- A Journey through India
- With Motor-Rickshaws
- For Charity
3000+ km tour across India in the name of Childaid Network
It may sound like a crazy idea. 10 Catanimals traveling through the northern part of India on Motor-Rickshaws. But if the reason for such a journey is the support for a great humanitarian project like Childaid Network, that idea may sound a little less crazy.
Childaid Network is doing valuable work in the northeastern part of India, supporting projects for refugee children and street children as well as setting up schools for children in need. We from Catan, together with our partners at Kosmos and Mayfair, want to support this work with our journey. We hope that this will draw attention to the much needed help there, and will encourage you to help there in some way, too.
As part in the April Rickshaw Run rally, we had deployed 4 teams, which traveled from the west to the far off east of India, on Rickshaws alone and at the mercy of India's merciless traffic.
Pictures property of Childaid Network
Published with permission of Catan GmbH (Germany) and its exclusive game publishing licensees, Mayfair Games, Inc. and Kosmos Verlag. Copyright © 2015 by Catan GmbH. “Catan,” the “Catan Sun Logo,” the “Catan Sun,” the “Catan Rickshaw Run,” and all other titles and graphic marks, if not marked otherwise, are trademarks of Catan GmbH. All rights reserved. No reproductions or commercial use without permission of Catan GmbH.
Note that contributions to Childaid Network, Cool Earth, or any other charities that might be mentioned herein should be the voluntary decision of individual donors, and all donors should understand that these contributions may not be tax deductible in the country to which the donor pays taxes. Also note that Childaid Network, Cool Earth, or any other charities that might be mentioned herein are not affiliated with (or joint ventures with) each other, or with Catan GmbH, Mayfair Games, or Kosmos Verlag.
Still a large number of children world-wide are starving, have no roof over their heads, are being subjected to slave labor, fall victim to preventable diseases, and cannot go to school.
Childaid Network is committed to a better future for these underprivileged children in Southeast Asia, the poorest of the poor. In cooperation with local partners, the charity especially supports access to education for these children. We have chosen schooling for refugee children and support of street children as our sponsored projects.
They focus on the education of children, youth and young adults, who otherwise would not have access to schools. In approx. 225 community schools for example, about 8700 youths learn to read, write and calculate and also develop skills for a better survival in the villages.
Every Dollar makes a difference. Without deductions they invest all donations into the projects for the children.
Please look here for further information about their projects:
Pictures property of Childaid Network
The Rickshaw Run
Held three times a year, the Rickshaw Run is one of the last adventures you can find in the world. It has a starting point and a finishing line and how you do between is up to you. With nothing more than a motorized Rickshaw the teams try to drive more than 2.700 km through India.
Our tour went from Jaisalmer in the far west to Shillong in the far off east of India - in the end more than 3000 km in approx. 2 weeks.
Beside the Taj Mahal (which luckily was on our route ;-) ), one main goal was to visit the project sites of Childaid Network in the Guwahati region.
Throughout our whole trip we had kept a diary and had posted status updates, pictures and videos. In the tour diary section you can follow the stations of our journey.
Cool Earth is the official charity of the Rickshaw Run. Please find out more about their great projects.
The Rickshaw Run tiger logo is property of The Adventurists
Meet the Team
Having grown up with a board game inventor as a father, Benjamin has played board games ever since he was able to hold cards and roll the dice. After his studies in Psychology and Management, he gained valuable experience in business by working for a variety of companies. Benjamin entered the creative and inspiring field of gaming in 2010. Today, Benjamin is one of the Managing Directors at Catan GmbH, a family-run company based in Germany. He read about the Rickshaw Run in a magazine while on his way to visit Pete Fenlon in Virginia. They discussed the idea of joining the Rickshaw Run over a bottle of wine and to his surprise, Pete followed up a few weeks later, confirming that he wanted to join this crazy adventure. Supporting Childaid Network, a charity organization based in his hometown in Frankfurt, Germany, is especially exciting to Benjamin because the team will be able to visit all the supported project sites during their stay in India.
Being a game addict since his early years, it was no surprise that Arnd entered the games industry after he had graduated. After developing online and strategy games at a small games company in Germany, he was hired as a producer at Catan GmbH, where he is working now for more than 12 years. Arnd's main focus is on all things digital in connection with Catan, and he likes the opportunities which a small but still international working company like Catan GmbH is offering, especially, of course, when it comes to testing the newest boardgame prototypes of Klaus and Benjamin. Living in Hamburg, Germany, he is more an urban adventurist than an outdoor expert (except local trekking tours) but with this great team he is confident that they will overcome any obstacle on their tour.
Pete has been designing, developing, and publishing games professionally since 1980. He is now CEO of Mayfair Games, which is located in Skokie, Illinois USA. Pete is married to fellow Rickshaw Run teammate Olivia Johnston. They reside by the Blue Ridge Mountains in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia (home of the Mayfair Studio). Pete has lived on three continents and is an avid and curious traveller. It’s only natural that he’s been helping the team build the adventurous Catan brand since the mid-90s. A wilderness and environment steward, his mission is to raise awareness and money for two causes: Cool Earth’s rainforest protection initiative and Childaid Network’s mission to build schools and educate youth in needy villages throughout south and southeast asia.
Olivia is the founding member of the Fiddlers of Catan. She is a long-time violist who plays in the University of Virginia Klezmer Ensemble, but she has also thrown herself headlong into old-time fiddling, on both viola and violin. She recently won her first fiddling competition ribbon, much to her surprise. Right after studying anthropology at the University of Virginia, Olivia fell in with a band of rogue fantasy roleplayers. Her life veered onto a completely unexpected path, one that had nothing to do with music, but everything to do with games. After marrying the gamemaster, Pete Fenlon, and helping start up a game company, she led a life full of excitement, adventure, and games. As an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist of imaginary lands, Olivia decided to study the traditional folk music of the island of Catan, having played The Settlers of Catan extensively. She thus created the Fiddlers of Catan, a group dedicated to introducing Catanian music to the greater world. The Fiddlers of Catan have performed at coffeehouses, bars, and music festivals around the East Coast of the US. Olivia is currently home schooling herself in her graduate music degree. She will award herself an advanced degree when she feels she has learned enough music, which may be never.
Ron has worked in the game industry for 30 years in every capacity you can imagine. Currently he is part of the game development & graphic design studio for Mayfair Games as well as the Catan product manager for the same. Previously, he ran his own small game publishing company. Before that, he worked for, and helped build, a few others. He is married to our fellow teammate Cathy Doherty and a proud father of 2. They live in the lovely town of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania near historic Philadelphia. He has moved and traveled for most of his life. He has been playing games and seeking adventures for as long as he can remember. He loves to meet new people and listen to the tales of their lives. This is the best way he knows to learn new ways to approach the world. Ron loves playing games with real people, riding motorcycles, cool music and finding unorthodox solutions to challenging problems. He is deeply touched to be able to participate in such a worthy cause all while experiencing a new eye-opening adventure.
The game industry has been part of Cathy's life since 1984, when she met fellow Rickshaw Run teammate and husband of 27 years, Ron Magin. She joined Chessex in 1994 as its corporate counsel, and enjoyed working in the game industry at home and abroad. This trip is near and dear to Cathy's heart, not only because she apparently has that mysterious gene that finds fun in things other people find terrifying (ask her about the time she jumped out of an airplane and her feet got tangled in the cords, or her constant quest for the tallest & fastest roller coasters), but because international development and charitable work have always been important to her. A longtime supporter of children's charities and environmental causes, Cathy is now working as the head of HR for Philabundance, the Philadelphia area's largest hunger relief organization. She is honored to support the great work that Childaid Network and Cool Earth do.
