It seemed from my time in India that in every little corner of the country, no matter how remote a place might be, autorickshaws were omnipresent. They varied slightly from region to region, but rickshaws they were all the same.
Some were bigger than others, some were different colours, some – especially in Jodhpur – were quite large inside and actually quite ornate; the safety bars inside were made from polished and chromed steel rather than the duller, rusting black bars you find in some. Some had cracked windscreens, some had torn upholstery. Almost all had a religious icon pinned or glued to the dashboard.
Throughout my visit to India, I was working with a microscopic budget. As a result, if I felt confident I knew how to get somewhere by foot, and it wasn’t too far to lug my backpack, I would invariably choose to walk for purely financial reasons. If I arrived in a new town late at night or very early in the morning, or I had a fair distance to travel, or, frankly, if I couldn’t be bothered to carry my bag very far in the soporific humidity, I generally had four alternatives to walking available to me:
1. A cycle rickshaw
2. An auto (rickshaw)
3. A local bus
4. A local taxi (car)
Buses can be difficult to find, and of course only serve the principal routes. In any case, they seldom operate at night. Taxis are relatively expensive. Cycle rickshaws are very slow; with my weight as well as my baggage, and with the rickshaw-wallahs often disadvantaged by poor roads, the cycle rickshaws, or “Indian Helicopters” as they ironically call themselves, were sometimes slower than walking. Faced with a slight incline, they were a lost cause. I’ll make special mention of Kolkata, because their taxi drivers actually use the meters – the exception that proves the rule – and the alternative is hand-pulled rickshaws: these carts have enormous wheels and are each pulled by one remarkably fit, indefatigable rickshaw-wallah. They all seemed capable of running with their rickshaw no matter the improbable load they were pulling. I learned that the huge wheels were to negotiate the annual monsoon flooding and these rickshaws become indispensable at that time of year when the traffic is impeded. Personally, I had no need for one in December, but it was interesting to see them nonetheless.
The autos, I found, were like Goldilocks’ porridge. Just right. Less expensive than a taxi, faster than a cycle rickshaw, and more flexible than the buses, they are quick, affordable (haggling notwithstanding) and highly manoeveurable, making them ideal for negotiating heavy traffic and dodging the most severe potholes. Because the sides are normally open, you also feel and hear more of your surroundings. Granted, all you can hear at times is growling traffic and incessant horn-blowing, and on the wider roads they’re not for the faint-hearted. You certainly feel a sense of your own mortality bundling down a major road in a tiny rickshaw with a heaving bus to one side and an articulated truck to the other! And the cardinal rule is to always, always keep your hands inside the cabin…
But they are so efficient, hardy, and so brilliant in their simplicity, they make for a great way of getting around. I managed to squeeze into one of the smaller autos in Varanasi with two of my friends and all our baggage. It was a common sight to see a whole family shoehorned in to the back seat, driven by an unflinching driver. Where would India be without them?