THE ABSURD ADVENTURES OF THE BOONDOGGLERS

Well, its over boys and girls. After 4,200 grueling kilometres, each one of them with their own challenges and vicissitudes, we can gladly say that we’ve done it. We’ve actually done it.

While none of the Boondogglers have come to terms yet with the magnitude of what we’ve accomplished, it is safe to say that we will all look back on this incredible Indian adventure as one of the more glorious, in a really immature and ‘jackass’ sense, episodes in each of our lives.

But what was the Rickshaw Run, really? Was it an insanely jam-packed mega-action epic akin to a Matthews Reily novel, was it a rather boring drive through dull and uninteresting landscapes, was it perhaps all a big, elaborate hoax insidiously designed to solicit donations from you folks…

So, for the sake of making everyone jealous and as a source of inspiration for posterity, provided below is a day-by-day account of the true adventures of the boondogglers; namely Benji Holzman, Robbie Whelan, and Rogier Jacobse:

Part 1 – The Birthpangs: Boondoggle Beginnings

The story of the boondogglers begins on an uneventful warm evening walking back from a bar in Bombay, back in late November. Benji is anxious after just learning that everyone who he knows in Bombay already has New Year’s plans, invariably involving Goa beaches, and none of which include him. Compounding the frightening scenario is the prospect of train and bus tickets, as well as tickets to all the hottest parties in the country, selling out in a matter of days. Just before the panic fully takes hold of his imagination like an impervious thick oil suffocating a wellspring, Robbie, in his defining nonchalant tone, off-handedly mentions this thing called the Rickshaw Run.

Benji, lost in his own thoughts since leaving the bar and barely cognizant of the presence of Robbie by his side, almost misses the cordial suggestion; however, something in his brain seems to click on and become intrigued. The best he could muster in his perturbed state is a feeble “huh”? From this prompting Robbie begins to explain how he has “this friend, right, who wanted to do the Mongol Rally, but couldn’t, but in the process heard about the Rickshaw Run” and told Robbie that he must do it.

Anyway, from that fateful moment forth, the roller coaster that would become the Rickshaw Run was in motion, and the planning got underway instantly, on the walk home from the bar on that warm Bombay night in November.

The pair quickly realised they needed a third wheel for their rickshaw (..ha..ha) and only one name, and indeed one nationality, came to mind.

Hailing from the swinging, libertine confines of Utrecht, Holland, Rogier Jacobse was born not only to drive, but also to gross out and impress Benji and Robbie with his lewdness and total lack of appropriateness. A fellow NGO volunteer, Rogier made up in crass what Benji and Robbie had in class. And so the Boondogglers were born, and would very quickly be the most international, admired, and loved team on the Rickshaw Run.

With sanguine, and somewhat foolish, optimism, the Boondogglers began their haphazard preparations. This involved setting up our delightful little blog/website, accosting the offices of major Indian companies and petitioning them for sponsorship, begging our employers to give us the time off, our awesome ‘photo shoot’ near in front of rickshaws at Bandra station, and begging local rickshaw wallahs to let us take over the wheel so we could get used to our new steed. We finally managed to convince one guy down on Carter Road, a nice piece of turf that runs alongside the Arabian Sea in Bandra. We each took turns up in front of the rickshaw with our hired mentor, until he would sporadically pull over and demand we get in the back seat. We quickly realised that the road was full of cops that we were skillfully dodging.

It all seemed to be going dandy until we hit a number of unexpected hurdles – something that proved to be a very common occurrence for the rest of the journey – but in true boondoggle style we somehow managed to bluff our way through it! The first blow was Robbie finding out that he could only meet us halfway, on December 3rd; the second was when we realised that we didn’t have proper driving licenses, the third when the registration for the Rickshaw Run closed unexpectedly prematurely (we had to petition the organisers with desperate heartfelt pleas to still include us), the fourth when two of our only interested sponsors fell through (we were SO close to being sponsored by Kathmandu and by Intrepid Travels, two big Australian adventure travel companies!). But let’s not dwell on the negative. What’s important here is that we found a way to make it work, and thanks to all of our wonderful supporters at home, just managed to front up the required cash prior to the race!

