Our train pulled in to Amritsar Junction at first light and I awoke to the sound of coolies and rickshaw wallahs battling for the attention of the passengers. I shoved my way, elbows first, off the train and towards the exit of the station.
Here I was greeted by a breed of Cycle Rickshaw that was new to me, one which involves a precarious balancing act, as the chair is just a solid dome atop a cart. After an ungainly struggle, two of us were seated, determinedly clutching our backpacks. As we rattled over the potholed road, I realised that the journey was uncomfortable for a reason other than the rudimentary and hazardous structure on which we were perched. During my first few weeks in India, I rarely took Cycle Rickshaws, opting for the motorised alternative. This owed to the simple fact that when the sun is slamming its severe heat on the pointed shoulders of these steadily pedalling men, I cannot help but think they must be suffering excruciating exhaustion.
So when I realised that we had a very aged and frail, hearing-aid clad Rickshaw wallah, who proudly told us that he was in his eighty second year, the awkward embarrassment returned with a vengeance. He proceeded to transport us at a painfully slow pace and by the time we had to disembark to help him up a hill, the sour taste had well and truly returned to my mouth. However, this is a man who has to earn a living too, and I would posit that the extra rupees are maybe even more valuable to him than they are to his younger counterparts.
When potential patrons approach Rickshaw stands in Delhi, they make a shameless beeline for the youngest, and thus presumably fastest, cyclists. In a country that has an admirable and deeply entrenched respect for their elders, this is a curious phenomenon – the quiet, septuagenarian Uncle needs our twenty rupees just as much as the self-assured, gobby twenty something.
What is more, it is funny to think that a lot of Indians really do not mind being late – Indian Standard Time as the joke goes – so the extra few minutes that Uncle is going to clock up because of his relative lack of speed will certainly not bring about a crisis of tardiness.
For all I know, perhaps this awkward self-consciousness is felt by even the most seasoned of Rickshaw travellers. Either way, I now make a concerted effort to opt for the more elderly rickshaw wallahs; for those of your patiently waiting for me in meetings, this is why I am five minutes late!