BERKELEY — Forget what you've seen on television, this truly may be the amazing race.
Three UC Berkeley pre-med students will spend the first two weeks of June traveling about 1,500 miles across India — in a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw, known colloquially as an autorickshaw. It's not the leg-powered wooden kind that looks like a big tricycle. The one they will use looks more like a tall, narrow golf cart with room for three. It maxes out at about 35 mph.
Brian Wong, 22, Sonny Sabhlok and Allen Rodriguez, both 21, have entered the Rickshaw Run and hope to guide their donated autorickshaw, India's version of the taxi cab, about 150 miles a day from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Pondicherry, a small town on the southern coast of India.
There is no set route. No hotel reservations and certainly no support van carrying food and water or spare autorickshaw parts.
It will be three determined guys — only one of whom has even been to India before — and their autorickshaw against deadly roads, chickens, oxen, herds of goats, monkeys, water buffalo, elephants, cows, pigs, bald eagles and masses and masses of people everywhere. It's also the beginning of monsoon season and, oh yes, temperatures reaching into the 120s.
Why are they doing this?
"We wanted to do some post-graduation travel, but we've grown tired of the normal tour-based, guide-led, itinerary-following packages that are common today. We wanted true adventure and an event that would be as eye-opening and life-changing as it is risky and outright stupid," said Brian Wong, the group's ringleader, who his graduating this month with a degree in cognitive science and hopes to go to medical school.
There are no requirements for entering the Rickshaw Run except every team must raise at least $2,000 for charity. Money will go to Mercy Corps India, which provides health and economic support to those living below India's poverty line ($13 a day), which is about 300 million people. They also provide schooling, aid for those with AIDS/HIV, and work to improve sanitation measures.
Money will also go to the Frank Waters Project, which works to build new, clean water supplies where they are most needed and to encourage community members to maintain the facility. At the ending point, all the autorickshaws are donated to Indian people in need.
The Berkeley men are one of four teams from the United States among 70 competing from across the globe.
The team is called the Korma Police and is a play on the song "Karma Police'' by the band Radiohead, Wong said.
"Korma is an Indian dish, so take Radiohead and add one cup coconut milk and you get Korma Police. All the other team names tend to be puns of some sort relating to Indian culture (too)," Wong said.
The Rickshaw Run is organized by a company called The Adventurists, a British outfit that doesn't sugarcoat what it will take to complete the 1,500 miles in an autorickshaw in two weeks.
"The Rickshaw Run is an adventure, not flowery driving tour for ninnies," their Web site tells competitors. "You don't want us to tell you where to sleep every night or you won't end up in the sort of situation that makes these trips worthwhile. Waking up in an ants' nest, spending the night with accommodating locals, sleeping upright in your rickshaw, nestled up to the alpha male of a troop of monkeys — ahhh the stuff of bliss.''
The Rickshaw Run takes place twice a year in India — once in the summer and once in the winter.
Participants pay their own expenses.
Michael Cogliantry, a 34-year-old New Yorker and professional photographer, participated with two colleagues in the event in the winter of 2006-07. He and his buddies, who are both art directors, photographed the journey and Cogliantry self-published "India,'' a photography book about the experience. His trip started in Cochin, a town in southern India and was set to end in Hyderabad, about 1,242 miles away. But the threesome only made it about halfway because they stopped to "look around a lot and took a lot of photos." Cogliantry said the scariest part of the trip was driving through the mountains.
"The roads are very, very narrow and there is really no sense of right-of-way. You've got a lot of buses and giant trucks coming around corners. My impression is no one is really afraid to die there," he said.
He said he also found — through the trip — that India is a country full of contradiction, chaos and mystery.
"India definitely is the most unique place I think I've ever been. The extremes of what you are seeing are amazing. Whatever parameters you have for highs and lows, India expands those. You will see the most beautiful temple and the colorful way people are dressed and then you turn around and see someone lying on the ground and you wonder if they are dead. It gave (me) a perspective that I never had before."
Asked what advice he'd give the Cal trio, he said, "You really just need to surrender yourself to this country."
Rodriguez, the last to join team Korma Police, said he is ready. "I'm just really excited," he said. "It's so fun having the open road ahead of you, some friends, some music and not knowing what's next," he said.
The three plan to blog about the trip at Internet cafes, which are said to be as readily available as bottled water.
When it's over, there isn't big prize money or even a trophy for the winner.
"Once the finish is reached by all, a winner will be decided by arbitrary means and much pomp and handshaking will commence. After this wondrous occasion, the closing game of cricket will be played followed by tea and cakes," the company Web site states.
Wong said it doesn't matter if they win. He and his friends are in it for the experience. "It's definitely something I'll be able to tell the grandkids about but I'm definitely more enthusiastic about the two weeks we'll be there. I definitely expect it to change us as people."
Reach Kristin Bender at email@example.com.