Rickshaw Diaries

I just realized I have a flip flop tan. Or the dirt has caused my feet to appear darker by exactly two shades. Both are entirely possible, but in India; one has a significantly higher probability. 

Pause. I began my last blog post about the Aurovillian who insisted on invading my quiet little existence with 10,000 questions and I have to complain about him momentarily. While he was interrogating me about my travel plans, I told him about my boyfriend in Chennai retrieving the tuk-tuk and he misheard me and understood Ted Talk. Yes, my boyfriend took a sweaty and stressful four hour bus ride to Chennai to pick up a Ted Talk. But that’s not his fault because I was really mumbling in my intense desire to cut the interview short. Once we clarified that I meant TUK-TUK things took a turn and he quickly retorted, “they’re called autos, by the way. No one will understand you if you say tuk-tuk.”

Okay, buddy, it’s not like I’ve been in India since November and literally have talked to 10,000 auto drivers who insesently bombard you as soon as you’re within earshot with, “tuk tuk? Ma’am? Tuk tuk? Where you want to go? 50 rupees.” BUT THAT’S FINE. In reality he is right, and I know they are more commonly referred to as auto or auto-rickshaw but it seemed like a little bit of a stretch to say no one would understand me. I probably will use the terms interchangeably in this post so I had to tell that story just in case anyone got confused like apparently everyone in India will if I say tuk-tuk.

Dustin ended up having to spend the night in Chennai on the pick-up trip because it was ‘too dangerous’ or something to drive in Indian highways in the dark. What. Ever. I used my time effectively by staying up until 4 in the morning and skyping everyone who would let me and trying to figure out if I could watch Netflix in India. I was pretty lonely. Dustin arrived early Monday morning and we decided we would set out Tuesday morning, after we had figured out a route to take around Tamil Nadu (the state). Originally, we had dreamt of buying it and driving it up the east coast to Kolkata or Varanasi where we would resell it. Since then, things changed and the thought of trying to resell a tuk-tuk sounded like an adventure I just wasn’t up for. We decided to rent it and make a loop in order to end back in Auroville so we could catch transportation to Varanasi from Chennai.

Day One…

We set out down the coast towards a little Danish colony/settlement Dustin had read about in our guidebook. It should have been a clue to me when Ravi had no idea what Danish colony Dustin was talking about. We drove for probably 150km which takes about 3 hours in the full-throttled rickshaw. On the way, I decide to read about this little settlement my lovely boyfriend had uncovered. I soon discover it is in a little box titled, “Off The Beaten Track.” Good. We roll up on a very small little town where I can honestly say more than half the population was probably asleep in the mid-afternoon.  Can’t say I really blame them because there was nothing else to do… We quickly realized there was only one option for accommodation and it was quite pricey so we had to reevaluate our options. Karaikal was probably 15km south and was a bigger city so we decided to head for there for the night. Other than the fact that Karaikal seems to be the most densely infested breeding grounds for mosquitos in the whole world, we had a nice evening there. We went to check out the beach at sunset to take a walk and I was reminded of one of the most perticular phenomenons in India: the missing sandals. I don’t know if it is just because the sandals get mixed in with the trash here and because that is everywhere, the sandals are everywhere too, or what. There were hundreds of sandals washed up on the rocks. There were so many, I think if you looked hard enough you might even be able to find a complete pair. With different color options as well. Maybe people are swimming with flip-flops on and lose them in the current. It doesn’t just occur on the beaches or when the tide brings them on. You will see them in the gutters, in fields. Anywhere someone has walked,  you will find an abandoned flip-flop. It’s so weird. I just can’t figure it out. 

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These kids were all on one bike and pulled us over for this selfie. The guy in the red is my new boo.

Day Two…

The next morning, we set out for Tiruchirappalli  (referred to commonly as Trichy, presumably because nobody can spell the other one). Again it was around 150 km from Karaikal and we left quite early, so we expected to arrive around midday. Never expect things in India. You will be sad. We were filling up with gas at least every 100km because the worst thing in the world I could imagine was sitting on the side of an Indian highway, all our bags in the back, without gas and no station to be seen. We were making good time and we were probably 25-30km outside of Trichy when Dustin pulled over into a gas station. The gas station was a complete mess as are most things and they had big trucks trying to enter at odd angles and nobody waiting their turn so things got kind of confusing. We knew we had to be mixing petrol and oil before putting it in the rickshaw tank everytime in order to keep things running smoothly (actually, I didn’t know this at this point because I’m the the worst, but I figured it out shortly). Because of the mess at the gas station, the gas attendant put the oil directly into the tank and then afterwards filled it up with gas. We assumed this would be fine considering it should mix itself around in the tank, especially since there was still gas in the tank before the oil went it….right? Half a kilometer down the road and the tuk-tuk died.

