Participants of the annual ‘Rickshaw Challenge – Classic Run’ say they had a jolly run from Chennai to the city on their customised autos

After travelling close to a 1,000 km in 10 days through interior Tamil Nadu, having loads of fun, adventure, mini treasure hunts, mystery challenges and breakdowns on the way, 21 foreigners representing nine countries tooted into the city on Monday in their customised auto-rickshaws. These intrepid adventurers, driving autos with quirky names such as ‘Second to Naan’, ‘Panda Express, ‘Out of Africa’, ‘007’, ‘Fast & Furious’ and so on, were participating in the sixth and latest edition of the annual ‘Rickshaw Challenge – Classic Run’, which had them driving the three-wheelers on a grueling, pre-charted circuitous route from Chennai to the city, via Puducherry, Thanjavur, Madurai, Tuticorin, Courtallam and Kanyakumari. When MetroPlus caught up with the group, they were re-grouping at Tagore Theatre before tooting the final few hundred yards to the finish line at Sree Mulam Club, amid cheers by members of the Trivandrum Beach City Round Table, the local hosts for the event.

“Incredible”, “amazing”, “wonderful”, “eye-opening”… are but some of the words that tumble forth from the participants. When asked about the experience, all of them were equally effusive in their compliments about India, its people and their culture. “What an incredible country! The trip was a great adventure; a fantastic way to get up close and personal with the people, the temples, the paddy fields, the cows, the goats, waterfalls, even the crazy traffic… everything that we came across on the trip. You are just right there in the midst of it all,” says Andy Wilson from London, England, who drove ‘Panda Express’ along with his girlfriend Emma Pinching. This is the duo’s first trip to India. Jean, a native of Dijon, France, who lives and works in Switzerland, in his heavily accented English, adds: “India… c'est magnifique (it’s magnificent)! I have seen and experienced so much in 10 days. The challenge was a good way to get to know the country quickly.” Jean, who drove ‘Fast & Furious’, along with Katia from Lille, France, and his friend, Hughes, is also on his maiden trip to India. The highlight of the trip, say the participants, was meeting the people of India. Says Josh Flett from Sydney, Australia, who drove ‘Second to Naan’ (a name chosen by his travel companion and girlfriend Bianca): “Everyone was so welcoming, ready with smiles and a helping hand when needed. For example, we would pull up to a traffic light and other auto drivers would be – obviously – taken aback to see us. Once they got over the initial surprise, they would lean over and shake our hands and say a few words of encouragement. In fact, I got hundreds of such handshakes from auto drivers and other motorists. Once, on a deserted stretch of road on the way to Courtallam, my auto broke down. We tried tinkering with it but to no avail. Literally, out of nowhere, a man tapped me on the shoulder and he asked me to move aside. He fixed the engine in five minutes flat! It’s these small things that were the most endearing highlights of the trip.”

The hot weather was apparently not a problem, even though most of the participants had come to India from the middle of winter in their homelands. But the “chaotic traffic” was a major cause of worry for many – and that’s despite each participant undergoing a mandatory, intensive crash course on how to drive an auto – through the streets of Chennai. “Aey Yai Yai…,” says Katia, covering her eyes in mock horror, prompting peals of laughter from the rest. “The evening we set off from Chennai, there was a torrential downpour. Driving an auto that night was one of the most frightening – and thrilling – experiences of my life,” says Brad Wong, a native of Sydney, Australia, who is on his second trip to India. “Earlier, I travelled across the north of the country. I feel that the South is more chilled out than the North – much more scenic and laidback,” adds Brad, who is travelling with Mesi Toth, a yoga teacher from Hungary.

While for some such as Josh and Brad, this is the beginning of their Indian rendezvous (they are planning a fairly extensive stay in the country), most of the others are headed back to their homes after a couple of days rest in Kerala.