As I squatted on a keyhole shaped latrine on the floor this evening, appeasing my moaning knees with talk of “a healthy colon”, “increased flexibility” and “at least it’s actually clean and not like before” (below), it occurred to me once again what a fantastic thing this was to do. Even with a serious lack of toilet paper and an odd looking water pumper staring me in the face, I regret nothing.
Our two auto-rickshaws (tuk tuk isn’t local lingo), along with 81 others, set off from Shillong at around 11am on Wednesday in the pouring rain with what some would say were anxious looking grins pasted on their drivers’ faces. We’d all been up the road we were about to head down and knew that those hairpin bends in vehicles that might tip over at any point would be interesting, let alone the next 3450 km.
We managed to lose our partners almost straight away but with plans to meet at Guwahati and an Indian sim card acquired we ploughed on! I took the first stint and I must say I genuinely thoroughly enjoyed myself. Taking care not to role her on day one (Gertrude’s definitely a she), we raced down the road overtaking and being overtaken by fellow rickshaw runners relatively constantly while waving at the locals who cheered us on as we roared past. Roared quite literally, tuk tuks are stupidly loud at the best of times. Exchanging high fives with a swathe of children, nearly ripping my arm off, we were well on our way.
In the following 4 or 5 hours I took the wrong side of a duel carriageway, stalled “a couple” of times and enthusiastically made use of India’s horn etiquette. As we discovered later, using the right side of a dual carriageway is as unnecessary as it is on a normal road in India and so we probably could have carried on, which would have saved us getting stuck in the mud while turning around. . .
As with all the troubles you find yourself in while in this amazing country, within seconds people arrive. Firstly to help and secondly (depending on who else is there) to stare and/or take pictures of the rarities that are pimped out auto-rickshaws with non-Indian drivers. I would too if I saw this in England, it’s not exactly ordinary.
Unlike me, though, the vast majority of people coming to help seem to be immensely competent when it comes to machinery and all things helpful and we were out in a jiffy. It transpired that around the same time as this the other group blew their tyre and buckled the rim, the whole shabang. Luckily this happened right outside a tyre repair store and the locals were there to help out! If this were anywhere else I’d suspect foul play but here – he said with his current naive view of every Indian being as friendly and generous as those he’s encountered so far – it was simply coincidence.
Compared to other groups our breakdown rate is actually relatively low. The blue moustached vehicle has broken down twice and ours has laboured through and only had to be fixed once. Others have destroyed axels, broken roof racks, lost gears and had their carburettor fall off. How that happens I really couldn’t say.
When the carburettor on non-Gertrude needed a clean (not that we knew this) a young guy on a bike turned up instantly, and I mean instantly. Just right there, in the middle of nowhere. He was a mechanic and fixed it with no trouble at all, he even gave it a tune up at the same time and then proceeded to fix ours when she failed to start after that. All this with a beaming smile on his face while refusing money in return.
These people really are something else. They’ve frequently gone way out of their way to help us, dinners cooked past closing time, phones charged, directions given, shown and explained despite varying degrees of their understanding of English. I could relay these moments for pages and pages (and probably will later) but for now I’ll leave it at that. I’m very much in awe of their attitude.
There is one aspect of Indian attitude I can’t say I appreciate that much at all:
After two days of driving we reached Siliguri which is about two hours tuk tuk (yes that’s a verb now) from Darjeeling. To do this we’ve had to drive a couple of hours each night in the pitch black, often without streetlights, with cars, vans and massive trucks and buses still overtaking constantly and seemingly without care for any crash that you would have thought was certain to arrive.
The first 30 minutes at least of each journey really weren’t great. When cars come towards us, their lights reflect from our shabby little windscreen making visibility pretty darn hard, our own headlights only project about 5-7 meters and really aren’t bright. Cyclists and pedestrians with nothing colourful or reflective on appear out of nowhere; cows, dogs and goats wander around the road or simply lie as central as possible doing their best ‘teenager refusing to get out of bed impression’ and it’s a miracle we didn’t hit anything.
We did perfect the technique in the end, all it takes is one person hanging out of the left watching for hidden pedestrians in dark clothing and one person hanging out of the right side to say when it’s safe to overtake. Then there’s hardly any danger at all! As my parents will doubtless read this, you’ll be glad to hear we’re very much alive, didn’t crash and will not be putting ourselves through it again. An experience to put in the scary film drawer and never return to.
Next stop Darjeeling. Tea and Himalayan views here we come!