Ricksha' Trippin'

Originally published in Men's Health Magazine, October 2007

day1cal 025

A Few months ago me and two of friends of volunteering ourselves into a race that involved driving over 3,000 km across India in the Monsoons over the Himalayas - if that wasn't harrowing enough we thought we'd do it in an mobile toaster on wheels - 3 wheels to be exact - yes we plan to ride an auto-rickshaw across India through torrential rains across the Himalayas.

There were many things we learnt on our trip so I thought I’d share spread the gyan to my fellow road tripping enthusiasts.

Road Tripping without Tripping Out – The Basic Philosophy of the Road

Through the water at Bardai National Park

Road tripping is a state of mind. To truly enjoy it, you must embrace the philosophy of the road, much like European backpackers must bring a mindset of art and culture and beachcombers must be prepared for umbrellas in their drinks and sand in their shorts.

First, there are no boring places on the open road—just places that require a little bit of searching to uncover the remarkable. The great Indian road trip is an adventure we always dreamed about: roving the scenic byways of our vast country, stumbling on new vistas and obscure cuisines, making friends in dust-speck villages, national parks and cities joining the pantheon of legendary crisscrossers before us. Like a hiking trail, every road trip has a beginning and an end, but only the journey counts. The middle, the asphalt glide, the motorized mantra, getting from Point A to Point B, is the purpose of the road trip, realizing that you’re supposed to be wherever you are. Enjoy being there.

Also enjoy the fact that your vehicle is in your control, so take it wherever your heart desires. While your road trip will most likely involve an itinerary with reservations, do not tie your bumper to a schedule.

The Master Plan – Plotting Your Course

DSC_0388

Your journey begins the first day you start planning your road trip, with anticipation as your accelerator pedal, floored and revving. So break out the map, grab a box of pushpins to highlight the highlights and let a little planning take you a long way.

Before the first pushpin digs into the wall, talk to friends and go online to identify the purpose of your trip. If your goal is four days of backcountry wandering, then all you need is a full tank of petrol and sharp eyes. If you plan include a final destination, like your Goa in one week, and then advance planning is crucial.

Once your purpose is set, consider your level of comfort. Are you the type who needs to know a reserved hotel room waits in the next city or will any roadside hotel suit your needs? Do you like your roads highlighted in yellow on your map, or do you keep your map in the glove box for emergencies only, allowing the winds of spontaneity to determine your course? Whatever your comfort level, be sure to ask your traveling companions for their opinions.

Once the bases are covered, get your guide book out and begin researching all the possible routes. But maps can’t tell you everything for example if certain mountain passes are blocked during the winter or if a festival or event in a city you plan to drive through will cause major delays – so it always best to double check all your research with locals on the road. Also, spend time on the Internet getting to know the smaller towns on your route. Treasures are often found in the most unlikely of places.

Before the Odometer Reaches 1

With your plan set and the trip already rambling in your mind, now is the time to make sure reality is on the same page.

The first and most vital step is to get your vehicle in top form. Whether you're traveling by car, truck, motorcycle or auto-rickshaw, your road trip will be smoother if your vehicle is ship-shape, or road-shape in this instance. Before you leave, have a mechanic check all the vehicle’s vitals: brakes, battery, fluid levels, tire pressure, light bulbs and any parts that need regular maintenance.

As with all long-distance road trips, it’s wise to bring emergency equipment such as a first-aid kit, flashlight, blankets/sleeping bags, drinking water and snacks,and jumper cables. Check the weather for your route and be prepared for rain and in mountain conditions with an ice scraper and chains for the tires is advisable

Safety – Don’t Wreck Your Trip

The last thing you want is to ruin your road-trip by getting into a accident. Safety is simply the number one concern for you, your traveling companions and everyone on or near a road, so always have the following safety tips on the tip of your mind while driving.

Pay attention. Practically all accidents involve inattention on the part of one or both drivers. Distraction comes in many guises: daydreaming sleepiness, fatigue and cell phones. Paying attention makes it possible for you to see, recognize and avoid the hazards lurking on the road; these are the three basic elements of defensive driving.

You are not psychic. You can never rely on what the other driver will do. While driving, always keep a wary eye on other drivers and leave yourself plenty of room. Anticipate the mistakes they might make and be ready. Stay alert and in control.