Christian is working for KOSMOS and is responsible for the online marketing and the online shop of KOSMOS. Together with Katja he forms the team of KOSMOS, the publisher of Catan in Germany. Christian, who already lived in Indonesia for a half year and was backpacking through Tanzania connects with the Rickshaw Run two of his desires: traveling and supporting children. For 11 years now Christian is organizing a youth camp in Germany every summer for approximately 200 children as a volunteer.
Charlotte is a marketing manager for Pernod Ricard in the UK working in Travel Retail which allows her to travel a lot and work with people from all over Europe. She is lucky enough to combine 2 of her passions: great travels and beautiful spirits. She sees herself more as a “work to live” person as opposed to “live to work”, and believes that “anyone thinking that childhood was the best years of their lives, is doing it completely wrong.” She has a bit of an adrenaline addiction, it goes from the type of holidays she goes for to taking life changing decision like landing in London with a one way ticket and a suitcase. She also has a “there are no problems, only solutions” mentality which is probably a good thing when you enter this type of adventure! Charlotte is an honorary member of the Catan team; although not being officially part of the company she has been friends with Benjamin for years. When Benjamin told her about the race she immediately asked to join and help and as he knows her great passion and sensitivity for photography he asked her to create the memory of this adventure.
Mario is living and working as a psychologist in Cologne, Germany. During his studies in Psychology, he met Benjamin and they both shared a flat for 2 years. After having travelled to different places in the world together, Benjamin was kind of forced to ask him to join this adventure as well.
So this race found him, he was not looking for it. His experience tells him though that so far this is the way for the best things to happen in life. Concerning travels, Mario’s mindset can be located somewhere between brave and naïve, and with his back against the wall, as optimistic as possible. The believe that nothing will go wrong and being optimistic supported his decision to take part in this adventure.
Our team is finally together in amazing Jaisalmer, the "Golden City." Benny, Arnd, Katja, Christian, Mario, and Charley weathered a 5-hour desert cab ride through a dust storm last night. Meanwhile, Pete got his first driving lesson from a local rickshaw cabby. (When he said "down," he didn't mean downshift!) Then, Ron, Cathy, Olivia, and Pete checked out our 4 rickshaws and then headed off to see the royal tombs in the golden hills west of town. Once the European arrived, our exhausted team then toasted each other before crashing. This bright desert morning we explored the great fort for which this World Heritage Site is best known. At afternoon we geared up with extras for the rickshaws, got to know our 2-stroke engines, and started driving around the old palace compound that serves as HQ.
The next day our team was training together in amazing Jaisalmer. Our team (Olivia, Ron, Cathy, Benny, Arnd, Katja, Christian, Mario, Charly, and Pete) got its first taste of rickshaw driving yesterday. (As noted, while Pete helped a cabby drive 2 days ago, having a brakeman who never got him in sync doesn't count.) Anyway, Ron, Cathy, Olivia, and Pete got a head start yesterday, for the Europeans needed to recover from their long, near-death Cab Ride. We explored the great fort and old city. Then we headed off to the Jawahar Niwas Palace, the Rickshaw Run HQ. We fueled our rickshaws, started them up, and began training in earnest by driving around the palace compound. All of us negotiated the vicious sand trap and survived unscathed. We actually passed the test and got our licenses! Then we headed off into the Thar Desert and visited the 4-500 year old "Ghost Village." Afterwards, we rode camels, enjoyed a beer at sunset, and watched Olivia dance in the sand with a gypsy girl. (Her dad played the harp, etc.) David Lynch couldn't have scripted a better moment.
On the last day before the launch, our team "finished" training together in amazing Jaisalmer. We began road testing on local streets. After securing four quarts of 2T oil for the odd price of 425 rupees, we realized that we still needed to work on our bargaining skills. We also needed to work on team coordination, for we got separated on the highway home. Arnd and Pete ended up driving off on a quarry road full of rocks and plenty of big trucks. It was a tough place to turn around. Still, we made it back. Cathy and Christian drove into town shopping near Hanuman Square, testing parking skills. The kids, everyone, loved the Catan dice hanging from our rickshaw roofs.
Day 1 - Jaisalmer to Phalodi
We all wore our red Catan Rickshaw Run t-shirts on R-Day. The team was confident. After all, as the Rajasthani locals say, all you really need are "good brakes, a good horn, and good luck." (We seemed to have none of these things.)
Rather than starting at 0800, about 70 rickshaw crews gathered at 1000 for an 1100 send-off. After a series of group photos beside the starting platform, we lined our 4 rickshaws up and got in line together. The red-flagged rickshaw of Benny, Charly, and Mario led, for Benny represented his father Klaus. One by one we ascended the ramp, paused on the platform, and confidently drove off to start the race.
Actually, that's not quite true. Instead, we ended up scattered all over the grounds as the Adventurists tried to take our team picture. Then we left in first day order: orange-flagged rickshaw with Cathy and Ron, blue-flagged rickshaw of Arnd, Katja, and Christian, the red-flagged Catan GmbH rickshaw, and the white-flagged rickshaw of Olivia and Pete. (The flags, designed by Ron, represent the 4 player colors in Catan. A rising yellow sun dominates the field, but Ron switched the traditional settlement silhouette with a black silhouette of the Taj Mahal.) Off we went into the town of Jaisalmer, heading east, but clueless as to how to find the road to Jodhpur. Quickly separated, we lost Ron and Christian. Benny and I tried the wrong route east, but rallied and practiced our first u-turn in the face of incoming truck traffic. Christian lost Ron, but somehow found Benny and Pete at the first petrol station on the way out of town. In time, Ron found us, noting that we forgot to specify where "on the way out of town" began. We fueled our 8 hp beasts (using 1 part 2T oil to 30 parts petrol) and headed off toward Jodhpur, the "Blue City."
Of course, we drove across the khaki landscape of the Thar desert. The pure arid landscape seemed endless and forbidding, especially when you're driving at 40-50 kph. Camels seemed commonplace. Not much else moved.
Only a hour passed before it starting getting dark. Since it was around 1330 (1:30 pm), we looked back towards the West. A fast-moving storm approached. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that it was a sandstorm. We found a remote gas station and pulled in. There, some farmers and a rickshaw full of 3 Aussies were seeking shelter. We did the same. Pete tarped our tuktuk as the rest of the team parked behind the two concrete buildings. Pete finished the last, hasty knot and rolled into shelter as the wall of sand poured across the station. You couldn't see and everything was covered right away. The wind howled and carried one of our precious seat-covers away. Nature quickly gave us a hint of the dangers ahead. Then the rain came. In an hour or so, we dusted off, dried out and began our trek anew. (But not before Pete backed into a tractor, damaging mostly his ego.) It was late. We knew Jodhpur was out of reach. Plan B (or C) was in order. By the time we reached Pokhran, we knew that we had to find lodging or quickly dash toward Phalodi. We chose the latter, hoping to reach a hotel by dark. After all, the Adventurists say: "don't drive in cities and don't drive at night." (They also note that there is a 100% chance that you'll do both of these things.)
