I would like to pause this narrative for Chapter Three and talk about something I was obsessed with while in New Delhi, the motor rickshaw. At one point, I wanted to import a real motor rickshaw back to England, complete with the customary decorative stickers or statuettes of Krishna, Ganesha, Shiva, and Vishnu, and the glittery, neon grass that was often "planted" on the dashboard. I even found this crazy website called "pimp my shaw," based in Chennai. Wow. Well, imagine my excitement when I came across the very chic Vespa version this morning (above, via Cup of Jo)! It has all the properties of an Indian rickshaw, Europeanized!* You're probably wondering what's so great about the rickshaw if you've never had the pleasure of riding in one. Let me explain.
In many Southeast Asian cities, motor rickshaws are the primary means of transport. While the buses and bigger trucks dominate the roads, the motor rickshaws outnumber all other vehicles, and can be seen darting in and out of traffic, their drivers almost never releasing the palm of their hand from the loud, irritating horn. The driver sits in a single seat in the center of the front compartment, and usually situates himself (I have never seen a woman driver) with the left leg folded under, bare foot hanging to the right, and two hands on the motorcycle-like steering device. The passengers sit in the back compartment, and while there is usually just room enough for two, the only real passenger limit is how many are able to squeeze in. While it's not common to see more than three people in a rickshaw in New Delhi, they're used as taxi cabs in Goa and Agra where it's common to see 8 or more people crammed into the back seat.
The ride itself is actually kind of brutal. New rickshaws are probably equipped with shocks, but the condition of most rickshaws one rides in India are nowhere near new, and you feel absolutely every bump in the road. The seats are made from heavy pleather, usually covered in a fine coat of dust as the rickshaw ride is "open air" with its absence of windows and doors. I think the average speed is about 30mph, and because you're often sandwiched between larger vehicles, you're drenched in exhaust fumes by the end of your journey, no matter how short. So I suppose you're still wondering what's so great about the rickshaw . . .
That's difficult to explain. I suppose it's more about the experience than convenience or comfort. In New Delhi, when I wanted to get out of the house and see a market or a new part of town, I'd walk right past the house driver (the people I stayed with had their own car & driver), and to the corner of my block where a whole group of green and yellow rickshaws stood waiting. The drivers were usually lounging on the seats, sometimes sleeping, but they would jump into action as soon as a prospective customer approached. They would hover en masse, asking "Where do you go, where do you go?" My destination was usually Khan Market or Lodhi Gardens or Hauz Khas Village or Greater Kailash Market, all within the 30-40 rupee range (that's about $0.60). But most of them refuse to turn on their meters, or break them so as to make them unusable, because they don't make enough money that way and they can always haggle a tourist.
Sometimes a driver would get bold and ask for 80 rupees ($1.70) to Khan Market. I would just laugh and say "hey man what do you think I am, a tourist?" He would chuckle. Really, he knew how ridiculous that asking price was. So I would propose a price to another driver, "40 rupees to Khan Market." He would look around to the others and shake his head while looking at his feet. Then another one would pipe up and say "50 rupees, 50 rupees". I was frequently tempted to take the offer because $1.06 is so little and I really did want to get to the market before dark, but no, the haggling was just too much fun. "No, I said 40 rupees." Silence. Finally, a driver would offer to take me for 40 rupees and would receive some pretty mean stares from his colleagues in the process. What they didn't know, however, is that when I got to Khan, I would usually give the nice driver a generous tip for his trouble. You'd think they would catch on to this day after day. I know that $0.85 sounds like nothing for a five mile ride, but this is New Delhi, and rickshaw drivers do quite well by exploiting unknowing visitors. On principle, I couldn't let that happen to me!
And truly, the ride itself is wonderful despite the dusty air, exhaust, incessant honking, and proximity to other vehicles (I don't think my pinky would have fit between the rickshaw and a bus or truck at some points). Riding in a rickshaw is kind of a like a ride at the fair, except it costs much less and it actually takes you somewhere. Little kids come up to you at intersections to solicit money or sell goods, and though you try to shoo them away, you're there on the street, with the people, not locked inside a car with a barrier between you and them and you and the city. Sometimes the driver will ask you questions about yourself and answer questions posed about his life, and though many of them only speak a Hindi-heavy English, you can usually get the gist. "Where do you come from" and "What are you doing" (meaning, what is your job) are the most common. I would tell them I'm from the US, and before I could be more specific, most would say, "Oh Amer-reeka! We love Amer-reeka! Lots of money . . ."
From my experience, Indians are happy, hard-working, humorous people. They are curious about foreigners in a "I would like to learn about you" kind of way, and sincerely try to make a connection. They can also be very pushy and sneaky when it comes to rickshaw fares or really anything they're trying to sell you, but when you catch them at it and point out the trick, they smile at you as if to say "Haha well I tried, sorry about that and congrats for not being gullible." Just thinking and writing about rickshaws and India makes me want to walk outside, hail one, barter for the price, and settle in for a fascinating ride.
*Actually, Vespa originally made what we know as the rickshaw & Bajaj imported the idea