Balakrishnan is the official mechanic of the Indian Autorickshaw Challenge, a contest intended to transform his country’s back-alley drag racing craze into an internationally recognized sport (or, more likely, spectacle). Auto-rickshaws – motorized, small-wheeled tricycles with room for a driver and two passengers – serve as taxis throughout India. With a high center of gravity and a tendency to roll, though, they aren’t known for safety, and police are cracking down on racers who risk their lives – and those of bystanders – by whizzing down gullies and drainage ditches in a quest for recognition and gold-necklace prizes.
While visiting southwest China in 2005 I saw auto rickshaws (san lan chi if I recall correctly is the Chinese term- ‘three wheel vehicle’) daily: everything from the speedy little ones that dodged around the buses and SUV’s and pony carts on the main avenue from the countryside into town, to the ‘extended cab’ rickshaws that would be packed to capacity with farm workers riding in from town or the fields. All bumped and rocked on the unpaved (I think it might have been paved at one time in the distant past) road with a surface that looked like it had been cluster bombed repeatedly. When it rained some of the craters would become ponds and the rickshaws had to drive around the edges.
I only rode in a rickshaw a few times; a taxi or bus was faster. But a few times the only option was rickshaw; if off in the countryside it was impossible to get a bus or taxi, leaving only rickshaws and trucks. Riding in a rickshaw is rather like riding an unbroken horse. They- at least the ones I rode in- have no shocks, apparently, so every bump was felt- and there were lots of them. With several Americans in one rickshaw made for several Chinese: let’s just say there was a weight difference that neither rickshaw nor driver was used to!