Travel Tuesday: Driving Across India in a Beat-Up Rickshaw

November 29, 2011 / by Mango Languages

Today's blog comes from Scott Brills, a world traveler and a close friend of Mango's for years. In September, Scott and his friend Mike traversed 2,000 miles across India in a rickshaw to raise money that would provide clean water and polio vaccinations for children in India. Learn more about his journey here.

“What in the world have I gotten myself into?”

That was the first thing I thought of when I woke up in my cheap hotel room around 6:00AM. I had spent the last few days in Shillong, India—a medium-size city in the northeastern state of Maghalaya. I was there because I had signed up to drive a three-wheeled rickshaw 2,000 miles across the country for charity. Today was September the 11th—launch day.

This wasn’t even close to my first time abroad—it wasn’t even my first time doing a crazy charity rally—but this time things were a bit different. First off, this was India, home to some of the craziest drivers and worst roads in the world. Second, neither I nor my rally buddy, Mike, had test-driven our rickshaw yet. Seems as though our vehicle was still in the shop—hopefully it would be ready in time to start the event in a few hours. It was going to be a steep learning curve.

Mike and I joined the rest of the participants at the start line. It had started to sprinkle out, and the clouds weren’t looking good. Thirty minutes later, right as we all headed out onto the unforgiving highway, a torrent of water opened up from the sky, washing away the dirt road and drenching us in the process. We caught up to some other rickshaws just as the rain subsided, just in time for the one in front of us to lose a wheel. It flew off as the team was driving, and the rickshaw leaned over to the left, sending a shower of sparks our way as the rear brakes made contact with the pavement. They just barely made it to the side of the road without tipping, and we, along with some other teams, helped them get the wheel back on, making sure it was tightened properly this time around.

The next five hours of driving down the mountain towards the city of Guwahati would be some of the most stressful of our lives. Needless to say, I learned how to pilot that rickshaw pretty quickly, and by the end of that tumultuous first day I considered myself a pro.

* * *

The next two and a half weeks would be filled with crazy experiences of all times: breaking down over a dozen times in one day, getting lost (every day), trying all manner of new foods (lamb brain anyone?), dodging cows sleeping in the middle of city streets, avoiding rickshaw-sized potholes, losing our registration and insurance documents, forging said documents to attempt re-entry into India, and driving the last leg of the journey in 2nd gear the entire way.

The first few days were the toughest, but every day provided us with a new set of challenges that we had to take on if we were ever going to get to the finish line in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. After rebuilding our engine from scratch on day three, we were good to go as far as propulsion goes, but just about every day a new problem cropped up (the rickshaws weren’t in the best condition, to put it lightly). We pretty much totally relied on the kindness of strangers along the way, neither of us being rickshaw mechanics. Within minutes of breaking down we could count on someone to stop and offer assistance. Some could speak better English than others, but seeing as our Hindi (or whichever of India’s 22 major recognized languages was prevalent in the area) wasn’t quite up to par, it had to suffice. Regardless, through body language and bits of English alone we were always able to get by. We met a whole load of interesting characters along the way—some more helpful than others, some more wanting of a “tip” than others—but we were thankful to each and every one of them. We traveled quite a way, and saw many amazing things, but the people we met along the way were definitely the highlight of our journey.

Seventeen days later we completed the trip—two thousand miles or so from where we had started off. It had been one of the most difficult, strenuous adventures of ou

r lives, and we were both kind of glad that it was finished (and definitely ready for the post-trip to Thailand to unwind for a bit). One can only do so many twelve hour days in a ramshackle rickshaw in a row!

I’d love to return to India again someday, but next time I’m going as a tourist—not a rickshaw driver.

For a full recount of Scott’s rally across India check out his blog at

Have you ever had an extreme adventure like Scott's in another country? What was the most challenging part? What was the most rewarding?

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

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