Three young Czechs take on India’s famous Rickshaw Run

Three adventure-loving young Czechs packed their bags and left for India several weeks ago to take part in the August Rickshaw Run, a 3,500 km adrenalin ride across the country. They had never seen a rickshaw before, had no idea what route they would take or what they would do if they got stuck in the jungle. Now they are back and Jakub Janča, one of the three Czechs involved, came to Radio Prague’s studio to talk about the experience. I began by asking how he would sum up the three-week adventure in India.

Photo: archive of Jakub JančaPhoto: archive of Jakub Janča “That‘s a hard question for me right now. I am still digesting it. But in one word: amazing. We had such an amazing opportunity to see the whole of India, we saw it all – the Himalayas, the ocean, the poverty and the richness, the urbanism and the jungle, we were able to see every aspect of India because of the route we chose. We were supposed to cover 3,500 kms and we did 4,600kms. We got lost a lot.”

Yes, I noticed that the route you picked was not exactly straightforward. How did you pick the route? That was entirely up to you wasn’t it?

“It was and we did not have a plan in advance like the other teams had. It was too fast for us and we did not have a chance to make a plan, but we benefitted from that because every evening or every morning we could choose where we wanted to go – we would invariable get lost and have to find our way again. Some teams got to the finishing line two days in advance because they used the highway which was fast and comfortable, but we wanted to see the India that you would not normally see.”

So you feel that you glimpsed the real India?

“We do. This is probably not true, but we sometimes felt like we were the first white people some of the locals ever saw. Because when we got lost inland in India we were miles away from any habitation and some people looked like they had no idea where we had come from.”

“Everybody keeps asking us if we saw a lot of poverty and we say we saw a lot of poverty, but never misery.”

What was the impression you got?

“They were very friendly. We were surprised that a lot of them did not speak any English at all, but even though they did not understand a word they were trying to communicate with their hands and in their own Hindi language. All the time they wanted to take a picture with us, they kept asking where we’re from and what we were doing there. They were really surprised by our rickshaw, they couldn’t understand why it was painted and what we were doing in it and we tried to explain that it is the same rickshaw they use for taxi transportation and we were just using it for a road trip across India.”

Lots of children around you at every stop, I noticed…you were a big attraction.

“Yes, lots of children around us. Three Europeans driving a white rickshaw was something they had never seen before.”

What did you eat on the journey, where did you sleep?

Photo: archive of Jakub JančaPhoto: archive of Jakub Janča “At the beginning when we spent four days in the city of Shillong preparing for the journey we were really careful, we were eating packed food, biscuits and so on. But then we got more adventurous and would try eating at cafes and places, trying their food and three days later we were eating everything – dirty hands from fixing the engine, we were just eating everything and luckily we were fine. So food was not a problem. As for sleeping – after three days we finally managed to get an internet connection and from the rickshaw we would look up hotels on the go. So one night it would be less cosy – like cockroaches and lizards - and the next night it would be a little bit better…”

You didn’t know much about the rickshaw before arriving in India ….

“We didn’t know anything!”

So how many times did it break down on the road in the course of those 4,000kms and more?

“We were lucky, I guess. We only had around ten breakdowns, which was OK. I heard there were teams that got trapped in a city for four days before servicemen could fix their engine. So we were kind of lucky. Of course after 4,000 km just 60 km before the finishing line the rickshaw broke down and we had to fix the engine. So we got to the finishing line just in time – 40 minutes before the end of the race.”

“We sometimes felt like we were the first white people some of the locals ever saw.”

What did it feel like when you rolled through the finishing line?

“It was amazing. At least we felt it was amazing. But many of the teams had arrived before us – I think were 50th out of 72 teams. And so by the time we got there the hype of the event was kind of over. So we were slapping ourselves on the back and saying Oh My God – we did it - and everyone else was acting like – yeah, so what else is new? So for us it was amazing, a feeling of great satisfaction, but the event was kind of all over and everyone was getting ready for the party.”

Was there any point during the journey when you felt – this is it, this is the end of the road?

“Actually, it was the very first day and night. One of the recommendations was do not drive after dark, for one thing because it is dangerous and for another –which we only found out about later – the rickshaw is not equipped with lights, at least not strong enough to let you see where you are going in the jungle at night. And on the very first day we drove to a city which looked big on the map but when we got there it was only a small village with no accommodation so we had to press on and dark fell really quickly so what happened was we were in the middle of the jungle after dark and our engine broke down. Luckily enough we managed to catch up with a convoy of three British teams ahead of us, we caught up with them and continued in a convoy and around midnight we arrived in a city and managed to find a hotel. But for a moment it was really, really scary. An Indian passing by in a car, when we were fixing our engine said to us “What are you doing here? Get out to here –this is a really dangerous area” so it was really scary to hear that from a local.”

Photo: archive of Jakub JančaPhoto: archive of Jakub Janča What made the biggest impression on you?

“How beautiful India is. When you look at pictures of India you either see the Taj Mahal or people or poverty, but you rarely see the really beautiful nature reservations and how incredibly beautiful that country is. We managed to get to Darjeeling at the foothills of the Himalayas which is really famous for its tea and even though it was a diversion from our route we really wanted to go there, try the tea and see the plantations. And it was really beautiful. It was completely different from the rest of India, the people are a little different, they speak differently there as well I think, it was cold ( 1500 metres above sea level – getting there in a rickshaw was in itself an amazing experience) and the entire city of Darjeeling, the plantations and the tea culture –that was truly amazing.”

You seem fairly resilient in the face of hardship – was there anything that left its mark on you in the course of that sixteen day journey?

“I think that would be the attitude to life of the local people. Everybody keeps asking us if we saw a lot of poverty and we say we saw a lot of poverty, but never misery. The people are poor, they hang out on their porch and they have nothing, but they keep smiling, they are happy, they have what they have and it is enough. And even though they have nothing, they were really kind to us, offering things and services and whenever we asked for something they would give it to us for free, this approach to people – with an open heart and a smile – that was kind of uplifting I guess.”

Photo: archive of Jakub JančaPhoto: archive of Jakub Janča This trip was also meant to raise money for charity –how successful were you in that?

“Yes, we were asked by the organizers to raise a minimum of a thousand pounds for the Rickshaw Run from which at least half must go to the Cool Earth Organization, guys who are really doing a very good job saving the rainforests and such. And since there was the possibility to give the other half to a charity organization of our choice we thought we would support a Czech organization and we found an organization active in the north of India called Brontosauři v Himalájích, an organization which is helping a little village called Mulbekh – running a school, building houses and so on –so we would like to help them with the other half of the money. But the fund-raiser is still underway. Our goal was to get together a thousand pounds and right now we have 700 or 800 –we are almost there but not quite. So the fund raiser is still open – it is on our website www.mantaci.cz. It’s not over yet – now we are working on our feature film and the fund raiser will be open until the end of the year.”

So you are making a film from the journey?

Photo: archive of Jakub JančaPhoto: archive of Jakub Janča “Yes, we are. From the road we were able to stream some videos on YouTube –which I am super grateful for because I would never have imagined it possible to do that from “nowhere” in India. So we uploaded several videos documenting our daily journey but we saved the best footage for the feature film so the videos are more of a trailer, an invitation to this feature film.”

This was your first big adventure. What comes next?

“Well, I travelled around New Zealand and now I saw India…I do have a “maybe” project and nothing is yet certain, but I might just say Africa.”