Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rameswaram to Tutticorin

UPDATE: All videos now moved to youtube! See today's video!!!

Distance traveled: 196km

Time: 7 hrs, 40 minutes

Our karma was back in full force. Race day 5 brings us another large, full color picture of team Namascar in the paper – pretty much our standard pose: hanging from the rickshaw wearing crazy hats and screaming at the top of our lungs. Are we becoming a media juggernaut? See the video and decide for yourself!

The day started with the most serious briefing yet, telling us about the terrible road (actually non road) and the likelihood that locals, having read about the rally in the paper, would throw dead chickens, goats, or maybe relatives in front of us and try to get money from us for ‘hitting’ them. We were also told that we need to be very careful as the rickshaws could easy break an axle on the road as the potholes were sometimes the size of, well, a rickshaw. To further complicate things, we don’t have cell coverage for most of the day, and the directions are pretty much only suggestions. About 50% of the day was actually spent driving off road, and if you want to know how rickshaws do ‘off roading’ check out our video. Again no tasks other than to visit the village and arrive on time which was particularly important as there would be a bus waiting in Tutticorin that would leave at 3:45 sharp. If you arrived at 3:46, no bus, no beach trip – you were out of luck. NO EXCEPTIONS. Naturally when we arrive at 4 pm, we’re the second team in and the pace car and spice music boys are still behind. We’re on hardcore maƱana S. Indian time. Needless to say, the beach trip never materializes.

The school visit was a let down as school was not in session. No one on our team had any idea what day it was, but after some calculations we figured out it’s Friday, a Hindu weekend day; school is in session Sunday – Thursday. When we got to Tutticorin we asked directions to our hotel, and cause a minor traffic back up when a whole host of well wishers gave us helpful directions. One chap shows us the way, and offers to show us around town for the evening but we tell him we were attending a dinner hosted by the Freemasons. Alarmed, he hushes us and gives us some free advice we didn’t comprehend: In Tutticorin don’t mention “Freemason” out loud. Uh, OK. Fortunately, compliance is easy.

Tutticorin is Indian ARC organizer Aravind’s home town. Rather than the beach trip, the evening featured a great party with special guests, the Dean of the University in Tutticorin and Aravind’s dad. The food and drink were great, the speeches funny, and it’s good to get a glimpse of Aravind’s personal life and attachment to this place. We run out of beer very early and are treated to a Tutticorin gentlemen’s discussion about the dangers of drinking beer in winter, and its effect on joints, bladder, and the performance of masculine heroics. Mind you winter is 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity here. Thankfully, there is plenty of “White Mischief” – a brand of vodka - on hand and the party rolls on into the night.

Be sure to check the video!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Madurai to Rameswaram (hump day!) - January 4th

There are no tasks for today other than to arrive on time and visit the village, so we visit the Sri Minakshee temple in the morning. If a challenge had been “find a place to park within 1km of the temple”, I doubt anyone would have scored points. In the US, some fancy restaurants will supply a coat and tie if you aren’t wearing one. In this temple, one of the most famous in India and one of the only places where rituals from an ancient civilization are still practiced, the dress code for men is: bare feet and long pants. Giamp was wearing shorts and he was required to buy a dhoti, though it looked like a skirt to me. Orange is definitely his color as shown in today's video. On the way out we picked up pencils, jump ropes, and toy cars for the school visit.

We also discover our most important piece of equipment, the horn, is broken.This is no joke. Proactive use of the horn is a must when driving in India. It basically tells others “move left” – it’s used to signal passing, and it clears bikes, pedestrians, dogs and goats. Cows do not listen to the horn, or don’t know what left is. I offer to buy the air horn from a rickshaw taxi, but he wants 600 rupees (over $12) which was outrageous, but certainly reflects the value of the horn. Instead we buy a bike horn and whistles – combined with our hats we look and sound like a circus. It’s not very effective but the freak factor is great.

Once we were on the road, we encountered a new variable: rain. There are four windshield wiper configurations on a rickshaw: manual (a lever you manually move back and forth), motorized (where a small motor automatically turns the wiper for you), manual motor (where the motor is broken but the screws have been removed, so you can move the wiper by manually turning the motor) or “hole” (you have a small hole where the wiper goes). Sadly, we have the motorized configuration which ties for second with “hole” and is far inferior to either of the manual options. Our windshield is a mess, rain is coming into both sides of the rickshaw, and as we turn the corner less than 1km outside Madurai, we see a very large truck on its side in the river with a somewhat smaller than normal Indian throng looking on. Clearly, this truck had just gone into the water and the vehicle (another truck) it had collided with was pulled over as well. We stopped to check it out - miraculously everyone was alright. Last night we were able to settle two fender benders for 200 rupees – I’m curious what this one cost.

