Beauty in the breakdowns: saved (again) in Gujarat

by Kim on February 3, 2013 · 48 comments

I’ve become morbidly fascinated with India’s mortality rates. There are so many ways to die here! I want to know how many Indians are killed on the roads annually. I make a note in my journal to research it. I add cancer rates to the list, a nod to the suffocating pollution, and then construction accidents. India is undergoing a huge road-building effort. Men dig holes, lay asphalt, and operate heavy machinery in flip-flops. Their hard hats and safety vests must be locked in the same great closet that their motorcycle helmets are in.

We’re driving through Gujarat now, an industrial state that Mr. Matt of The Adventurists recommended avoiding all together. But we don’t have the luxury of avoiding Gujarat because we’re behind schedule. The quickest way out, as they say, is through.

The beauty and magic of our time in Rajasthan feels like a distant dream. In Gujarat we see a different side of India. It is dirty and ugly here and the level of poverty is profound. Suffering is everywhere.

We drive past whole villages of people living on the side of the highway in shanties made from tarps and branches. I see a girl, aged about twelve, working naked in a field. She is skeleton-skinny.

As we drive down a crowded highway we see a starving dog standing over the bloated corpse of another dog, eating it. Later, I see a dog heaving and bleeding on the side of the road, heartbreakingly close to death. Actually, the dead dogs are everywhere. We’ve passed too many to count.

Our collective mood darkens. I have to suppress my urge to kick the rickshaw. I know exactly where I want to kick her too, right in that posterior door with the big, mocking heart on it. Damn, it’d feel good to do that.

Rickshaw Run

Yep, that’s exactly where I’d do it

We are 30 miles outside of Pune, the city we plan to sleep in for the night, when a Café Coffee Day appears out of nowhere. Café Coffee Day is India’s version of Starbucks. It serves lattes and sandwiches individually wrapped and displayed like jewels behind a glass case. We almost don’t believe it’s real. Is it a mirage? We are so excited that we narrowly avoid being sideswiped as we make a blind turn into the parking lot.

We order sandwiches and coffee. The guys behind the counter take our order and then go outside and take pictures of our rickshaw. That bitch gets a lot of attention.

Oh my God it is so clean and modern and comfortable in Café Coffee Day. I never want to leave. I want to move into Café Coffee Day. I want to unpack my clothes and stack them in a folded pile under the padded chairs.

But after an hour or so we agree we must get back on the road. I reluctantly drag myself back to the rickshaw.

We’re so close to Pune,” we say to each other with mock optimism. “Less than an hour to Pune.” We’re desperately trying to rally.

We load into the rickshaw but when we crank her she won’t start. She makes this terrible sound like a weak cough. She’s never made that sound before. Hannah, Sarah and I look at each other. We’re not even surprised. Actually, a tiny part of me is happy that I don’t have to leave Café Coffee Day after all.

Kim at Cafe Coffee Day

Tired but thrilled to be at Café Coffee Day

A few customers have come to the parking lot to snap photos of us. A young man, college-aged, offers to take a look at the problem. He fiddles around and then tries to start the rickshaw. No luck.

Do you need a mechanic?” he asks. “My friend is a mechanic.”

Yes!” we respond, “Yes, please! We need a mechanic.”

Rickshaw Run breakdown

Lovely strangers attempting to fix the rick

It is getting late now and the sun is setting. The man climbs on his motorcycle and speeds off down the road towards Pune, promising to return with a mechanic.

We sit on the outdoor benches of Café Coffee Day and wait for the man and his friend. Another man, he looks to be in his early thirties, strikes up conversation. He is driving to Nashik for business, he tells us. He works for himself. He owns his own car. He is reading a book on management and he knows that Ray Krok founded McDonalds.

He asks about the broken rickshaw and I tell him the story. I explain how the kindest people have helped us along the way.

He nods at my story, unimpressed. “It has been your luck but you should not depend on luck.”

In fact, on this he is insistent. He lectures me. I should know the number to the police department. I should know how to change a spark plug. I should know someone in every city in India because then I will have someone to call when I get myself into trouble.

This guy is making me paranoid. I’ve been relaying on the kindness of strangers for days with a 100% success rate.

As if to prove my point the young man returns on his motorcycle with his friend, the mechanic, on back.

It turns out the rickshaw’s gasket is broken and we need to get a new one. The mechanic, who does not speak English, tells his friend that he might be able to track down the part in a neighboring town. They will go for us, see if they can find the part, and bring it back.

But the man, the rich man, has suddenly made our rickshaw his business and he doesn’t trust these guys. He inserts himself into the conversation, talking quickly to the men in a language I don’t understand, and what he says offends them. I can tell by the tone of his voice and the way they respond to his words.

If those guys don’t come back it’s because Mr. Rich Guy over there pissed them off,” says Sarah, nodding in his direction.

The mechanic and his friend drive off and this guy, the rich guy, tells us that he doesn’t believe they will return. He insists on staying with us until our problem is resolved. It’s a noble gesture but I don’t want him here. He’s too aggressive and insistent. I wish he would just leave.

At least we can hang out at Café Coffee Day. The guy behind the counter tells me they are open until 11 p.m. God, please let our rickshaw be fixed by 11 p.m.

I am drinking my third cup of coffee when the power goes out. Everything dips into absolutely darkness. Suddenly I realize how truly isolated we are. We are stranded at Café Coffee Day with two male baristas and this guy who gives me the creeps.

I feel unsafe. It’s the first time I’ve felt unsafe on this whole crazy trip.

We decide to sit in our rickshaw until the lights come back on. The guy reverses his car out of its parking space and pulls it right next to our rickshaw, close enough to touch. Why did he do that? He blares music from the radio, it’s a popular American song “And tonight’s gonna be a good night. And tonight’s gonna be a good, good niiiight.” I am on red alert. Every cell in my body is firing. It is so dark out here.

I squeeze my eyes shut. “Please keep us safe. Please keep us safe,” I repeat like a mantra. I dig through my backpack and find the Leatherman tool that Brian insisted I carry. It has a knife on it. I keep it in my right hand, just in case.


The power has come back on. It is so amazing the difference a little bit of light makes. I can feel myself relaxing a bit. The rich guy is still sitting in his car next to us but he has taken the hint and is letting us be. He is playing a video game on his phone, blowing things up.

And then, it feels like a miracle, the young guy returns on his motorcycle with the mechanic. The mechanic has the new gasket with him. Five minutes later our rickshaw is resurrected once again.

We are so grateful for these guys who have gone out of their way to help us. They’ve spent their whole night sourcing parts for us and fiddling with our rickshaw.

The rich guy, seeing that his job is done, gracefully takes his leave. We thank him with muted enthusiasm. Maybe he really did just want to keep us safe.

When we ask how much we owe the mechanic he tells us that the part cost 150 rupees ($3). Otherwise, we should pay him only what we think we should. He stands around shyly and doesn’t even count the money when we squeeze it into his hand.

We snap a few photos and thank him endlessly, we are getting good at thank-you’s, and then putter down the road in search of a hotel.

 Pune mechanic

The mechanic who saved us

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