This isn’t a holiday beverage-induced fantasy. Brendon Ulen, a local electrical engineer, along with a friend from Brooklyn, John Bodycombe, converged on India to participate in the thrice annual, 5-year-old Rickshaw Run for charity. Ulen, 24, works at the defense firm Syracuse Research Corporation and he decided to do the event to raise funds for two charities: FRANK Water and Mercy Works.
On Jan. 1, 57 rickshaw teams met in Pondicherry in southeast India to begin their long ride north toward the Himalayas. According to the Web site of the British-inspired race run by The Adventurists (www.theadventurists.com), contestants are required to raise 1,000 British pounds (last we checked about $1,500 U.S.) for charity, secure their own motorized rickshaw and get a motorcycle license and immunizations against cholera, diphtheria, malaria and a host of other tropical maladies. That’s pretty much it.
Rickshaw’s place: The less-than-durable means of transport, and their drivers, assemble before the race begins.
Ulen’s father Richard, reached at the family home in Columbus, Ohio, said his son made this trip “over my strong objections. I can think of at least 15 diseases that he’ll probably come down with. But he’s young and adventurous.” Richard is watching the team’s progress online along with Brendon’s mother, Ilona. “Nobody’s died yet,” he noted. “They seem to break down about every three hours.”
Sighed Ulen’s mom, “We were all young once.”
Organizers tout the humble rickshaw, “three wheels, half a horsepower and more fun than any other vehicle on the planet,” as the perfect vehicle for long-distance off-road adventures, in spite of being designed for short, urban hops on pavement. The trip from southeast to northeast India, approaching Bangladesh, is slated to last until Jan. 15 or thereabouts. There is no support along the way, not even a map, and few of the rickshaws make it to the finish line. The point appears to be fun and philanthropy rather than speed or endurance. Average speed for a rickshaw is 22 miles per hour; no word on the number of clicks per liter of petrol.
“The Rickshaw Run is pretty simple,” says the Web site about the race. “With no preparation and less luggage one flies to the Indian subcontinent and does one’s damndest to force 150cc of Indian engineering over thousands of miles of questionable terrain in around two weeks. Upon arrival we pause briefly for a game of cricket followed by tea and cakes before revving our engines and setting off. We stop only to wet our whistles on the occasional gin and tonic at specially selected refreshment points.
“The route of the mighty Rickshaw Run changes every time to make sure it remains a challenge. Once we get the odd team surviving one route we’ll move it to somewhere harder. We vaguely plan the routes to take two weeks but don’t blame us if it takes you two years and half a limb. We don’t have specific route plans because it’s an adventure. You want to get stuck in with the maps and figure out where you want to go, not let us take you on a guided tour.”
Ulen and Bodycombe call their pimped-out rickshaw “Madcap Blunderbus.” Here’s how the two, writing in their blog, described the opening day of the race: “At about 11:00 we all started rolling out of the warehouse . . . and started lining up—60 rickshaws with various awesome paint jobs and pimping decor in front of a 10-foot Ghandi statue on the Bay of Bengal beach . . . we had everything from dancers to a band of onlookers who were there taking photos and sending us off.
“The experience was completely amazing. Everyone who saw us immediately had a smile on their face. There were many ‘Happy New Year’s’ shared along with well wishing and before long we were off . . . we quickly became scattered when the rickshaws started dropping like flies. Canada Whoa’s rickshaw was having brake problems at the starting line. Team Jackal, the lone Spaniard, broke down about 500 feet down the road and from there on out about every 1-2 kilometers we would pass a team on the side of the road.”
And what does one do when one’s rickshaw breaks down halfway around the world? The Web site is dismissive of such concerns: “Support? Of course we don’t provide any support. The Rickshaw Run is supposed to be an adventure. What sort of adventure would you have if we were following you in a truck with spare parts and a comfy bed? No, no, we must get out there into the world and get stuck. When you’re stuck, lost and up a certain creek without a rowing implement, is when you start to have fun—and the last thing we want to do is stop you having fun!”
Ulen left from New York on Dec. 29 with his Brooklyn pal Bodycombe, and after a brief stop and a few Belgian beers in Brussels, the pair made their way to India, arriving just a few weeks after terrorists in Mumbai had done their best to cast a pall over the holiday tourist season.
In spite of the questionable sanity of the participants, the charities they selected are top notch, well regarded and worthy of support. Mercy Works is one of the finest of the new crop of “social entreprenership” ventures that apply modern dot.com management strategies to places that have barely discovered the radio. Mercy Works operates in 26 countries dispensing emergency aid when needed (such as in the Gaza Strip last week) but more typically, aid for development. In Indonesia they actually bought up a small bank in order to make tiny loans to women and farmers in need of financing.
FRANK Water is the other beneficiary. Started by a British woman after she got dysentery from drinking the water in India in 2005, FRANK sells bottled water in the developed world to fund clean water projects in the less developed parts of the globe.
If you would like to support either of these charities, or simply follow the rickshaw journey, log on to http://rickshawrun09w.theadventurists.com/themadcapblunderbus.