Tuk Tuk and Away!
Traveling has made me strong. Like an unbreakable, steel blade forged in the heat of a blacksmith’s furnace my years on the road have made me assertive, self assured and confident that I can make it through pretty much anything. I powered over Annapurna’s high pass alone in a storm laughing in the face of altitude sickness and stood my ground as I was swarmed and encircled by conspiring tout’s on Colombia’s lawless frontier.
Then there are other times such as when I survived a spiking in Bogota and a near fatal blackout in the antioquian jungle when I am forced to ask; did I actually survive these times or rather was I saved?
Travel has also taught me that however bold and brave we think we are, there are also times when we are fragile and helpless as babies, dependent entirely upon the mercy of others and in some cases upon the kindness of complete strangers.
Driving a Tuk Tuk across India with my good friend Will Hatton from The Broke Backpacker (in our own private, Rickshaw Challenge) was one such experience. In a trying, testing but unforgettable road trip from Delhi to Manalli we found ourselves desperately stuck and lost and were saved time and again only by the kindness of strangers.
I had been in India for 4 days and it was not love at first sight. I found Mumbai a city of at best modest bearings rendered truly unlikable by excessive noise, pollution and oppressive heat. Delhi was even worse and left me the most shaken I have perhaps ever been on the road after I arrived at my hostel late at night to find it did not actually exist (only in India…) . A generous taxi driver went above and beyond the call of his 500rps fayre and a kind stranger (a young, trendy designer with a great hair-cut) came to my aid going miles out of his way to help me find a room sparing me a night sleeping rough in a dicey-looking neighbourhood in north Delhi.
I met Will at daybreak after a sleepless night. The multi-colored, paisley patterned Tuk Tuk looked magnificent and my spirits were revived despite my fatigued body. We loaded her up and cranked up the engine to find she would not start. Within minutes 4 or 5 passersby were at our aid trying to help us fire up the engine and when that failed, they push started us just before the traffic police could ticket us for blocking the road.
Our Tuk Tuk (which Will had named Tinkerbell) looked great but she was rotten inside (so I wanted to call her Delilah…) and her engine groaned, spluttered and spat back smoke with every metre towards Manali.
After stopping for breakfast somewhere in Delhi’s eternal, infernal outskirts we had to enlist more kind strangers for another push start. Unfortunately the problem was more severe this time and Tinkerbell’s innards spilled across the hot road. Within seconds the locals were on hand to help us and called a mechanic who arrived in no time like a knight in shining armour (and tattered flip-flops…) on his Royal Enfield Motorbike. As he fixed her up we sat in his tiny wooden shack and were offered Chai and local hash free of charge. When the repairs were done he charged us only a few hundred rupees instead of playing on our desperation and levying the customary “foreigner tax”.
Something about our trip seemed to be bringing the best out of people. Maybe it was the sheer novelty, the comical sight of three foreigners driving a battered, psychedelic Tuk-Tuk or maybe it was just that our plight brought out the better instincts of people and the kindness of strangers.
By late afternoon we were approaching Kurukshetra, the site of the mythical battle of the Bhagavad Gita, when Tinkerbell cut out again. We rolled her to a mechanic only to find they couldn’t help us and couldn’t really communicate owing to a language barrier. Fortunately, a nearby shopkeeper, tempted out by curiosity, offered his assistance by finding us another mechanic, taking us into his air-conditioned house for food and drink and calling his friend up to keep us entertained.
The kindness and hospitality of this man was unparalleled, he closed up his shop for the day to help out three strange foreigners and in the morning even bought us breakfast.
As the days and towns rushed by this became a familiar experience. We would break down, push start and change engine parts whilst sipping Chai in mechanics huts. Whilst the miles and miles of arid road were forgettable the kindness and touching generosity we encountered at each turn was not.
Fond Farwell To Tinkerbell
By the time we reached Chandigarh (Punjab’s highly functional but overplanned and soulless capital), we took the tough decision to leave Tinkerbell. The last few days had pushed her beyond her meager capabilities and there was no way she would make the steep mountain ascent up into the Himalaya’s. We kissed her good-bye in an emotional farewell and took the bus.
As it was, the bus didn’t fare much better and broke down halfway up the first mountain stretch; “This bus be dead” declared the driver. We waited by the road unsure of what to do next, sat on our rucksacks, running out of water and baking in the hot sun. The other passengers (who seemed used to this) offered us words of encouragement and even shared a smoke of some kind of pipe which had little effect on us other than burning our throats and inducing coughing fits. Eventually, we managed to hitch a lift with a Sikh wrestling team and by nightfall we were in Manali; again the kindness of strangers had saved the day.
Another Side To India
The journey by Tuk-Tuk was slow, tough and totally impractical. However, it was also a whole lot of fun and allowed us to test our mettle and our team-play skills. It also allowed us to see another side of India that most travelers completely miss as we stopped by pure accident at towns and cities the guidebooks don’t even mention. Moreover, it also allowed us to see a side of the Indian personality that is easy to miss amidst the hustle and bustle of Agra’s touts and Goa’s drug pushers, a gentle and kind side that was always on hand to help three lost strangers in their hour(s) of need.
I can only hope that if an Indian citizen ever breaks down in a novelty vehicle beside England’s M6 motorway that kind soul’s are on hand to give them a helping hand and maybe a bit of a push start.