Our Plan B was, of course, absurdly hopeful. The only hotel we found along the road had 1 room! (Not 1 vacancy, 1 room... albeit it "free with the price of food.") Darkness fell as we drove into Phalodi and looked for a retreat Christian found online. We violated both rules on day one. But we made it. And, while there was no wifi or hot water, we rejoiced. As we dined outside and shared Indian beers, we began to think that we just might know how to drive these crazy 2-stroke contraptions. We didn't fret too much about the fact that we covered but 160 km, around half the distance in our original plan. Our plan had finally met India. We needed a new plan.
Day 2 - Phalodi to Jaipur
We all wore our sky blue Catan Rickshaw Run t-shirts on R-Day +1 (Rickshaw Day 2). We woke early in Phalodi, hoping to make a 400 km journey to Jaipur. This would get us back on schedule. At a pace of 30+ kph, it would mean 13+ hours on the road. You can travel at 50-55 kph on a good road, but you have to rest your rickshaw every hour or so... especially in the That Desert.
We set off at 0830 in second day order: the blue-flagged rickshaw of Arnd, Katja, and Christian, the red-flagged Catan GmbH rickshaw, the white-flagged rickshaw of Olivia and Pete, and the orange-flagged rickshaw with Cathy and Ron.
We struck off on a good secondary road for Nagaur, a major outpost in the Thar Desert dominated by a huge fortress. The cool morning found us well. Peacocks scurried nearby as the desert became more forgiving. Farms seemed more viable.
The midday found us in Nagaur city, a warren of alleys, gates, and open plazas, all filled with pedestrians, bicyclists, rickshaws, cars, trucks, buses, and most of all motorbikes. It was our first taste of driving through the center of an Indian city. It was one wild, horn-blowing, stop and dash, ride. Arnd got trapped in a gateway and had to reverse through a sea of vehicles. We darted through another gate, down a long, narrow alley, and somehow found the other side.
Abandoning any lunch plan, we pushed on. We encountered a few teams of fellow rickshawers as we headed eastward. Katja gave a Catan Traveler compact edition to another German team with big Catan fans. After we parted ways, our team found the main road to Jaipur.
The big road got busy as buses and trucks mixed with camel carts, countless motorcycles, and sacred cows. Rows of speed bumps greeted us at every crowded village. They also bid us farewell. Burning trash, smithies, and tandoors scented the air. We stopped for samosas and drinks as we entered the hilly country near Jaipur. The land, while still gold with sand and yellow limestone, was punctuated with pink and red limestone quarries. Most were carved from stepped hillsides, as if they had been cut down for centuries. Stone carvers dotted the roadsides.
The traffic increased and the road got worse as we approached Jaipur, the "Pink City," capital of Rajasthan. We made good time, but darkness caught us still 50 km from our hotel. Now the real driving began.
Jaipur driving is a step up from Nagaur's, for it is a much bigger city. Darkness made city driving simply surreal. Again, we faced countless pedestrians, bicyclists, rickshaws, cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes. All but the best vehicles lacked good lights. Those with lights used high beams. Those taking a short journey thought nothing of driving right at everyone in the wrong lane. No one worried about the other guy. They only sought their way. Any concern for safety was cause for a breakdown.
Still, all went well until we got separated at a major traffic circle and realized our walkie-talkies were dead. Christian and Cathy were nowhere to be seen as Benny and Pete drove along an 8-lane avenue. Pete got Cathy on the phone. We found that rail line separated us from the lanes we needed to get to in order to turn around. Some aggressive honking and hard driving got us across the waves of traffic. Pete led as we pulled off a major U-turn. In time, we found our team and proceeded to our hotel. We were getting better at understanding the rough streets of India. Our crew had driven the 400 km and the team was safe and together. Time for another victory toast. Oogy wawa!
Day 3 - Jaipur to Agra
Dawn in Jaipur. Charly and Pete woke early in Jaipur. They donned orange team t-shirts and headed down to the old "Pink City." There, all along the colonnaded streets, they watched the vendors and shops open. Making their way to the palace quarter, they could see the great fort looming over the city. They arrived at the Jantar Mantar, the great 18th century observatory, as the gates opened. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it was a marvel to behold. The collection of giant instruments created a huge culture garden.
Afterwards they returned to join the team. Today the crew wore orange t-shirts. Our third day driving order followed the rotation: the red-flagged Catan GmbH rickshaw, the white-flagged rickshaw of Olivia and Pete, the orange-flagged rickshaw with Cathy and Ron, and the blue-flagged rickshaw of Arnd, Katja, and Christian.
Jaipur to Agra is about 239 km. At about 8 hours, we hoped to reach our hotel by nightfall (1900 hrs or 7 pm). Hope and reality don't always align.
We began by getting a bit lost in old Jaipur before emerging on the highway. Just as approached a big tunnel through the mountain, we hit big speed bumps. Surprise! It would not be our last such "speed bump moment."
Except in the villages, the road was good. It appears that, the closer to city/town center, the worse the road. And rickshaws and potholes don't mix well.
Heading out of hilly Jaipur, the desert of Rajasthan gives way to savanna and farms. Brick making is a big industry and tall, square chimneys dot the landscape. Stacks of bricks surround the kilns and line the side of the highway. Monkeys replace peacocks as favored fauna. As you leave vast Rajasthan (pop. around 70,000,000) and enter Uttar Pradesh (pop. around 200,000,000!) open land becomes scarce.
Unfortunately, so too does 2T oil. The Adventurists failed to note that our 2-stroke auto-rickshaws are out of fashion, and 4-stroke engines don't use 2T.
Despite occasional disruptions (e.g., finding they had fed 2 lanes of traffic on a divided highway into our right lane without notice), our trip went well through the afternoon and dusk. Then we actually reached Agra. There, all hell broke loose as the motorway became a 2-lane pothole field. As in Jaipur and Nagaur, countless pedestrians, bicyclists, rickshaws, cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes appeared, headed in all directions. Horns sounded everywhere. We certainly used ours.
Mario led the wild 90-minute ride through the dark, chaotic city, from highway to alley, to street, to place, to alley, to traffic circle, and onward. The highlight was the team extricating itself from a stop at the train tracks, finding its way through a veritable sea of people, animals, and vehicles. Again, we made it somehow unscathed as a 4-rickshaw team. Our now-traditional "we survived" toast rang sweet.
Day 4 - Agra Regroup
On that day we regrouped and reflected in magical Agra. Team Catan now has formed, stormed, mostly normed, and started performing. We've learned a lot about this great subcontinent, most of all that Indians are curious about us and our mission, welcoming, and very, very friendly. They were wonderful hosts. Smiling crowds gathered around us at every stop, especially in small villages. It was joyful. And there were cows.
India is also pretty crowded. It's big, but 1.3 billion people make it exceptionally intimate. Personal space has a different meaning here. Roads are gathering places and workplaces. They carry all forms of traffic, man, beast, whatever. Pete mentioned that he lived a good life of travel and driven a lot, but it seems that half the traffic he had ever encountered has passed him in the last week. And there are cows.
Team Catan has learned that buses are our enemy. Trucks are too slow or too fast... or stopped at random. When you have an opening, grab it; but beware of a large vehicle traveling at you the wrong way. Speed bumps, not laws, signs, or cops, regulate speed. They often appear at random and out of nowhere. And there are cows.
