August 30, 2011

by Mike Reali in Philadelphia, PA

I assume you want the long story…

Once upon a time, I dreamt of driving a motorized rickshaw across India.

Let me explain. You see, there’s this group of well-intentioned madmen up in England who call themselves The Adventurists. What they do is invent and organize continent-scale rallies that are to be undertaken in the most ill-suited of vehicles for the job. The purpose of these aberrant excursions is twofold; to throw oneself into a ridiculous (and oftentimes dangerous) set of circumstances in search of true adventure, and to raise buckets of cash for worthwhile causes. So you have things like The Rickshaw Run in India, or The Mongol Rally, in which teams drive from London to Mongolia in a car with an engine less than 1 litre in size. My new friend Stephen has successfully undertaken the latter.

To be perfectly honest, Stephen and I don’t really know each other all that well. But I imagine that will change over the course of spending three weeks in an ambulance together.

I met Stephen mere weeks ago at an event that was organized by The Adventurists; an Afternoon Tea, as they call it. I was very excited to learn that The Adventurists were holding one of these global events right here in Philadelphia, and at The Union League no less! I’d always imagined an Adventurists party as being filled with a bunch of eccentric, Graham Chapman types, in monocles, ascots, and handlebar moustaches, regaling tall tales of adventure in far flung corners of the Earth. But my imagination never had reason to conjure why I should be permitted admittance to the city’s oldest and most esteemed private club. Put the two together and you have an affair I was not going to miss.

Just days prior to the event I went out and purchased all new clothes, so as not to be turned away at the door. Inside, amongst patinated wood and polished marble, friendly white-gloved waiters served a noble array of teas, cakes, and Hendrick’s cocktails. The guest speaker for the evening was a fascinating septuagenarian explorer/discoverer named Charles Brewer-Carias, who’d come all the way from Venezuela to give what would amazingly be his first public speaking appearance outside of his native country. Apart from a bizarre, and fiery diatribe about humans having no hand in causing climate change, and the political machinations behind this notion (which just so happened to be directed at yours truly), he was perfectly entertaining; his discoveries nothing less than staggering. (No irony was lost in that we happened to be sitting in the oldest Republican clubhouse in the country.)

While I didn’t meet the ghost of Graham Chapman that evening, I was mingling amongst some characters who had actually done some of these rallies that I’d only read about. And so it was that my good friend Sarah and I found ourselves sharing gin and tonics with a couple Mongol Rally vets who’d come all the way from Chicago and New York City, respectively. Eric was a barrel shaped man with a laptop bag slung over his back, who just met the dress code requirement by the skin of his polo. Besides making it to Mongolia in a pickup with his unwitting teenaged son, he’d also traversed Peru on a mototaxi (think the bastard son of a motorbike and a sofa), and was very much looking forward to crossing Siberia this winter on a motorcycle with sidecar. Stephen was my age, a computer programmer from New York who said his next rally was to be in Africa. Both were hooked on adventure rallies. And both had accumulated many stories in their travels which they loved to tell. I was perfectly happy to listen, as I simply don’t know anyone who would consider nursing a knackered car across some sixteen odd foreign borders to be a good time. It sounds pretty awesome to me.

Both of these guys were in a foreign town, and completely in their element at the same time. So, naturally, Stephen suggested we all go for a drink when Afternoon Tea ended, around 9pm. Seeing as we’d all gotten so dolled up for the evening, I led the way to XIX, the Bellevue’s swanky top floor bar. I figured I’ll get some mileage out of my new threads and take these guys someplace nice. I remember just before we left the Union League I asked Stephen if he had a team yet for his Africa rally. He said he did, but the more the merrier.

After a couple more drinks, and more than a couple more rally tales, Stephen was curious to hear what Sarah and I thought about all of it, having now taken in their first hand accounts; from boating on the Black Sea, to broken motorbike spokes in Peru, to arm wrestling in Russia. I told them of my long held interest in the Rickshaw Run. I’ve done some traveling, but nothing outside of “The Western World”; and from everything I’m told, India is a complete bombardment to the senses; the colors, the smells, the noise, the food. That’s what I want; something to jar my senses. I want to experience something that’s vastly different from what I’ve grown all too accustomed to inside the American bubble. See fascinating places, meet interesting people, the whole bit. Plus, I like the idea of roughing it and traveling “on the cheap”; the purpose being the journey more so than the destination. I don’t need a four star hotel room, I just need a place to sleep, shower, shit, and shave. I like the idea of having everything I need on my back, and no timetable for where I have to be and when.