Fortunately, the rain was short lived. To make sure we don’t have a repeat of yesterdays sub par finish, we calculate the distance and our average speed, and make sure we have plenty of room to spare before flag down, or at least sundown. Our rickshaw has a top speed of 50km/hr on the flat (we’ve hit 55 on a hill, and can’t break 40 when there is a headwind), but with the various obstacles along the way, averaging 30km/hr is about right for planning purposes. GPS and map in hand, we calculate and recalculate our arrival time based on various worst case and likely case assumptions about every 30 minutes. Things are on plan!

Our intel said there were 50 kids at the Mandapam Ooratchi Thodakapalli school in Saiaivalasai village, but when we arrived there were only 24, with 6 “absent”. We don’t know if that means they were sick (seems like a lot of kids to have sick), whether they were on vacation, working, or just playing hooky. Probably they were helping harvest crops since the roads are covered by corn and other crops farmers put there so that the passing cars with thresh them. The kids were by far the best disciplined class of all we have encountered so far and they were thrilled and super thankful for the items we brought.

Our planning paid off and we arrived at the Hare Krishna Hotel on schedule and in the light, so to speak. We even stop at a “fast food” restaurant in the middle of nowhere along the way. The meal starts with a banana leaf and they dribble water on it. Didn’t the EWG say something about not drinking the water? Then they pile rice and various vegetable mixtures on top. You use the utensil’s you brought with you – be sure to wash them before and after the meal! We were about 70% sure we were about to encounter our mysterious companion dysentery.

We had enough time to spare to visit Adam’s bridge which is the furthest eastern point in Tamil Nadu. We asked for directions and when “Adams Bridge” did not register, we weren’t sure what to call the tip of the peninsula. Finally we asked “Which way to Sri Lanka?” and were given some “pointers” along with the cryptic statement “no look Sri Lanka”. We couldn’t figure out whether this meant “you can’t see Sri Lanka” or whether it was a political statement referring to the Tamil Sri Lanka conflict.

The sandy peninsula was a few hundred yards wide but stretched for many kilometers. We went as far as the road would let us, bought some coconuts at the fishing village there, and watched the sunset as the locals played with our GPS and cameras. There were a few hundred people who lived in that village and judging by their attitude and smiles, they had it figured out. They live in one of the most beautiful spots in the world (as you can see in today’s video), eat fresh fish, drink coconut juice, and tourists come by with strange gadgets to entertain them. That said, I’d hate to be out there during a storm.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Thanjavur to Madurai

Check out today's video!

We leave Thanjavur to a noisy riotous musical send off which was cool! We’ve got GPS points, we’ve done our research, and we’ve only got a couple of challenges. The ride is relatively short, so we’re sure we’ve got it nailed. It’s a beautiful rural ride, on pretty decent roads, and we relax and enjoy the day. The school is in a nice spot surrounded by cleaner, more organized homes. We spend a lot of time with the kids – they love for us to take their picture or video them, and then watch themselves on camera. There’s a lull and loss of urgency since it seems like we have lots of time and a relatively short ride. WRONG. When we leave the school, we take a wrong turn and end up having to back track on rural roads. When we get back onto the road, it’s a shock that we still have so much to cover. It’s going to be uphill. Still, every time we take a wrong turn something great ends up happening. I’m wearing the jester hat (as seen in the Hindu!) and when we ask for directions, we're mobbed by kids.

As if Indian roads are not insane enough, we keep passing stretches where our lane is blocked off by rocks and covered by some weird substance. As we pass more and more, we figure out it’s corn and that the farmers are putting it on the road to dry. It’s strange how it’s a perfectly acceptable use of the flat hot surface. We’re rushing to Madurai for the ‘High Tea’ at the Elements Hostel, and do an express stop at a Fort for one of the day’s challenges. It’s basically a giant boulder with and incredible view of the surrounding countryside.

When we get in to Madurai…it’s a much bigger, more chaotic, and more confusing city than we expected. There’s a hairy moment when I bump a motorcyclist while trying to avoid a bus, and we’re afraid of the mob justice that materializes out of nowhere in a heart beat. We quickly smile and well wish our motorcyclist friend who is unscathed and beat a hasty retreat. Playing dumb and smiling a lot works great. I probably shouldn’t have wished the guy “Happy New Year”, but between that, the jester hat, our crazy looking rickshaw seems to make everyone smile and probably gave him as good a story as we have.

