For the September Adventurists Rickshaw Run, we ran a competition for a daring team to complete the challenge as the official FRANK Water team. The winners were 'The ShawFRANK Indirection' who have written us an excellent guest blog. It's more of a short story than a blog but a cracking good read all the same... "Being selected to represent FRANK Water on the Rickshaw Run was a real surprise and an amazing shock. It meant that we were able to take part when we might not otherwise have been able to but also that it meant we had a great story with which to sell the fundraiser effort.
It did mean though that we DEFINITELY had to do the damn thing and make sure that we did it all (vaguely) properly - a little bit of pressure but a load less than we would need to deal with whilst dodging livestock and trucks. Still we felt we should take it almost as seriously.
We checked in quickly but often with Philippa, FRANK's fundraising manager, who answered all our tedious questions about fundraising, toilet paper availability and optimal measures of gin and vermouth in martinis. All of the answers and help we were given gave us a bit of an idea for what we were in for without spoiling it.
With that all set, we turned up in Shillong and got stuck into the antics of the start build-up but got away without any of the team suffering a mohawk. We were wined and dined by the finest restauranteurs in Shillong and, given their high standards in food hygiene, only one of our team fell violently ill with food poisoning... just in time for the start.
It turns out that the back of a rickshaw is not the best place in which to have acute food poisoning. Definitely not on the mad dash down hairpin turns from Shillong to Guwahati (the armpit of the world). We had an eventful first day that culminated in our engine blowing up and us being towed into Guwahati by a drunken Indian couple. However, it was not as eventful as some of our adventuring comrades: day one notched up two rolled rickshaws, five elbow stitches and a broken thumb! We however remained scar-free and fell into a sweaty sleep in the hottest hotel on the planet whilst a diligent 14 year old spent the night fossicking around under our rickshaw.
Luckily, our rickshaw (Gloria) was returned to us in full working order at 10am the next day! After the mechanic had relieved us of lots of our heavy money, we got back on the potholed tapestry of crumbling cement that the East Indian call “roads” and spluttered our way into India's turbulent belly. We fought through potholes that we could have parked in; got beached on gravel and had to push our way out of an intersection; and pushed our way off a bridge after running out of petrol!
But for all these pitfalls that we heroically overcame, we also had a load of amazing experiences in the eastern states: we got taken in by a local Assamese family for dinner whilst riots raged elsewhere in the state; we sampled all different types of bananas; and of course, we developed a taste for the local brew.
But seriously the eastern states were a definite highlight: a real side of India that few are given the chance to see – it is still refreshingly remote, enough so that mass tourism would be impossible. We had hours when we would be the only motor-powered vehicle within audible distance; places where whole schools would seemingly stop what they were doing to scream and wave; and where amazing hospitality was afforded to us when the alternative was to set up a tent only in the surrounding paddy fields (not an option!).
We travelled like this for quite a few days – the nights were largely spent in some dodgy cesspit of a hovel that was only fit to get out of. Then we got to Darjeeling. What an amazing place! I advise any lover of tea to spend as much time there as humanely possible. It was a beautiful tea-estate oasis in the furious traffic of Siliguri with a death-defying slalom up a sheer cliff to get to it – totally worth it!
We spent an afternoon and an evening drinking tea, meeting up with teams and stocking-up on 3-star comforts at the Dikiling hotel. It was a great way to revive ourselves, have a breather from the road and let our collective guts recuperate.
The next day saw us close our eyes and once again get into the 4WD to get back to Gloria which was parked at a hotel in Siliguri (for all future rickshaw-ers: it is technically possible to get to the top in the ‘shaw but it’ll wreck your brakes, engine and nerves – not advised!) We bowled into Siliguri, whacked all our meagre belongings back on the roof and got back on the road into Birhat state.
Things returned to normal – potholes; the average speed of a snail; and truck traffic jams. We tried to get to Patna for 3 days: held up by monumentally huge potholes in West Bengal; a truck traffic jam that took others 48 hours to get past (putting your rickshaw on the back of a truck is NOT a good idea); and a truck crash on a slipway to the one and only A-grade motorway along our route. We tore up the asphalt on the wrong side of the road making deals with the devil so as to pass trucks on either side with little space spare and set off each day hoping to get to Varanasi but usually ending up in some odd places (one of which I’m sure was a brothel… which had the best garlic naan money can buy! That is not a euphemism).
Finally we limped into Varanasi. I had overcome my dose of food poisoning but had deftly passed that baton on to Jack. We rested for a couple of days and even had a pizza – whilst curry is delicious, it is quite difficult to enjoy it three times a day for three weeks! We ate, swam and slept before going on a cruise down the Ghats (a must-do) and getting ripped-off over silk by a charming thief. Varanasi is an endlessly fascinating pile of people and houses with ancient burial ceremonies and Hinduism everywhere – loved it.