Our crew woke that day still exhausted. That's because we rose at 0430 to make the 2 km walk to visit the storied Taj Mahal (which you could see from our hotel). Wearing our purple shirts, we arrived as dawn sparked and got in among the first visitors. Once in, the experience was simply breathtaking. It's too hard to describe. We left a bit awestruck. The walk back to the hotel found us a bit speechless. And there were cows.
Once we returned to our hotel base, we ate a light breakfast and broke into three groups. Cathy and Christian drove into town to find a rickshaw repair place. One of our rickshaws was about to blow a gearbox. The others were wounded by days of rough travel, especially through cities. They discovered Ali, master rickshaw mechanic with many stories. He fixed the blue-flag unit and brought his crew back to our hotel, where they rehabbed red, white, and orange. They even enabled our key ignition system. (No more awkward lever pulling when stalled in the middle of a busy plaza!)
A second group explored town and acquired important stuff.
The third group blogged, tweeted, and worked on our new "Catan Rickshaw Run" scenario, which would unfold in the coming days on the Catan Facebook page. It was a good time to engage with Mayfair Games, Kosmos, and Catan GmbH.
After all this, we found ourselves in Indiana! Actually, we ate at a restaurant of that name. It was a welcome feast. As we returned to crash, knowing that we had a 0700 start, we savored the sights and scenes of Agra. Monkeys scurried across the ledges and roofs nearby. And yes, there were cows.
Day 5 - Agra to Fadhepur
Wearing our navy blue shirts and led by Olivia and Pete, we set off early from Agra. Ali led us from the hotel to the NH-2. We drove east toward Kanpur. It was a very bright day and the families were everywhere out in the countryside: cutting clay and shaping bricks, harvesting crops, every sort of local industry.
At one of our gas stops we encountered another rickshaw, "The Rick Unshaws" manned by a family from the west of England. Scarlett, David, and Mandy had sat with us at the departure party. They asked to tag along and we happily added them to our merry band.
As our now 5-rickshaw parade approached Kanpur we realized that the highway was deteriorating. So, Team Catan set out for Fadhepur via backroads, bypassing Kanpur and getting closer to our Day 6 target (Varanasi). Unfortunately, our exit was blocked and we ended up on painfully narrow, bumpy lanes as we cut south to the NH-19. On the upside, we stopped in a couple of great villages for food and drink. There, we became celebrities of sort. Police had to control one gathering crowd.
Once we hit the NH-19 we made good time. Finally, it looked like Team Catan could end a driving day in daylight. We reached Fadhepur well before dark. Then, inspired by slow navigation updating, we missed our turn into the center of town. Fortunately, we had another alternate turn up ahead only a couple of km. So, Olivia kindly noted that "it's not the end of the world!"
Actually it was. We soon ran into a mass of stopped trucks, three abreast, blocking both lanes. (In India, lanes, when they exist, are suggestions. Two lanes often means 3-4 lanes.) The rigs were so tightly bunched that motorcycles couldn't get by. As we looked for an opening, we sought daylight on the dusty trail beside the road, but that became blocked by two vehicles driving toward one another. Team Catan, and all of the northbound NH-19, was trapped! It took about an hour to reach our turn. Darkness had fallen as we negotiated the narrow lanes of Fadhepur and found our hotel. Once again, we drove through a city... at night.
As a final note, it turns out that the traffic jam that shut down the entire highway was caused by truckers parking their trucks on the road and going to dinner! It seems a popular diner's lot was full. Still, we found home for a night, in this case a small, lean hotel where we encountered some fellow rickshawers. We'd traveled 1120 km and we could still toast to being "still alive."
Day 6 - Fadhepur to Varanasi
Waking early, we recalled another observation about India: no two steps are alike. It appears that every step has its own unique height. Here, artisans make everything, even buildings. Each step seems handcrafted.
Once again wearing our red shirts and led by Cathy and Ron in the orange-flagged rickshaw, Team Catan set off early from Fadhepur. Sadly, we left our English companions behind.
Our 250 km journey east to Varanasi (the holiest city in Hinduism and Jainism) was on the best highway we had traveled to date. It seems that the NH-2 east of Kanpur is in pretty good shape. We made good time. So too did thousands of trucks.
One such truck surprised our red-flagged rickshaw as it was passing a fellow rig. As Charly pushed out around, another truck appeared in the fast lane... heading toward her! She sped up just enough to pass but had to swerve hard and put the rickshaw on two wheels in order to escape. Traveling "cleanup" at the rear, Pete slowed and tucked to safety, wondering how she made it. Given the fact that one of our crew was sick and we were using the red-flagged rickshaw as our "mobile recovery vehicle,” it was probably good that the only passenger was slumbering.
The team kept moving. We ate samosas on the road and made good time. The only thing that slowed us was sickness. One of our crew had eaten uncooked and pealed vegetables and paid a tough price.
This meant more frequent petrol stops. At one we encountered begging children. They should have been in school. Instead, they got pencils from our team. As the station master shooed them away, Olivia remarked that this was the very reason we were in India supporting the ChildAid Network.
Team Catan arrived in Varanasi in mod-afternoon. Excited to drive to a hotel in daylight, we soon found ourselves driving through alleys, over bumpy cobblestones, through life-threatening railway crossings and into a maze of dusty construction. The dust caused three of us to stall at one point and force two vehicles to roll start. One rickshaw rolled over Olivia’s foot, but she got away with a minor bruise. These fragile rigs are light. It brought home how vulnerable we are.
That point became even clearer when we arrived at a downtown hostel and encountered a host of fellow rickshawers. One Norwegian, driving “Fan Tucking Tastic,” had slammed into a slow-moving truck when he swerved to avoid being run over by a fast car. His rickshaw was destroyed and he went into the windshield. Fortunately, the collision kept him from flipping and he ultimately only broke a nose and got a bad concussion. Taken to the hospital, he is recovering. Someone said he plans to join us for the end party in Shillong. We hope is so well. Grabbing dinner from street vendors, we celebrated making it 1370 km, more than half way. We ended the night playing Catan Traveler on the hostel roof and drinking Kingfisher. As we toasted our safety, survival, and progress, we had much to be thankful for.
Day 7 - Varanasi to Patna
Morning call early for us at the Zostel, where Team Catan bunked in common rooms. We packed up our gear and met a Ganges River guide at 0530. He led us on a 2 km hike through the old streets of Varanasi and down to the terraced riverside. We descended a broad staircase to the waterfront. A large wooden rowboat awaited our group, which included folks from various rickshaw teams. After boarding, our Hindi-speaking guide rowed us out using long, light, bamboo oars. A very clever young boy sold us floating candles.
The Ganges seemed very sacred, for dozens of folk ritually bathed in its waters. One playful kid leaped off a dock and splashed our boat. Varanasi’s riverside teemed with life, and many of the adjoining temples rang out with ceremony. Team Catan had reached a great center of Indian spirituality and culture. We lit our candles and set them adrift in thanks. The boy jumped ship to a passing boat as we glided along. He brought to mind the countless children that should be in school acquiring knowledge, hope, and opportunity. Within these millions of kids are many future mentors and leaders. They embody much of India's future. They are also a big part of our future. That’s why our mission here is vital.
After our visit to the river, Team Catan reunited at the Zostel and reinstalled our rickshaw batteries and spare tires (parking on dark narrow streets is an invitation to the needy and, sadly, greedy). Wearing our pale blue, we hit the road eastwards toward Patna. Our orange-flagged rickshaw led. Fortunately, the team had a guide. Unfortunately, he made good on his offer to take us on a tour of the Old Muslim Quarter. After an hour of negotiating back alleys and cramped lanes, we hit the highway.