Just completely dead.

My worst nightmares are all coming true. We are on a completely open highway and the thing I can see up ahead is what looks like a makeshift shack made out of a truck. Dustin and I are looking at the engine trying to pretend we know what the F is going on, but we absolutely cannot figure it out (mostly because all I know how to do is change tires and break pads). If I was in Canada, I know exactly what I would do if I broke down on the side of the road… Call my mom. Probably in tears. And then call AMA. Although I did consider calling my mom and costing our India phone astronomical amounts of money, I’m quite sure AMA wouldn’t come pick us up in India. Some guys pull over on their bike and tell us to take it to the mechanic just up the road. Luckily tuk-tuks are quite light and it was relatively easy to stick it in neutral and roll it up the highway 300 meters. The guys messed around with the spark plug for a bit before finally admitting they serviced bikes, not tuk-tuks and said we would have to get it to a mechanic in Trichy.

Um, the thing doesn’t start, how do you want us to get 30km to the mechanic, exactly?

At first they tell us in broken English that the mechanic will come to us in 10 minutes. Great news! Then they tell us again that he’s not coming and we will have to get it towed to Trichy. This scares me because I know these guys now have us by the skin of our teeth. We can’t really refuse their help, no matter what cost it comes at, because I know zero tow-truck drivers in India. A little truck called a ‘Tata’ shows up and the guys tie a rope around the front of the tuk-tuk and then secure the other end to the truck. The rope, completely stretched out, only gave us about 7ft in between the front of our tuk-tuk and the rear end of the truck which looked like an accident waiting to happen. Our ‘friends’ told us we would have to pay Rs. 800 ($16 CAD) for the tow. One of the men offered to handle the steering for us while we were dragged behind the lorry and although we knew he would try to use it as leverage to swindle more money out of us, I’m glad he did because he seemed more capable of steering a rope-towed rickshaw than I would be. After almost an hour we made it to the mechanic and he quickly figured out that the issue had been the oil that had gone into the tank without the gasoline mix and so it had flooded something (I pride myself on my technical terminology). He got the tuk-tuk started and I cheered loudly to which everyone looked at me like a lunatic but they don’t know all the worst case-scenarios I had imagined since that thing died.

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After a $2 CAD mechanical fee (Can you imagine if mechanics were that cheap in Canada?) we were on the road again and found a hotel for the night. As in regular fashion for Dustin and I when we have a stressful day abroad, we seek out familiar western food and had dinner at Domino’s. Following that,  we spent the evening wandering sound the colorful markets in Trichy. Trichy is home to the largest silk showroom in all of Asia and it was nutty. I don’t even know how many floors it had, that’s how overwhelming it all was. Dustin was shocked I didn’t buy anything but I don’t think he realizes how overwhelmed I get in a store with more than 7 racks, let alone a store the size of Calgary.

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Trichy markets

Day Three…

My favourite thing about having the tuk-tuk was the look on the faces of the locals when they recognized the blond, blue-eyed boy driving it. It didn’t matter if they were mid-conversation or mid-chew, their mouths would hang open and their necks would twist to their absolute limits in order to keep their eyes on the auto with the white boy in the driver’s seat. Alot of the time they would wave or try to make conversation (sometimes by pulling their bike up parallel to the tuk tuk while going 50km/hr and yelling over the wind). So many people were absolutely delighted and confused by these two Canadians road-tripping in a blue tuk-tuk. I thought it was adorable.

On our third day, we were headed for Kodaikanal  (Kodai) which is up in the mountains and known as ‘princess of the hills’. It took us a ridiculously long time to climb through the winding mountain passageways up to Kodai but it was completely worth it. Before we began our ascent, we went through a police checkpoint and were waved down by the officer sitting in his little plastic chair. Although I was nervous, I know how curious Indians are and tried to just hope for the best. He asked us where we were going and we told him. He asked where we had come from and we told him. He then waved for us to pull over and get out for “checking”. We obliged and he began fingering through Dustin’s smaller backpack. It looked like a weird inspection to me and I made sure Dustin had close eyes on him in case he tried to plant anything or remove anything. At this point my anxiety is starting to swell in my chest because this doesn’t look like a normal inspection. I’m wondering what he’s going to try. He asks Dustin if he smokes. Dustin replies, “Nope. No smoking, not drugs, no nothing.” I’m kicking him in my mind thinking, woah, Dust, he didn’t say anything about drugs, don’t give him any ideas. All of a sudden he zips up the bag and says, “picture?” Claaaaaaassic. We take a picture and he sends us on our way. Probably the best run in with the Indian police we could have asked for, although he could have spared me the anxiety and just asked for the picture up-front.

