Adventurers who took part in the ‘Rickshaw Challenge,' driving autorickshaws from Chennai to Poovar, talk about discovering the ‘real' India

There are a lot of ways to ‘discover' India. As Dave Alefail, Tim Douros, Toni Csermelyi, and 30 other foreigners – including 11 women – from nine different countries found out, one of the best ways to get up close and personal with India, its people, and its culture, is to go the distance in an autorickshaw! These 33 ‘auto adventurers,' as they called themselves, tooted into the city last Saturday, after completing the sixth annual ‘classic run' of the ‘Rickshaw Challenge' that saw them driving 15 decked up autos, all the way from Chennai to Poovar.

It was a gruelling journey in which they covered a little more than 956 km in 10 days, stopping by Puducherry, Thanjavur, Madurai, Tuticorin, Courtallam, Kanyakumari, and a number of temples and monuments, quaint hamlets, eateries, teashops, paddy fields, and beaches in between. The participants were given a rousing welcome at Sree Mulam Club by the Trivandrum Beach City Round Table.

Fantastic journey

“It was a fantastic experience, a great way to see the countryside and experience a different side of India,” says Tim, from Boston, Massachusetts, who is on his maiden trip to India. He, along with friends David Mantus and Tim Keutzer, also from Boston, travelled in a custom-made auto they named ‘Big Gulab Jamun' (a tribute to David's favourite dessert). “Tim Kuetzer and I have been to India before and have travelled in autos as passengers. But never had we even thought about driving one until we came upon the Rickshaw Challenge. Before we started out, all 33 of us had a three-hour intensive crash course on how to drive an auto, and practised driving one through the chaotic traffic of Chennai,” says David.

Wasn't it all a bit too chaotic? “Of course! However, you quickly realise that it is a sort of an efficient chaos. Once you understand the flow of traffic it's fairly easy to navigate...,” adds David, who does admit that not having GPS on the vehicle did cause a few problems, initially. “But then, we wouldn't have met so many people on the way when we stopped to ask for directions or got lost and consequently see sights such as salt being dried in fields or the charcoal factories of Tuticorin,” quips Tim Kuetzner.

The Rickshaw Challenge, however, is not only about driving from one place to another through a pre-charted route. It's also about completing daily challenges and going off on mini-adventures to solve simple puzzles. For example, in Tuticorin, the participants had to find a local establishment called Hitler's Tea Stall. The participants are allocated points for everything from costumes to creativity to money raised for charity. Since it was begun in 2006, the Rickshaw Challenge, organised by Chennai Event Management Services, has raised more than $ 80,000 for charity in conjunction with Round Table India.

Then again, what are challenges when you have local people to help you out? All the participants were heard praising the local people for their assistance.

Of big help

“Everywhere we went, the people were of big help, and most of them went out of their way to help us out, pointing us in the right direction and recommending fun things to do at each place. They were all so friendly, with big smiles on the faces,” says Toni, who was part of a group of five Australian women, all between 50 and 61 years of age and members of a book club in Perth, who drove two flowery pink autos named ‘Double Chinnais.' “When one of our autos broke down near Thanjavur, a lovely young couple opened their home to us while we waited for the service car to come. That doesn't often happen back home,” says Toni.

However, the participants do admit that it was not all hunky dory. Among other things they had to drive from Chennai to Pondicherry “in the midst of a cyclone.” The biggest issue, though, was cleanliness, say Mattia Riva and Alessio Gallazzi, both Italians in their late 20s, who drove the auto called ‘Latin Vikings' (customised with Viking horns that were mounted atop its headlight). “A beautiful beach like the one at Kanyakumari should be worshipped. It saddened us to see all the filth. Nonetheless, we had one of the best times of our lives.” Toot, toot, here they come!

Up the coast

The next batch of auto adventurers start on the ‘Malabar Rampage' from Poovar on January 28. It's a nine-day, 1,100 km trip up the West Coast of the country, all the way to Panaji, Goa, with stops at Alappuzha, Kozhikode, Mangalore, Murudeshwar, and Madgaon. For more information check out www.rickshawchallenge.com

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012