Normally, auto rickshaw rides are nothing more than an everyday form of commuting from point A to point B. Not so for Jothi Viknesh. No one has ever given the humble auto rickshaw a more glamorous makeover than Viknesh, 32, whose electric tricycle has taken him on a mighty jaunt across the country. Beginning with Bengaluru on December 5 last year, he has traveled 17,000 km through 20 states. Named after his hope of setting a new world record for the longest ride in an electric auto rickshaw – which requires him to travel an additional 2,000km – the HOPE vehicle is fueled by Viknesh’s energy and enthusiasm.
In July, the conspicuous rickshaw and its driver made it as far as the Khardung La Pass (18,380 feet above sea level) in Leh – a test of endurance for both man and machine. But it’s the message that resonates more – “Pollution free India” – something the fitness trainer and Zumba teacher firmly believes in. Viknesh has documented his adventure on the India on 3 Wheels YouTube channel, just as he did for his Cycle Tour in 2016 and another eight-month journey documenting the various forms of folk art and festivals in Karnataka.
His travel hacks help him cut costs significantly. “I hold free workshops for people whose voluntary contributions help fund my trip,” says Viknesh. “Last time I only had 20,000 rupees with me. I collected Rs6.5 lakh during the [Karnataka] Trip. This time, too, I am conducting workshops in schools and showing children the art forms I have documented. I teach them culture through dance. People keep supporting me and inviting me to their house for dinner.” He uses Google Maps to find free nights, meals and discounts. The travel groups he belongs to on Facebook voluntarily take him in and help him in various ways.
Originally from Tamil Nadu, Viknesh moved around a lot during his childhood as his father worked in the Central Police. While his parents stay in Chennai, he moved to Bengaluru 12 years ago to pursue his passion for fitness and dance even while completing his postgraduate studies in Immunology and Microbiology. While his father disapproves of his chosen profession, his mother is his staunchest supporter and occasional travel companion. “She accompanied me on a car trip from Vizag to Siliguri for a week,” he says.
With EVs being the new kid on the block, one of the biggest challenges is finding charging points, says Viknesh. Another reason is the difficulty in navigating difficult terrain. “I accepted the challenge because I’ve always been fascinated by people who traveled without the help of infrastructure or technology 30 to 40 years ago,” he says. “I disabled myself with this electric car. In eight months, I haven’t even charged it at a designated charging station. I’ve charged it at home, restaurants, gas stations, and even paan shops. All you need is a three-pronged plug (16 amp) to charge it. I’ve learned to ask people for help.” Once in the Northeast, he recalls hooking it up to a tunnel’s generator. It takes four hours to charge the rickshaw, which has a mileage of 120km to 130km on the plain and 70km to 80km on the mountain. “People understand when I ask for food and water,” he says. “But when I ask for a charging station, they assume it’s for my phone and hesitate when I say it’s for my rickshaw. Sometimes I have to go to 30 different places before someone agrees to let me load.” So far, the rickshaw has survived some dangerous natural disasters like the floods in Assam, snowstorms in Arunachal Pradesh, an earthquake in Tripura and a landslide in Kargil.
Traveling light is key, says Viknesh, who only carries 10 to 15 sets of warm clothes, boots, shoes, a tent, a sleeping bag, an emergency stove, action cameras, a drone and an Insta360 camera. Staying fit was also a challenge. In the past eight months he has been ill twice with an upset stomach, twice with a fever and once with a herniated disc in Siliguri. He had to stay behind for a week to undergo physical therapy and electrotherapy. The doctor advised him not to travel by rickshaw, but he calmly set out for Kashmir the next morning. “Eating the wrong food can make you sick,” he says. “That’s why I usually prefer to eat at home. I avoid eating at smaller and local restaurants that may not be hygienic. I carry peanut butter and buy fresh bread, which is a safe bet.”
He’s also had some strange experiences. “[When I fell sick in Nagaland] A host told me I should have come the day before because he could have treated me to dog meat,” he says, laughing. “I told him I was a dog lover and couldn’t imagine eating a dog.”
Once he walked 15 km to reach the headhunters’ village in Nagaland, as there was no passable road. The villagers mistook him for a drug dealer. Another time, militants in Nagaland suspected he was a spy and held him at gunpoint. He had to show them his travel videos. “I convinced them that no spy would come in a flashy car like mine,” he says. To connect with the locals, he carries a guitar with him, although he doesn’t play. “I give it to those who can play it and sing it,” he says. When he’s not driving, he’s watching web series on OTT platforms, getting the latest news or “chilling like the locals”. “What I’ve learned is that every region and class in India has a different way of life,” he says. “For example, I learned that people in the Northeast only go fishing once every six months because they store the catch for a long time. I’ve also learned about different farming methods and farming patterns.” He may be travel-weary and weather-beaten, but he’s determined to spread positivity wherever he goes. His “HOPE” carries him far and wide.