india 2011

Who wants to be a tucking auto-wallah?

Anyone who drives an auto rickshaw half way across India in the monsoon season doesn’t have to be tukking mad – but it does help.This is the tale of the ‘Rickshaw Challenge’ with my gregarious friend Dylan, a charity event co-sponsored by Round Table India. All we had to do was to drive a Tuk-Tuk without a map from Mumbai to Chennai via Pune, Goa, Mangalore and Bangalore in 12 days. The fact that our 15 year old knackered Tuk broke down three times on day one, and not even out of Mumbai at that, could modestly be described as ‘an inauspicious start’! For the unenlightened who have never driven a Tuk-Tuk, they can best be likened to an underpowered ride-on lawnmower complete with an open shed and three whellbarrow tyres, but more unstable. In reality our Tuk, a Bajaj, was powered by a 145cc two stroke engine alledgedly developing 7HP with an estimated maximum speed of 50kph. You steer with a motorcycle style handle bar with your left hand, controlling the clutch and a twist grip 4 speed gearbox and the right hand rotates the throttle. There is a central foot brake for the rear wheels. You start the engine (hopefully) by yanking aggressively upwards a long lever by the floor on the drivers LHS.
It really is good sport to be a free spirited driver on Indian roads where you can just forget all those silly driving lessons and tedious regulations, throw the wing mirrors away, fit yourself a good horn, and go for gap. If you get a wheel ahead (and you only have one at the front) it’s all your’s. That is of course, if there is nothing a lot bigger than you, behaving even more irresponsibly than you are. This will invariably be a bus, or an overloaded truck, and they don’t take prisoners!.Nevertheless the journey was completed without any personal injury if you discount one bout of hyper intestinal activity. 14 Rickshaws took part in the event with a truly multinational flavour. We were “The DragonFlys” complete with a full dragons outfit which we wore alternately at various events en route. Examples of other team names were “Those Tucking Kiwis”, “The Loose Stools” and “Couldn’t Give a Tuk”. Participants were from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Chile, Spain, Ireland as well as the UK.DSCF1529crop

Day 1 Alibarg -110km

Day 2 Pune – 145km
Day 3 Panchgani – 100km
Day 4 Ratnagiri – 226km
Day 5 Paniji,Goa – 244km
Day 7 Mudrudeshwar – 207km
Day 8 Mangalore – 151km
Day 9 Mysore – 262km
Day 10 Bangalore – 149km
Day 11 Vellore – 162km
Day 12 Chennai – 132km

