Phase One – The Rickshaw Challenge

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To be fair, it’ll be dull if I just go through all the places we went to and what we saw – and frankly there were too many and I’ve forgotten most of it already.  But if interested the route and details are covered in and covered southern India from Chennai to Pondicherry to Thanjavur to Madurai to Rajapalayam to Tuticorin to Kanyakumari to finish at Trivandrum.  Yes, I had to copy that off the website!  Officially 950km but probably nearer 1100-1200km due to all our cross-country exploration.

Suffice to say, the challenge was pretty well organised most of the time, and the guidance for the day was good enough.  As confidence improved we all ventured off the main roads into the little villages, and the stories the teams told back at the hotels all differed – everyone had different experiences – some met TV crews, some stumbled on village ceremonies and were asked to join, most were asked for selfies (no idea why?!)

But the key part – is 17 teams, 17 different routes per day, 10 days, and I don’t recall a single negative experience relating to India or the locals.  To me, this is astounding – my pre-conceived perception was that every day would be a chore, touted, hassled, begged at and being ripped off on every occasion.  But the facts, we had less touting than in most Asian places, virtually no begging except tourist centres; and buying food or indeed anything, we were charged the same as locals and never short changed (except tourist centres, as expected).  Even when hiring rickshaws we were always charged reasonably fairly – certainly more than a local and the “meter” rate, but not significantly so and certainly less than in other places.

Even passing rickshaws just asked if we wanted a lift (beep beep), but drove on if we shook head – no hassles!  No shop keepers dragging us in.  In many places, totally ignored except for strange looks! 🙂

White foreigners, especially female, are never seen driving rickshaws so we all stood out.  But this meant people just gave is a second look, smiled and waved!  People pulled us over for a photo, fist-bumped us when driving along, beeped and chatted through windows, and were just the nicest friendliest ever.  Only a couple ever then started hinting at donations etc but with no hassle at all.

Walking around our stopping places, same thing – people came up to ask and ask for a selfie – and pretty soon you get a queue!  I know I look like Brad Pitt, but even so!  What’s funny, is at the start we were asked for a photo outside one temple and I assumed it was like a Centurion in Rome “take your photo, give me 20 rupees” – so we declined – turned out it was a newspaper doing a story on us – and they wanted a pic lol – but they found another team later.  And same thing outside another temple, some formally dressed ladies and a guy, and the guy mentioned photo and I assumed he wanted to take a pic of us and the ladies and charge us, turned out they just wanted selfies and another team got roped in later!  We relaxed a bit after that, and no one ever tried to charge us for pics…  Shows what we miss out on when we have lack of trust….

What we did get, was lots of very very polite people asking for a selfie and being respectful about it, and just being happy to speak to us and be spoken to politely.  Never experienced that to this level before….

Without a doubt, driving a rickshaw >1000km is uncomfortable and noisy, but is a brilliant way of seeing the real India, the real people, getting off the tourist trail and just experiencing the real life side of India.  Exactly what we wanted, and fairly emotional at the positive experience and response we received throughout. 

We only had one minor accident, v slow speed, vehicle (old “van” rickshaw) stopped – no brake lights (oh did I mention lights are optional, more have flashing disco lights than working brake lights!) – so I missed that, and then went to brake and as mentioned earlier the pedal isn’t easy to get to – and I missed it 2 or 3 times before we used his vehicle to stop.   A few smiles and waves from me, and him thinking “stupid white man!” and a few cusses, he drove off.  Only damage a broken headlight on our rickshaw.  Oops.  But that was it….  Considering the near misses we had, pot holes we hit, and miscommunication with the police, and stalling in busy roundabouts (not me 🙂 ) , almost head-on collisions or forced off the road – we’ll settle for a broken light!

We sort of broke down a few times, felt like seized engine (wasn’t low fuel – it felt like rear axle locked) – but after a few mins kicking it, it was fine…. And another day the engine stopped giving out power above 3/4  throttle.  But, the overnight service team sorted it and installed a new carburettor and we ran like a dream to the end.

Apparently it was the first time no one needed a new engine; and I’m not aware of anyone getting any punctures or major issues.  But a few did break down, and without exception locals helped out even calling mechanics out to fix and get them going again – and no one wanted payment…. 

All I can add, is our pre-conceived ideas have been blown out of the water by the friendliness, honesty and helpfulness of the local Indians.  Full credit to the Tamil Nadu region.  Would the UK be as nice….?

This 10 days saw us in various hotels, lots of cities, more temples than I care to see, beautiful countryside, great company, good food and fantastic experience.  Was it perfect, no, things listed to see were often closed, and one day in particular was a waste of a day and more publicity for them/charity than for us, but ultimately we went to see the Real India, so we don’t really care that a waterfall is closed – the drive there and back was good enough.  So if you are chilled and want to see the real India – we’d 100% recommend it, and the company.  Very much a positive experience. 


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