What It's Like Driving An Auto Rickshaw in Delhi Traffic

Terrifying... Well, at least to an American who's not used to the barely-cointained chaos of Delhi traffic and the moped with a backpack that is one of these three-wheelers. Well, I'll amend that my initial assesment — it was terrfying, but fun. 

I'm writing this moments after I did it, so the impressions will be nice and fresh, undiluted by the enhancements of memory. I'm here in India thanks to Mahindra, and am exhausted, just having come from the desert around Jodhpur where I was participating in a big off-road event (more on that to come). So, I just got back to my hotel and have an hour or so to kill before I meet my contact here. I'd sort of like to nap or at least lay naked on the fancy bedspread, but I feel I have a duty to my Jalopnik readers, so I want to try and cram in as much as I can so I can, you know, tell you about it. 

What It's Like Driving An Auto Rickshaw in Delhi Traffic

I looked outside my window onto the chaos of Indian city traffic (I'll write more about this soon as well) and saw, bouncing around like molecules in boiling water, tens or twenties of green-and-yellow 3-wheeled auto-rickshaws, one of the most common kinds of cabs in India. 

Being a professional idiot, I thought "I want to drive one of those. In that mess."

Now, our own Ben did a great review of a very similar Tuk-Tuk, so I won't do a full review, just give my impression of what the overall experience was like. Okay? Great.

Let me make it clear that this is not, generally, a good idea. Driving in Indian traffic if you don't know what you're doing is a terrible idea, since any wreck in a foreign country is a colossal hassle. And dangerous. But, I figured if I asked the driver to find some more empty area and kept things slow, how bad could it be?

What It's Like Driving An Auto Rickshaw in Delhi Traffic

I find a cabbie and his 3-wheeler near my hotel. I go up to him and ask if it's possible for me to drive it a little bit? Maybe in a parking lot or somewhere empty?

"Yes, yes, no problem!" he said, happily. "Hop in!"

That seemed easy. Too easy. I explained again that I wanted to drive, and made what I assumed was the international sign for "drive" which I think looks like moving a steering wheel but really is probably closer to milking a cow. In Indian streets, this can be a valid mix-up, since there's actually cows all over the place. And I didn't really want to milk one, because it wouldn't make a good Jalopnik post and Gawker's animal husbandry blog, Herd won't be live for weeks.

We took off, me in the back, trying to confirm he understood. 

"Where to? Are you shopping?"

"No, I'm not shopping. I was hoping I could drive this, just for 5 or 10 minutes."

"Why aren't you shopping?"

"Um, I'm not sure why. Maybe I'll shop later. But right now I was wondering if I could drive? Is there somewhere with less traffic we can go?"

We were both speaking English, but I don't think he had enough English and I have far too little Hindi. Still, at some point, I made a breakthrough, by pointing to myself and at the handlebars.

"Okay! I teach you drive! Come up here!"

So, the conditions were that we'd both sit in the front, and he'd hold my camera, presumably as a hostage so I wouldn't kick him out and steal his 3-wheeler, and, you know, take over his life. Fair enough. My plan of going somewhere more quiet to try it out had, apparently, been forgotten, since he just stopped at one of the few traffic lights and scooted over. I figured what the hell, and climbed into the seat.

What It's Like Driving An Auto Rickshaw in Delhi Traffic

"Clutch here, shift here — 1 2 3 — brake here, pick-up here," he said, showing me the handlebar-mounted clutch and shifter on the left and the throttle on the right. The brake was a worn little black mushroom on the floor. I handed over my camera and grabbed the handlebar.

BRRRRRAAAAAAP! I twisted the throttle way more than needed and the tuk-tuk lurched forward with a surprising burst of speed. 

"Less pick-up!" the cabbie yelled, inches from my ear. 

I clutched and shifted— the handgrip shifter is incredibly vague, but I ended up in what I think was the next gear. I got the throttle more under control and was feeling good, when a person stepped right in front of the three-wheeler, with the uncaring confidence of a ghost walking in front of a train. I punched down on the brake and was treated to the most gradual panic stop I've ever achived.

Raghu (the cabbie) does this stuff every day and calmly yanked the handlebar, sending us wobbling around the unwittingly-suicidal pedestrian. This kind of thing is absolutely normal for him. 

And the road! The road in sections resembles parts of Mars, and the holes and rocks send a little light three-wheeler bouncing around like a beach ball. The steering is incredibly direct on that one front wheel, so any rapid changes make the rickshaw teeter like a drunk toddler.

Back in control, and with a murder-free conscience, I opened it up a bit to keep up with traffic, and was enjoying the wind, the slighly rocking motion, and the loud CNG engine's brapping. But that calm didn't last.

A truck passed inches from my right elbow, which was slightly outside the cab, since Raghu and I were sharing the seat like teenaged lovers. Insinctively, I flinched away, sending the rickshaw jerking in the other direction just enough to elicit a chorus of horns from the cars in the lane next to me, who were both warning me from running into them and also deciding to come into my lane in the exact same portion of three-dimensional space I was in. I braked and ducked behind the white Maruiti, then rounded a turn to head back in the direction of my hotel.

Even when I felt like I had things under control, the cacomphany of honkings and cars lurching into you and people leaping in front of you and even cows, fucking cows, ambling cockily right into your path never stopped. It was exhilerating and nerve-rending and adrenalin-soaked. And this guy does it every day, for work.

The traffic got even denser and I had my fill, so I jumped into the back seat after passing control back to Raghu. We pulled up at the hotel, and Raghu tried to sell me on regular lessons.

"You drive good! Three lessons, I make you an expert! Today was first training. Tomorrow, we go again!" 

I wasn't going to be around, so I tried to politely decline. Then had to more firmly decline his incredible deal for me to pay all lessons up front. Eventually, I talked him down from US $50, then to 2,500 rupees, and finally I told him I'd give him 500 rupees— about $10 — and that's it. He agreed, and I figured that was fair since I did potentially put the man's livlihood at risk. Some folks told me that's a lot for an auto-rickshaw, but I feel okay about it. 

But I don't think I'll be seeking it out again. At least not in traffic.