We arrived in India a couple of days before the event started which gave Dylan and I an opportunity have a look around Mumbai. On our first day we traveled, of course by Tuk-Tuk from our north Mumbai hotel to the nearest railway station, Andheri, and bought 1st class tickets to Mumbai’s main railway station, CST, Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) – 170 rupees return (£2.40). We had stroll around India Gate and a cooling beer in Leopold’s and entered into negotiations for a 4 hour personally guided tour of Mumbai’s attractions. The final outcome – 1500 rupees(£20) in an aircon car. Our guide was excellent, but his boss reminded me of Renoldo Robles in Cusco! First stop was one of the washing places – an area about 75m x 75m of stone sinks where a small community live and live by washing clothes. The pay is obviously poor as we deduced from our guide who said he had his shirts collected from home, washed, ironed and returned for 5 rupees. There was a free school on the site for the washers families. A brief visit to the fishing quarter was followed by a walk inside a Jain temple. We drove through Malabar Hill,the area inhabited by the diminishing Parsi community. We were not allowed to go into the Tower of Silence where Parsi dead are eaten by vultures. Dylan was particularly disappointed not to witness the gruesome scenario. Close by we walked around the Hanging Gardens created by covering the original Bombay water reservoir, partly some say to prevent in earlier years, the Parsi gorged vultures from fouling the cities drinking water. Our final visit was to Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi’s house which is now a museum. Fascinating to see letters that Gandhi had written to Hitler asking him to desist from fighting. The letter starts “Dear Friend” and ends “I remain your sincere friend”
We met our fellow contestants at an extremely vague briefing by Aravind, the organiser and owner of the Tuks. The major thrust of the briefing was that of personal responsibility, we were on our own and we had to find our own way around without maps – that allegedly is the Indian way, and so it proved. He seemed to be making a virtue out of breaking down. I was to rapidly learn later why this was so! Outside the hotel were our 14 Tuks and they were not a pretty sight. They were clearly very old (15 years we subsequently found), in poor shape and missing many essential bits like lights, seats, horns, mirrors. We were assured by Aravind that all the Tuks had been stripped down and rebuilt and any missing parts would be fitted before we left on Monday morning. He was desperately struggling to convince even the most gullible, and they were in DSCF1440short supply. In the afternoon we had a practice drive for about an hour and a half on some waste ground about 3km from our hotel, plus our first experience at driving in Mumbai traffic. Dylan drove out to the ‘playgound with immediate confidence, I drove back, initially feeling cautious, but very quickly got into Indian mode. The freedom to be able to take whichever bit of road you can get to there first is fantastically exhilerating. En route back to our hotel we had to refuel. This entailed adding 50ml of oil to each litre of petrol (initially via saches of oil), tank capacity 8 litres, and then shaking the Tuk to mix the two. We decided we needed to purloin a 5 litre plastic container and buy oil in quantity. Before we got back to the hotel we assisted two Tuks that hadn’t satisfactorily mixed their oil and the plug had oiled up. This was the first of many experiences of help being immediately offered by nearby mechanics. Our first day, from Mumbai to Alibag, only 110km, was pretty disastrous all round. We all left our hotel (officially called ‘Flag-off), the Sun n Sand hotel in north Mumbai at 10.30 and after numerous asks found our way on to the road to Navi Mumbai, the major bridge leading out of the city. Unfortunately we gradually lost our gear selection and lurched to a stop on an extremely busy rickety flyover, about 5 km short of the bridge. It took about 2 hours for our support vehicle to reach us and about 5 minutes to effect a repair. We didn’t realise till later in the day that an engine mounting had bust and our mechanic had simply wired it back together with an old throttle cable! However, we were off again, but not for long as in early afternoon after negotiating an awful road in a small town, we lost 3rd and 4th gear. Doubling back into the small town we found a Tuk mechanic who just fiddled with gear lever (a twist turn on the steering handlebar) and job done. That is until about an hour later when we started to climb quite a small hill, and we were back to the original problem. It would just drive if not under load, and as we did not have a signal on our mobiles, we retraced our route, downhill or on the flat, to a restaurant and rang for help. Four hours later and after numerous phone calls , by which time it was dark and another Tuk joined us and like us had no lights our service vehicle arrived (a Toyota Land Cruiser). Princely (our 2nd in command organiser) and the one and only mechanic were left to repair our Tuk and drive them the 35km to our first days destination, Alibarg. This journey in itself was quite memorable – we collected another team that had broken down, Paul and Jill, and then the Toyota had a puncture in the dark on a narrow truck infested road in a monsoon. We eventually arrived about midnight to a pretty grotty damp smelling hotel and a substantially below average meal

We had a late start (11.30) on the second day, waiting for our mechanic to fit a replacement steering column which he had bent in the dark bringing our Tuk to our hotel the previous night,on the pothole riddled road. When once we cleared some pretty rough road the remaining drive up to Pune (145 km) up onto the Deccan plateau was a blast. We had a slight delay as we entered Pune whilst most of the cities 3.5 million population swiftly changed the wheel (these guys are just so friendly and helpful), only to have a half shaft part company about 15 minutes later. Help is always on hand in India, and within minutes a mechanic was steering our Tuk with his mate in another Tuk, his left foot outside pushing on the back corner of our Tuk at normal breakneck speed for 2 km to the mechanics roadside workspace. In two hours we bought a new half shaft (160 rupees), the Tuk mechanic fitted it, adjusted the brakes, stopped for a prayer at his little shrine in a nearby tree, connected a few of our lights and wanted 50 rupees for his labour (we gave him 300).  A scrumptious sizzling chicken dish and a few Kingfishers completed a more successful and enjoyable day.

