In India: First Comes Yes, Then Comes Adventure
Editor’s Note: We met Seth as he was getting ready to go to India to embark on a pretty wild adventure in his KEEN Kona flip-flops—all in the name of rainforest restoration. The Rickshaw Run is one of several adventure races organized by The Adventurists. Each has its own twist, and all benefit Cool Earth. So far, the races have helped the nonprofit restore over 900,000 acres of rainforest. Going outside your comfort zone and experiencing something new while helping make the world better? We knew it was something worth sharing.
By Seth Langbauer, KEEN contributor
Saying yes seems easy. We’ve all tried to be that person who says “yes” to every opportunity. However, in reality, it can be incredibly hard. How do you constantly embrace the unknowns of saying yes? How do you plan for what happens after you say yes? The answer for me is you can’t, and it’s stressful, but it’s worth a shot.
About two months ago, I got a call from my friend Jody while I was packing for a climbing trip. Over the phone, she told me she was about to race a rickshaw (aka a tuk-tuk) 2,500 kilometers across India and just had her teammate cancel. She was calling me to convince me to go.
I knew I had to say yes before I had time to truly think about one of the million reasons not to go. Saying yes is simple; it’s the doing that is the hard part. When I thought about what going to India for nearly a month and a half would mean, it was even harder. I had four days to get a plane ticket, a visa, pack, and square away life chores for the upcoming month, not to mention bail on my climbing trip. I thought about all I would need to do as I said, “Give me until tonight. I’ll give you an answer by six.”
I knew I would be going. India is one of the places I will never say no to. I spent my high school years living there and had not been back since. The thought of getting lost in the masses of people and overwhelming onslaught of commotion was exhilarating.
Like any good experience, driving a rickshaw across India can’t be summed up easily. Our other teammate, Erica, had also joined at the last minute. I felt comfort in knowing that I had a new friend who also was able to commit to such an insane trip on such short notice. We were all doing this to see what it was like to say yes to something that would be completely uncomfortable every day.
When you say yes, you’re not only forced to commit to the unknown, but to rely on community, strangers, and luck.
The Rickshaw Run, as it is officially known, starts in Kochi, India, and ends roughly 2,500 kilometers away in Jaisalmer. Not only a catalyst for adventure, the race supports an organization called Cool Earth, which helps restore rainforest. To call it a race is not quite correct though. It’s more like an orienteering challenge peppered with 70+ eager teams ready for anything. The race directors put it perfectly when they explained, “If you come in first, you’ll be booed, you’re here to enjoy this trip and make the most of every minute.”
Going past the point of no return in tea country
On our first day, we hit the pavement and looked at each other. We had no idea where to go. Ultimately, we needed to go north, but India is unbelievably huge and to think about where to start stopped us in our three-wheeled tracks. We tossed around ideas like, “Only follow our compass” or “Take three rights and a left!”
After a full day of avoiding semi trucks and full-throttle driving, evening neared and we started up a mountain pass. I was driving while quietly thinking about why we were embarking on this during the night. I was struggling with the notion. The road was under construction, and as the sunset and a thunderstorm rolled in, semis with full loads came hurling down the road with no regard for our small canvas-covered rickshaw. Our tiny windshield wiper splashed left and right keeping up with the rain. And, as if visibility wasn’t enough of an issue, the blinding headlights of oncoming traffic forced me to rely on the shouting from Erica and Jody to keep our back tires from going off the edge of the road. (Fun fact: All cars use their brights at night in India. It’s impossible to see anything!)
At this point, we were past the point of no return. It was make or break to find a place to sleep at the top of the pass. With each switchback, our engine grew hotter and our transmission clunked louder. We managed to pull over at a small teashop, perched alongside the cliff. We all took a few steps in different directions to decompress before regrouping and pushing on. I was at the wheel while Jody and Erica shouting commands to keep us on the road. Eventually we did make it. Their shouts turned into directions to a hotel.
Embracing the selfie
I’m not into selfies. Indians however, are. Especially when it’s with three Westerners. At first, I took a few, but denied most inquiries as people would drape their arm around me and grab their phones, ready to snap a picture. Stopping to take a break always attracted a crowd—and selfies. On one particularly hot day, three guys stopped their motor bike and immediately shouted, “selfie?!” I briefly thought I was at my breaking point. I envisioned shouting at them as I melted under the sun’s heat. Instead, I decided to say yes… let’s do some selfies.
From then on, I decided I would try to take as many selfies as possible. I think it was my own little way of saying yes to the uncomfortableness. This trip was about being a tourist. It was hard to ignore that we were three Westerners in a baby blue rickshaw with clouds on it. This trip was about interacting with the locals and embracing the experience. At that moment I decided any time I heard “selfie?!?!” that I’d take as many as I could.
