Three days with Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps was the chosen charity of the Rickshaw Run. The bulk of the money raised went to buy the Rickshaws that are being taking down to Siliguri as I write this. As it stands, some of these will be sold with the funds going to some of the Mercy Corps supported NGO’s, some will be donated to projects in Siliguri (one for instance is becoming the school bus for handicapped children) and others will be donated to needy families so that they can start to make a living.

Any of the cash raised over the initial 650 goes to Mercy Corps projects in the Darjeeling district. Given that Espe and I had more time than most teams, we wanted to go to see some of these NGO’s at work. Tom put us in contact with John Strickland at Mercy Corps’ who arranged for us to spend a few days in the mountains with one of his teams.

On Monday 15th we set off in a jeep to Upper Lington. Although only a mere 41km from Darjeeling, the drive took two and a half hours due to the twisty potholed roads. Throughout the journey and upon arrival I was stunned by the beauty of the place. We were in one of many communities in the Himalayan foothills (Mercy Corps work with communities based on tea estates, forests and agricultural areas close to Darjeeling) and very much off the beaten track.

We were introduced to the family we would be staying with, shown around their beautiful home (although basic, it catered for their needs and was expertly built from local materials) and given a wonderful cup of chai. We were then shown around the local community while Raju, one of the Mercy Corps workers, explained how up in the agricultural hills how the communities are very close knit and help each other out immensely.

Each household has a small slot of land on the steep slopes. These are all converted into terraces to enable crops to be grown and animals to graze. The crops like potatoes, carrots, spices, corn are pretty much only for personal consumption or to be exchanged for products grown further down the mountain like rice. If one household has a bad yield, illnesses or other problems, then the community will come together to help. This seems a damn sight more civilised that what we know of the civilised world.

We were shown to a small cheese factory that had been built buy some of the community members as part of a Mercy Corps project. This provides sustainable income for both the farmers who provide the milk and the workers who produce the cheese and butter. We were then invited into the owners home for yet more chai.

We then moved onto Karmi Farm which, veranda and all, appeared to date back to colonel times. The owners originally owned much of the land in the area before independence. The farm as we found out from the current owner, a friendly half British half Nepali women, has a lot of history. The farm is now a wonderful holiday retreat. If it were not for their high prices we would have loved to have stayed a few days longer in the utmost tranquility of the place. Reading on the Veranda and taking walks in the countryside. Check out their website.

As Raju continued to explain, most of the produce from the farms is there for personal use. This is how they survive. Very little is sold on. The sources of income for the families are limited. One such source is the spcie Cardamom which grows in the area. This until recently was one of the biggest sources of income, but a disease that has spread with the plant throughout the region in recent years has left the area with smaller yield and hence economic problems.

The other main source of income is brooms. These are made from another plant that grows wild in the area. Each broom fetches about 5 rupees (about 6 pence).

The following two days we went with the Mercy Corps team to two different communities, Sirisay and Lower Colbong, to see the team in action. The walk down the hills to both villages were stunning. About 45 minutes down twisty little paths passing through small farms and jungle. Coming back up again was quite hard work.

In both these communities Mercy Corps are striving to set up projects with the community based on what the community wants (communities range from 10 to 100 households). In both places we witnessed two meetings take place. There was general discussion about what Mercy Corps could offer, what was expected from the community and the setting up of a committee within the community (decided by the community)

The three main issues these projects try to address are health, youth (education) and economic development.

On the health front a Community Health Worker is appointed and provided with basic training. This enables small problems to be address and more serious issues spotted early on. Another example of health improvements in the communities we visited were toilets that have been built for the households. Money for the materials not available locally was fronted by Mercy Corps, while local materials and labour was provided by the local community. Although it may not seem like much, the benefits of a toilet for the households are three fold. They provide sanitary conditions, prevent pollution and illness down stream and provide manure which in turn gives more fertile ground.

The youth projects focus on providing better primary education, attempt to get children into secondary education (which due to financial restraints and the remoteness of the villages proves very difficult) and and provide business training for young adults. We saw the results of a local school that had been completely rebuilt only last year.

The third area of focus is that of economic development. Something that is needed in the region, especially with the current cardamom problems.

Some examples of these that were illustrated to us (both current and forthcoming) included a community shop that enables locals to get produced that could take upwards of four hours to procure previously, carpentry works, a paper mill (a pending project) and tourist village home stays (an idea that has been encouraged by our reaction to our experiences).

