Beauty in the breakdowns: a place to rest our heads

by Kim on January 23, 2013 · 50 comments

We spent the morning of our second day of the rickshaw run at the mechanic in Barmer. The night before, as the sun was setting, our rickshaw had sputtered to a permanent stop on the side of the road.

To our great relief, another rickshaw run team, the Holy Cowabunga Dudes stopped to see what the matter was. We didn’t know what was wrong, only that our rick had been running fine until, suddenly, she wasn’t. The Dudes fiddled with our engine, disassembled and reassembled our carburetor, then jumped up and gave a clap of the hands in a “well that should be better now” fashion.

Except it wasn’t better. Our rick wouldn’t run. And now it was dark outside and we were twenty kilometers from the nearest town. Earlier in the day I’d said to the girls “We aren’t going to drive after dark, are we?” and they’d responded “Oh no, definitely not, that would be crazy.”

As the Dudes towed us into town, literally roping our rickshaw to theirs, I realized that we weren’t technically driving past dark after all. This was much more dangerous. “I must be more specific!” I said aloud to the nighttime sky. Trucks and kamikaze motorcycles zoomed by, their high beams blinding us. “Please get us all safely to a hotel,” I prayed to the universe. “Tonight,” I added, in case there was any confusion.

Towed in the night, Rickshaw Run

Towed into Barmer. You can see the green rope connecting the rickshaws.


The Barmer mechanic opened his hand to reveal the source of our problem. A tiny, metal clip had broken, jarring loose some important piece of our rickshaw’s inner workings.  “All fixed now?” we asked the mechanic. He gave a silent, definitive nod. We hopped back in the rick and fired her up. It was early afternoon and we were running behind. It was time to get out of Barmer.

We drove for several peaceful hours down dusty, mostly-vacant roads. We passed women carrying pots and bags on their heads and men leading camels by rope. The other rickshaw teams were hours ahead of us. We felt like the only people for miles.

Women carry goods in India

We stopped for chai in a tiny village. School had just let out and the children surrounded our rickshaw in hoards, giggling and tentatively touching her orange paint.

It was mid-afternoon when we broke down again. Two men driving a brightly painted Goods Carrier truck stopped to help us. We’d run out of petrol, pulling air into the tank, and now, though we’d refilled it, the fuel would not flow to the engine. The men fiddled with the plastic tubes connected to the gas tank and then one of them put his mouth to the tube and sucked. Fuel began to flow again. We clapped and cheered. The man and his friend smiled sheepishly, hopped back into their truck, and drove off.

Two men help us fix our rickshaw. Rickshaw Run 2013

The GPS told us that we’d soon reach a small city and we decided to stop there for the night. There were still a few hours of daylight but we didn’t want to risk getting caught on the roads after dark again.

We pulled into town and drove slowly through. Men stared without smiling. The women (there had to be some) were noticeably absent. Someone directed us to a guesthouse and we parked the rick outside, intending to ask for a room. Mobs of men crowded around us, leaning into the rickshaw and working themselves into high-pitched frenzy.

The energy in the air was wrong. “This doesn’t feel right,” Sarah said. “I know!” Hannah and I agreed.

We didn’t know where we’d go but we had to get the hell out of Crazy Town. We started the rick and kept on driving.

The sun was low in the sky now and to our unpleasant surprise the roads were beginning to deteriorate. Huge holes pocked the asphalt. BAM! Our rick hit a pothole. BAM! BAM! BAM! Over and over we slammed into the street.

We were at serious risk of a flat tire or, worse, jarring a spark plug or clip out of place and sidelining us, alone, after dark, in the middle of nowhere.

We couldn’t go back to Crazy Town but we couldn’t go forward either. The rick was acting up, running funny, losing power. It was pitch black now and we were miles from any city. We were, as my grandma might say, in a pickle.

The rickshaw was on her last leg as we bumped by a tiny village. Village, in fact, might be too strong of a word. Five shambled structures sat at the intersection of two dirt roads. A group of men stood in front of them. We stopped the rickshaw. We had to. The men stared but kept their distance. Who knows what they were thinking?

A man stood making chai under a corrugated metal lean-to. We decided to order some tea and formulate a plan.

We sat and talked through our options. We could drive on towards the next town a few hours down the road. This was risky because it was dark, the road was bad, and we were prone to breakdowns. If the rick died on an isolated road we’d be stranded.

We could sleep in the rickshaw here in this tiny village but a bright-orange, pimped-out rickshaw draws a lot of attention. We didn’t think it wise to hole up in the rick overnight, especially because she only came to life with a jump-start. It’d be impossible to make a quick get-away if we met any hassle.

Our third option was to sleep here, on the makeshift seats in the chai shop. We agreed that we felt safe here and intrinsically trusted the man who’d motioned for us to sit and drink his tea.

The kind man who gave us a bed

The kind man (with mustache) who gave us a bed

Sarah folded her hands together and placed them against her ear, cocking her head. “Can we sleep here?” she asked, though she did not speak his language. The man nodded and pointed to three woven beds in the back of his shop. “Thank you,” Sarah told him. “Thank you so much.”

Our beds, night 2. Rickshaw Run

Our beds on night two of the Rickshaw Run

The man brought us pads for our beds and heavy blankets to sleep under. He showed us a hidden place where we could park our rickshaw. And then he did the most astounding thing; He made up a bed horizontally at the foot of our beds. He would sleep there for the night. And while he did not say a word we sensed that he slept there to put us at ease and protect us.

It was freezing outside and we lay in our beds with all of our clothes on. I pulled my sleep sack over my face and I watched through the thin fabric as this man readied himself for the night. He sat in his bed and wound his turban tightly around his head, then he leaned over at the waist and prayed.

I knew I was witnessing a private and personal moment but I could not turn my eyes away. I could feel the lines of faith blurring. I had faith in this man, that he would be good and respect us, and he had faith in something too. I could feel a connection to everything as I lay there under my borrowed blankets. The connection was trust. It was goodness. This was magic, or something like it, as real as the stars in the sky.

The next morning we woke at sunrise and piled our bags back in the rick. We pushed her onto the street and tried to start her and when she wouldn’t go a few men from the village ran with us down the road, pushing the rick until she puttered to life once again.  As we rolled off down the street I leaned out of the rickshaw to snap a few photos of the village. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” we yelled from the rick. The men stood in the morning light, watching us go.

Small village in india

A few men from the village, India

Click here to read all of my posts from the Rickshaw Run.