Rickshaws are Way Under-rated

What comes to mind when you think of an auto rickshaw? Hot polluted air in lungs, open access to passer-by, death-defying speeds? Yes, it is all of these things- but on my first trip to the India of my heart, it grew to a pivotal life-changing importance. Think I may be deranged? Possibly, but allow me to explain.

What is an auto- rickshaw, or tuk tuk, so synonymous with any discussion on India and her transportation options, or even the city scape? It's a cheap, three-wheeled alternative to a taxi, with the same system in mind of driver and passenger. The driver sits in the front padded seat, behind a motorbike-type steering bar and a pane of glass, adorned with images of his Bollywood flame and stickers of a chosen diety. The passenger sits on a long cushy seat in the back, which can seat three comfortably, surrounded by padded walls and ceiling. There are no doors or windows. The auto rickshaw is open to the street on one side, and on the other, the "wall" comes up to the elbow in height.

The passenger can scarcely hear above the din of the engine roaring to life at the pull of a lever, the constant putter of effort, along with the blast of the horn.

It's almost certain that the driver is unsatisfied with not being able to rip off his newly acquired passenger as much as he had planned, and will cut his losses by weaving and speeding through traffic. To save sanity and nervous sweating, the journey begins to take the form of an amusement park ride. "This is fine. I won't get into an accident. It's perfectly safe. That was not just the wheel of a truck 2 centimeters from my shoulder." The unkempt sporadic roads only lend to the credibility of this 'ride of a lifetime'. Between the bumping, sliding, adjusting, and cursing for yet more haste but care, there isn't much time to think. Except of your life, which periodically flashes before your eyes.

After bargaining skills become refined, uncomfort dealt with on reflex, and experience garnered, the auto rickshaw ride becomes one of contemplation. The rider has time to take in the city and observe its culture, allow sights and scents to waft over them, to feel the soothing cool breeze through oppressing heat outside.

Auto-rickshaw rides marked my stay in India; it was on that initial fertile day in Madras that I wondered how I could possibly handle the city, deal with the language- barrier, find friends, just live. Just then, my eyes landed on a foreign woman in a salwar kameez barking commands to her driver in purposefully broken English. She was confident, savvy and full of anticipatory energy. I took note from the back of what I previously thought was a death machine on wheels.

It was also from a rickshaw, several weeks later, that I became lost at night and learned how to adapt to a potentially dangerous and highly tense situation on the fly. The mantra I found for that night followed me throughout my travels later on.

I learned to bargain hard, picked up hindi words and slang, learned the power of circumstance, tested my charm, solidified friendships, evaded the police, brainstormed articles, and discovered my love for the multi-layered India- all from my seat in the humble tuk-tuk.

Hundreds of stories are recalled at the very word; they swirl, shake, and swerve, just as the machine I once used daily would as it barreled down Mogappair West to N'Bakkam and beyond.

The destination was often unknown to me and sometimes even improvised. 'Where do I feel like going?' became 'How do I feel right now?' Introspective meant the library, creative meant any event location I found on-line, sexy meant N' Bakkam for shopping and coffee, upset and stressed meant anywhere- as long as the ride was long. There was time to think, observe, re-align, mull over a dilemma, sing the fear and pain away along to Amy Winehouse, brainstorm new article ideas, and sometimes meet people along the way. It wasn't just a ride for me, it was an experience.

So you can continue to cuss it, blame it, wonder at it, and hate it all you want. I know I did often and creatively. But this part-time instrument of torture was also the full-time reason for the lasting memories I have cultivated from India.

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