Offroading by Rickshaw: Ride Along with Game of Horns
For many the ride to Tuticorin was a smooth road, too smooth according to some, so the Norwegian team Game of Horns decided to shake things up and make it a little more interesting by taking their rickshaw off road.
As we prepared to leave Madurai on day five of the Rickshaw Challenge, I was feeling restless. After all, it was a “rickshaw”challenge, and I had only enjoyed the route up to that point from the comfort of the air conditioned staff car.
So after briefly weighing my options – I could only join a two-person team, and I needed them to have wifi – I decided to jump in with Norwegians Kris and Sindre, also known as Game of Horns. Given the Scandinavians’ reputation on the sea, I assumed they would have superior navigation skills on land as well. I was wrong.
Setting out for a special program with Round Table India at the Upper Secondary School, we barely made it out of the vicinity of the hotel when we had to stop and ask for directions. We then went in a complete circle. Twice. The hospital that was to be our landmark proved elusive, and during subsequent inquiries as to its location, we were met with blank stares or a vague hand wave – the Indian equivalent of, “I think it’s over there.”
Finally 30 or so minutes after we were due to arrive, we spotted the hospital, quite prominent in a busy intersection. But it took a few more stops to find the school, and by then the other teams’ rickshaws were streaming past us in the opposite direction.
Although the kids were tucked back in their classrooms following what I heard was a lovely ceremony, the school administrators and representatives from Round Table India were patient enough to show us around the tidy campus.
After handing over a soccer ball and some school supplies, we quickly (surprisingly) found our way to the highway we were to stay on for the remainder of our journey to Tuticorin. Soon we spotted the German team, the Bavarian Barbarian, and joined up with them. I knew the afternoon would be a much smoother ride, since the Germans – this is a team that did live up to its nation’s reputation – were known to strictly adhere to the day’s schedule, challenges and route.
But I was wrong. After stopping for a chai and a filling banana leaf lunch at one of the nicest highway rest stops I’ve ever seen, the teams decided they had enough of the smooth highway and wanted to take a detour.
After all, these rickshaws – their drivers – were made for much more rugged terrain.
Winding our way on bumpy dirt roads through crowded villages surrounded by wheat fields, kids ran after us and shouted “Hello!!!,” while adults – many of whom were working to dry some sort of hay or straw on the roads – offered a more subdued smile or wave (while I’m sure wondering who the heck we were).
Approaching Tuticorin, the land flattened out and opened up – the fields became a checkerboard of packed dirt, the liquid interior topped with a white glaze. The smell of the sea hit us, and they sky overhead turned from bright blue to a greenish, grayish haze (no doubt due to the numerous power plants that ringed the area). We were in the salt flats.
Once in town, we knocked off the challenges in quick succession – the local temple, Aardvark Cafe (OK, that one was tricky), where I had one of the best brownies of my life, Hitler tea stall (Yes – there really is a “Hitler” tea stall, but the details are fuzzy as to why), and the colorful Our Lady of Snows Basilica – and, despite the detour, we made it to the hotel with time to spare before flag down.
After experiencing all the chaos and colors of southern India from the back seat of a rickshaw – feeling every bump and with nothing in the way of my view – I must say that is really the only way to go.
(I never did make it back to the staff car.)