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That's the Rickshaw Run

ANTARA DAS

A cross-country ride in the ubiquitous three-wheeler?



A challenge: Combining charity with travel.

IT was a meeting of East and West that no poet could have possibly dreamt of. What would have further vexed their imagination was that the auto rickshaw, that sorely despised yet ubiquitous vehicle on Indian roads, would engineer this fusion of cultures.

With an average weight of 277 kg and an engine size of 150 cc, the three-wheeled auto rickshaw is not one that comes to mind when one thinks of a cross-country ride. Yet when the Institute of Adventure Research decided to combine the concepts of adventure tourism and charity with a ride across 3,500 kilometres of Indian terrain, it was the very unsuitability of the auto rickshaw that appealed to them.

No back up

"The auto rickshaw was a challenge," said Dan Wedgwood, one of the organisers of the `Rickshaw Run'. "The fact that it was not ideally suited for the purpose provided the spirit of true adventure." And with the organisers making sure that there were no back-up or support teams, the possibility of unexpected surprises was high.

Thirty-four teams from around seven countries initially participated in the Run, which began on December 28 from Kochi, Kerala. Around two weeks later, it ended in the hill resort of Darjeeling, West Bengal, with the 31 teams that completed the entire stretch taking part in a grand procession. "It was not meant to be a race," Wedgwood said. "The idea was to allow the participants to explore and see India, interact with its people and the diverse cultures they represent and to visit those places that tourists usually do not get to see."

As the organisers left the route `open to interpretation', the participating teams were free to decide the roads they wanted to take. So the brightly painted and richly decorated auto rickshaws, sporting their sponsors' logos, hit the road — through picturesque mountain tracks, through dense jungles, or through chaotic traffic in bigger cities. The organisers provided a few checkpoints where one could meet fellow participants over a drink and leave messages but they stopped short of making it a `tour'— "the sort of thing your grandmother likes to do round Brighton", as the Rickshaw Run website describes.

And it turned out to be anything but a tour. "I've been to India many times before but on this trip I've seen a whole lot more and visited parts where no tourists have ever been," said Claire Andrews from London. Chris Pelly, from Wiltshire in United Kingdom, said, "Although I was knackered and a touch smelly, I was delighted to stand on the finish line in one piece."

The participating teams kept a vivid account of their journey in their blogs. Most of it makes entertaining reading, as one encounters their adventures in an alien terrain and milieu. The team calling itself `Good Korma' ran into a linguistic problem.

Entertaining accounts

"For example, `hotel' in Kerala and Tamil means `hotel', in Telugu it means `restaurant'. If you want a hotel you have to ask for a `lodge'." For the Rajasthan Raiders, with an ambitious and somewhat self-righteous blog called `The Betterment of Mankind', the auto rickshaw was no more than a "bench seat bolted over a two-stroke engine." The Dosa Boys summed up their journey as "... 3219 km on the clock, seven spark plugs burnt out, one full service, a total of Rs. 200 paid in bribes and Rs. 70 in tolls... " The videos that had been shot on the way would be soon updated on their site — rickshawrun.com.

The Rickshaw Run, the first of its kind, elicited an energetic response from people around the globe. The organisers, in fact, started receiving enquiries about how to sign up for the next Run even before the current one started. The organisers, Wedgwood said, have decided to keep the event open to all; the participants would, however, have to meet certain criteria in terms of raising funds since charity forms an integral part of the whole programme.

The charity aspect

In fact, the present Run (which was sponsored by .travel, a well known Internet domain dedicated to businesses, organisations and individuals in the travel and tourism industry) raised around 35,000 for charity. The proceeds will be donated to a number of organisations working with the mentally challenged and the blind. Some of it will also be donated to private organic tea farmers so that they are able to improve their standard of living and quality of production and, in the long run, establish tea-processing plants. Apart from that, the rickshaws used for the event were to be donated to poor families in the area, who could not otherwise buy one without incurring a huge debt.

The organisers have already decided to host the Run twice a year and are planning to increase its scope by including other countries from the subcontinent on the route. While the exotic appeal of this all-weather means of transportation has led to its being used in several places in England as a taxi, the success of the first Rickshaw Run seems to portend more enthusiastic participation next time around.

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