When Jacob Black agreed to go on a two-week, 2,000-mile rickshaw race across India, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. When BW met up with him mere days before his departure, it still hadn't sunk in.
"I'm just going with the flow. Taking it to wherever it leads me," Black said.
The Rickshaw Run is a crazy ride, to say the least. The race invites participants into the heart of India, where 64 teams are traversing paved and sand roads across jungle, arid desert and windy coasts to get from Kochi, in the southwest, to Gangtok, at the base of the Himalayas in the northeast. And all this in a three-wheeled vehicle with a two-stroke engine that is as powerful as a lawn mower engine and can only reach a maximum speed of approximately 30 mph. The auto-rickshaws, or tuk tuks, as they are called, haven't changed since they were pioneered in 1957 and are known to break down along the way.
The idea to participate in the race came from Black's old junior high school friends, Alex Lindbloom and Oliver Deppert. Currently in Thailand getting their dive master certifications, Lindbloom and Deppert make up Shayu Productions. Shayu means "shark" in Chinese, and they are preparing to shoot a documentary on shark finning--the removal and retention of shark fins to be used for soups and other delicacies eaten primarily in China. They decided the Rickshaw Run would be just another adventure and an exceptional way to see India. When their third teammate dropped out, they called Black.
"I didn't hear officially that I would be going on this race until last month [February]," Black said. At the time he was in Nicaragua running a hostel bar.
Together, the three adventurers from Boise form Team Shayu Productions, one of 64 teams participating in this year's spring race. They left Kochi March 28 and made it 60 km before a team they were traveling with had their first rickshaw breakdown. One team had already crossed the finish line as BW went to press.
Black said he had only talked to his teammates twice prior to departure. They told him where to meet and "to be prepared."
What that entails, he was not so sure.
"All I'm taking is a hiking backpack, a sleeping bag, a stove, a Steripen [to purify water] and pills to avoid malaria," he said. "The best adventure about it is that I'll learn a lot."
Black said the race has no strict rules. There's only point A and B--no checkpoint, no specific routes and no accommodations. You can go anywhere you want in India as long as you arrive at Point B on Sunday, April 11.
Accommodations are entirely the responsibility of the participants; it's up to them to decide to camp out, stay in luxury hotels or anything in between.
Participants do receive driving training and classes on map-reading, safety and customs before the race.
The race doesn't come without danger. Dr. Sudhir Goyal, an Indian native and adviser to the Boise State Indian Student Association, said they should be ready to encounter "all the kinds of problems you can imagine in a developing country."
Starting with the diverse climate. Dr. Goyal said temperatures will range from 50 to 100 F.
"They'll encounter harsh temperatures in the south, but in general, this is a good time of the year to be traveling," he said.
A big concern, especially when camping, is safety, Dr. Goyal said. Having an Indian guard or guide would be a good idea.
"You have to be very watchful, especially if you have cameras, laptops, etc. They can kill you even for those things," he said.
Food and water is another issue. One should stick with bottled water, Dr. Goyal said, and food should be served hot.
"If it's not hot, it means the bacteria is there and you're done," he said.
The probable breakdown of the rickshaw, however, shouldn't be a problem, he said.
"There are auto shops everywhere and they're easy to fix," Goyal said.
While the safety of the participants ultimately lies in their own hands, race organizers provide daily information regarding road closures, advisories, danger zones and weather forecasts, as well as medical aid.
Unlike most competitions, there is no grand champion in this race. In fact, the Rickshaw Run is a charity event. The team is responsible for raising at least 1,000 pounds ($1,529) for a charity of choice. Thus far, Team Shayu Productions has raised 1,200 ($1,835) pounds for the Frank Water Projects, which funds sustainable clean water projects in developing countries.
While Dr. Goyal said that the event is a good way to bring attention to charities, he finds the rickshaw race to be "a waste of gas."
In the past, races in India were held with bulls or elephants, Goyal said.
"It's a very foreign thing--this auto race they're adopting. It's not our culture," he said.
"You're burning gas and adding to the greenhouse gasses. I want people to have more fun with nature and the environment and not burn resources in the process," Goyal said.
Well aware of the environmental impact of these auto-rickshaw rallies, the organization behind the race, Chennai Event Management Services, stated that it is working on ways to reduce the event's impact on the surrounding environment, offset carbon emission and reduce pollution.
The spring race is only one of several annual rickshaw races through India organized by CEMS. The races vary in length and routes, but all are aimed, as the Web site states, at "fighting to make the world less boring."
Black's first Facebook update after the race began sums it up nicely: "Wow, yesterday was the 1st day on the road we made it 60 km before our friends that we are traveling with had there 1st run in with the wonders of a rickshaw, Sunday is also a day that all the stores and garages are closed so we couldn't get the parts that they needed until today........this is going to be a long trip ........ but the scenery is beautiful and the people are so nice and helpful. India is amazing [sic]."