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.



{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

OurLifeExperiments February 3, 2013 at 9:18 am

My, you are one great story teller. I felt as if we were huddled around a camp fire and you were relaying a scary ghost story! You had my hands sweating! So glad to know the story has a happy ending, I’m excited to hear more. 🙂



Kim February 3, 2013 at 9:34 am

Oh, thank you Maria! I almost started the post with “Warning: this is really damn long.” Glad you are enjoying the stories. I think I have one more left from the rickshaw run.


Amanda February 3, 2013 at 10:02 am

Or not long enough! I was so sad when I reached the end, Kim. This is one of your best posts yet. Absolutely wonderful! Totally caught me and I read as fast as I could to find out WHAT NEXT?! Such great writing. I love you!!


Kim February 3, 2013 at 10:07 am

Flattery will get you everywhere my friend XOXO Love YOU.


Hannah February 3, 2013 at 10:05 am

A beautiful account of a very beautiful encounter. Your storytelling ability is so good that I feel like I was hearing it all for the first time, and had to remind myself that I was actually there with you! I’ll never forget those guys, they totally saved our asses 🙂


Kim February 3, 2013 at 10:08 am

I mean, the dog EATING THE DOG!!!! That image is seared into my brain for the rest of time. I just… even now there are no words.


Steve February 3, 2013 at 10:31 am

Well, they say it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Now we know what they mean. Stay safe!


Kim February 3, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Seriously! We were like “it’s true!”


Patti February 3, 2013 at 2:29 pm

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. What the three of you did was beyond brave. It was c-r-a-z-y brave! I remember when you wrote in a post that you wanted to run the race because the idea of doing so scared the hell out of you. Look at the gift you gave yourself! Well-done you!


Kim February 3, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Thanks Patti 🙂 I’m so glad I did it. And, to tell you the truth, it was way less scary than I imagined it in my head.


Cheryl Dinan February 3, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Kim, Good story and I agree with the rich man that you can’t just rely on the goodness of strangers! There are nine good people and one bad one. Don’t be susceptable to meeting the bad one. Love, Mom


Kim February 3, 2013 at 8:50 pm

MOM! YOU ARE THE WORST!! Love, Kim (playing with strangers since 1981)


Jenny Kempe February 3, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Fab piece of writing Kim. i could feel your fear sitting in the dark and clasping that coffee.

So what is the mortality rate of the roads of India I wonder?


Kim February 3, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Thanks Jenny 🙂 I still haven’t looked it up! I don’t want to know until I actually leave India. I’ll tell you mid-April.


Gillian @OneGiantStep February 3, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Wow. Just wow.


Kim February 3, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Is this referring to the dog eating the dog?


Angela February 3, 2013 at 7:17 pm

The story keeps getting better. I can’t believe how incredible the people in India are.


Kim February 3, 2013 at 8:52 pm

I know, the people were (and still are!) amazing.


Amanda February 3, 2013 at 8:33 pm

I am LOVING your stories from this adventure! Can’t wait for the next one!


Kim February 3, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Thanks Amanda!


Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) February 3, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Coming from North America, it really is quite daunting to put so much faith in strangers and in the universe and believe that by giving yourself over to their keeping you will be ok. And yet this is something Tony & I keep finding on our own journey — the kindness and generosity we have come across at times has been truly astounding and absolutely humbling. I would imagine that in a place like India where it is quite literally a dog-eat-dog world, these moments of simple human kindness are made all the more beautiful and magnified.


Kim February 3, 2013 at 11:22 pm

Yes, absolutely. I have been stunned by the way that the people who apparently have so little give the most and the people that have the most are so much more reluctant to give and trust. I think that this phenomenon is alive in well in the U.S. too.


Jessica February 3, 2013 at 9:52 pm

I have one thing to please add to your list of mysterious ways Indians do not die in questionable situations: inter-India flying. OMG I have been scarred. Yesterday we had a wobbly nerve-wracking aborted landing in Rajasthan. No explanation, even when we spoke with the crew afterwards. They just seem to be a people constantly living on the edge… how do they survive??

As I ask myself this question I imagine them head waggling back at me, thinking I’m the crazy paranoid Westerner. They are indeed an astoundingly generous people, even if not the most cautious.


Kim February 3, 2013 at 11:24 pm

SCARY! I have to admit I was really worried about flying from Kerala to Goa but that flight turned out to be fine. Before boarding I could only imagine how chaotic the flight might be. I mean, does the pilot even need to have a license by India law (does India HAVE laws?)? I’m glad I didn’t hear your story before that flight!! And, I can totally see them head waggling and blowing off the whole incident. God I love India!


Carmel February 4, 2013 at 7:56 am

Another fabulous story from a crrraaaazy adventure.

When it comes to relying on the kindness of strangers…what choice do you have? It seems at that point, you really didn’t have a choice, and thankfully you did keep running into good luck. You can do what you can to be prepared, but ultimately, things are out of our control. I think this travel is a good lesson in that. But it’s wise of you to use your gut instincts.

It really didn’t seem that long.


Kim February 4, 2013 at 8:55 am

Yeah, there is no choice. I guess that is the beauty in it… that we really just had to take whatever came our way and that so much good was what came.

