2,400 Miles in an Auto-Rickshaw

If driving 2,400 miles across India in an auto-rickshaw during early monsoon season sounds like a good idea to you, then perhaps you should enter this summer’s Rickshaw Run. The Rickshaw Run happens every summer and every winter, and is produced by a British organization known as The Adventurists. In addition to the adventure aspect, the event raises money for charity. One of the adventurers participating in the summer 2008 Rickshaw Run is Sandeep “Sonny” Sabhlok.

 

The 21-year-old native of Orange, Calif., just graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a B.A. in Molecular and Cell Neurobiology. While at Cal, he spent many hours doing volunteer work with children with autism at Oakland Children’s Hospital. Starting this fall, he will spend two years working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducting research on either bipolar disorder or social anxiety.

The summer 2008 Rickshaw Run takes place from June 1 through June 15. Sonny’s three-person team (including his Cal roommate Brian Wong and Cal junior Allen Rodriguez) is called Korma Police. Over 60 teams from 20 countries will participate in the run. Some of the other team-names are also amusing, including Team Wrong Turn, Injun Trouble, and Zen and the Art of Tuk-Tuk Maintenance. Korma Police is one of only four teams from the United States. Before, during, and after the race, Korma Police will blog about the experience at www.kormapolice.vox.com

The summer 2008 Rickshaw Run will raise money for two charities—Mercy Corps India and Frank Water Projects. You can help Korma Police meet its fundraising goals—even after the race is over—by donating at www.willwemakeit.com/kormapolice

Where did the name Korma Police come from?

We are big fans of Radiohead. And Radiohead has a song called “Karma Police.” We liked that but wanted to give it a twist of some sort. So since we are huge fans of Indian food, we decided on Korma Police.

Ah, take a Radiohead and add one cup of coconut milk....

(laughs) Right! And on our photo shoot we wore kurtas and used some korma as a prop and we pretended to be interrogating the korma.

How did you hear about the Rickshaw Run?

A friend of mine went to India last summer and happened to meet some people from London who told her about the Rickshaw Run. She told me about it, and I told my roommate, and he got really excited about it. I thought it sounded crazy though.

But then I saw the movie The Darjeeling Limited.

Oh yeah, where the three American brothers ride a train through India.

Yeah, and once I saw that I started thinking seriously about it. With almost no consideration of what the Rickshaw Run would entail, we decided to do it. Partly for the adventure, partly to raise money for charity, and partly for the bonding experience.

What route will you take?

All the teams will start from Kathmandu [in Nepal] on June 1 and drive the auto-rickshaws 2,400 miles to Pondicherry. But each team can take any route it wants. The goal isn’t to get to Pondicherry first; it’s just to get to Pondicherry by June 15—which is admittedly a tough task—for the finishing party. That’s really cool, because you can make your own plans to see whatever parts of India you’d like to see. I’ve always wanted to see Varanasi, the holy city on the banks of the Ganga [Ganges], so we are planning to stop there. I’ve been brought up in the United States, and India-wise I’ve really only seen Bombay [Mumbai]. So this is an unbelievable chance for me to see many parts of my home country first-hand. And to do so with close friends after graduating—it couldn’t be better.

An auto-rickshaw is really designed for short distances. Have you heard of people having problems with their vehicles on previous Rickshaw Runs?

Oh, definitely. (laughs) In one of the first videos I saw of the event, a rickshaw was moving with a team in it, and then the rickshaw just fell onto its side.

Like it just gave up!

(laughs) Yeah. But most teams do make it to the finish line. Even though the auto-rickshaw isn’t meant to go such long distances, you can get repairs along the way, though you’re completely on your own for that.

I do expect that there will be frustrations, that we’ll do some fighting along the way. But once we’re done, I think we’ll have a great story and great memories—plus raise some money for good causes. It may very well be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, (laughs) but it’ll give me some great stories to tell my kids.

Tell me a bit about Mercy Corps India and Frank Water Projects.

Each team has to raise a total of 1,000 British pounds (approximately $2,000 U.S.) for the two charities.

Mercy Corps India (MCI) does a wide range of projects with low-income communities. Our specific donations to MCI will help fund development programs in the northeast, around Darjeeling. The goal is to help community members address issues such as employment, clean water, and shelter. The hope is that if community members get involved in bettering their own communities, then they will pass these same skills on to the next generation.

Frank Water Projects (FWP) funds clean water projects in many countries. FWP has installed four clean water projects in Andhra Pradesh, and is looking to increase that number. The funds we raise for FWP will help fund those new projects.

What will your basic daily schedule be?

We’ll hit the road at 5 or 6 each morning, and then stop in the early afternoon—with the goal of avoiding traveling much during the stifling hot afternoons. This will also allow us to experience the places in which we’re stopping, rather than simply sleeping in them.

At each stop, we’ll either stay at a hostel or stay with somebody—distant family or friends—with whom we’ve arranged in advance. And at each stop we’ll try to get to an internet cafe to keep updating our blog.

Do you think this experience will change you?

I certainly think it’ll make me more adventurous. There are things I’ve wanted to do but have never done, such as rock-climbing.

And it’ll connect me more with my home country.

My last trip to India, by myself, really changed my perspective. It was the first time I’d been to India as an adult. Really viewing the slums and seeing how run-down some areas are, yet with all of the rapid development in infrastructure, really made me wonder. I think seeing India from North to South will really inspire me to go back and provide some sort of health services in the future, because there are plenty of parts of Bombay that I saw that I wish I could truly turn around.

Also, I figure, I’m only going to graduate from college once. A lot of people do the road-trip across America or go backpacking in Europe. Those graduation trips do sound great, but to me, it’s hard to think of something more exciting than driving an auto-rickshaw 2,400 miles across India.






Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.

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