Our journey to Patna was special in a host of ways. First, we crossed the Ganges and made our way from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar. Second, we traveled through the heart of the lands where Buddhism arose. Third, we entered the green lands of eastern India. Fourth, we traveled for a long stretch with nice new friends, a trio from Winston-Salem, NC traveling in the Polka Dotted Zebra Express. And fifth, we encountered the worst roads and traffic of our journey so far.
Once Team Catan left the NH-2 in early afternoon we faced a very long slog along dusty, washed-out, pothole-strewn, road ruins. At times they we mere suggestions of roads. At other times we drove over pothole-laced ruts that could swallow a small cow. After night fell and the bright lights and horns screamed at us through dusty windscreens and our own crying gearboxes, it felt like we were driving through Mordor. Our weariness evolved into despair. Our little rickshaws feeling increasingly tired and rickety, we wondered if we could finish the leg. Ron noted: "on the bright side, at least it's started to rain."
Still, we persevered.
When we crossed the long, one-lane bridge into Patna (wondering how motorcycles and bikes could ride at us along the whole span), we felt exceptional relief. We got to our hotel at 2200 (10 pm). Too tired to celebrate, we crashed. Team Catan had traveled 1630 km. We faced a 0530 wake call.
Day 8 - Patna to Darbhanga
“Now that I’m a rickshaw driver, I don’t trust these guys.” —Benny Teuber
- Are there more trucks than cars in India?
- Why is it spelled "Truck Lay Bye?"
Our Patna hotel served as a comfortable, albeit brief, refuge. We had a good rest, but it was too short. All of us were still exhausted as we woke.
After a quick packing job, we were confident of a fast start. Then we encountered our first mechanical hiccup: Benny couldn’t start the red-flagged rickshaw. He had no pulse from the battery. Fortunately, we had bought two extra batteries in Jaisalmer from a local volunteer for the Adventurists. Unfortunately, both were motorcycle batteries. We elected to roll-start the rickshaw, and we got underway… sort of.
The drive out of Patna was complicated by the fact that the Gandhi Bridge across the Ganges was outside of town. The longest river bridge in India, it served as our only practical way north. It took us an hour to reach it, as our route took us down half the streets in the city. While it was interesting to see the great university and tour the town that served as capital for so many ancient Indian kingdoms, it may have been the toughest daylight city drive we’d done to date. There were less cows than in Varanasi, but there was much more waste and many more on-street hawkers. Pete's wheels got no traction in a rubbish pile. Ron narrowly avoided having a cow relieve herself in his rickshaw. Finally, we broke free and crossed the long bridge. It was our first sense of where we were headed, for soon we would be entering the great delta region of eastern India.
Our highway north to Darbhanga was pretty smooth by recent standards. Team Catan targeted Darbhanga because it was on a good junction with the East-West Corridor Highway (EWCH), India’s best east-west motorway. We would travel only 240 km and find lodging in daylight. This would allow us a good jump on Day 9, a long journey on the EWCH all the way to Siliguri.
The Bihari landscape was rich in small fields, most of which were designed to accommodate monsoon rains and adapted to either dry or wet crop farming. Villages were tidy and increasingly comprised of open wood structures with thatched roofs.
Roadside towns, on the other hand, were very dirty. There, the driving was tough. Pete even had to reach out and bang on a bus fender in order to keep the driver from running them over.
One of the oddest incidents on our road trip occurred en route north when we stopped for a toilet break. In thanks for the use of facilities, Pete sought o buy some 2T oil. Seeing that the cashier was preoccupied with the pump tender and needing an example item to show what Pete needed, he took a little jug of 2T from the display room next door and showed it to him. He took the jug from Pete, mumbled a bit, and then gave him 160 rupees! Stunned with the realization that he was trying to buy his own oil from Pete, he attempted to give him back his money, give him his money, and somehow communicate that he wanted 2T oil. Thinking that Pete was trying to haggle, he shooed him off. Pete went off to the toilet to rethink things. Returning with his money in hand, Pete tried to get things straight. The cashier reacted by grabbing the money and (Pete assumed) accusing him of some sort of fraud. Joined by the pump man, they asked him to leave. Pete was rebuffed. It was surreal. Oh, for a little Hindi.
Overall, though, Team Catan found Bihar state to be especially friendly. People went out of their way to help us, and they always refused compensation. After we reached Darbhanga, we spoke with a retired rickshaw driver who instead two of our rickshaws and led us to our hotel. Smiling and happy to practice his English, he expressed admiration for our cause and offered his service only as thanks.
Our hotel was under construction. Filled with piles of debris, lacking its elevator and most of its furniture, and devoid of soul, it has a rough refuge. No one knew what was going on or seemed aware of what to do. You could only find cold water and mosquitoes in the bathroom.
As we settled in, a news team showed up. India News wanted to interview all 10 of us. They asked good, probing questions about our mission, our team, our experiences, and our relations with various governments.
A local travel agent, who worked next door to our hotel, became our fixer in Darbhanga. He arranged a driver and insured that Mario and Charly got off to an early dinner. He did the same for Cathy, Olivia, Ron, Arnd, and Pete later that evening, and we ended up eating one of the best Indian meals we’d ever had. As Team Catan laid down to rest that night, we slept hard.
Day 9 - Darbhanga to Siliguri
On the back of Indian trucks you will often find the phrase: “Obey All Traffic Laws.” This equates to: “Trucks Make the Traffic Laws.” Trucks do as they please here, parking and starting anywhere and anytime, and you shouldn’t be surprise to see them driving right at you on a one-way section of road.
Buses are more dangerous than trucks, for they all travel at either 5 mph or 105 mph. There is no in between. They’re like hot dog truckers. Like trucks, they rarely have operable tail lights. It’s a good bet that they have only one headlight. The only thing in India more dangerous than buses are garden salads.
While our Darbhanga lodging was akin to a fetid sty, we enjoyed great hospitality from everyone outside the hotel. Team Catan woke relatively early and began packing and checking out at 0600. It often takes an hour to check out, however, for we cannot speak Hindi and very few receptionists understand why we need three bills marked Catan GmbH, Mayfair Games, Inc., and Kosmos GmbH. Given the strict German tax laws, Indian receipts can be problematic.
Just before we left we got a hold of a copy of India News containing the article about us. Again, we should have learned Hindi.
Our buddy the travel agent led us out of town in time to miss the 0800 closing of the highway exchange. It was holiday time. Team Catan was increasingly aware that a New Year was afoot. After refusing our offer of compensation and bidding us farewell, our agent sent us off on the East-West Corridor Highway (EWCH), again India’s best east-west motorway.
We planned to travel about 350 km to Siliguri. It was a good road and early start. The white-flagged rickshaw led. Team Catan wore purple.
As Team Catan drove eastward at a 53 kph clip, we saw an increasingly lush and beautiful Bihari landscape. The small fields, adapted to accommodate monsoon rains, supported both dry and wet crop farming. We saw large swathes of yellow sunflowers and more and more wet rice paddies. Fishermen had set nets in many of the ponds. Crops of every sort made Bihar feel like a garden.