In short, I was all about it. Eric gave me props for at least trying to score a spot on the Rickshaw Run. (Nearly a hundred slots get snapped up in seconds. A ginormous waiting list follows.) Alternatively, Sarah was apprehensive. She said she would “need to know”; know how things were going to play out; know that everything was going to be ok. This confounded Stephen, and sent Eric on a “what women need” tangent. Me, I like not knowing. I guess that’s what I have in common with the stagehand from Chicago, and the programmer from New York.

I don’t think we closed the bar but we must’ve come close. As we parted ways we swapped cards, and agreed to keep in touch through facebook. We did, and it was later via facebook that Stephen again extended me an invitation to join his team on the Africa rally. I was interested, but I couldn’t understand why, if he already had a team of three, he would want to take on a fourth teammate, let alone someone he’d only just met. But we emailed back and forth, and I garnered more details. We talked about fund raising, vehicle shopping, visas… (This is not an Adventurists rally by the way; it’s organized by Dakar Challenges.) It actually was to start in Devon, UK on the sixteenth of December, and move into Africa via France, Spain, and a ferry. One condition of the rally (of which there aren’t many) is that your vehicle be donated at the end. Stephen was looking for an ambulance. He’d taken one to Mongolia because it’s one of the most useful vehicles you could donate. (The Adventurists had amended the Mongol Rally’s “less than 1 litre engine” rule to include emergency vehicles for just this reason.) I loved the Cannonball Run connection it made.

Less than a week later my work brought me to New York City, and I thought, I’ll be a sport and email Stephen, see if he wants to hang. He promptly responded, and when the work day ended we sat in a trattoria courtyard, under Grecian blue and white awnings, and talked rally. Kunal, another team member, showed up shortly thereafter and things really got down to business. There was a lot that had to be done, and there was a necessary order in which it all needed to happen. Tasks were broken down among each member, and they were meeting once a week to discuss progress of the past week and goals for the coming week. I was impressed with the level of organization and business acumen they seemed to have. They (including the third member I had yet to meet, Dennis) were all computer guys, technically-minded, whereas you might say I’m more of a right-brained thinker. I’m something of a strange bird in their world. But I felt like these guys were enough like me that I could see spending three weeks on the road with them in a rolling tin box. If that makes any sense.

I returned to Philly feeling like I was a part of this thing. I was going to help with business card and t-shirt design, and check out ambulances, but it would still be some time before I officially committed to joining the team. I knew I wanted to do it, I could see no justifiable reason why I shouldn’t. I just needed to roll it around in my head for a bit and talk to friends about it. Mostly though I was putting off telling my family that I would be away for the holidays.

For at least the past year I’d been thinking about taking a trip overseas in January or February of 2012, with the idea that it would be more of a photography excursion/research trip aimed at benefiting my work. However thus far I’d done no trip planning whatsoever. So this Africa rally had presented itself at the perfect time for me. It gives me a unique opportunity to accomplish my work and travel goals while contributing to a good cause. It’s going to take me through places I otherwise likely would never wind up in. (I’m talking about you, Mauritania.) That, combined with the unusual nature of the journey itself all but guarantees an abundance of photographic opportunities that won’t be found on any beaten tourist path. And it requires no stretch of the imagination to transfer all of my reasons for wanting to visit India over to being equally valid reasons to visit Africa. I fully intend to keep traveling past the duration of the rally as well, so that I can make the most out of the time and effort it will have taken to get that far.

I will feel bad about missing Christmas with the family, but the way I see it I’ve spent 32 Christmases in Springfield; why not see what Christmas is like in Spain? (I’m guessing we’ll either be in Spain or Morocco for Christmas, and Western Sahara for New Year’s.)

Anyway, sixteen days after I met Stephen Jan at a tea party I was a part of his team to drive across five countries and deliver an ambulance to Mali. Hopefully I can bring a unique perspective to the group, and contribute my creativity to the talent pool. One thing is for sure; whatever happens on this trip, one way or another, senses will be jarred.