Taking the small white roads
When you look at Google Maps of India, the roads are different colors, each color indicating how big/busy it was. Green being the busiest, orange the second, yellow third, and then lastly white roads. Phones are an amazing travel tool. However, with all the doors they open, they also close a few.
The day we said yes to the small white roads felt like the day the trip really began.
It’s hard not to take the easy way out and take the road that’s most direct and easiest to follow. So, with that in mind, we said we’d take the small white roads whenever we could. This meant doubling back when they ended and turning around when the “road” became too rough for the rickshaw. It also meant exploring jungles and villages we would otherwise never see. The day we said yes to the small white roads felt like the day the trip really began.
And taking big roads to see unique places
Hampi was one of those off-the-course locations we felt we had to see, and we decided it was worth driving on a few bigger green roads to make up the time we would lose. Hampi is unique; when you see it, you don’t believe it. Granite rocks are balanced everywhere—on top of each other and beside each other for as far as you can see. We were totally captivated. Where there aren’t rocks, there are bright green and yellow square fields of rice. And, as if the natural beauty of the landscape weren’t enough, there are magnificent temples and ruins that look like the fingerprints of history on the landscape.
Then cramming a rickshaw on a train
Halfway through the trip, we were feeling a bit pressed for time and knew we would be approaching long straight desert roads. We figured if we could get our rickshaw on a train, we’d get a great experience, skip some of the boring driving, and grant ourselves a bit of leisure time to explore the amazing cities in Rajasthan. We went for it.
The train system in India works fairly well. It’s a common means of transportation for many Indians. However, putting a rickshaw on one is a different story. After many railway workers were unable to answer our questions, the head of the Mumbai Station assured us we could get it on (even though in his 30 years of working with the train system he’d never seen a rickshaw on a passenger train). It seemed like it could work, though. We had the head honcho escorting us around the station, working extremely hard to help us. When our eight o’clock train arrived, we wheeled the rickshaw to the cargo bay, and a small army of men started to lift it onto the platform. At first it went smoothly. The front wheel disappeared into the dark bay, then the side mirrors. However, it was a bit tight, and the back third of the rickshaw proved to be a touch wider. The men were slamming their bodies against the back trying to force it in. They had no luck. They asked if they could “remove” the wheel wells, and as we agreed, they started ripping them off with crowbars.
It felt like it was all coming apart. Minutes before the train left, our rickshaw was continually being mutilated. Finally, the conductor looked at us and said it would not fit. The train was ready to go, and there was half a rickshaw hanging off the back bay. We hesitantly asked if we had to call it quits even though we were just a centimeter away. As the reality of the impossible set in, the army continued shoving the deformed rickshaw. And, then, like a rubber band breaking under tension, it seemingly snapped right into the bay. Relief set in as we gathered our bags and ran for our seats, but we wouldn’t fully relax until we were rolling the rickshaw back off the bay.
As the train crept to a stop, we sprinted down to the bay with our crippled tuk-tuk. We had high hopes of another army of employees helping us push it out of its cave. But when I found the bay containing the tuk-tuk, there was but one elderly man. Miraculously, the opposite side of the bay was a touch wider and the elderly man was saved from attempting what we had done with a dozen men as the tuk-tuk rolled right out. I pushed the tuk-tuk toward the exit while happily taking in the stares of amazement. Although it definitely had some scratches and maybe a few missing parts, we felt the tuk-tuk had never had more character. It was hard not to think of the scars as a badge of honor that we hoped the race directors would look at with pride.
Ultimately, we finished and achieved our goal: To leave India with more stories than we remembered, and to be uncomfortable for 2,500 kilometers.
I didn’t think that saying yes would manifest itself into wanting to help others, honestly. I thought it might give me confidence in going for the unknown, but the greatest gift has been the confidence to give and get help.
Now, working my way back into “normal” life in Bozeman, Montana, I feel the impact from this trip. I think practicing saying yes at every moment possible for the last month has not only made me more adaptable, but more helpful. At the root of our experience, every time we said yes we were relying on others helping us. Every day we were forced to say yes and blindly accept helping hands. I find myself giving passers-by more smiles, people who look a bit lost a little help. I didn’t think that saying yes would manifest itself into wanting to help others, honestly. I thought it might give me confidence in going for the unknown, but the greatest gift has been the confidence to give and get help.
When you say yes, you’re not only forced to commit to the unknown, but to rely on community, strangers, and luck. In return I want to return anything I can to other folks who dare to say yes.