Bihari villages are tidy and made of open wood structures with thatched roofs. They could have looked similar in the year 1000 or in 1000 BCE. Structures come in all shapes; but, with the exception of the stick-built temples, are small. Large gathering places look like circus frames. Everything is kept quite clean. Outside of the cities and towns, we saw little trash.
We made great time across eastern Bihar. The EWCH occasionally had patches of bumpy patches, but the ride was generally smooth. Every once in a while the road simply disappeared into a muddy, rutted construction zone, for many bridges remain unbuilt, but the way was the best we had so far encountered on our quest.
In time, we began seeing more forest and "tea gardens,” plantations with low tea bushes punctuated by shade trees. We were in West Bengal.
Perhaps this ease, couple with fatigue, made us too relaxed. Even adding 70 km to stay on the EWCH, we got all the way to the outskirts of Siliguri in daylight. Team Catan had traveled about 400 km and was feeling too good. We forgot that the long trek eastward meant that the sun set 45 minutes earlier. And we forgot that our auto-rickshaws have a 7.5 liter fuel tank. Thankfully, our last two rickshaws, orange and blue, carried the better part of the petrol. As we drove into Siliguri, one ran out of fuel. They fell back and we failed to recognize their plight over the walkie talkies. Team Catan got separated. While white and red waited in town, blue and orange fueled. Then orange had problems with the fuel line. The duct tape fuel cap was disintegrating. After a long separation, we rejoined. But we had much to learn. Those in need needed a “Mayday” signal. Those leading needed to be more vigilant and stop when unsure.
As Team Catan laid down to rest that night in Siliguri's very awful Hotel Silver Cloud Nine, we slept hard. We had covered 420 km that day.
Day 10 - Siliguri Back to Siliguri
We’d driven some 2190 km and reached West Bengal. That left us about 510 to go with 4 road days. It was day 2 of the 3-day Bengali/Assamese New Years called Biju.
Team Catan awoke in the spectacularly lame Hotel Silver Cloud Nine, where we had slept hard… with bed bugs and dysfunctional electricity and WiFi. The generally hostile manager sensed our displeasure and responded by billing us for every luxury we employed, like the air conditioners set to -40F (or C). Some of us breakfasted at the neighboring Hotel Sinclair, where we had eaten the night before. We were happy to hit the road.
Team Catan, however beset by its collegial culture, had gelled. We had a great crew. Now we had a great team. Recriminations about the road problems coming into Siliguri became quickly forgotten. We focussed on the mission. While everyone did everything from time-to-time, each member of the team performed duties as needed. By now we had also taken on roles within the team, so Pete tried on some nicknames:
Arnd — undoubtedly The Rock, for he was our steady, smiling bedrock. Offering counsel, not dissent, always working hard at the dirty chores like fueling, he was our rock.
Benny — surely The Instigator, for he was the guy that started this whole mission. He’s also ready to try most any challenge, including taking acrobatic selfies while hanging out the side of a moving rickshaw.
Cathy — The Jobber, for she was the one who managed our rickshaw repairs in Agra and is often working with local agents to find what we need (everything from restaurants to supplies).
Charley — The Spark. Charley is an explorer, and she’s always up early and ready for adventure. She’s also the most attuned to the Adventurists' network and our broader rickshawer community.
Christian — The Navigator. He’s been our principal Google Maps guy throughout the trip and has always steered us right. He makes a great lead on the road (not to mention being a great fueler).
Katja — The Eye. Katja’s camera and GoPro work will tell our official tale in pictures. Her blog forms the basis of our story “auf Deutsch.” She serves as our visual storyteller.
Mario — Puck. Mario is without doubt our joyous heart. His infectious smile, his edgy humor, his unabashed love for people—especially kids—is simply delightful and uplifting. He’s our mirth master, cheerleader, comic, and dude.
Olivia — The Viola Player. As a viola is to an orchestra, Olivia is to our team. She’s the bright, soulful glue that binds us all together. Her optimism and cheerfulness keep us cool.
Pete — Storyguy.
Ron — Aka “Maginver,” Ron is the Fixer. While Cathy is an equally awesome mechanic, Ron fixes or contrives things as needed. He and Cathy are our mechanics team, but Ron is the guy with the tools—whether it be duct tape or wrenches—getting things fixed.
After waiting at the local Bajaj dealer for replacement gas caps, we set off from Siliguri in our dark blue. Heading north, we encountered a host of military depots, most notably a Ghurka unit and a ranger unit called the Black Cat Locators. Beyond the militarized outskirts of town, we entered a nature preserve. Here we had a low, dense forest. It’s elephant residents stayed away from the road. Instead, monkeys greeted us.
We’d travelled less than 10 km when the red-flagged rickshaw quit shifting. Something was amiss, badly amiss. Once Ron and Cathy got into the little beast, we determined that either the clutch or gearbox was shot. Fortunately, we were stopped in the nature preserve and in shade. Unfortunately, it was a busy two-lane highway. We rolled the rickshaw across the road and began exploring tow-ropes. Meanwhile, Pete booked rooms in the Hotel Sinclair and called ahead to Martin Kasper and Father Johnson, the two hosts that awaited us ahead in the Assamese town of Kokrajar. There, we were to begin a journey to schools and facilities associated with the Childaid Network and the Don Bosco Institute.
We elected to seek a mechanic’s help before attempting a tow. Blue and white drove back to town for fuel, food, and a lead on a shop. Orange stayed behind with the wounded red. Cathy got in touch with mechanics, who said that they’d be about 90 minutes. Team Catan set out picnic blankets in the woods and prepared a game of Catan Traveler. We knew we were done driving that day. As the afternoon progressed, Martin told us that he would head west and meet us in Siliguri.
The two mechanics arrived and immediately showed us our destroyed clutch. We needed a new clutch. So, like any good rickshaw mechanic, their lead guy got behind our red rickshaw in the orange rickshaw, stuck a foot out, and pushed our wounded beast all the back to the Hotel Sinclair. There, they worked into the evening with replacement parts and built us a new clutch.
We checked into the very nice Hotel Sinclair. Soon thereafter, Martin and Johnson arrived with their driver. They’d been on the road 5 hours from Guwahati. We enjoyed a joyous feast together and replaced our Assam schedule. Tomorrow would be another quest, and we retired early with a 5 am departure plan.
Day 11 - Siliguri to Kokrajhar
Team Catan awoke early on the final day of the 3-day Bengali/Assamese New Years called Bihu. It was to be an auspicious journey to Kokrajhar in Assam.
Red, with its new rebuilt clutch, led as we departed in our red t-shirts. Martin Kasper of Childaid Network and Father Johnson of the Don Bosco Institute bid us farewell and set off ahead in a Bolero (Tata’s SUV). They would photograph us on the road and lay a welcome mat after we reached Assam.
We got on the road around 0530 and had the luxury of light traffic as we headed northward in the direction of Sikkim. Our rickshaws sounded happy in the cool morning. We soon found ourselves back at the nature preserve we knew so well from the prior day’s breakdown. It was good to push past the point where red’s clutch blew out. After climbing some foothills and winding through forests and tea gardens, we reached a big fork. The left way took you to Darjeeling and Sikkim. We went right across a bridge that spanned a mountain gorge. Tigers guarded the bridge, which led the way east to Assam.
Monkeys scurried about as we reached the far side.
