Thursday, January 13, 2011

A lifelong dream came true: driving an Auto-Riskshah - and I mean "driving", not being driven

Before we went to India, I had toyed with the idea of renting a car in India for a few days and to travel around a bit, independently, just following the road signs, stopping wherever I felt. From my first visit here I knew about the road rules, or more correctly, about the absence of those, so I felt I could do this without a lethal accident. But when searching on the internet for opportunities to rent, I noticed that this would only be possible in Ahmadabad, about 2 hours away from where we are. So I almost gave up that idea. Jokingly I told Brian that I might rent a rikshah instead, just to drive around a bit in Vallabh Vidyanagar. And yesterday, Dr Jadeja told me that it would be possible to rent a rikshah - with an accompanying driver. Great! So on Thursday morning at 9:30 I went to the HM Patel institute where the driver Harish with his rikshah was already waiting. First I got a brief instruction: there are three gears, to he shifted with the left handle. The "neutral" is between gear 1 and 2. The clutch is operated with a lever at the left handle. The right handle turns the throttle. There seems to be no idle, the throttle has to be operated always, during starting, and during idling when standing, otherwise the engine dies. The brake is operated by the right foot. The horn (very important) is operated with a button by the right hand, which then has to be removed briefly from the throttle handle (or you need to have a large hand). The blinker is a switch near the left handle, but no finger can reach it while the hands are on the handle, so one has to remove the left hand from the gear switcher. Very un-ergonomic design, that 1950s Pioggo from Italy. But as we slowly do a test ride around the block, I get the hang of it. Brian sits in the back and enjoys the ride. The test ride immediately develops into the real ride, and we drive out of Vallabh Vidyanagar towards west, on the road to the temple town Vardtal. Traffic is light. The speed indicator is not working, but I have my GPS: it shows almost 40 km/h. The driver keeps telling me "slo, slo"... While driving this rikshah I can now appreciate the difficulty in multitasking which these drivers have to do: in addition to the actual driving task, meaning operating the non-ergonomic machine, one also has to pay attention to the traffic situation, watch vehicles in the back, front, and sides, swirve around potholes and avoid speed bumps, overtake pedestrians, cows, dogs, camels, and tractors, be overtaken by basically everybody else, and avoid any kind of collission with anyone. This is quite a number of tasks, and I hardly manage. Especially because the side mirrors are not well adjusted - I have to move my head very far out of the way to see anything, and they I miss what is ahead of me. So I simply rely on other vehicles sounding their horns, and I also use every opportunity to beep the horn, to warn everybody that I am approaching. The turn signal indicators are of no use, because our accompanying driver has wisely switched on the alarm blinker, indicating that an "incompetent driver" is now operating his machine.

On the way we pass the village "Jobanpura", and I decide to stop and have a brief look.

We go on towards Vadtal, and that town always has a special flair to it, with its temple in the center, its gates, the buzzing crowd around the stalls. I take a few pictures, then we return. We stop at the guest house to pick up Gina and Deborah, to give them a lift as they have to go to their next appointment at a local school. So I am now officially acting as a rikshah chauffeur. But their destination is too far away for me, the two hours rental are soon over. So we drop them at a busy intersection where they take another auto rikshah. A few minutes later they overtake me laughing.

A brief stop at a bank for exchanging some money, then we are driving back to the HM Patel institute.

That was fun!

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