Okay, glad it didn’t seem too long. I cut about half the story out!


Sarah Somewhere February 4, 2013 at 10:04 am

Too much to say!! Firstly, this was brilliantly written! I was on the edge of my seat and I KNOW what happened! Secondly, DOG EAT DOG! Thirdly, I love that you included the bit about the knife. I knew how much you needed that knife on you, and I’m so glad we found it (and didn’t need it of course!)… Fourthly, I’m a bit put out that you didn’t mention we slept in a filthy bright green palace that night – I took that photo of you and all – but I guess that would’ve really blown your word count 😉


Kim February 4, 2013 at 10:48 pm

That palace totally would have blown my word count. But that photo I will always cherish. What a crazy place!


Shalini February 4, 2013 at 10:59 am

You had me at Pune!!! (I then blocked out the devestation of what you saw in Gujarat) That is where my mother grew up. I’m sure your experience there was to quick to make it into the next blog post, but I hope it was pleasant. I have such nice childhood memories of the city, but was there last year and it’s changed a lot/kind of outgrown itself in a poorly planned way.
I think it’s a good thing it took you this long into your trip to feel unsafe but sad to say that I’m not terribly surprised that it happened in India. It’s a tough place to be a female.


Kim February 4, 2013 at 10:50 pm

We didn’t get to see much of Pune. However, everyone we spoke with had really great things to say about it and we met a WONDERFUL family from there at the Cafe Coffee Day (had to leave that out of the post too or it would have been 3,000 words).


Deborah February 4, 2013 at 2:41 pm

What? Only one more story from the rickshaw run?! Noooooooooooooo! Sigh. Well, I’ m grateful that you’ve shared what you have. So much fun traveling vicariously with you! Thanks, Kim.


Kim February 4, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Thanks Deb. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe two more stories! I need to sit down and WRITE them first. Sigh.


Ashley February 4, 2013 at 5:26 pm

I totally relate to never wanting to leave the Cafe Coffee Day! We took refuge from some astonishing heat in one on the day we went to the Taj Mahal…it really is like stepping onto another planet when you find them in a perfectly random spot.


Kim February 4, 2013 at 11:15 pm

There are always in the most random spot, too. Yep, that Cafe Coffee Day appeared just when we needed it.


Tamara February 4, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Great post! I enjoyed reading it start to finish! We were in India for 6 weeks or so last year around this time (for the first time) and your words took me back. India is such an amazing place, full of contradictions, colors, and mysteries to unravel, or not!


Kim February 4, 2013 at 11:15 pm

Thanks Tamara. Yes, I am so enthralled by India and all of her colors and contradictions. I just feel like no matter how long I stay it will never be enough time.


TammyOnTheMove February 4, 2013 at 10:16 pm

I am so amazed how many people were helping you during your journey. Really makes you believe in humanity again!


Kim February 4, 2013 at 11:16 pm

I know! It was honestly amazing. It really has restored my faith in people.


Paul (globalhelpswap) February 5, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Wow Kim! That was a brilliant story!

You reminded me of when we were in the middle of Russia and stayed at this terrible place that was meant to be a hostel but turned out to be this nutter’s house! He spray painted the name of the hostel on the wall! We were walking through dark alleys to get to the place and I was thinking what can I hit him with (my drinks canister was the best option). All turned out well in the end though.

Good luck with the rest of the trip!
Paul x


Kim February 6, 2013 at 2:42 am

Thanks Paul!

I have to admit this wasn’t the first time I’d plotted my escape from some insane attacker. Luckily I haven’t had to use my kung-foo skills yet (which is a good thing, since I really don’t have any). I’m glad everything turned out alright in Russia.


Pan February 5, 2013 at 11:11 pm

I can’t believe the people in India are so friendly as to go so far out of their way to help complete strangers! Amazing.


Kim February 6, 2013 at 2:43 am

I know, it was amazing. They came to our rescue over and over again.


Candace February 6, 2013 at 2:29 am

Ah, Cafe Coffee Day… where would us travelers in India be without it?! And I love how, as Ashley says above, they always appear in the middle of nowhere. We also had a cheeky CCD stop on my own Rickshaw Run – but thankfully we didn’t have to hang around there as long as you guys did. That mechanic is a champ! So glad he came to the rescue of your lovely tuk 🙂


Kim February 6, 2013 at 2:44 am

I don’t want to envision a world without cafe coffee day 🙂 I’m glad you were able to escape when you needed too (and I can’t believe your rickshaw never broke down!). I’d be lying if I said we didn’t curse you a few times while we were out there 😉


Hunter February 7, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Great Post Kim wanted to keep reading


Kim February 7, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Thanks Hunter 🙂


Tyrhone February 7, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Great post Kim, I know from much experience the rejuvenating properties of coffee.

It is hard to remain trusting when you have people blathering in your ear about danger this and bad that, we had the same sorta thing with Mexico City, and like you everything was fine in the end.


Kim February 7, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Yes, that guy was making me so paranoid and I was questioning EVERYTHING. I’m glad that it all worked out. If it hadn’t I would have bravely defended us all with my tiny little Leatherman knife 😉


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