Thus the shaky beginnings of the Boondogglers were characterised by mercurial late-night meetings, invariably involving kulfi (Indian ice-cream), chai (Indian tea), profuse profanities (comrade Rogier), intermittent admonishment such as “you do realise this is totally insane” (comrade Benji), and spontaneous fits of panic or laughter (comrade Robbie). The climax was when we all took the plunge and decided to officially commit to the challenge, a scant 2 weeks before the starting date (we later found out that other teams had been preparing relentlessly for up to 9 months before the race!)

By the time December 22nd came around, this is where we were at: Robbie was off to meet his parents in Rajasthan who were endowed with his international driver’s license which they filed for in the US. Meanwhile, Benji’s international driver’s license was being sent express-post to Bombay (thanks Hayim) but arrived late, meaning it had to be further re-directed from Bombay to Kerala in an attempt to meet him at the starting line before the race. Add to this the fact that the guy needing to do the first leg of the Rickshaw Run, Benji (he would be the only Boondoggler present at the starting point with a valid driver’s license), had never driven a manual vehicle of any kind. Oh yeah, and we had only raised approximately half of the required funds! A dubious position?

On that fateful Friday, December 22, the Boondogglers had one final hoo-ha before going their separate ways. Robbie took a flight to Delhi to meet his fam, while Benji and Rogier took an overnight bus to Goa, with vague plans to meet 2 weeks later “somewhere in the middle” of India.

Part 2 – A Star Is Born (and her name was Sally)

This circuitous narrative will now follow the stories of Benji and Rogier in their bumpy (a total understatement if anyone has ever attempted to cross the Western Ghats!) rickshaw quest to Hyderabad, where they regained their missing third, Robbie. You can read all about Robbie’s time in Rajasthan on his blog.

We cut to our unassuming heroes at Bandra Reclamation Bus Terminus at the beckoning hour of 6:00pm, patiently awaiting their overnight ‘sleeper’ to Goa. The plan is to spend a lazy 4 days soaking up as much lush Goa paradise as possible before the mania of the Rickshaw Run. With guitar in hand, harmonica in pocket, and beard unkempt, Benji seems to be doing everything in his power to single-handedly bring back the glory days of the hippie sanctum that was Goa in the 60s. On the other hand, Rogier is the definition of ‘preppy’ with his Lacoste polo shirt and generally well-groomed appearance. They make an odd couple, but with a common love of Bob Dylan and Counting Crows feat. Blof’s rendition of ‘Holiday In Spain’ (you’ve GOT to hear this!), they manage to quite harmoniously strum all the way to sunny Goa.

Enter beaches, babes and banana lassis. Actually, hold up a jiffy; FIRST enter bloated bodies, beer and blaring Euro-pop – the wonders of Baga Beach over the Christmas/New Year’s crush. To get you up to speed, we spent our first day in Goa at a place called Baga beach – over-priced, over-populated and totally over-the-top. Rogier aptly likened it to a typical Spanish beach. After hearing stories of shanti markets and totally laid-back backpackers in other parts, we took the courageous decision to seek out that seemingly elusive ‘goa’ by renting a moped for the afternoon, beach-hopping north-bound. Four beaches later and we were sold, our home for the next few days was surely to be ‘Arambol’.

The next morning we drove back to what we thought was Arambol on our moped, loaded with ALL of our stuff. After a very precarious journey (I had so much weight on my back that if I were to lean to either side more than 10cm, we would surely tip) we rocked up at our beach of choice, only to learn that it was not in fact Arambol, but Mandrem, and that Arambol was a further 5 minutes up the road. After finally settling down at the real Arambol, the time had finally come for absolutely nothing to occur, and not much did.

Those hazy Goa days were marked by exquisitely late mornings, feasting on ‘Western’ and ‘Israeli’ style food, furious haggling for Indian clothes, and a total abstinence of adventure sports. It kinda looked like this most of the time:

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Amongst the highlights was undoubtedly the midnight mass at a church near Arambol. Not only was the service culturally interesting, being conducted in Portugese and comprised of clean-cut Indian men in suits, but it was also a lot of fun. It got a whole lot funner, however, after the actual service when the congregants gathered in the courtyard for coffee, biscuits, hilarious games, and a Christmas concert. The best part of this was definitely when all the foreigners were invited to play musical chairs in front of the Goan crowd. Benji came in a respectful second place but was somewhat relieved not to have won as it might’ve involved a Christmas speech to his assumed co-religionists.