Day 3 got off to a lively start. What began as an orderly convoy of our 14 Tuks following a Pune Round Tabler’s car leading us to a local school rapidly morphed into a “stock-car” style race through central Pune’s morning rush hour. I couldn’t possibly tell you who got there first – at the cost of a bit of paintwork! What we we discovered when we arrived at the school was an example of the scale of India Round Table’s “Freedom through Education” project. Pune Midtown Round Table 65 had raised 6 million rupees to build Sri Saraswati Vidya Mandir school which educated 1200 children (in two shifts) from the very poorest families who would otherwise be unable to have any education at all. Uniforms, including shoes were also provided. RT Chairman Sanjay Mathrani and the children gave us great welcome, including marvelous hand crafted individual headgear and many of our group gave donations. Dylan was a great hit with the kids in the dragon outfit but nearly passed out inthe heat!The remainder of the days 100km drive to Panchgani was remarkably trouble free, although one mountain pass looked as if would defeat our poor old Tuk so Dylan drove up solo and I precariously hitched a ride on the top of a truck to lighten the load. The views as we drove up to Panchgani were stunning but the place itself was shrouded in mist, and that was when it wasn’t raining stair-rods. It might have been the summer resort of choice for the colonial Brits but it didn’t ring my bell. Once again, as in all our other hotels, an aura of dampness pervaded everywhere, including the beds. Well, if you will come in the monsoon season!

Road signage is not high on India’s priority list, in fact it’s not on the list, so how do you navigate when you haven’t a map? The simple answer is you do what the Indians do. You ask, and ask, and ask until you think it looks about right, and at next opportunity you ask again. Our most reliable guides were milestones (actually kilometre stones) which occasionally showed a city name in English. Possibly because most Indian drivers have a dominant Kamikazi gene, someone in the India roads department has decided to erect numerous roadside safety signs with cryptic slogans, one of the best two liners being “Impatient on the road Patient in hospital”.

Our 4th day involved an initial tortuous drive on a steep foggy road down the mountain, tailgated by impatient bus drivers, until we met the Mumbai-Goa main road where we turned south and made rapidish progress to our next overnight destination 220km away at Ratnagiri. Our exhaust fell off as we entered the town creating the most earsplitting racket I have heard since going to the Italian F1 Grand Prix

By this stage we were both getting the hang of driving our Tuk and organizing the fuelling and thoroughly enjoying rolling through the countryside from mountains, forests, paddy fields, rubber plantations and rural villages – the latter being ideal for our mid-day roadside veggie snack. Some of the itinerary
Day so much luck and breakdowns were rather too frequent culminating in a serious “group discussion” the following morning with Aravind the tour organiser and owner of the Tuks. He promised that he would hire a gang of mechanics to overhaul all the Tuks and correct any defects  during our rest day in Panaji, Goa, which was our destination that evening. I wasn’t holding my breath.

We covered the 250km to Panaji without mishap and including one interesting “diversion” – late morning we encountered an unopened brand new dual carriageway closed off by piles of soil. After brief consideration we decided to risk going on it and after around 20km of blissfully smooth riding and not another vehicle or soul in sight, we were fearing that this was going to end in tears any time – it nearly did – we were confronted with an unbuilt bridge over a local road. Luckily we were able to scramble down a partially constructed slip road and then back up again onto what was now unsurfaced road on the other side. After a few kilometres tar appeared and we eventually rejoined the original road having totally bypassed a small range of mountains and got ahead of six Tuks which had set off before us. Childishly satisfying! We had a relaxing morning in Goa sightseeing plus a ferry ride across the estuary. In the after noon we all visited another India Round Table supported project, the “Margaret Bosco Bal Sadan Home for Boys in Need”.  This is a charity hostel for 37 Paniji boys between 7 and 18 years old in need of shelter – street children, orphans, runaways, victims of exploitation, child labourers. They live voluntarily under the supervision of Rev Fr Willy, a truly marvelous guy who the kids obviously have great respect for. They are taught to look after themselves doing all their own cooking, washing and cleaning and encouraged to attend the local school. The discipline is firm but they are free to leave at any time. Some do, but most return and when they do they are welcomed back. It was very moving to see all their smiling happy faces and the enthusiasm with which they sang three action songs especially for our group, a little reminiscent of my Sunday School days.

Meanwhile the hired gang of mechanics made virtually no progress re-furbing our Tuks, they just pinched all our tools.

As we set off the next morning one of our group unwisely tried to overtake me during a u-turn and rolled it. No personal injury but the top of their Tuk collapsed so the poor buggers had a couple of monsoon days driving a cabriolet. Our reported front wheel alignment problem had not been corrected in Goa so we found a roadside Tuk mechanic in a village en route who stripped down, welded and rebuilt our cracked steering column. The three hour delay resulted in me driving at the end of the day in the dark in monsoon rain, with no lights or windscreen wiper, on a crowded severely potholed road. Four kilometres from base camp, Murudeshwar, I drove straight into an enormous unsighted pothole and came to very abrupt stop as I had sheared off the front axle. We dragged the wreck onto the verge and whilst Dylan stayed guard (otherwise it would have been stripped) I hitched a ride on the back of a motorbike to our hotel and after a few false trails and try-ons, hired a small truck complete with local muscle for 800 rupees, and collected our Tuk. Yet another foodless midnight end to the day.

