We arrived in Cochin International Airport on a hot and steamy Friday night. I was travelling with Stephen, a new friend from work who was the only man crazy enough to join me on an adventure this daft. I asked at the information desk by the front entrance ‘Can I get a taxi out front?’ The South Indian man’s head wobbled, shaking from left to right. This was clearly not the standard negative head shake. Again I asked ‘Can I get a taxi out front?’ His head wobbled furiously this time, clearly meaning to convey some kind of answer. I smiled a ‘Thank you.’ I later learned that the infamous Indian head wobble means anything from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’ to ‘I Don’t Know’ depending on circumstance, region or variants. Exiting the terminal was like being hit head-on by a wall of dry heat. It was already night but I was suddenly drenched in sweat.
We hopped into the first available taxi. An ancient white Hindustan Ambassador car that was once a status symbol in India but was now relegated to taxi status. Traffic moves at a slow 30mph as the cars and trucks cannot manage any more than that but it always seems to be moving at breakneck speed due to the chaos, abrupt lane changes, lack of lanes and constant beeping. Beeping in India signifies ‘I am behind you’, ‘I am overtaking you’ and ‘I am in front of you’, the safest practice is to just lean on the horn whenever any other car is nearby.
Our driver sped through the dark Indian night overtaking four to five cars at a time. We were gripping the seats in awe of his rally driving ability and fearing what was ahead for us. A moped on the other side of the road was at full throttle overtaking a large truck, horn blaring. The rider’s arm was running through his helmet – holding it by his side, apparently helmets are required in cities but as soon as they get to the outskirts they are removed to escape the heat. The truck, not hearing the tiny chirps of the moped over the din, accelerated. Everyone came to a stop. I had not seen a fatal accident before. I had expected the police to come and take statements and breathalyse the truck driver but my western expectations were soon dashed. People calmy exited their vehicles, assessed the situation, lifted the moped rider into the back of a nearby Rickshaw and sped off. Presumably for a fruitless trip to the hospital. Everyone returned to their cars and continued their night as if nothing had happened. This was the start of my Indian culture shock.
We finally arrived at our hotel in Cochin, dropped off our bags and headed for the closest bar. Kerala was a Communist state but was very tourist friendly. The large fishing nets were the main tourist attraction in the city. The XL bar had recently been in the news because a woman in a full burka had attempted to go for a drink. Islamic women rarely attend bars there and everyone thought they were witnessing a terrorist attack. It turned out that a western woman had gotten sick of the Indian male advances and decided on a burka to avoid their attention for her night out.
The bar was full of Rickshaw Run participants and we sat down at the first table with free seats. It’s strange how much of an impact that small decision had on the rest of my life. At the table there was an Australian team called Moby Rick with Eugene – a paramedic, Andy – a corporate travel manager and Marty – a chiropractor. A UK team called Mabel with John – who sold tokens on the tube in London and Louise – a corporate program manager. And an English team called Sikkim The Head with Phil and Vicky.
They asked what our team name was and I said ‘Naztronauts’. ‘Why is that then?’ They enquired. It’s named after our Indian friend Naz, he was going to come with us but then decided ‘I have lived in India for 20 years. When I go on vacation I do not want to go there, I want to go somewhere that is a bed of roses.’ They asked ‘But why didn’t you change the name after he pulled out?’ I replied ‘Because picking a team name is really hard.’
Months before designs were submitted for each of the Rickshaws and painstakingly painted by a wizened old Indian man. Sikkim the Head was immaculately splashed with yellow and purple swirls. Mabel was disguised as a black and white Frisian cow. However Moby Rick had taken a different approach and they spray painted a giant sperm whale on their Rickshaw themselves. Our Rickshaw was bare except for some stickers Stephen had designed.
We listened to a speech from the mayor of Cochin and took off into the crowded streets of Cochin. A Rickshaw has a 125cc engine, a max speed of 30mph, three wheels, a motorcycle handlebar and a very hard bench in the backseat. The Cochin traffic was crazy as expected but soon we were out of the city and onto the open road.
After a few hours we hit Munnar, a town with rolling lush hills of green tea leaves. We stayed for the night and asked at the hotel desk where we could get beer. ‘I will send the Boy’ was the reply. Every hotel has a ‘boy’ for odd jobs. A white haired 70 year old man appeared, he was ‘the boy’! We gave him money and he disappeared for a few hours and reappeared with beers for everyone. We spent the night talking about the roads ahead and telling the worst jokes we could think of.
The next day Sikkim The Head left to take a route up through the middle of India. The rest of us headed for Tiruchirapalli or Trichy, and the east coast. We spent the day travelling down dusty Indian highways, overtaking lumbering trucks. We reached Trichy at night and thankfully Stephen was driving. In Moby Rick’s Rickshaw they had a system where the person on the back left would shout out what was coming up on the left and the person on the back right would shout out what was coming on the right. As they entered Trichy the voices fell silent. ‘What’s behind me?’ Eugene shouted. The answer came as a whisper, ‘You’re on your own.’
Cars, trucks and motorcycles all slid past each other with millimeters to spare. We had no idea how everyone wasn’t crashing into each other. After a few close calls every team came to realize the unspoken rules of Indian traffic. You only worry about what is in front of you, whoever is behind you will worry about you. And if you hesitate, you will crash. We came to the large roundabout at the center of town. There were, in theory, three lanes – but there were at least five in practice. There was a loud cacophonous sound of every horn in the city blaring at once. Stephen weaved between bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks and cows and came out the other side of the roundabout in one piece but with no idea how.
We managed to pull in safely at the hotel and immediately a spryly old Indian man grabbed Marty’s hand and pulled him away shouting ‘You must come.’ I asked Eugene if we should go after him and he sternly replied, ‘No, he is a grown man.’ Marty reappeared an hour later and I asked him if he was alright. He replied, ‘I was just the guest of honour at a wedding.’
To be continued…