Yield anyway. If you are in doubt about who has the right of way, give it away. Right of way rules are often misunderstood, and there are situations where the rules may not be clear to everyone. If there is uncertainty about which vehicle should have the right of way, give the other driver the road. When it comes to driving safely, it’s not the principle, but the outcome, that counts.

Don't speed. Driving at a higher rate cuts your reaction time and results in more stored energy that must be dissipated in any collision. A safe driver should choose a speed matching traffic as closely as possible without exceeding speed limits. If traffic is moving at higher speed than you should go, keep to the right and out of the way.

Drive precisely. Most everyone knows the basic traffic laws, yet drivers impatiently ignore them for the sake of expediency every day. Traffic rules are in place to create the consistency and uniformity that allow us to predict with some degree of confidence what other drivers will do, thereby avoiding conflicts and collisions. Ignoring the rules of the road helps create the chaos you see every day.

Start Early Stop Early

Western Terai

Driving in the daytime takes far less concentration than driving at night—the two are as different as night and day—so to make it easy on yourself, you want to use as much daylight as possible. So, you want to start around dawn, or maybe an hour earlier. Besides the practical value, you also get to watch the sun rise, which is not only visually nice but also psychologically rewarding for some reason. It's an interesting feeling, I can't really describe it.

Of course, if you're starting early, you also need to go to bed early. Another thing that's nice is to arrange for a quick start. Here's how I like to do it. First, the night before, when I've found a town to stop in, before I find a hotel, I go by to fill up the tank and clean the bugs off the windshield. Then, the next morning, I don't eat breakfast until after I've been driving for an hour or so. So, when I get up, I can just wash, get dressed, and go.

If I do have drive in the night, especially on pitch black country highways where your visibility is limited to what your headlights can cover. More than once something dark popped up in the road and I didn't have time to react well to it. I was able to decrease my stress and increase my response time by staying several hundred feet behind another vehicle. This way I could see them react to something and I would know I would have to too. Also, their headlights extended the distance of my own headlights as to how far ahead I could see. Finally, seeing just a few red dots of tailights way in the distance was reassuring. They meant that I would know well ahead of time what right and left turns would be coming up. Also on Indian highways where no one believes in the concept of the dipper its often have something guide you when you are momentarily blinded by the oncoming light flare.

Hotels, Lodges and No Telling What You’ll Find

Many a time due to the lack of information available road-trippers dismiss you have no option but letting the road, the weather and your mood to the next hotel sign in the night. Often hotel and lodges on the road are not the most hygienic of places hence is always good to carry a sleeping bag or your own blankets.

In any kind of long-distance driving, you'll soon discover that bathrooms are far and between those that you find often have no soap or towels. So, as the day passes, you feel more and more unclean and that takes a lot of the joy out of driving.

Sometimes if you do not find a loo in time you have to go by the roadside - it took me years to put two and two together and realize there's a simple solution. You should always know keep soap, water and napkins with you, and from there it's just a small step to having some good soap with you as well. Carry soap or hand sanitizer – I find that they are absolutely essential. If you wear glasses, it's also nice to keep an extra handkerchief around so you can dry the glasses off properly after you wash them.

As for eating, it took me a long time to understand that large meals make one sleepy; in fact even not-so-large meals do the same. So, what I like to do nowadays is have one sit-down meal during the day, plus lots of snacks while driving. A high energy snacks like nuts, chocolate and fruit often go along way; the important thing is that it not be too much food.

Keeping your vehicle well juiced

Unlike the cities where you’ll find a petrol pump at every corner you sometimes you don’t find fuel for miles on end and being is stranded on a desolate highway or a mountain side ghat is one of the worst scenarios a road tripper could face. I usually carry empty jerry cans with me on long journeys and fill them up whenever I know that petrol pumps are few and far between.

Endless Highways

day3.4 nepal 607
[Wildlife we encountered]

Exploring small villages, interacting with the locals and eating at roadside Dhabhas that sell tasty fare all require a sense of adventure and a suspension of disbelief. You never know what lies around the next bend, because the moment you take that curve or crest over a sun-blazed hilltop is moment like no other.

Most importantly drive safe. Drive long. And enjoy the open road.