The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Less Than Four Wheels

My relationship with cars is troubled, but I have a love affair with vehicles that have less than four wheels. The affair started many years ago in Sri Lanka, where I was volunteering in a remote orphanage. They had their own auto-rickshaw, a three-wheeler Bajaj, which was used mainly to commute around the village. Once it flew me all the way to Colombo through the monsoon rain in a mere four hours. An auto-rickshaw is an underrated feat of engineering.

Driving one is not as easy as it seems. The orphanage not only owned a rickshaw, but they also employed a driver. I asked him to teach me how in exchange of unveiling the secrets of sending and receiving emails.

A bunch of kids and a PhD students paying careful attention to the detailed instructions on how to drive an auto-rickshaw

Budding pseudo-mathematician learning to drive an auto-rickshaw. A rear-view mirror protects his privacy.

A rickshaw has little in common with cars, its architecture is closer to motorbikes. The starter is missing: you must give a sudden and strong yank to a bar sticking out from the floor to start the engine. If you hear the environment-friendly humming of the two-stroke powerhouse, grin. Otherwise continue working the bar until your shoulder dislocates. Kids might flock to your aid, which certainly makes the task even more challenging. Once the engine is running, you notice that there is only one pedal. I vigorously employed my right foot on it every time I wanted to go faster, even though I learned quickly that it was the break. Gas and gear-shifting mechanisms are operated by the hand. The two-stroke engine surprised me with how easy it was to halt it. My driving went through this cycle: gas, clutch, gear, accidental break, halt, restart engine, gas, and so on. Turning is great fun, though: you can do it on the spot. NASA should consider modelling the next Mars lander on a Bajaj.

Sacrificing one more wheel, I learned riding a motorbike in Cambodia during a similar volunteer stint. One of the meals took longer than expected to cook itself, and while we were waiting, I asked the manager of the orphanage to teach me how to ride his motorbike. We faced some difficulties in exchanging our thoughts of how we envisioned operating the scooter. “Is this the gas?”, I asked. “Yes”, came the prompt reply. “Is this the clutch?”, I asked pointing at the same piece of hardware. “Yes”, my friend replied enthusiastically. “Do you shift the gears with this?”, I continued inquiring about the same bit of iron. “Yes.” A different paradigm of learning was required. I shut up and allowed him to explain. I slowly gathered the pieces — the piece of hardware was the gas. I was in the saddle of the motorbike unexpectedly soon, ready to shift to gear one. An audience gathered to witness my first ride, but I did not do anything entertaining: I flawlessly navigated the vehicle across the yard. The idea crossed my mind that I should get a Cambodian drivers’ license, since my old one was about to expire. Later I zipped around town with a Cambodian passenger, much to the amusement of the locals, who were more used to seeing an inverse arrangement.

Riding a motorbike in the courtyard of an orphanage in Cambodia

Learning to ride with eyes on the speedometer: blazing ahead at 2 kph.

My new skill proved vital a few weeks later. I was travelling north along the Mekong, and I rented a motorbike in every major town in Laos to visit the coffee plantations and waterfalls in the mountains. Lao mountain roads were almost entirely void of vehicles, so I had a pleasant time there. Cities, on the other hand, had a hectic traffic that included everything from dogs to trucks. I was trying to overtake a herd of cows, when one cow suddenly cut me off. As I was simultaneously breaking and shifting gears up and down, my right foot slipped between the cow, the road, and my motorbike. I kept my balance and rode on, but I noticed a sudden intense pain emanating from said extreme. Arriving home, I observed a strangely loose ankle. The joint was bending in more directions than usual. Disregarding the pain, I was very happy with my right ankle’s new degree of freedom.

Speed recorder motorbike at rest.

This motorbike was meant to break speed records and to butcher giant butterflies.

Minor accidents like this never deter me, I rented another motorbike in the next town. This was a good one, even its speedometer worked, which is highly unusual in Laos. My helmet allowed an unblocked view of the scenery, its front had no visor. As I was going uphill, I took note of the locations of police checkpoints. There was a long, straight, steep uphill stretch, with no police around. I decided to break my speed record on the way down. I drank much coffee in the plantations, and when the time came, I headed back. Reaching the starting point of the straight stretch, I accelerated on full throttle. The speedometer rose quickly to 50 kph, then not so quickly to 100 kph. I burst into a caffeinated grin as I passed 105 kph. A second later I spotted something big in the airspace ahead. The next moment the giant butterfly smashed into my mouth. My unintended meal, although rich in protein, was bitter. Its wing covered half my face. I learned to appreciate windshields the hard way.

Motorbikes parked at a market in Ouagadougou

None of these motorbikes was ours.

Two years passed before I got the chance to ride a motorbike again. Travelling in West Africa, I made a good friend in Burkina Faso. He did not only invite me to stay at his house, but he also let me ride his father’s motorbike. The country obeys size-based traffic rules, and two skinny blokes on a motorbike have a low priority. Due to this reason, I drove only in the sideroads close to his home, and on straight stretches of road with no intersections or traffic. It was better for the physical integrity of the two of us that he took over for the nontrivial parts of driving. Even with this safety-concious arrangement, I nearly ran over an innocent chicken. Domesticated avians, beware when I am at the helm!

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