When I first watched Jack’s Gap’s The Rickshaw Run, back in 2013, I could never have imagined that just a couple of years later I too would be in India, experiencing the chaotic madness that is an Indian road. If you haven’t watched The Rickshaw Run, I’ll link the first episode at the end of this post. One of the first things I noticed while re-watching the mini-series is that Jack and Finn must have chosen to show all of the ‘good parts’ of their journey through India and they even managed to make the Indian roads look reasonably civilised. They didn’t appear to find any cows asleep in the road, the sound of horns was barely audible, they had no near misses with any trucks or the back end of a cow and there wasn’t a single dead dog in sight!
I set off on my Indian Adventure with a group of eleven others on March 16th 2016 to visit Bethel House (a children’s home) at the Stepping Stones Mission Centre in Ranaghat, West Bengal. Upon stepping out of the arrivals building of Kolkata Airport onto what I thought was an average Indian street, rather than the pick up area of the airport, I was firstly hit by the heat in comparison to the air conditioned airport building (we hadn’t even stepped into the sun yet) and I also noticed the (not so unpleasant) smell of both food in general and more specifically bananas. People waiting to meet arriving travellers were standing just outside the doors, there were rickshaw and taxi drivers waiting to pick up passengers, street food and a bustling atmosphere which honestly made me believe this wasn’t part of the airport. It was only much later when we returned to the airport at the end of the trip that I looked down at the arrivals area from where we had been dropped off in departures and realised that we were most definitely within a secured airport complex. So, without me realising it at the time, my first impression of India probably couldn’t have been any more Indian!
I had my first delightful experience of Indian roads very early on in the trip, when our group was picked up from the airport in three Jeeps. We crossed over the road and went into the underground car park where the jeeps were waiting to be loaded up. Our large and rather heavy suitcases (some up to 30kg) were somehow lifted onto the roofs of the jeeps and tied very securely with bungee cords. I was fully expecting my suitcase to not make it to Bethel House. The suitcases which didn’t end up on the roof, and our hand luggage, were stacked up precariously in the back of one of the jeeps.
After thirty hours of travelling, a longer journey than expected sending us via Mumbai due to the delay on our first flight, I wasn’t really in a state of mind to question the safety of the transportation. As I reached my arm back when I took my place in one of the jeeps, Pete (who has been to India many times before) laughed and asked “what are you looking for?” I answered “the seatbelt” which was only met with more laughter. I didn’t bother looking for a seatbelt again until we got back into the minibus at Manchester Airport. The funny thing is that all of the cars are fitted with seat belts but the drivers cover up or remove the plugs to click them into, so even if you can see a seatbelt, you can’t use it!
As we drove away from the airport and headed through what must have been the outskirts of Kolkata, those of us who were new to India were definitely plunged into the deep end. We got our first taste of Indian driving style on Indian roads and, before we had even made our way to the end of the first road, I had already seen a dead dog. It’s perfectly normal to see live goats, cows and dogs wandering by the side of the road or walking across the road or lying down in the middle of the road as well as dead animals left by the side of the road, you’ve just got to honk and drive around them. Technically, people drive on the left in India (like England), although I have no idea how I actually noticed this, since any position in the road is fair game as long as you’re honking the horn. Every road in India is a dual carriageway. A dirt track, in India, is a dual carriageway. Jeep drivers in particular seem to favour the middle or the right side of the road, regardless of what’s coming the other way. I always used to joke to my mum and say “just honk and drive” but that is literally what Indian drivers do and now I will NEVER use that phrase in a car again!
Half way between Kolkata Airport and Bethel house, just as the sun was setting, we stopped off for Cha at a little roadside… shack is a more appropriate word than tearoom. Lucy described the quaint little hut as “pretty, apart from the rats” which was a fairly accurate description. The Cha was served in tiny clay cups (which you can keep) and the sun was setting over the lake behind the hut. At this point in the day I wasn’t much in the mood to risk a strange drink from a dubious rat infested roadside vendor so, for now, I was boring and, stuck to bottled water.
After thirty hours of travelling via a city we were never meant to set foot in, enduring Indian driving and surviving a stop at a rat infested Indian tearoom, we were all incredibly exhausted and relieved when we finally arrived at Bethel House but it was all worth it to see the smiles on the boys’ faces when the jeeps pulled up in the yard.
There are plenty more Indian adventures still to come over the next few weeks but for now entertain yourselves by watching Jack and Finn’s take on India in The Rickshaw Run!
The Rickshaw Run – Part 1 (JacksGap):