Without going into too much detail, Mercy Corps work with the communities by encouraging the people to elect representatives, discuss the needs of the community and then assist the community on deciding what needs tackling first. At this point the locals become involved in building / setting up of the solution be it schools, latrines or small factories.

Unlike those working in the tea states, those in agricultural regions can just about get buy on the food they produce on their small mountainside farms. They need income however to buy produce and commodities that they are unable to produce. What we saw was quite well off compared to those of the tea states who experience and much harder life style. They are exploited by the plantation owners, they do not own any of the own land and due to work have very little time to attend meetings.

Personally I was blown away by the whole experience. Firstly the location, the remoteness and beauty of it was overwhelming. Secondly seeing how the people coped so well with what they did have was mighty impressive. What impressed me most of all though, was the cooking of our hostess (yup, thinking of my stomach as ever). Locally grown freshly cooked on a wooden food, the Indian dishes cooked by Bindu were simply sublime. As Espe said at our first meal, “this is the best food I’ve eaten in India”

Time for some words of appreciation.

Thank you to all those who sponsored us as part of the Rickshaw Run. We’ve raised 930 pounds to date plus the giftaid and there are still a few more promises to be chased up on. Getting the money together to enable us to take part in the event was amazing, but actually seeing where and how the money will be spent was something else. I only wish I could share better with you via this blog what we’ve seen.

Thanks to John and the Mercy Corps team in Darjeeling, especially Raju who explained everything to us and some. Without his commentary and introductions the trip would not have been half of what it was (and I’d have very little to write about here).

Finally I’d like to pass on some thanks from Raju and some of the villagers we met. A huge thank you to all those who took part in the Rickshaw Run. Firstly for the brave efforts in the Rickshaw Run in raising so much cash for charity. Secondly, for bringing the rickshaw run to Darjeerling. Raju truly believes that this is very good for his home town and will welcome the run back next year when it is sure to grow from strength to strength.

To find out more about Mercy Corps projects in India take a look at

Our Route

It would appear that even the people at Google Maps knew about the Rickshaw Run. I can see no other reason for them updating their map data on India. During the run it has gone from just a national border, to having place names and regional borders. Good work chaps.

To celebrate we’ve updated our route page to have a funky google map with a route showing our progress each day. Gaze in awe at its multicoloured goodness and click the buttons to see what it is capable of…

    Our Route Map

Just to give you a bit more of an idea, on good days we managed 300 – 350 km. These were on the good quality highways. Days when we managed less were due to any combination of the following: faffing, potholed roads, mechanical problems, Delhi belly, mountain roads, getting lost.

It’s all about the Facial Hair

I’ve been procrastinating. Instead of writing about the amazing experience Espe and I had with the Mercy Corps team in remote mountain villages (it will come and it should be worth the wait), I’ve been faffing about with photos.

Way back in February there was much talk on the Rickshaw Run forum about colonial style Englishmen. Many got excited at the prospect of G&T’s, Pipes, Pith Helmets and Mustaches. Having won the 05 Mongol Rally Novelty Beard Competition (you know i did Richy) I figured I could be well up there on the mustache stakes. So having left work back in December, I stopped shaving.

Throughout the run, for pure comedy effect, I chopped and changed the tache (The added bonus with this is that the film crew will not be able to edit the footage out of order due to the changing face). I went from full beard to goaty. 80’s Porn star to Indian style. I even had locals commending me on it. The final effort for the finishing ceremony was, judging by the reaction, legendary. Accompanied by 1920’s quiff, I did indeed look the part. My only regret, is that I do not have enough photos.

Enough sillyness. The next post will be meaningfull.

Road Safety

“Enjoy the ride, don’t commit suicide”
“Time is Precious, Life is Priceless”
“It’s a one way street, there’s no two ways about it”
“Donate blood in a blood bank, not on this road”
“Enemies of the road; drink, speed and overload”
“It’s not a rally, enjoy the valley”

Just a small selection of the many signs painted along the side of the road. And here’s why:

The majority of these were seen on the last three days of the run. Given the way they drive over here it is no surprise. What is a surprise, is how few rickshaws were involved in accidents. Survival instincts I suppose. If a bus or truck forces you off the road, you drive off the road. Simple as that. Hurling abuse at the bus driver at the next stop helps you feel better, but not much else.