We had to wait our turn in the repair queue next morning to have a new (second hand) axle fitted to our Tuk – others were still having breakdowns with one team not getting in till 4am the previous night. Despite the late start after mid-day and with slightl to go into the Tower of Silenceve took us to the 150 km to Mangalore before dark. Great food and copious Kingfishers around the corner from our hotel (which was dry for some reason) and all our woes miraculously evaporated.

That euphoria quickly vanished the next morning when we hit (I choose my words carefully) the very worst imaginable road possible on the way to Mysore. We hardly got out of first gear for 20 km. There were short 200 metre stretches with one vehicles width of decent tarmac with a foot or more drop to a mud track. If you met a truck, and we did a few times, they just forced you over the edge. We survived only to be confronted with a very long mountain climb, and with out Tuk being the most underpowered even by Tuk standards, we had a very frustrating uphill crawl for about two hours. Miraculously by early afternoon we were on good quality dual carriageway which took us into Mysore at great speed – well at least 50km/hour.

The next morning Mysore Heritage Round Table 109 took us to Kadiluvagilu primary school which they have supported with classroom building since 2007. Again a great welcome by all the kids and once again the Welsh Dragon outfit went down a treat. We must have been important guests as we were flagged off by their Chief of Police – amazingly the only contact Dylan and I had with the law during the whole trip.

From now on driving was a different ball game. We had good roads (well only the occasional pothole), regular signposts and no more breakdowns. A bit boring really. I had a particularly unique but unwelcome culineray experience in Bangalore. We, that is Dylan, Paul, Jill and I decided to maximise our Indian experience by taking our evening meal in what one charitably may describe as an ‘entry level’ eating establishment. We never really discovered what our dishes were other than variations of chopped chicken complete with shards of bone. The distraction initially were the cockroaches (well fed ones!) strolling under the table, but that was superseded by the ‘cockroach controller’ – a rat which pattered around underneath the tables for a while and then leisurely strolled off into the kitchen. Neither the other punters or any of the staff took a blind bit of notice. I wasn’t holding my breath the next day over an appropriate internal response. It didn’t happen.

We visited three more Round Table projects in the last three days. The first, “The Round Table School” Bangalore, was an outstanding example of the “Freedom through Education” scheme. From a single shed in 1986 the school now has 20 classrooms and free education for 600 children from the Roopena- Agrahara slum area of the city. Their initial failure in persuading children to attend was overcome by providing a free mid-day meal, often meaning that a child would have to miss a home meal to compensate – a story we heard on many occasions. The establishing, administering, managing and funding of this unique first ever Round Table school is down to Bangalore Metropolitan Round Table 44. Now that really is the Big Society in action.

Vellore Round Table 23 provided our next visit. A Workshop for Physically Handicapped Women. This 35 year old project, from small beginnings, now employs 100 handicapped women manufacturing light engineering components (we saw them assembling Tata steering columns). Table are now organizing and fund raising to build small individual houses for each employee.

On our final Round Table visit  hosted by Madras Midtown Table 42 Chairman Sandeep, we were taken around a school of 600 children from a deprived area of Chennai. An indication of how Round Table India’s efforts are influencing future generations, 80% of the childrenin this school were from illiterate families. Once again the mid-day meal was the attendance incentive. This was a fitting place to present RT Sandeep with a  56,000 Rupee (£800) cheque, money which our Aberystwyth friends, in particular  Aberystwyth Rotary club members, had so generously parted with. I have been involved in charity fundraising for over 45 years, and seeing and believing in what these guys do, I would be hard pressed to find a more worthwhile cause.

But that’s not all. The icing on the cake for me was a tour of the Royal Enfield factory in Chennai. I made a couple of journeys around India on a Royal Enfield 500 Bullet a few years ago importing it back to the UK, so to see where they were made was a must. Fascinating to see how it’s done, from the family generations that pass down the amazing skill of hand painting the gold lines on the fuel tanks to fitting bearings on the production line – no fancy presses here, just the old fashioned Birmingham screwdriver! An extremely appropriate Indian end to a tucking great trip