Frazzled, we pay a rickshaw driver to show us to the Elements Hostel. It’s a total waste of time since there’s no press conference and the “high tea’ consists of chai in Dixie cups and some Ritz crackers. We’re instructed to wait as maybe the tea and china will show up, but when it starts to get dark, the group heads out together for the 15 minute ride to the Germanus Hotel, map in hand, with instructions to stick together. What could possibly go wrong?

The map is a wonderfully drawn stick figure that actually has some road names on it - up until the point where there is a long line and a left turn. At that point there are no more labels, and you certainly can’t tell if you have gone too far. Within ten minutes we don’t see any of the other “caravaning Rickshaws” in front or behind us, but we’re confident we’re on the long line, and simply need to make the left and we are there. After a few kilometers we ask for directions. A small, confident throng informs us we are going the wrong way and need to go back and make a right. Ah, we must have simply overshot! Wrong.

We get misdirected four separate times in horrible traffic, and the situation goes from bad to worse when we hit another rickshaw. The driver is angry, but it’s the crowd that’s forming that is more worrying. We quickly jump out and express our regrets and start offering to pay on the spot. 200 rupees later (about $5), we’re in the rickshaw and heading to the hotel, following another taxi rickshaw. It’s a terrible end to an underwhelming day. When we get to Madurai, we tuck into the beers, and set a few things straight. We are going to try to win this thing, and while we’re not willing to cut things out of our schedule and just rush past India, we don’t need to go wasting time when it’s not necessary. We also resolve to really make a complete and finished video instead of just home movies. We have a late dinner with organizers Aravind and Marika, complete with several power outages, on the roof top deck; we are amazed at their no-holds-barred approach to ordering the staff around. I guess trying to organize any logistics in South India will convince you of the necessity to crack the whip.

Don't forget the video, and if you love it, give it 5 stars! If you don't, let me know and we'll do better on the next one!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Pondicherry to Thanjavur - January 2nd

Potholes...Potholes plus Trucks. Buses. Goats. Bicycles. Oxen. Cows. Children. Carts. School girls and Cars.

Today's video rocks! Be sure to rate it!!!!

When we arrive for breakfast, we are greeted with “have you seen the paper”? Having been up most of the night working on videos, GPS, blogs, and fighting with which simply stopped working, no, we had not yet read the Hindu paper. Fortunately, reading was not necessary since we had a full-color picture of us on page two.

Everybody starts the day with enthusiasm - but they don't end it that way. The day starts with a briefing "Today you will meet the Indian Trucker. Some of the finest drivers in the world."

The ride from Pondicherry to Thanjavur starts with a fairly easy jaunt out to Silver Beach to check off our first task. Everyone is racing and having a good time. We pass the recent aftermath of a bus vs. motorcycle accident where the bus lost it's front windshield. It's in the other lane and we fly by. Minor compared to the Podicherry evening mayhem. By the end of the day, there will have been a serious crash and rickshaw totaled - end of the road for Darjeeling Unlimited. Organizers Aravind and Marika skid off into a pond and both are hurt. The bunny rabbit breaks a leg and doesn't make it back - fortunately the team is not hurt. Wheels fall off, brakes fail for the Hungarians, clutch cables for the Americans; a caravan of Canadians limps in at 9:30. The Shark hits a motorcyclist. In the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, about half of the cars finish each year. The ARC is at par.

We on the other hand, have had a perfect day. The Three Wheel Tamil is buzzing along, our GPS work and map research has paid off huge, plus we've had a bit of luck. We're in or near the lead most of the day and even the Indian team is following us down country roads to the school we visit today. In the end, we're second in and one of only three teams to make the cut off. For the rest, it's harrowing stuff, and sad to see how tired they are, and the danger they've had.

The roads here are dominated by a single rule - Momentum. Velocity times weight gives you your rating. The Bus is king: It observes no rules and drives wherever the hell it wants, angrily honking at you and flashing its lights if you dare to take up a small part of your own lane when it commandeers from the opposite direction. Next we have the Ambassador automobile...sweeping past on diplomatic immunity. The Ambassador’s are always in white, and their peer, the jeep, in silver. It’s like a video game from the 80s where all the aliens were the same shape and color, though here they vary greatly by the number of people, or animals, in/on the vehicle. Motorcyles and autorickshaws buzz past on all sides and at all times. We fight it out with them as equals and I'm happy to say, we do most of the passing. Cows have special status, and we are deathly afraid of the repercussions if we hit one. More than one person has told us that if we have the choice of hitting a person or hitting a cow - it's sorry pal, but see you in the next life.