After some great days in Goa, it was time to pack our bags once again and head south to Kochin, where we would meet and greet our rickshaw and fellow rally-heads. Luckily, by this time our generous friends and family had donated enough money so that we could actually enter the Rickshaw Run. The journey from Arambol to the train station was eventful enough, involving two tortuously slow local bus rides, and then a speeding cab to the train station, apparently an hour away yet we somehow managed to make it in 40 minutes! We had so misjudged the time that if we could not afford to slow down, yet alone stop for anything. So, when Rogier started to feel sick in the cab and needed to barf, he did so out of the open window and onto the road and traffic behind us! (in reality it mainly landed on the side of the taxi but we didn’t exactly advertise that at the time). It was all worth it in the end as we made our train in seconds flat.

The next morning we were in Kochin, Kerala, and pumped as hell! Rogier and his stomach were out of action for the day, leaving Benji to take care of all the necessary arrangements and to explore Kochin on his lonesome. After picking up our ‘minimalistic’ (to be polite) Rickshaw Run kits and T-shirts, and very thankfully Benji’s international driver’s license, it was time to meet the other teams at a Biryani joint down-town. They were a motley crew of Europeans, Americans, and New Zealanders of all ages and backgrounds but with a common dream and destiny, to somehow manouvre their mechanised concoction of tin and steel to Darjeeling in a span of two weeks. There was certainly a palpable buzz in the air, as well as a very palatable buzz in the biryani. The Rickshaw Run felt real and there was no turning back.

The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling a long the Kochin harbour, visiting the ancient synagogue, and taking ferries to the nearby commercial centre Ernakulam for some essential shopping.

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Early the next morning the gang assembled at the parking lot where our Rickshaws had been delivered to overnight, armed with paint, stickers, slogans, and much to Rogier’s resentment, sponges! After a ‘passionate’ and ‘fruitful’ discussion about what colour we would paint our chariot, it was ‘agreed’ that she would be sponged a light blue, punctuated with baby pink and torquise. Perhaps not the most threatening or bad-ass competitor, but you have to admit that she turned out to be quite the spectacular sight! It was here that Benji earned the nickname ‘arty-fuck’ and Rogier earned a similar nickname, just replacing the ‘arty’ for ‘head’ and changing the word order.

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As the paint was still drying all the teams met at the local cricket ground for speeches, tea, cakes, and a good ol’ game of cricket – surely the game of kings. So with regal courage and steadfastness, the ‘Runners’ were able to steal victory from the local youths, imbuing us all with a renewed invigoration and confidence that if we could take on the West Kochin under 18s cricket side and win, what kind of challenge could 4,200km of Indian terrain possibly pose!

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On that note we loaded up our babies, hopped in, and somehow managed to improvise our way to the nearest gas station for our first refueling, admittedly with help from another team, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. We had decided to attack the Western coast, convoy style, with the Mad Dogs and Englishmen (actually a team of 4 in two rickshaws) in a mad-dog dash to Goa for New Years. Most teams were strangely sensible and decided to take the most direct route to Darjeeling; that is, heading East to the Chennai and taking the coast road all the way up to Calcutta. It turned out that only 5 teams were… cool enough to attempt Goa, a definitely more sinuous route. After our refueling we were finally underway, and left to our own devices. The adventure had finally begun.

They say that a journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step. That was exactly how we were feeling at that point – we had taken our first step into the unknown on a journey of thousands of miles, and the magnitude of what was in front of us was beginning to seep in. It was an exciting time to be alive.

Part 3 – The Cantankerous Coast: Kerala and Karnataka

Part 4 – The State (of mind) That Is Goa

Part 5 – The Drive to the East (no its not German nationalism, its the Rickshaw Run)

Part 6 – Hyderabad Hijinx

Part 7 – Andrha Pradesh Antics

Part 8 – Chasing The Sun: Chattisgarth & Orissa

Part 9 – A Night To Remember: Jharkand and their Scorpios

Part 10 – The Edifying East: Enter West Bengal

Part 11 – Himalayan Hype: The Final Assault

Part 12 – Of Beer, Spectacular Sunrises, Beer, Street-parades, and More Beer: Our Darling, Darjeeling

Part 13 – “So Sally Can Wait”: The End of an Era.