The northeastern-most part of West Bengal is punctuated by tea plantations, tiger reserves, elephant reserves, and rhino habitats. Villages are tidy and even sturdy, as if the Raj had constructed them for cool Summer retreats. There are some signs of colonialism and tourism, but it’s still pretty remote. Here, we were very close to both Bhutan to the north and Bangladesh to the south.
We made great time. This was good, for we had miscalculated our distances a bit. In fact, we would drive 300+ km to Kokrajhar and our final destination of Shillong would be 3000 km the the start, not 2700. Still, we had an early start; and before we hit the border with Assam, the road would widen to 4 lanes. Despite construction diversions, we were cruising. As we drove through the last checkpoint in West Bengal, through the parked trucks at the massive “lay bye,” one of our rickshaws had a nearly disastrous encounter with a truck. Our team was seasoned, though, and our driver avoided the crush. By now, we also realized that our little beasts had great roll cages and forgiving structures. Given our low speeds, experience, and hardy rickshaws, we felt far less vulnerable than when we started back in Jaisalmer. Team Catan entered Assam feeling very blessed.
Once in Assam, we saw the Himalayan foothills to the north and small hillocks punctuating a vast, rich, alluvial valley. This was the land of the wide, winding Brahmaputra, which flowed westward to our south and ultimately turned southward into Bangladesh (as the Jamuna). Stick-built villages suggested poverty, but everything was very tidy and clean. As afternoon ripened, we encountered a motorcade of motorcycles. These were riders that had once been students at Childaid Network schools. Bearing colored pennants and wearing matching visors, they escorted us south toward Kokrajhar.
We left the main highway and entered the heart of western Assam. Here, a host of tribes, many of they displaced refugees, struggled to find a home and support their families. Childaid Network supports the development of schools in these villages. They help cultivate and pay teachers, buy books, and help fill those schools with hope and opportunity.
Darkness falls early in Assam. As the afternoon waned, we found ourselves at a model Childaid Network school. A greeting banner hung over the gate. Having run a day late, we were only greeted by a couple of hundred kids, but it was an overwhelming outpouring of warmth and joy. Bands played, students gave performances of native Bihu dances, and we were greeted by charming speeches from both students and faculty. Pete rose to speak on our behalf, knowing that Benny and Pete would tag-team those duties in the coming days. Team Catan was blown away with love.
After a dinner prepared by local teachers, we retired in the school. Three of the team slept at an adjoining convent that had partnered with the Childaid Network. Martin, Johnson, and Pete talked into the night over Kingfishers. As we all passed to sleep, Team Catan had found a home away from home.
Day 12 - Kokrajhar to Guwahati
It was another light blue ("Seafarers") t-shirt day. As Team Catan rose early in Kokrajhar, Assam, we were missing four crew mates. Charly had woken well before dawn to strike off on her own quest to ride Asian elephants. Our team wanted to see her dreamed fulfilled, and Johnson’s driver made it happen. Charly was on her way eastward, where she would meet elephants and explore temples. Unlike Olivia, Cathy, Ron, and Pete, our six European teammates had been unable to tour the Jain temples of Jaisalmer.
Ron and Cathy would also set off on their own, this time in quest of Assamese tea. Meanwhile, the orange rickshaw had developed steering problems late the previous day, so we sent it ahead to Shillong on a truck. Cathy and Ron would reunite with it in time to finish our great rickshaw run, but this day they’d be buying tea for the team. Katja accompanied them on the morning leg.
After a wonderful sendoff from Father Damian and the Don Bosco High School kids, six of us took the blue, red, and white rickshaws over a rolling, scenic back road toward the Brahmaputra Bridge and Goalpata. A security escort led the way. Team Catan drove through small, bamboo-built villages and past brightly-painted plantation-style homes. Crossing rickety wood bridges, we encountered very little traffic but bicycles. It seems that bikes replace motorcycles as a principal mode of travel in India’s great Northeast. It’s in keeping with the cooler, cleaner, quieter, and richer vibe of Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley.
Soon after we hit the main road, we met up with Katja, Cathy, and Ron. Katja joined the blue rickshaw. Cathy and Ron continued tea quest. They would meet us at the next school gathering, which was in Goalpata. Team Catan then set off (sans security) across the very long Brahmaputra Bridge. We were told it was the first crossing downstream from the Guwahati Bridge, some 300 km upstream (to the east). A fierce wind buffeted the rickshaws as we road southward over the beautiful, bumpy span. As we approached Goalpata, we picked up a different security team and a welcome parade of pennant-bearing bicycles and motorcycles. Martin and Johnson had mustered another school celebration for Team Catan, this one consisting of hundreds of kids. Again, we were feted with music, dance, and charming words of welcome. By now, many speakers simply referred to us as the “Catans.”
Young girls placed traditional Assamese scarves around our necks and the festivities began with a marching band. Struck once again by the beauty, talent, love, and pageantry, our team savored a great end to a very special morning. Then we waved goodbye and drove east toward Boko, a large market town bearing the same name as the local majority tribe. An escort led us out of Goalpata.
After passing a number of villages, all built on elevated ground and connected to the main road by dirt causeways or delicate wooden bridges, we came upon another assembly of smiling 2-wheeled escorts. They led us into Boko.
Cathy and Ron briefly reunited with us at the Boko school, but they had a faraway appointment. It was only later that they’d tell us that a group of our fellow rickshawers had preceded us and been mistaken for Team Catan. The 1600 school kids had started the marching band and begun their ceremonial hello before realizing that there were other rickshaws driving the Assamese roads that day. Confused, our fellow rickshawers had enjoyed the escort and music and driven to the school. Their donned hats before discovering the nature of the peculiar welcome. (This event would later strike the Adventurists as the funnest moment of the Rickshaw Run.)
Festivities in Boko resembled those of Goalpata, but on a larger scale. We received more scarves. Music, dance performances, and speeches followed. Benny spoke on Team Catan’s behalf. Our crew then broke toward the rickshaws through a sea of handshakes, pictures, and smiles. Mario rode a bike to great delight. As with the dancing the prior night, he continued to be our best ambassador to the Assamese kids. We then bid an emotional farewell. Team Catan continued eastward on 37 toward Guwahati. Our route paralleled the course of the wide Brahmaputra. We drove upstream some 70 more kms before reaching the edge of Guwahati, Assam’s chief city.
Guwahati is strung along the south bank of the Brahmaputra for about 20 km. Here, hills come down close to the river and islands punctuate the winding waters. Team Catan passed the airport, then the Guwahati Bridge, then downtown. We took a break at the ferry crossing for pictures of a beautiful sunset. As darkness fell we entered the steep uphill drive into the multi-tiered Din Bosco Institute (DBI). There, Charly, Cathy, and Ron awaited us. So too did the orange rickshaw, which sat in the bed of a flatbed truck. It would leave for Shillong the next day.
Johnson was DBI’s current director. He had explained that we had become part of their 200th Anniversary celebration. Once we negotiated the many floors, halls, and balconies that form the DBI’s fanciful HQ, we set up in rooms and cleaned up for the night’s festivities. This was to be the biggest and most elaborate of our many welcome parties.
We met at the institute’s great amphitheater. A graceful and enthusiastic Pinky, a DBI alum, served as master of ceremonies. She kept the crowd of students, student teachers, and faculty focused and stirred. Numerous tribal-based song and dance acts followed. All reflected the diversity and beauty of NE India. Groups from all over Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Meghalaya performed. The kids simply blew us away. Speeches followed. Benny and Pete both offered thanks and spoke of the Team Catan mission before the grand finale.
