Imagine the fastest, safest, earth-munching all-terrain vehicle in the world. Then imagine the opposite.
You would come up with the rickshaw, a vehicular staple in South Asia and other parts of the developing world. Three wheels, half a horse power and more fun than any other vehicle on planet earth, the humble Rickshaw is undoubtedly the ultimate long distance, off road machine, despite being designed for short distances.
Now imagine trying to get this untrusty steed across India, through the Rajasthan desert and human biomass of Mumbai and into the salt spray of the southern coast, in a mad dash of a race with no rules except to arrive at the finish line. There is no route. There is no pit crew. The goal is only to finish.
That is the Rickshaw Run. And a team of six adventurous, or perhaps insane, guys in Austin are taking it on in January.
The team, dubbed Lone Star Rickshaw, has decided that the best way to spend their long-earned vacation time is to pile into the poorly designed vehicle for fourteen days of avoiding breakdowns and body odor. Admittedly, the guys say it is the stupidest thing one can do with two weeks in India.
"We made the decision to do the Rickshaw Run after too much beer and a propensity for bad decision-making," says Evan Mallory. After reading about the adventure race online, Evan and his fellow team members Nathan Wyman, Otto Hemmi, Matt Goodman, Cody Daniel and Peter Voyvodic casually tossed the idea around for a while, but Evan says they were mostly those "wouldn't it be cool if…" conversations.
Until it became something more.
"Otto and I were out chatting over some beers one night and the subject came up again," Evan recalls. "We asked the question, 'Is there any good reason we shouldn't do this?' and we couldn't come up with any. None of us has kids and we are all relatively young, and we figured there is only a certain period in your life where you can do something so ill-advised."
Nathan says that he was sold once he realized it was a motorized rickshaw, and not the pedal kind. "At first I thought you wanted me to pull you and Otto through the trenches of India," he tells Evan.
For Nathan, the Rickshaw Run will fulfill his dream of seeing India outside the tourist trap. "I have a mental image of a small village with an old woman in a bright purple dress near a stream; hopefully while we’re cruising through rural India I’ll see its equivalent, but I’m guessing that my imagination isn’t up to the task of providing the amazing things we’ll see on this adventure."
The race, which is put on by The Adventurists, a UK-based organization, is amazingly popular. When team Lone Star Rickshaw signed up a year ago, there were 70 team slots and they all filled up within 30 minutes of the sign-up opening.
Teams are racing to raise money for charity; part of the requirements of Rickshaw Run teams is that they raise a minimum of £1000 for charity. The Lone Star Rickshaw team is raising their money for FrankWater, a nonprofit that sets up fresh water stations in parts of India which have no access to clean, safe drinking water. Since it started in 2007, the Rickshaw Run has raised just shy of £1 million for charity. The Austin team also has a patron, Chaotic Moon, which designed the paint jobs for the guys' two rickshaws and is helping them with cell phones, video and publicity.
To prepare for the race, Evan and his team have undergone travel vaccines, read up on India and the route, fundraised for FrankWater and contacted many previous teams to get some advice. "The biggest advice all previous teams have given us is don't count on any of your plans working out," Evan says.
In fact, the Rickshaw Run is dangerous. It's not a glorified holiday, but 3,500 kilometers of an "un-route" on which anything can happen. Team Lone Star says that their favorite part of the FAQ from the official website reads, Q: Is it dangerous? A: Yes. Very.
The website publishes a warning: "Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high. Individuals who have taken part in past Adventurists' adventures have been permanently disfigured, seriously disabled and even lost their life." Yikes. Now you know why I said these guys have quite possibly lost their minds.
Evan readily admits to having been mildly insane from an early age. His projects as a child included attempting to build an underground escape tunnel from his bedroom and testing a weighted pulley descent system. He moved to Austin from East Texas in 2000 because he thought there was a significant population of like-minded insanity here.
"This was a perfect blend of crazy and awesome," he says of the Rickshaw Run. "I am excited about being forced into the face of humanity. We are spending 14 days in a small open air vehicle traveling though small villages. The option of viewing the locals from the cruise deck isn't there. I like the idea of de-sanitizing travel where you are forced to experience the place you're in."
For his part, Nathan digs the idea of forced improvisation to acquire the basics of life, with no common language and no plan. And self-described nerd Matt is looking forward to interacting with people from diverse parts of India. "It is not like we will be racing past everything on an interstate, we will be really in the mix where people live, work, and interact."
After a fundraising event at Scoot Inn, the Lone Star Rickshaw team is continuing to raise donations and preparing for their departure to India on December 27. The race kicks off on December 31 and ends on January 14, when our Austin team will, hopefully, cross the finish line in Kerala. You can follow their progress via video at Twitter and Facebook.