’s fine as well. At least you didn’t under-pack.
If you’re not biking with anyone, podcasts. They definitely kill time. Podcasts. Books. You can’t really read while you’re biking.
Audiobooks.
Oh yeah. Audiobooks. Why didn’t I think of that?
I would suggest making sure that you’re cycling whatever’s comfortable for you. If you’re sticking with some cycling guide that says what position you should be in while you’re riding and it’s giving you rashes, if it’s making you uncomfortable, just do what works for you. I’ve had so many people come up to me and they’re surprised I don’t have rashes. I just have bike shorts and a decent sized, soft seat. First off, don’t be touring with a hard seat.

What long-distance bike trip would you like to do next?
I’d like to bike around Ireland. I’d also like to go to Europe, or maybe just the UK. I’d like to bike to Spain, maybe go to Italy. I think my next big bike trip will probably be outside of North America. That’s definitely something I’m looking forward to.

Note: After this interview, Matt received a letter from the prime minister.

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