RIDING AROUND IN RICKSHAWS…REALLY?
by Jill Dobbe
The motorized auto rickshaws of India may look like metal boxes on three wheels and have motors that sound like lawn mowers, but they are still the best transportation to get where you want to go quickly. Cycle rickshaws, on the other hand, are ecological and cheap, but slow. The drivers, or rickshaw wallahs, bump along the roads, swerve around cows and pedestrians, dart in and out of traffic, and wander recklessly to the opposite side of the road. They set their own rules for driving, but always got us to our destination.
During the first week of living in Gurgaon, India, riding in auto rickshaws was a thrilling experience, but not always practical. Taking cycle rickshaws was even less practical option and we needed a real car to get around Gurgaon and to explore and travel in India. So, Dan, my husband, leased a gray Maruti Suzuki, and soon after we got it, went off to secure his Indian driver’s license. Not knowing any Hindi and assuming there would be massive amounts of paperwork to get through, he also bribed a school worker to accompany him.
Dan drove the car while Dilip directed him to the Indian version of the Department of Motor Vehicles. After arriving and checking in with the police officer, he learned he had to pass a written exam first. Since the test was written entirely in Hindi and Dan couldn’t read a word, the policeman simply had him sign his name at the bottom, and he passed. Dilip informed Dan he would have to return the next day to take the road test.
Alone this time, Dan drove back the next afternoon and presented himself to the same officer. Told to sit down and wait his turn, Dan found a chair and while he waited, watched the others take their road tests. Four drivers began to drive around a large circle, the size of a basketball court. It went smoothly until the first driver slowed way down to execute a turn. The other cars came to a screeching halt then crashed into one another. A mess ensued as all four cars got tangled up. Over the next twenty minutes the drivers tried unsuccessfully to maneuver themselves back into position. It took them several tries of backing up, inching forward, then backing up again. Two drivers exited their cars and scratched their heads as they tried to figure out what to do. After they finally got straightened out, the drivers carried on and completed the road test. The entire situation had been quite comical and after Dan stopped laughing he walked over to the police officer and asked, “Do I have to take the same road test?”
“Yes, of course!” the officer answered emphatically giving him an Indian head wobble as affirmation.
“Well, okay.” Dan thought trying unsuccessfully to hide the amused expression on his face.
When his turn came up, he got into his Suzuki and with his right arm hanging casually out the window, drove once around the entire circle, parked the car, and got out. Much to the shocked expression on the police officer’s face, Dan completed his road test in less than eight minutes.
Drivers in Gurgaon had a lot to deal with. Besides cows blocking traffic and rickshaws weaving in and out, there were just too many vehicles on the roads, not to mention a shortage of available parking spaces. Right after Dan received his official Indian driver’s permit, we drove to the grocery store. The store was located on one of the busiest streets in Gurgaon, and that afternoon we thought we were awfully lucky to find a parking space directly across the street. We parked, locked up the car, and tromped over the trash strewn lot to get to the store. After purchasing our groceries we collected our full shopping bags, lumbered back out into the sunny day, and walked toward our car. Dan pulled out his keys to unlock the doors, but when we got to the spot where we parked, our car was gone. It had completely vanished. Hanging on to our plastic grocery bags, we looked up and down the road trying to figure out where it was. We walked around in circles wondering where the heck it had gone. Seconds later I saw the blue tow-away sign, that I was sure wasn’t there when we parked.
While we stood on the side of the road looking dazed and confused, a gangly cycle rickshaw driver pedaled up to us. He told us he knew where our car was taken and offered to give us a ride. No doubt, he had watched it get towed away and had waited for us knowing we would need a lift to get it back. It was his chance to earn a few rupees off the foreigners.
“Where is our car? Where is it?” Dan asked the rickshaw wallah.
“It’s just here! Just here!” He pointed halfheartedly to the left while his head wobbled back and forth.
“Oh, good, it’s not so far away. Let’s go with him.” I remarked as we climbed onto the cracked, vinyl rickshaw seats still holding onto our plastic grocery bags.
Forty minutes later, after our weary driver nearly strained his leg muscles to the breaking point, we arrived at a large
parking lot filled with towed-away cars. Dan and I hopped off the rickshaw and paid our exhausted driver a hefty sum. I located our car sitting forlornly with the other confiscated vehicles, while Dan walked over to the policemen guarding the lot. After Dan paid the fifty dollar fine we got in and drove quickly off the lot and back onto the streets of Gurgaon. When we stopped at a light, I looked over at him and we burst out laughing at the entire experience. It felt like we were on an episode of the World’s Funniest Videos, or some other reality show, about two clueless foreigners misplacing their car in a foreign country.