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Our new best friend

While there, I read in one of the restaurants that Kodai was settled by American missionaries. If this is slightly or completely false, I apologize but then they shouldn’t be printing it on reading material for the tourists. I’m leaning towards it being true, though, because I found Mexican food there for the first time in our trip and we all know how North Americans feel about Mexican cuisine (haha). We were the only auto-rickshaw in Kodai or anywhere in the surrounding radius and we soon discovered it probably was because auto-rickshaws hate hills. We were quite popular and made friends with a swarm of approximately 67 male university students who thought we were the best things they had ever seen.

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More new best friends

We spent two days in Kodai. One day we devoted to doing all the tourist classics like peddle-boats and tandem bike riding around Kodai lake. I love activities where I can pretend I am putting in equal effort and in reality just be peddled around by Dustin. Kodai was freaking freezing (by south India standards) and plunged to a fridged 7 degrees at night. I averaged around 2-3 layers of pants. On the final evening in Kodai, as we were putting back to our hotel, all of a sudden the tuk-tuk started to make a deafening noise. Dustin looked back at me with at face that read, “what the hell is going on?” And pulled over. Equally confused, I got out and once again we began the charade of looking at the engine and pretending we knew what we were doing. Dustin decided to set out in search of a mechanic and released me to walk back to our hotel to hang out. Turns out a piece of the engine that had been welded several times had come loose and caused the muffler mess up…Yay. After a couple trips in between the mechanic and the welder shop, Dustin got it fixed. Again, for $5.

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Day Six…

We said goodbye to Kodai (yes, that rhymes) and descended back down the winding roads through the valleys. I held my breath when we went passed the police checkpoint but alas, no selfies today. We didn’t really know where we were headed for this day. There were a couple towns along the way but nothing seemed like it was worth seeing. We had planned to hit Salem on day seven because it was about 250km from Kodai and we thought we should break it up. I don’t know if it was the nervousness of the tuk-tuk crapping out on us again, but I got really ambitious and suggested we shoot for Salem today and stay there two days instead of breaking it up. We stayed at a nice, 4-star hotel for Rs. 1600 and I was thankful for that because that night, Dustin and I’s stomach conditions took a turn for the worse. It’s pretty hard to pinpoint the cause of these things, especially in India when most things you eat are suspect. Whatever the cause, we decided to spend the entire next day in bed, relaxing,  watching movies and catching up on things we had been putting off. I don’t think either of us realized how much we needed the ‘bed day’ until then. We almost needed the sickness as an excuse to do nothing because when you’re constantly in new places with new things to do and see, you hardly give yourself the permission to just take a day to recuperate. It also helped to have such a nice place to do so.

Day Eight…

Yesterday we began the home stretch, headed for Auroville. Again, it was another 250km and we got in around 4:30pm. We settled into a guest house as the construction at Ravi’s house is currently consuming our previous abode. We made the stretch with no mechanical issues, only a very misleading route. The problem with phone map navigation is it doesn’t exactly tell you the condition of the road you’re about to turn onto. This really frustrated Dustin multiple times, while most of the time I actually enjoyed it because it took us on smaller roads through the villages instead of on the massive toll roads where trucks and busses barrel past you at a million kilometers an hour. Sometimes you could guess what you were getting yourself into if it was a street in the cities called “Big Bazaar Road.” You knew you were in for swarms of people, but most of our issues revolved around massive potholes and cow or goat traffic jams…yes. It’s a real thing here.

Dustin went back to Chennai today to drop the tuk-tuk off and left me alone in Auroville again (did I mention how nice he is for not making me come along on these horrendous day trips?). He even told me he killed a cockroach early this morning in our bathroom without waking me up to comfort him. All I did today was walk around Auroville and try to find my way to various places. I tried to buy a bottle of water from a little stand near our guest house and the lady didn’t speak a lick of English.  I have no idea how to say water in Tamil and I’ll just let you all think of ways you could gesture ‘water’. I was trying to do the motion of drinking from a water bottle and quickly realized that didn’t look like the most wholesome gesture for someone who had no idea I was referring to water. Ahhh, language barriers. 

We will be Auroville until the 16th when we will fly to Varanasi before heading to Nepal for a few weeks!

The tuk-tuk was an adventure and a half and I would certainly recommend it to anyone. Although I am glad to be free of the stress of mechanical failures, I will miss the feeling of cruising around and watching India go by.

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