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Fall 2011

Tuna-Can Travels

Rickshaws crowd the streets of practically every major city in India. Photo by Johanna Quist-Nelson

Tuna cans aren’t just for tuna. Slap on an engine plus three wheels, and you’ve got yourself an auto-rickshaw. These tuna cans—I mean, the thrilling auto-rickshaws—are found on practically every city corner in India.

Getting a ride in an auto-rickshaw is a cross between hailing a taxi and shopping at a flea market. If you want to experience the adventure, just look around. Since there’s a plethora of rickshaws on every corner in Indian cities—more so than taxicabs in New York City—it shouldn’t be hard to find a driver. The real challenge might be finding one who speaks the same language you do.

Haggling over a ride is common. According to Johanna Quist-Nelson, who spent the summer of 2010 working at a hospital and orphanage in India, rickshaw prices are not always set. Rickshaw drivers sometimes charge travelers more than they would charge local customers. If this happens, Quist-Nelson suggests being firm; tell them “no way” and try haggling your way to a lower price. Still, a rickshaw ride is inexpensive and costs about a quarter of the price of a taxi ride.

Once driver and passenger agree on a price, it’s time to hop in and buckle up. “It takes an act of faith to get into a vehicle with three wheels and weave through the crazy Indian traffic,” Quist-Nelson says. “The only things holding you in are a couple of bars on either side and some canvas in the back.” 

But once you get going, you just won’t want to stop! Rickshaws can provide travelers with a cool, shady retreat from the sizzling sun while observing the daily life and culture of the local people. It can be so exciting that travelers like Quist-Nelson often get caught up in the experience and forget their earlier misgivings. Quist-Nelson says that while riding in a rickshaw, “it is super fun just to people-watch and see the exciting daily life of metropolitan India. So I usually sit back, let the wind go through my hair, and enjoy the random ride.”

Some people love rickshaws so much that they decide to race them. Three times a year, a group called the Adventurists hosts a two-week-long race known as the Rickshaw Run. Teams are given a starting point and a finish line and must find the best route to take their rickety rickshaw over the Himalayas, through the dangerous jungle, and across the scorching desert. According to the rules, anyone is allowed to enter the race—but be warned that this can be a risky journey. Off-roading through the Rajasthan desert is quite different from racing a rickshaw along the streets of metropolitan India, though either one may very well be the wackiest ride of your life.

—Megan Costello