Three wheel­ing through In­dia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - FIONA McLEOD PADDING­TON, QUEENS­LAND

AS any­one who’s trav­elled through Asia would well know, hop­ping in a tuk-tuk (or auto rick­shaw) is not for the faint-hearted. As for ac­tu­ally driv­ing one, that is another mat­ter en­tirely. I re­cently vis­ited the Puducherry and Tamil Nadu re­gions of south­ern In­dia with friends to do ex­actly that. For seven days, we nav­i­gated through mon­soonal weather, chaotic traf­fic and pot­holed roads filled with wan­der­ing cows, all in a tiny bright pink, three­wheeled tuk-tuk with a two-stroke en­gine. We’d have been hard pressed to have found a more au­then­tic way to see the coun­try. From driv­ing through crowded Di­wali cel­e­bra­tions in Than­javur to man­u­ally work­ing the wind­screen wiper in the tor­ren­tial rain in Chen­nai, we felt “at one” with the lo­cals.

For the first time in my adult life, hav­ing no win­dows (or doors, for that mat­ter) had its ben­e­fits. It al­lowed lo­cals driv­ing along­side on mo­tor­bikes to lean in and clap me with a high five; or present me with a slightly wind­blown bunch of flow­ers. But it also meant we couldn’t es­cape the belch of diesel fumes from pass­ing buses, coun­tered, in one case, by the heavy scent of jon­quils float­ing from the hair adorn­ment of a sari-clad pas­sen­ger. Driv­ing at 60km/h would prove painful to a driver of any other ve­hi­cle, but in a tuk-tuk, we jos­tled to see who would get be­hind the han­dle­bar each morn­ing. We broke down fre­quently, and on ev­ery oc­ca­sion were swiftly sur­rounded by in­ter­ested lo­cals who fixed a snapped gear cord, re­placed a spark plug or filled an empty fuel tank within min­utes and mostly at no cost.

Ad­mit­tedly, driv­ing in the ci­ties was the ul­ti­mate test with over­crowded buses, pedes­tri­ans and mo­tor­bikes in­ter­weav­ing in an only-in-In­dia hier­ar­chi­cal or­der. Con­versely, driv­ing on qui­eter coun­try roads meant time to re­flect on our sur­round­ings. Mon­keys dot­ted the roads and wind­ing creeks bub­bled along­side. Herds of bleat­ing goats were shep­herded from one field to the next, and groups of uni­formed school­child­ren wan­dered home after class. Ba­nanas sold at stands pro­vided our sus­te­nance be­tween cur­ries at kiosks where men in lungis dished out dhal and parotta flat bread on ba­nana leaves.

After a week, honk­ing and weav­ing through traf­fic be­came sec­ond na­ture. It was a thrilling and trea­sured in­sight into one of the world’s most colour­ful cul­tures. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Follow the Reader: travel@theaus­tralian.com. au. Colum­nists re­ceive a Trav­elon Anti-Theft Clas­sic Travel Bag fea­tur­ing FRID block­ing tech­nol­ogy, metal mesh lin­ing, de­tach­able cut­proof shoul­der strap and lock­able zip­pers. $115. More: 1800 331 690; trav­elon­bags.com.

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