The Ambassador

When I see a video on Youtube I often wonder whether that's one-of-a-kind or a representation. Skateboarding dogs, singers on treadmills, Pepsi and Mentos - clearly singularities. The "traffic in India" video could be a traffic cam.

When we roll in, it's 5 o'clock- still light - and all is well with the world. We are greeted on the door by staff who offer us a blessing, oil anointing, a moist face towel, necklace and mango drink. Every day should be like this.

Something tells me it won't.

At night, all night, it's off to edit video, write blogs, do research, and get ready for the next day. We’re on a mission, and my chronic insomnia has infected Giamp. See today's video!

Day Off

After the free open bar and yesterday's night drive, the day off is pretty welcome. We've got a day under our belts and a day to take it in and make adjustments. We realize that we are at a distinct disadvantage when we see the Indian teams driving around as if they can read the road signs or something. We decide that we must do something about it. Hello internet and a formidable arsenal of technological weaponry. We spent half the day checking out the bazaar and beach front, and the other half doing a PhD on the road ahead, complete with waypoints entered into the GPS and checking directions and maps against satellite images from Google Earth.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Indian ARC Chennai to Pondicherry December 31, 2007

Insane! Absolutely Insane! The race begins and day one is not, as the laws of man suggest, 24 hours, but more like 2 weeks in some manic, mind boggling Indian amusement park. Sanity is relative: watch the video and decide for yourself.

There is mayhem, beauty, terror, misdirection; sheer cluelessness – and always the shining, pure smile of South India . Everywhere we go, we are met by the incredible smiles that light up out of nowhere and make you feel welcome, happy, and in love with this part of the world.

In the morning, we flag off by driving over a lemon for good luck. Blasting off in pole position we take the early lead. Trouble is we have no clue where the hell we are going and we have less than a liter of gas to get there.

It’s a straight plunge into chaotic, packed, buzzing streets. Where the hell are we supposed to go? All we know is that we are heading South and our tasks are a grab bag of scavenger hunt type clues.

First we hit the petrol station for gas and oil mixture. It’s a magical concoction of 1 litre petrol to 150 ml of oil. Trouble is no one wants to mix it that way. And people have theological discussions about the right mix. Like many things in India , you encounter magnitudes of difference in the same breath. Is it 2ml or 200? We’ve been told both, and many points in between. Of course, the autorickshaw ran best later in the day when we bought mystery orange gas – mixture unknown - from a soda vendor at a roadside stand when we were about to run out. This gas(?) improved our top speed from 40km/hr to over 50.

Task one: find out what is the three-in-one sculpture in Krishnam Mandapam? This question alone gave us a detour of over 30 km as we tracked and backtracked following the directions of locals which mysteriously always put our goal 2 km away and invariably ended in a pot holed, this-can’t-be-it dirt road though the final deception was a security guard who said “Yes – this way. Krishnam Mandapam.” Needless to say, it was not the right spot.

We’re feeling great. The road is good, the countryside opens up and there are glimpses of ocean, rice paddies, ox carts, and forest. We try to ignore the trash that litters all of it. When we reach Mamalapuram, we’re feeling so good we blow right past the turn off. Luckily there are other autorickshaw racers there so we back track and head into town to visit the huge temple complex, which is a World Heritage Site. Incredibly, we failed to grasp that one of the most important sites in south India in fact contains the Krishnam Mandapam in Mamallapuram. Oh well, we’re just learning. It’s all looking up from here, because we learn what the three-in-one statue is and manage to plant some misinformation to the other teams, who come away thinking it has to do with rocks, and carvings, or some such thing.

It’s actually a small pillar among many in which the sculpture shows an elephant, a cow, or baby elephant, depending on what part you cover up. BONUS points for Team Namascar. We don’t think anyone else got this one right.

After a bit of misdirection it's back to the main road and a visit to a school where we hand off our charity to the teachers at a little road side school. The kids are well behaved and love the pens, cards, and other school supplies we hand out to them. We are on our way to find a mysterious ruined Dutch fort so that we can find out what is inscribed on the tomb. Some quick research tells us that the fort is in the town of Sadras which it seems we alone find. It's another dusty, town, and again miraculously whenever we ask, we keep getting sent further and further along 2 km at a time.

