BERKELEY — Brian Wong said the crash where his rickshaw toppled over at 35 mph and then skidded 150 feet leaving his two buddies covered in road rash and him with a head gash was probably the highlight and the lowlight of the trip to India.
Wong, 22, Sonny Sabhlok and Allen Rodriguez, both 21 — all UC Berkeley graduates — are back from India, along with 70 other international rickshaw teams after participating in the charity Rickshaw Run, where they spent two weeks in June traveling about 2,300 miles from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Pondicherry in a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw, which looks a bit like a tall, narrow golf cart with room for three. They've got the scars — and the stories — to prove it.
"One team got chased by elephants. But that wasn't us. I wish that was us," said Wong, who said the trip inspired emotions ranging from complete boredom to complete amazement. At one point, he counted his bug bites. He had 63. Sabhlok had 81.
"It was so amazing," Wong said. "You get to see the slums and then the best golf course in all of India. People are amazing. They are all willing to help people out because everyone has hardships. And there are so many colors and so many stimulations and the heat and humidity."
The rickshaw, painted with the Cal emblem on one end and the team name, Korma Police, on the other, had problems from the get-go. Engine failure. Smoking headlights. A loose muffler that was prime for the taking by a sticky-fingered thief. But on day eight, things went from bad to worse, Indian-style.
Loaded with baggage, it tipped over traveling about 35 mph just 30 miles outside of Calcutta.
"We were coming out of Calcutta and there were strikes against high oil prices going on, so people were stabbing tires and cars were being set on fire. We had to leave at like 5 a.m.," Wong recalled Friday. "A car on our right veered left and (Sabhlok) tried to (steer away) and it toppled to the right and skidded about 150 feet."
The guys skidded right along with it.
What followed was a mess of blood and bandages and screams when antibacterial hand cleaner was used out of desperation to clean and sterilize the wounds. The one tube of Neosporin they had was only enough for Sabhlok's wounded foot. Wong wasn't badly injured, so he played doctor (he wants to be one anyway) before they made it to a jungle hospital, where the staff was about as prepared as the rickshaw runners.
A few shots, some new gauze and some weak pain pills got them back on the road. But without a windshield on the rickshaw and a monsoon headed their way, Sabhlok — who is full-blooded Indian, speaks Hindi and has extended family there — dropped out of the Rickshaw Run for the last three days. "We were really sorry to see him go." Wong said, "but he flew back to the finish line at the end."
Reached Friday in Berkeley, Sabhlok said he was healing from road rash on his right leg and right arm, though he said his doctor said he could have scars for five or 10 years. He also said he enjoyed the trip immensely and has no regrets.
"It was a trip of a lifetime," he said. "We got our adventure. I've been telling stories to everyone. Whenever I talk to people about it, I tell them about it and then we instantly become friends. That phrase, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' I think I finally get it. We were so thankful for our lives after that accident.''
With no set route, no hotel reservations and no support van carrying food and water or spare parts, the friends relied on a fat Indian atlas, a lot of cheap Chinese food, roadside "tea" cakes, bottled water, the kindness of strangers and their strong friendship to get them through the days on the road and the nights in often pitch black towns.
Though there was a snag in their plan, their eight days together were filled with fun (Varanasi is amazing) fear (the truck drivers drink whiskey on the road), and people, people, people. "You don't really know what a billion people is like until you go to India," Wong said.
People — mostly men and children — would approach them and ask questions about the rickshaw and about themselves. "They really want to get to know you so they just come up and start talking. They are really hospitable and interested in what we were doing. Some rural places are barely ever seen by Americans," he added.
The men went to so many temples and shrines that Wong can't begin to remember the names of all of them. But he does remember the day they spent in Bodhgaya, where Buddha is said to have attained supreme enlightenment. It is one of four sacred Buddhist pilgrimage centers in India and visited by millions seeking enlightenment, peace and spiritual guidance. The guys visited in the morning but later in the day had to see a much shadier side of India when their muffler was stolen (they found the guy, but he denied it) and then they had to have the rickshaw illegally towed by a taxi.
There were no requirements for entering the Rickshaw Run except every team had to raise at least $2,000 for charity. One team raised about $22,000 and was honored at the finish line. Money will go to Mercy Corps India, which provides health and economic support to those below India's poverty line. Money also went to the Frank Waters Project, which works to build new, clean water supplies in India.
The Berkeley men were one of four teams from the United States, but at least one American team dropped out, Wong said. There was one Englishwoman who did the race by herself. She was also honored at the finish line.
Wong said he wasn't in it for a trophy or to be a hero.
"The whole point is to get in as much trouble as possible," he said.