Sunday, December 30, 2007

Autorickshaw Challenge Pregame

The flight to India is long. L. O. N. G. Am I in Taipei? Why does nobody smile in Malaysia? 30 hours later, we were on the ground in Chennai and into the crowded, humid insanity of India. The trip from the airport to the hotel was all of our first experience in a car in India. It’s really not much different than Sicily, Egypt, or other countries where the driving philosophy is more about fluid dynamics than “rules of the road”. Basically, if there is an opening and you can get there first, it’s yours. It doesn’t matter if that opening is between lanes, in the shoulder, or even on your side of the street. This gives quite a nice advantage to the smaller cars, bikes and pedestrians at intersections as they can flow between the larger vehicles. My guess is that it’s probably much more efficient than the orderly driving in the US, though I’m not sure of the comparative safety records. Just like nature abhors a vacuum, in India, drivers abhor an open space.

We had a free day before our Rickshaw driving training begins, so we visited the beach, local market, and a 4 story department store to buy a saree for Meghan. The saree shop is on the fourth floor. So it’s elevator up and forced march down through 3 floors of hardcore time share sales pitches with the exotic flavor of south India. Even with the dollar weak (40 rupees to $1), most things are incredibly cheap. Kashmiri carpets are still expensive. You can buy both pirated and what are claimed to be real DVDs. Pirated ones cost from 40 rupees (cheaper than a CD for 50!??) while real ones are about ½ US prices. For current releases – you can buy Beowulf – the merchant will tell you whether it’s a good print or bad. Food costs about a dollar and is wickedly delicious. Who knew you’d wake up craving lentil soup for breakfast.

The streets of India are like an amusement park. Hair raising mayhem and close calls with sound effects and blaring horns. Somehow you figure, it goes on all day and night, it can’t possibly not work out. When I read about India and how you can catch a fatal disease if the wrong person breathes on you if you are not properly vaccinated, I figured I’d be super careful. So the first day we are pushing through crowded streets in the market, eating local food (we jump into an autorickshaw and ask the driver to take us to a restaurant any will do), and having some unknown liquid spill on us from a building we’re walking under. Between the Malarone, Hep A, Hep B, Typhoid, and Tetanus booster I think we’re covered. And if not, we have plenty of Cipro to handle any “overflow”.

We asked a number of people if they had heard of the IndianARC. The conversations were all pretty similar:

Team Namascar: We will be driving an autorickshaw from Chennai to Kanyakumari.

Local: Ah, you will have a driver take you?

Team Namascar: No. We are renting a rickshaw.

Local: No. No. No. You mean someone is driving you.

Team Namascar: We will be driving.

Local: You are crazy. It is a long way.

For a flavor of the trip from LA to India and the environment in Chennai, check out this video.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Indian ARC Day 0

Eight months ago, a high-school friend suggested we race auto rickshaws in India for New Years. My last two New Years were unplanned until the last moment – one year we decided to go to Vegas at 4PM on the 31st, and the other year a last minute road trip.) The idea was so far away, a bit surreal, and I didn’t want to spoil the great buzz from our Indian dinner and King Fisher beer with a lot of questions or parade rain, so I said “sure”. Tonight we leave from LA for Chennai at 11:35.

Quite a few things have kept me busy over the last few months - rather than extensive preparation I was forced to do an immersive deep dive at the last moment. As such, I started fund raising activities for the charity portion of the event about a week ago. I’ve been part of a group of investors who communicate via email for over 12 years most of whom are from India, and sent an email describing the India Auto Rickshaw Challenge ( I received several email replies, all with flavors of the same message as these highlights from my friend Gaps:

“Autorickshaws I thought are inner city short hop vehicles…. This is the equivalent of taking a go cart and going to Tahoe…You are stark raving mad.”

For Christmas, my mom gave me an “Eyewitness Travel Guide” (ETG) for India – just in time for the flight. From the guide I learned:

“…autorickshaw, cheap, fast, and sometimes hair-raising”

“…Indian traffic is very chaotic, so visitors are advised to hire a driver along with a car, rather than try to navigate the roads themselves.”

“If you plan to drive in India, you need to ensure you are well accustomed to the chaotic traffic conditions. Though there are established traffic rules, such as lane driving…, more often than not, these are not followed…often you will find a stray car – or cow for that matter – coming at you on the wrong side of the road.”

The race starts in Chennai (the capital of Tamil which is a state in the Indian southwest) and ends in Kanniyakumari on the southern tip. Good thing we’re only going 1000km.

Things learned so far (inspired by “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader”):

  • Major cities have been recently renamed
  • Mumbai was called Bombay and is the largest city
  • Chennai was called Madras and is 2nd largest
  • Kolkata was called Calcutta which is the capital of West Bengal and is the only state with a Communist-led government
  • Apparently lots of roads have been recently renamed from Raj-era figures to well known Indian and international figures as well
  • India is 7th largest country by area, 2nd by population (1B in 2000)
  • Delhi is the capital and 3rd largest city with population 14M
  • Bordered on the north by the Himalayas, on the west by the Arabian sea, on the east by the Bay of Bengal and the southern tip sticks into the Indian Ocean
  • There is a church called “Saint Andrew’s Kirk” in both Kolkata and Channai which have similar descriptions and were built around the same time (1818 and 1821) but the ETG doesn’t link the two The chapters were probably written by two different people
  • India is the world’s largest producer of tea making 1M tons annually, mostly in the north