Still everything is going great until somewhere along the way we lose our "silencer", an exaggeration for the term muffler, and end up waking the dead with our super loud rickshaw that now sounds like an airplane. There are plenty of (annoyed) people who let us know. We tell them, we just have to do one thing before we head back. As we pass back through town, a kid jumps into the middle of the street, holding our silencer - where the hell did he find it? He hops in with us and it's off to the welder. As with everything we do it takes a crowd of 25 people - it really does take a village.

Back on the road, we know we are not going to make the 5:30 cut off, and that we'll be driving by night. A daunting task, particularly with the single headlight that shines no brighter than a flashlight. Still we are in great spirits and the team is determined to scoop up as many points as possible whatever time we get in. There's no quit in us. Off to the ruined Allambarai Fort where we end up in triumphal parade of 20 kids hanging off our rickshaw and singing with us.

The ride into Pondicherry is sheer madness and involves at least two legitimate potentially life altering experiences (aka fatal crashes). And, the silencer falls off again 1 km from goal. With the muffler off and us screaming, we drive up to the 5-star hotel 13th of 26 teams at 7:30, 1:30 after sunset. The race is scored on points which are attained by completing the tasks. After talking to a number of people, we're hopeful our late arrival is more than made up for by our success at the tasks.

The India EWG has some helpful rules of the road. Two of my favorites: do not pick up hitchhikers and do not drive at night. In the space of 10 minutes we joyfully and enthusiastically break both rules. Watch carefully and see if you can spot us bending these rules in today’s video!

Addenda - The New Years Eve Party
At the hotel, they've organized a splashy and swank party which includes a huge feast and all the booze you can drink. Something the exuberant Tamil guys embrace wholeheartedly. It is only the first of many 'embraces' of the evening. Everywhere we turn there are smiling faces, and 'wish you a happy new year' greetings. Everyone wants to shake hands, hug, and make friends. It's probably the most endearing thing here, and it's the first time we've taken an invitation of 'you come and dance with me' from a guy so gladly. You can go into a shop for a shirt and though the guy doesn't have what you want, and you've concluded business transactions, he still wants to give you a hug. Take a picture with someone, and they'll hold your hand and beam into the camera. If you looked at the Gross National Happiness Index in this part of the world, it would be through the roof!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Indian ARC Rickshaw Driving Training Day

Here is a video covering our travel and our training.

We had one goal today: learning to drive our autorickshaw. By “our” I mean that we each team has its own AR pimped out to our specs. We are team Namascar (we put the NASCAR into Namaskar – a Hindu greeting).

The day went, in what appears by both experiential and other accounts, to have gone in typical Indian fashion. Some ARs were there and in great working order, some worked partially, and some were no shows. The autorickshaw in the form of a plush muppet furred rabbit was fantastic. We fared a bit worse than most – our AR, dubbed the 3 Wheel Tamil looked great but the engine kept quitting in different ways: One all out seizure where the wheels locked up and we came to a skidding halt. Twice it sputtered and then stopped. And finally it just quit. “Towing” the AR consisted of someone driving behind it in another AR and pushing it with one foot. This technique seemed to be pretty well known. Our AR didn’t have a back window, and of the three front windows, only one was even partially transparent. And the musical horn we spent extra money on didn’t work. Details, we don’t need to see where we’re going. We were assured these issues would all be fixed by tomorrow morning by flag-off. Let it be god’s will.

We are being shadowed by SS TV. Southern Spice – a kind of Tamil MTV so we’ll have lot’s of other footage too. Our intense training period consisted of about 2 minutes of here’s the gears, here’s the brake. In honesty, it’s like driving a go cart, so we don’t anticipate any problems…except for tipping, which on a 3 wheeled contraption is surprisingly easy to do. Our first day takes us from Chennai to Pondicherry, between 120 and 150km by different accounts. Like all things here, it’s a very ‘fluid’ situation. We have absolutely no clue what to expect. Really. None.

Other details:

  • We have a team of mechanics following us during the “challenge” (it’s not a race).
  • The event is billed as “emissions neutral” since the sponsors purchased trees to cover our CO2 emissions.
  • The engines are 2-stroke, and produce a lot of smoke. Covering that part of the emissions was not discussed.
  • Some form of religious music starts every morning at 5AM and is VERY loud