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Driving across India with a few friends, in a rickshaw

By Tori Vail

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

 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 and 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 it. 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 okay, 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.