For anyone who’s never been to the Global South, a tuk-tuk is a three wheel vehicle with a motorcycle engine, used as the prime mode of taxiing in urban areas. The next stage in the evolution (and I use that word in the loosest sense) of the manually pulled rickshaw and peddle rickshaw, in India it’s known as the auto-rickshaw. An abomination against nature and humanity alike, these contraptions are the scourge of cities and towns, with their incessant noise and pollution a feature of everyday life. This may sound like a hyperbolic assessment given that they can be a relatively cheap and handy way of getting from A to B but when you consider the discomfort of sitting in one and the fellas that drive them, it’s fair to say they are evil. George Orwell, in his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, give rickshaw-pulling as an example of unnecessary work:
“In any Far Eastern town there are rickshaw pullers by the hundred, black wretches weighing eight stone, clad in loin-cloths. Some of them are diseased; some of them are fifty years old. For miles on end they trot in the sun or rain, head down, dragging at the shafts, with the sweat dripping from their grey moustaches… there is no real need for gharries and rickshaws; they only exist because Orientals consider it vulgar to walk. They are luxuries, and, as anyone who has ridden in them knows, very poor luxuries.”
This brings to mind the haggard image of many peddle-rickshaw drivers today (there are less and less of them because their services are going out of demand due to much faster tuk-tuks). Auto-rickshaw drivers, are a different species altogether – one could even go as far to say as they look quite smug in comparison to their peddling counterparts. Out of this low line of employment, albeit one improved upon from previous generations, they have developed a manic desperation at getting customers, especially foreign ones who are easier to overcharge. With enough English to call out the likes of “where you go?”, “sir, you want auto?”, and “please come, cheap price!”, they’ll often not take “no thanks” for an answer and continue to shout from their tuk-tuks, as if being as annoying as possible will make you change your mind. And that’s not even getting into the haggling you have to go through to get anywhere near a fair price. Granted, many of these men are poor souls just trying to make a living in what is a tough, saturated market but that’s the last thing on you’re mind when you step off a 12 hour train journey and are surrounded by 10 of them shouting at you from all directions. So what I’m saying is, I and almost every other person I’ve spoken to about this, hate tuk-tuks. Fucking hate them. I once lazily remarked to my friend Danny, that I wouldn’t travel across India in a tuk-tuk if you paid me. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what I find myself doing (without getting paid to!) when I reach Ahmedabad in Gujarat.
My host in Mumbai put me in contact with two previous guests of hers, who are travelling from Goa to Jaipur by a tuk-tuk owned by a charity who needs it returned. James (more pics from the journey on his website here) from London organised bringing the tuk-tuk back to to his friend near Jaipur and fellow-traveller Teemu from Helsinki, are somehow still going strong after 1000s of kms of bumping along at 50 km/ph max. Rather than train-hop between cities, joining them is an opportunity to see the real Rajasthan and to have a bit of an adventure. After a day in Ahmedabad where we meet and hang out for a while, the three of us hit the road towards the city of Udaipur 300 kms away. The journey goes smoothly as James and Teemu take turns driving (I haven’t plucked up the courage yet to tackle Indian roads) and we reach our destination by 5pm. After some haggling we land ourselves a basic ‘room’ on top of a pleasant guesthouse and balcony all to ourselves with lovely views of the surrounding river running through the city and mountains in the distance. We spend 3 nights at our rooftop accommodation, enjoying the vista of sunrises and sunsets over the beautiful old city.
The next journey doesn’t quite go as smoothly, as the brakes on the tuk-tuk give out and we only make it three quarters to our next destination, Jodhpur. The sight of three foreigners driving a tuk-tuk still elicits a reaction of amazement and bemusement from locals and when we stop we’re often surrounded by a small group, curious to know what’s going on. By sun down we still haven’t found anywhere to stay for the night but we luckily happen upon a roadside temple which allows us to crash till the next morning. It takes a while due to the noise of the nearby traffic and the restless dogs sleeping beside us on the concrete but eventually I drift off underneath the stars. At 4.30 am we’re all woken by crazed temple music playing on loop over the loudspeakers, blasting out some interchange between what sounds like some old distinguished bastard and a lunatic who chips in with his part (“whey hey!”, “ho!” and some incomprehensible exclamations/questions) occasionally – all set to a backdrop of an accordion sounding instrument. James later likened it to a Monthy Python sketch but the funny side of it didn’t become clear till many hours later. While this ‘song’ goes through my head all day, I think to myself, could India get any more mental? Due to the gears going on the tuk-tuk, we’re delayed by a couple of hours while a mechanic fixes it and we reach nearby Jodhpur by 3pm.
Jodhpur is another beautiful Rajastani city dominated by an ancient citidel and an old market place in the centre. It’s near the marketplace we stay in a cheap guesthouse. Teemu, tired of the tuk-tuk and in need of some space of his own, leaves us to find a room of his own in a cheaper guesthouse. James has also, understandably, had it with the tuk-tuk and makes plans to leave it at our next destination, Pushkar.
After a couple of nights in Jodhpur, I make the final journey with James to Pushkar without any glitches while I take advantage of having the back seat to myself to take pictures of passing scenes of life in arid rural Rajasthan.
Pushkar is a pleasant enough small town. It’s a pilgrimage site and among the odd camel, there seems to be even more cattle wondering around the streets than usual. There’s also plenty of holy men, babas, with a dazed look as they go around in their loincloth, stick and knapsack. It’s these that are the authentically religious. Others are obviously in it for something else. One day exploring the town, I am caught unawares as a man sneakily takes my hand and fills it with red petals. He tells me it’s for a blessing to be put in the nearby lake and leads me to the water’s edge a couple of minutes walk away through the streets. Out of some misplaced respect, I don’t drop the petals where I stand and follow him. At the lake there are other tourists being duped and being made to repeat a blessing before throwing the petals in the water and being asked for a ‘donation’. When I’m rid of the petals, the man who sounds like he’s done this a million times asks, “Now, you can give a donation…some foreigners like to give 1000 or 2000 rupees. Or you can give in your own currency”. I respond grumpily “Eh, I’m not giving any donation. How’s about that?”. He goes on, “Sir, just a small don…” till I cut him off, “Listen, I didn’t ask for this. I don’t even believe in it – I’m not a Hindu. You’re not getting a donation”. With this I saunter off past the big metal box with DONATIONS written on it in English, thinking how my tolerance for major religions has nosedived recently. Even if you accept the dubious premises of them, they’re all corrupted hierarchical institutions and Hinduism is no exception, especially given the state India is in. In contrast to all this superficial religious nonsense, the thought of 10 days of peace and quiet at a vipassana meditation course outside Jaipur is a pleasant one indeed. I say farewell to James after a couple of days in Pushkar and get a bus to Jaipur with a great deal of optimism about the coming days.