InFocus: Saskia James, Rickshaw India

From left to right: Yuchen Shang, Saskia James, Katie McKain, Grace Pelling, Magatalena Rebagamang and Richard Parke
From left to right: Yuchen Shang, Saskia James, Katie McKain, Grace Pelling, Magatalena Rebagamang and Richard Parke
From left to right: Yuchen Shang, Saskia James, Katie McKain, Grace Pelling, Magatalena Rebagamang and Richard Parke

Two ageing rickshaws, a mountaintop road accident, monsoon season and e-coli. To most that may not sound like the best way to spend a summer, but for Saskia and the rest of the Rickshaw India team, who spent June and July traversing the Indian sub-continent to raise money for charity, it was the trip of a lifetime.

After six months of intensive preparation and fundraising, the team of six St Andrews students flew out to the southern tip of the country, where they picked up their transport. They found it surprisingly easy to learn how to drive the rickshaws. “We set off having had about three hours of practice the day before,” says Saskia, “and then we drove 180km the next day, learning as we went along.” A bigger challenge was the Indian roads. “Driving on the roads is different. You basically have to re-learn how to drive. You can’t take for granted that someone’s going to overtake on the right, or the left, or that they’ll give way. And it rained every day. It was monsoon season.”

The 17-year-old vehicles were bought through an Indian company specialising in rickshaw trips, but they weren’t exactly reliable. “We broke down almost every day. We spent a lot of time at mechanics’ houses getting our stuff fixed. And we had to stop every hour to let the engines cool.” The frequent breaks had their advantages though. “It was a really nice way to meet people who weren’t in big towns. You could just stop on the edge of the road…suddenly all these people would appear.”

It was going well until the group reached Mumbai, says Saskia. “I have a friend there and he spent two days with us, took us to a tribal village, really looked after us. But we came back to Mumbai and we all got really ill, to the point where I spent three days in the ICU in Mumbai hospital.” What was she ill with? “E-coli!” she says, grinning. “It was from swimming in the river. And I also have a fainting condition, so I fainted and fitted in hospital and they absolutely freaked out. But I recovered and I was fine and we carried on.”

That wasn’t the end of it, however. “We finished our trip in Agra … and had two weeks where we could just have a holiday. I got on this train and felt very ill, but I didn’t want to go back to hospital so I decided to wait it out. But I got worse and worse and then I got a temperature of 42 or 43 degrees, so I spent a further week in hospital – with e-coli. I was seriously ill, almost delusional. It was quite scary. That was the big thing [of the trip] for me.”

The others had already had their ‘big thing’ during the group’s journey across the state of Gujarat, a few weeks before they reached Agra. “We decided to drive up the only mountain in Gujarat,” Saskia explains. “Gujarat is a really flat state. But there’s one mountain with a temple at the top, so we thought we would go see that. We ended up pushing our rickshaws up the mountain – which we ended up doing a lot, because they don’t have a lot of power – but we got to the top and saw the temple.”

Then the problems began. “Within 10 metres of driving down the hill our front wheel snapped off.” Saskia and Maggie, both in passenger seats, jumped out of the vehicle as it slid downhill. Richard, sat in the front, was stuck inside but thankfully the vehicle came to a halt. Saskia then found some unlikely help. “Me and another guy went down the hill to get a mechanic, and our mechanic ended up having no legs – he was a paraplegic. But he was the best in the area so everyone said to go for him. It was absolutely fascinating watching him work.”

With the vehicle repaired, the team offered the mechanic a lift back down the hill in the other rickshaw. As they approached a sharp corner, however, a car came towards them. Seeing the rickshaw, its occupants stopped and started taking photos of the unusual sight. Katie, the rickshaw driver, attempted to go around the car but swerved to make the corner – and flipped over.

“We came round a second later and saw the rickshaw lying in the middle of the road, flipped over,” recalls Saskia.“We couldn’t see our friends and didn’t know where they were … so we jumped out along with the people from the car.” They found their friends still inside the upturned vehicle. “I was just trying to get Katie to do something. She was stood [upside down] in the rickshaw, completely pale and not responding. I was trying to get her to move so we could pick the rickshaw up and get it away from the blind corner.

“I finally managed to shove her out of the way and sit her down while I sent others off to get a car, because by this time it’s raining, it’s wet, everyone is bleeding – but luckily no one was hurt too badly. Katie had a big gash, Grace had a few cuts and bruises.” The rickshaw had fallen onto the mechanic, however. “We covered him and tried to lift him up but he was a big guy … eventually we got him into a local bus going down the hill.”

They checked into a hotel and decided to stay for a few days to recover while the rickshaw was repaired. Had the experience put them off? “I was keen to carry on but Katie was our main driver and we couldn’t really do it without her. So I decided to take her in a local rickshaw into town and back [until she got used to them again]. Eventually she decided to start driving again – though every time she got in she was nervous. That went on for a couple of days with me driving until finally she was able to get back to it. I was so proud of her.”

At last the team reached their destination in Agra, south of Delhi. They raised £11,000 in total, £5000 of which came from working and sponsorship and was spent on expenses. The rest was donated equally between Pathram, an Indian education charity, and the St Andrews Charities Campaign. Pathram also got the rickshaws. Saskia was medivac’d home from Agra, while the others went on to visit Darjeeling before flying back.

Despite everything, Saskia says it was the best trip she has ever taken. As for the road accident: “Weirdly enough I think the best part…was the flip. It centred our trip. We had gone from just driving a rickshaw, thinking ‘anyone can do this’, to ‘this is quite dangerous, it’s a challenge.'”


  • Amended on 20 September 2013 to clarify the nature of the money raised and spent by the Rickshaw India team


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