In short, the roads were crazy. The biggest vehicle has right of way. Truck drivers do have a surprising amount of respect. They push you of the road, but at least the passenger tells you when they are going to do it. Bus drivers pull out with the air horn blaring, and once at least their front bumper is ahead of the rickshaw, they pull in. Many an occasion I had to brake and / or swerve off the road to avoid being hit. Getting angry is not an option. Getting used to it is. After a while I found myself dropping back and leaving space before a bus went to overtaking, thus saving myself from having to take evasive action.

Night driving was worse (yes we did it, but normally just to get to the nearest place that actually was big enough to have a hostel / hotel). It was often very difficult to distinguish oncoming traffic. Some such as ox and cart had no lights. Others often only had one headlight working, invariably the nearside. Then there were the jeeps and tractors that have headlights so close together thus disguising their distance and width. Worse still, was that oncoming vehicles run with full beam headlights regardless of oncoming traffic. This leaves you blind as the vehicle approaches and passes, often suddenly revealing a bicycle / person / cow / tractor in your lane that was invisible before due to the glare. Not pleasant.

Afternoon Tea in Darjeeling

As you’ve probably seen from our domination of the live text message board, we arrived in Darjeeling on Thursday 11th January in time for afternoon tea. And what a place to finish… The 60km road up to Darjeeling is the most spectacular mountain road I’ve ever driven. Tom couldn’t have picked a better finishing point. Darjeeling is perched on a ridge some 2200 metres above sea level in the Himalayas. A far cry from Cochin, some 3700km away (as our route took us), this place is cold.

Twisty road up to Darjeeling

We’d separated from the main convoy several days previously when we took our Rickshaw in for it’s 2000km service. This was pretty much essential as our brakes were useless. The only way they were effective was by driving with the handbrake on a few clicks. Despite some early morning starts and minimal faffing (unavoidable in large convoys) we were unable to catch Tom and Shanti Shanti. In fact we gave up hope after we spent a day in one of the National Parks. A nice experience that we shared with the film crew who we kept bumping into in random places. No tigers or elephants though.

Expecting to roll into Darjeeling alone, the day before we encountered both The Beagle Babies from New Zealand and The Boondogglers while we ate bananas at the side of the road. First pulled up the Kiwi’s and just as we were pulling away, the Boondogglers appeared. We set of in convoy but due to numerous lorries and pot holes this didn’t last so long. Despite breaking up, we all rolled into Darjeeling within an hour of each other.


Making our way up the hill, we suddenly encountered Rich of the film crew (again), who had been watching us come up the hill for some time. We were surprised to learn that Bombay the Hard Way and A Nice Cup of Tea were actually behind us when we thought they were a day ahead. After a lot of posing for the camera and set up driving shots, they managed to catch us for the last 15km drive to the finish.

Nick, Tim, Harriot, Espe and Andy

Arriving in Darjeeling with two of the teams we’d spent a lot of time with and being cheered in by the other 4 teams of the original convoy was a great experience. The only problem was the general fatigue which left me feeling rather empty.

The following day Tom and Dan had arranged a procession of all the Rickshaws (27 of the 34 have made it so far) through the town accompanied by a brass marching band. This was followed by the finishing ceremony in one of the schools before we got beaten 7-3 in a game of football with the locals. This was followed by an evening on the beers meeting other teams and swapping stories. I feel the Boondogglers deserve a special mention. Benji, Robbie and “Roger” currently work for NGO’s in Bombay and are all top fellows. Hopefully we’ll be able to meet up with them in Bombay in a couple of weeks.

Finish Ceremony

After a few days of celebration, rest, and over eating I’m finally in a state where I can get online and write something comprehensible. Apologies for the lack of updates while on the road. There just wasn’t time. I’ll try to make up for that over the next couple of days with a series of posts designed to give you a feel of our experiences on the run.

Off road parking


… I’ve found a moment to get to an internet cafe. Our Rickshaw is currently in the Bajaj Dealership for it’s 2000 km service. I think it well needs it. The poor thing is only designed for city use, yet we’ve put it to the test. Long stretches of motorway flat out (its good for 62kph), twisty (beautiful) mountain roads, pot hole ridden roads (on a par with Kazakhstan) and dust tracks.

All mighty good fun, but very tiring. I’ve not had a chance to update this at all, as I’ve either been driving, eating or sleeping. I’d like to get some photos up, but the connection is terrible, so for the time being take a look over the official web page (a few of my own pics should be sneaking their way up there soon).

