Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Great Indian Cycle Rickshaw Adventure

Before Elise and I moved overseas we would visit the homes of those who had lived overseas. Their homes were invariably filled with mementos from their time spent overseas, a wooden, hand-carved coffee table bought off the back of an elephant in Thailand, a paper fan painstakingly water-colored by a real Japanese geisha, shot glasses from a bar in Edinburgh won in a drinking contest with a decedent of the real William Wallace.

When we moved overseas, we, too, wanted to collect memorabilia from our time overseas, so we resolved to purchase one signature piece from each of the countries we would live in. You could call it a tradition of sorts, but we've only purchased one item so far--a piece of abstract art Elise bought at the Hippie Fair in Ipanema in Rio. We framed the painting and it is now in our stairwell in our home in India.

We have crossed the halfway mark of our Indian tour, and the time has come to start thinking about what our one major buy from Chennai would be. I originally thought it would be a wooden statue of an elephant. Sitti had a collection of wooden elephants--they may even have had real ivory tusks--but I am not sure what happened to them, but recently I was struck by a different, much more awesome inspiration.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am somewhat obssessed with fish tacos. I even told Sam recently it can be as important--especially as a cook--to do one thing really well than to do a lot of things average. In most things, I am guilty of the latter. But in cooking, I try to stay true to this manta. I don't know how to cook a lot of things, but what I do know how to cook, I try to cook really, really well. Like French toast. And fish tacos.

After working at Zolo, I had a dream to open my own Southwestern restarant. This is still my favorite type of food and my favorite type of restaurant to go to. I don't really think anything can beat a marg, chips and salsa and chicken enchiladas or fish tacos (hence, I can't stop thinking about my latest creation, a SW-Indian fusion: tandoori chicken rolled in naan enchiladas with cilantro-curry leaf and coconut chutnies, but more on that some other time).

I've since scaled down my retirement dreams. Instead of opening a whole Southwest restuarant, I would be content just having a food truck that served the best fish tacos in town. But even more recently, I scaled back again. In Brasilia, people opened up cafes at the food of the JK Bridge out of the back of the trunks of their cars. They would set up 3 - 4 folding card tables and metal folding chairs and create an impromptu cafe, selling cans of beer out of a plastic cooler and grilling queijo coelho on a small charcoal grill. Maybe this is all I need to do.

One of Elise's friends, Ms. Morgan bought a "bucket-bike". My description will not do the bike justice, but it is a really big bike with a large bucket most perfect for toting kids around town. As best I understand it, she started a business selling homemade toast and artisinal spreads out of her bucket-bike. A recent peice on NPR describes the up-and-coming food bike and bicycle bar movement, bars on bikes? Yes! (click here for more info.)

So, now all I want is a fish taco bike. Cool, huh? But a bucket bike can run one up to $2,000 in the States. But what if I could get a bike like that for much, much less?

Anyway, I started this blog talking about collecting memorabilia from overseas. Elise and I have spent the last year brainstorming...what would be our memento from India? What could we take from here that we would always have with us that would always remind us if India. Then, it struck me. What says India more...what is more quintessentially India than a cycle rickshaw. It was perfect!

So, last Saturday morning, I convinced all the kids to go with Elise and I on what could have easily have turned out to be a very long, very hot wild goose chase. The only intel I had to go on came from our driver, Sundar. When I asked him where I could go to buy a cycle rickshaw, his first response was to laugh. Why would I want a cycle rickshaw? I had a car. I didn't bother explaining, just asked again until he told me there were a lot of bicycle shops in Parry's Corner, an area of town characterized by narrow, crowded streets filled with women carrying buckets of water on their heads, goats and chickens in the roads, kids playing naked, running from building to building, ox carts and hot oil frying vada on every corner. In other words, the real India, far, far from our comfortable oasis in the bourgeois Boat Club neighborhood. Even the name is gentrified.

After a long drive, we arrived in Parry's Corner around 10:30...only to find all the shutters drawn on all the bicycle stores. Sundar hopped out and asked, and we soon learned they would open between 11:00 and 11:30, so we turned around and drove to a fabric store Elise had been wanting to visit to kill some time.

Forty minutes later, we went back. We pulled everyone out of the car and walked into one of the bicycle shops and asked the guy there who barely spoke English if he sold cycle rickshaws. He said, "One year." Which Elise and I immediately interpreted as: it would take one year to make. One year! Then we followed him to a row of colored plastic, and he pointed to a child's ride-on toy. "One year." That's when we discovered plastic kiddie cars are also called rickshaws.

Sundar came busting into the store a moment later after parking the car and explained to the man what we were looking for. Words were exchanged in Tamil. Something about a "chicken shop". We made sure to clarify that we were looking for a cycle rickshaw and not chickens. Sundar seemed nonplussed, and we all climbed back into the car and set off, deeper into the maze that is Parry's Corner.

We made a left, then a right. Sundar hopped out no less than four times to ask for directions. We passed several chicken shops, coops stacked high on the side of the road. There were even quail. There was a chicken on a cutting board about to become tikka masala, and I told Clementine to turn her head. Elise said it would be good for her to know where her food came from, but I didn't know if I was ready for Clementine to become a vegan just yet. She hasn't even given up her pacifier yet.

We finally turned down a narrow alley and, low and behold, right in front of us, was Kannagi Cycle Rickshaw Works. We tumbled out of the car and to the front of the open air garage. Two men were punding on a piece of sheet metal with wooden mallets. A man was delivering brand-new, shiny front forks. The wooden body of a cycle rickshaw leaned against the corner of the shed, light filtering in through the gaps in the beams in the roof.

Sundar called the number painted beside the office, and the proprietor of the Cycle Works, Selvam, soon appeared. We told him what we wanted, and he gave us what seemed like a fair price. I couldn't tell you what I was prepared to spend, and I'm sure we could have negotiated, but we are buying a custom cycle rickshaw here, people! Can you really put a price on that?! Elise is to return with paint and leather swatches.

I wanted to take the model for a test run, but the street was a little too crowded for my liking. I would've been hit by a tractor. I tested the weight. 130 kilos. We may have to shed some worldy possessions to fit it in our HHE. On the spot, Elise and I were already making a list of the heaviest items we could jettison, like a balloonist in the basket of a balloon trying to make it over an oncoming peak. We still don't know where we are going to store it. We were thinking the garden room. It wasn't until we got home that we realized we would never get it in the garden room door.

We really don't know what we'll do with it after we leave India, but we will always have it. Elise lamented briefly that if we get rid of all of our heavy furniture. we would have no family heirlooms in the way of furniture to leave behind for our kids. Then we both quickly agreed that Ikea furniture may not make the best family heirloom.

I added, "We just bought one."

The cycle rickshaw may never have fish tacos in it, but it will be fun for peddaling the family around the neighborhood. Maybe Peter or Sam will take their first dates out in the cycle rickshaw instead of my car. The possibilities are endless.

We take delivery in only 10 days. Stay tuned for photos!

1 comment:

vijay kumar said...

Good day Elise and Paul. We really enjoyed reading your blog. We Appreciate buying Indian cycle rickshaw