When we had re-gathered our strength, we decided to make a tough-task even harder: we decided to whack Gloria on a train. This may sound a little like a cop-out but I assure you, the adventure that we blundered into was tougher by far. It took five hours alone to do a few basic tasks before we’d even gotten it near a train, among them were: park Gloria at the train station; find the stationmaster; find the parcel office; talk to the parcel office KING; fill out forms; negotiate handling fees; confirm seat/sleeper bunks and parcel tickets…before driving down the platform. Yes, Sam drove a rickshaw along the platform, expertly avoiding the tracks and casually beeping would-be passengers out of his path. We then left it in the holding pen to wait for the train and went wandering.
We came back with just enough time to get to Gloria and position it for the train to arrive. It was only when the train was puffing at the station (almost literally – it was ancient) that we realised that the rickshaw was too fat for the parcel-loading doors! We were too invested to abandon all hopes of a train ride and drive on so we did what all rational people would have done: we smashed the metal mudguards off on the platform by stomping on them, removed a wheel and employed forty lookers-on to ram the thing onto the train! Our reward was then a grimy sleeper bunk, some excellent chai and food before a full night’s sleep whilst the Marudhar Express zoomed through the Indian countryside to Jaipur.
We woke up to the snores and farts of other passengers a few hours before we arrived in Jaipur. We got out, squeezed Gloria out of her bedroom and signed the wedge of paperwork that the fat toad of a parcel officer thrust at us… then we were off! We had only a short way to go to get to Jack’s friends’ place but still managed to get lost a number of times. Still, we managed to get there in one piece and, after being afforded amazing hospitality and a tour of Jaipur’s bazaars, we all crashed out in the apartment we were given for the night!
We got up, collected our packed breakfast from our surrogate family, and said our tearful farewells before all getting back into Gloria’s backside. We zoomed the next 300-odd K’s to Jodhpur, stopping only for a bite to eat and a casual bit of ‘shaw cow-herding. The road was amazing and Rajasthan’s architecture was all out on display with the people looking ever more Turkic/Afghani (that was one of the most interesting things about the run: everyday India’s people would change how they looked - truly a melting pot of ethnicities).
We got to Jodhpur in the early evening and Sam/Max took the opportunity to (literally – infinity pool) splash out on some sweet hotel accommodation. We watched the sunset behind Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort from our ground floor room’s private garden before eating all of the hotel’s meat and drinking all of its caprioskas. The clean sheets, warm shower and waking up to the call-to-prayer instantly romanticised all of the less salubrious hostelries that we’d stayed at along the way.
Still! With the end in sight, we got back into our trusty Gloria (which was starting to sound not unlike a helicopter) and coerced her onwards into the desert! Having previously been told that “all the roads in Rajasthan are excellent”, we had high hopes. In hindsight, these were largely upheld except for a disgusting section of road where Gloria’s helicopter condition became greatly exaggerated. With 40c heat making us all a little crazy(er), we gave Gloria a makeover and fitted her with four appropriately glorious flags (two of which were six feet long) and some pimped out cushion covers.
We dodged pilgrims making a 5-day walk in the blistering sun, befriended their water-distributors and snacked on donated shortbreads by the side of the road. We waited patiently for Gloria to cool down every hour and a half and dodged the new type of road beast that drove up and down these roads – heavy artillery lorries and tanks. The closer we got to the Pakistan border and the finish line, the greater the military presence became.
Then we made it! We cruised into the “city” of Jaisalmer, drove up a large portion of the pedestrianised fort before realising we had taken a wrong turn and made our way to the finish line only to discover that the banner was too low for our flags! Not to be outdone, we went through the exit instead, flung the keys and paperwork in the direction of the bureaucracy tent and spent the next 5 hours in the pool.
We had made it! It was definitely one of the best feelings I can remember to have finished the Rickshaw Run: the simple fact that we had survived was enough to feel goose pimples. It was by far the scariest thing I’ve ever done and to have overcome that (largely by team persuasion) and to have stuck it out was an exhilarating feeling.
It was an unbelievably authentic way through which to get a taste of all sorts of walks of life for the general Indian population – we didn’t see all that India had to offer but got as close as any tourist can get. We saw some brilliant things and some revolting things; we took advantage of the luxurious side of India but also battled through some of the intense poverty that Indian people suffer.
Two of us felt the effects of some pretty wicked food-poisoning which might well have been attributable to dirty water either that we drunk or that was involved in the cooking process. We were told that one in three Indians suffer from Hepatitis B largely through human waste making its way untreated into the water system. How a huge country can tackle a space programme and have 3G network available everywhere without solving clean water is a mystery: but at least FRANK Water are bridging the inexcusable gap.
It was a breathtaking experience of huge highs and huge lows and the fact that it was meaningfully helping communities get out of the poverty trap through clean water made it even more worth doing. It really was a great privilege to represent FRANK Water and none of us will forget what a unique experience FRANK Water gave us: thank you.
To quote a different team however: “I’m never f***ing doing it again though”!"