The last couple of days have been fantastic. We took to the mountains to get away from the tedious motorways and we rewarding with stunning scenery and remote villages. The curiousity of the locals and the looks of disbelief are incredible and always bring a smile to my face. Whenever we stop within minutes we have a crowd of onlookers, although eating breakfast with the hole village watching is a little wierd.

We’ve been in convoy with the same teams from the Start. A Nice Cup of Tea, Bombay the Hard Way, Shanti Shanti and
Mr Tom. We’ve also met up with the Curried Away boys with surprising regularity.

We are currently in Bhawanipatna, and hope to make the Simlipal National Park tomorrow. At this rate we should make Darjeeling in four to five days.

And for those of you who have not been following the Live Text Updates, you might be suprised to hear that two teams have made Darjeeling already.

Survived so far…

Apologies. 3 days into the Rickshaw Run and I’ve posted nothing. I was hoping to update this via text messaging, however having left Cochin my phone no longer can send texts. Until now I’ve hardly had enough time to eat and sleep, never mind get to an Internet cafe. This post will also be brief as it is New Years Eve and I fancy a swift half.

We got under way on the afternoon of the 27th after some frantic last minute pimping of the rickshaw before the off. Unfortunately due to limited resources we were unable to follow the pimping design that Philippe produced for us (sorry mate). Instead our rickshaw has come out looking worryingly like the Swedish flag (much to the delight of Ingo who’s Rickshaw was parked next to us). Photos to follow when I get a chance although the might appear first on the official website, as Tom has nabbed a load off me (There is something quite surreal driving through India in a 3 wheeled Rickshaw only to be passed by Jenny with Tom in the back working on his laptop).

We’ve covered some 700km so far taking in the amazing Western Ghats. The mountain range covered in tea plantations was stunning and the roads we’re equal to many in the Alps. This was slow going, but back on the flat we started making good progress. We’ve been in convoy with 4 other teams. Mr Tom, Bombay the Hard Way (x2) and Shanti Shanti. All of these we’d met before and make great company. In fact I haven’t laughed as much for a long time. We’ve also bumped into Rich and the Curried Away boys loads. On top of that we’ve had a film crew along with us for the majority.

Tonight, we are hitting the beach for a party. Rumour has it there are 15 teams in Mamallapuram. Should be good.

Indian driving is by far the worst I’ve ever seen. We’ve been driven off the road by buses and cars, but this appears to be the norm. The biggest vehicle has right of way. It has been tough so far but at the same time I can’t begin to explain how fun this has been. Highlights so far include:

– Taking switchback hairpins in such a crap vehicle.
– Tom tipping his rickshaw onto it side while trying to “power” slide. (We all rushed to his aid only to see Tom’s head appear with a beaming cheeky grin).
– Watching the reactions of the locals as we pass by. Especially comical are the Rickshaw drivers who at first think there is a newbie in town trying to steal his customer, but then smile when they realise we are western tourists.
– Weaving in and out of traffic to getting one over the big bullies (buses & trucks).
– Formation roundabout displays.
– Being famous. The Rickshaw Run has been on Indian national television. People out there know what we are doing. We were even followed b a press car for several miles. Once stopped they pounced on us for some photos and an interview.

That will have to do for the moment. Hopefully I’ll get that phone fixed. In the meantime have a read over other teams text messages on

It’s all getting rather exciting.

Having arrived here in Cochin on the 24th we’ve had time to see more and more teams arrive. Along with the familiar faces from previous meetings there have been a load of new faces. I’m struggling with names, but it is very interesting getting to know so many people in such a short time. There are all sorts involved. It is going to be really interesting to see how this all pans out.

Today, Mat, Claire (Team Shanti Shanti), Espe and I went of with a Rickshaw driver to his spares shop and garage to take a look around and try to buy as much rickshaw tat as possible. This was all very exciting for us, but most of exciting of all, is that the Rickshaws (all 35 of them) are due to turn up in just under 2 hours time… I foresee a night of frantic Rickshaw Pimping.

The Great Mustache Debate

Well, we’ve arrived in Cochin. 3rd team here. We met up with some of the others this morning and are expecting more arrivals later today.

More importantly, I need to decide how to prepare my mustache for all the pomp that will commence in earnest on the 27th. I originally wanted a handlebar mustache, but these need years to perfect so it will have to be something a bit more simple. Suggestions in the comments section below please (or for the nerdy types, get creative in Photoshop). Winner can be proud that they’ve helped humiliate me in a foreign land.