To call the experience I had driving an auto-rickshaw 2,000 miles across India the worst journey of my life would be unfair. True, we were stopped by bandits and spent a night in a police cell. True, we spent our days fighting dust and exhaust fumes in the choked arteries that make up India’s urban streets, only to spend our nights hurtling down poorly made roads amidst thundering monsoons. But these were exciting inconveniences I would gladly endure again, with a single exception: the journey into Allahabad.
On the road we had allied with two other rickshaw teams and so six of us set out in three rickshaws for Allahabad, aiming to enjoy a calm evening with some tea before pushing on to Agra and the Taj Mahal the following day. We halted just outside the city to confirm our route. My companions had been studying the map as we’d hurtled through Uttar Pradesh, swerving around lorries, cows, dogs, motorbikes and countless other obstacles, and now believed they had found a hotel. They jumped into the lead rickshaw with its American driver to illuminate our path.
I was left alone at the back of the convoy and the folly of this decision became swiftly manifest. No sooner had we coaxed our ’shaws into life and started forward, than my own faithful steed sputtered and died. I had run out of petrol. I leapt from my stricken vehicle to alert my companions, but their eyes were fixed on the traffic and they drove on unaware. By the time I had filled the tank, using our unwieldy system of jerry can, tube and funnel, they had disappeared into the throng of angrily tooting commuters.
I set off, frantically searching for the two brightly painted rickshaws, but in vain. The sun had set, a downpour had been unleashed and with it the traffic was at complete gridlock. As I fought my way back through phalanxes of cars and rickshaws, I asked each person I encountered if they had seen five tourists driving rickshaws, but it was hopeless. As sheets of rain lashed down, puddles became lakes, masking cavernous potholes and mountainous bumps. I bounced blindly along, banks of muddy water exploding either side of me.
Nearing a crossroads, the first breaths of concern began to give life to sparks of panic as the engine backfired before whimpering to a halt. As the traffic built up behind me, a man jumped off a bus and started frantically pointing at my rickshaw and making tipping motions with his hands. At first, I feared he was describing an accident I had caused, but then I inspected the back seat: my friend’s bag was gone, disappeared over the side somewhere in the dark swamp through which I had just battled. Trusting the fast-growing crowd to guard my broken ’shaw, I set off, stumbling through the sludge, eyes swivelling as I searched.
The traffic controller from the crossroads came after me in his rickshaw and offered a lift to where the bag was seen abandoning ship. But after searching feverishly in the darkness to no avail, we admitted defeat and began to trudge back. I was soaking wet, caked in mud and shaking in horror and remorse.
It was then that I heard a voice rising over the clamour of engines and horns. Turning toward the sound, I almost fainted with relief as I beheld a cyclist holding my friend’s sodden bag aloft. Showering the man with thanks for he would not accept payment, I reclaimed the bag and returned to my rickshaw, ecstasy coursing through my veins.
I found it mobbed by Allahabadians, all eager to learn my situation and offer their help. One even gave me his card so that on my return to England I could contact his son who was studying Medicine at UCL. Eventually, we managed to coax the engine unhealthily to life. As I was proffering my delirious thanks I heard my name jubilantly shouted from the hordes and felt arms wrapping themselves around my waist. My friends had found me!
We drove round until we found a hotel, with me huddled in the back of the ’shaw, adrenaline sluicing from me to be replaced with dumb weariness and shuddering anxiety. Worse yet was when my friend pulled her phone from the recovered bag. If only I had thought to look for that first, I could have promptly organised our reunion and spent that evening sipping tea, just as planned.