Then we retired upstairs for a buffet dinner. There, all of the rest of Team Catan issued their own thankful and moving words. Again, Team Catan had found a distant but welcoming home.
Day 13 - Guwahati to Shillong
Rain fell as Team Catan awoke in their comfortable quarters at the DBI. Mario took a run in the downpour. Martin took Benny, Christian, and Charly to the train station to witness the plight of local homeless kids. Katja and Pete missed the early departure when we got lost in DBI’s maze-like stairwells and passages. We got a long-overdue chance to get to know one another. Since it would be Team Catan's last road day with rickshaws, it was a timely chat.
Once everyone got back, we ate, repacked, and donned orange t-shirts. Then came time for us to go down to our rickshaws. The rain abated in time for our departure. There, the students gathered for photos, autographs, more speeches and a big farewell. Benny placed a pair of fluffy Catan dice around Johnson’s shoulders. Pete did the same with Martin. As the red, white, and blue rickshaws set off with a motorcycle escort through the streets of Guwahati, the rain picked up again. Bihu over and a market day beginning, Guwahati was awash with traffic. Our trio of rickshaws followed the motorbikes toward center city, where we turned into a narrow gateway tunnel that led to the courtyard of Guwahati’s huge, multi-balcony Don Bosco High School. Some 2600 kids awaited us, yelling and waving from each of the school’s four levels. Team Catan drove in circles around the wide, paved courtyard to great applause.
After we ascended the stage and sat like visiting royalty, young girls approached us and, one-by-one, placed yet another traditional red and white Assamese scarf around each crew member's neck. Festivities ensued with band and song performances. Here, we heard our first choir. It was another show of beauty, talent, love, and pageantry. Once again overwhelmed with thanks and joy, we waved and bid goodbye. Team Catan exited via the tunnel, picked up some motorcycle guides, and drove southward through the city. Our escort waved and broke away at the city’s edge.
We now ascended into the hills south of Guwahati. The road wound up, down, and further up again as we left Assam and entered the highland state of Meghalaya. Here, the roughly 2000 meter ascent would test our rickshaws more than ever. The way up required good pacing and longer, more frequent engine rests.
Olivia and Pete had the easiest challenge, for the white rickshaw carried but two passengers. Our gearing was more forgiving and Pete could jump to fourth for much longer stretches. The grade affected each driver and rickshaw differently, making it hard to stay in order and keep regular spacing. We’d drive 50 km before we got the rhythm down.
In the meantime, we encountered 8-10 of our fellow rickshawers. Our only gas stop brought reunions and plenty of road tale exchanges. We could all feel that the finish line was but a few rests away. As we left the petrol station in a phalanx, a road party began. The weaving dance inspired photos, videos, and handshakes for most of the up and down drive toward Shillong.
In time, the road split and we found ourselves in the incredibly scenic highland lake country that gives Shillong its nickname as the “Scotland of the East.” We even stopped at a scenic overlook, where Team Catan’s women all chatted with a trio of young guys rooted in local lore and Hindu history. One was from Nagaland and confirmed the power and preeminence of that state’s legendary pepper.
Shillong covered the hilltops some 100 km south of Guwahati. It had been a favorite British colonial retreat. Now it was a boomtown. The mix of tourism and coal mining created an odd juxtaposition of haves and have-nots. Poverty stood out starkly in its crowded, winding streets and stifling back alleys.
We of course arrived on market day. Since the locals had skipped recent market days, the influx of people and vehicles was especially choking. Team Catan inched up the lanes, often in our rarely-used first gear. The plan was to find the Hotel Barbareek, rendezvous with Ron and Cathy, check in, drop gear, clean up, and then proceed to the finish line. Given the hotel’s tight and obscure alley location by a stinking, rotting, vegetable dump, we spent a lot of time parking and shuttling gear.
Ron and Cathy were nowhere to be seen, nor was the orange rickshaw. Part of the mystery was immediately solved when two guys from the local Don Bosco school arrived to collect the hauling fee for transporting the rickshaw up from Kokrahjar via Guwahati. We paid them and instructed them to haul the rickshaw down to the finish line at the polo stadium. They claimed that they could also transport Cathy and Ron, who were purportedly at the school. (In fact, our two compadres were asleep elsewhere in the hotel!)
The long, drizzly drive from the hotel to the finish line took us through one of the great traffic jams in world history. The congestion, coupled with the fact that no one could locate the hidden finish line, created a slapstick adventure. Other lost rickshaws joined us. It took us an hour to negotiate a couple of km and find our appointed goal in a parking lot adjoining the stadium. We drove up to the finish line with three rickshaws around 5:00 pm.
Rather than crossing the elevated line, though, we elected to park and await the arrival of Cathy, Ron, and their orange rickshaw. Team Catan began turning in their documents and filling out forms just to get a jump on closure. Before we were finished with bureaucratic niceties and darkness began to fall, the DBI truck bearing the orange rickshaw showed. Matt and the Adventurists crew assisted us in gathering about a dozen rickshawers and lifting our rickshaw right off the truck’s flat bed.
No sooner had we gotten the orange rickshaw down, then Cathy and Ron arrived. They told us that we had missed them at the hotel!
Given the fact that their rickshaw was wounded, we gave Cathy the honor of crossing the finish first. She and Ron drove over the dais in triumph. Olivia and Pete followed. Then came Katja, Arnd, and Christian. Charly, Mario, and Benny served cleanup. Team Catan was done! We had driven our four rickshaws over 3000 km in support of the Childaid Network and introduced our brand to India in a novel, positive way. It was time to celebrate!
As we piled onto the buses to head off to the Adventurists’ big Rickshaw Party, Mario and Benny got off to help Charly find her purse. The rest of us missed the memo. Later we would discover that Charly’s purse had been stolen. All of her credit cards, money, and camera stuff were gone. Priceless images had disappeared with the theft and Charly faced a rough police investigation, followed by a difficult 3-day exit out of India. Apparently, one of the roving sports fans existing the stadium had nicked her purse. She was rightfully crushed.
Nonetheless, Charly, Mario, and Benny joined us the party, where there was music, awards, dancing, food, and a bar. Sadly, our beer vouchers only entitled us to lukewarm Buds. Happily, the local rockabilly band really knew their licks. All of us very festive rickshawers had a blast. Matt hosted a hilarious awards ceremony highlighted by the funny tale of our fellow rickshawers blundering into our parade and ceremony in Boko. Cathy won a flagon award for surviving her driving accident and gave a great speech. Charly won a photo award. All of us laughed, drank, and (to varying degrees) danced. It was a fitting celebration.
Team Catan hugged and toasted our collective victory as early as the finish line. So, as the party wore on, we felt comfortable enough to leave in two groups. Charly, Ron, and Cathy stayed through last call. All of us ultimately returned to the Hotel Barbareek in the dark rain and had to make big noise in order for the hoteliers to come down and let us in. Besieged by a dirty, tough neighborhood and lacking any doorbell, the hotel challenged us with one last obstacle before we could all find our triumphant resting place. It was oddly fitting, for everything about the Rickshaw Run was infused with adventure.
Nothing came easy. But hard victory brought sweet joy.
Every Dollar makes a difference. Without deductions Childaid Network invest all donations into the projects for refugee children and the support of street children.
Based on the Rickshaw Run this special Catan scenario was created. Here you get more information on this topic.