The late April light had begun to disappear behind the Indian horizon as Daniel Gonzalez took the key to the small auto rickshaw. The ill-fated vehicle was purposed to carry three "Charity Explorers" over 2,000 miles -- on winding potholed roads, past barreling semi-trucks, and across the vibrant Indian landscape -- from Cochin to Shillong.
They were racing to raise money and awareness for International Justice Mission (IMJ), a nonprofit organization that is working to eradicate human trafficking and advocates on behalf of victims all over the world. The team -- Gonzalez, the videographer, Cedric Dahl, the "logistics guy," and Christopher Keller, the charity organizer -- was already a week behind in their journey.
So they neglected the advice of the event's organizers and decided to head out at night.
Driving during daylight was dangerous enough; It was, as Keller described, "like driving full speed against traffic on a one-way road."
They all knew the risks increased after the sun went down. "It is always scary having semi-trucks driving at you at full speed, but at night their headlights blind you," he explained.
Dahl sensed that something would go wrong, but, because he had grown accustomed to the feelings of doubt, fear, and stress he had felt since they began this macabre mission, he decided to just shut his eyes and meditate. His eyes burst open moments later as the rickshaw went careening off to the right, smashed onto its side, and, with sparks flying, slid into the path of two oncoming semi-trucks.
The team was racing against 72 other teams across India in Charity Explorers' "Rickshaw Romp!" The race offers philanthropic adventurers the chance to to raise funds for charity by self-navigating their way to the finish line on poor roads in a 7hp Auto Rickshaw. The three-wheeled vehicle is often referred to as a "tuk tuk" and can only reach up to 35 mph.
The team had already been racing for two weeks before the accident but had only raised $1,254 for IJM. They had also gotten lost and sick several times. They had bumped and bruised their rickshaw, and had played "chicken" with semi trucks.
With the bad came the good: they enjoyed watching the lush Indian landscape change from tropical to desert to jungle during the course of their journey; they took the opportunity to skinny-dip in the warm Indian Ocean at nightfall; and, most of all, they appreciated the kindness they were met with by locals in the villages they passed through.
"People in India have enormous hearts. They have nothing and they give you everything," Dahl says. Once, when their rickshaw broke down, they were instantly aided by local townspeople.
The three young men joined the race to see this side to India, the part not hidden from typical travelers. They decided to dedicate their mission to IJM.
"There are some causes that really strike a fire in the heart. Children being forced to do things against their will, struck something in my heart," Keller explains. "IJM is doing great, great work," he added.
IJM reports that today, human trafficking generates over 32 billion dollars a year for those who profit from the exploitation of millions of women, men, and children around the world. Nearly 2 million children are bought and sold in the commercial sex industry, and justice systems in many countries are ill-equipped to protect them.
Though they were determined to make a difference, they also seemed bent on egging each other on. "It was a good group, but our personalities made it more dangerous because we did stupid silly things," Keller says.
The extra risks they took landed them in the crash that nearly ended the race for the team -- and could have ended their lives.
As their rickshaw flipped, Dahl described how they were narrowly missed by the oncoming semis. He posted about the experience on his blog:
"The first semi misses us. The second clips our shaw and we spin like a top, flipping end over end on our side...I watch sparks fly from the metal bits of our shaw and land on the spare gas tank by my feet, if one of those sparks ignites the gas -- we're all dead."
Indian observers were, as ever, quick on the scene and ready to lend a hand.
"After what feels like an eternity, the rickshaw comes to stop. We hear the Indian voices shouting in the distance and the pitter patter of running feet. Brown hands reach into the rickshaw and pull us out one by one."
The auto rickshaw needed to be repaired. Dahl suffered abrasions along the right side of his body, where he had been scraped against the road during the crash. His right elbow was a "bloody mess," and he had lacerations that went to the bone.
Keller had also severely scraped his back in the accident. Because there was limited access to proper medical care, they relied solely on morphine and antibiotics as a course of treatment.
Gonzalez had escaped the crash with relatively minor injuries, Still, he decided he was done -- he did not to finish the race and left as soon as the team reached the next town.
Faced with the extensive damages of their vehicle and grappling with the pain of their injuries, the two remaining team members were ready to quit.
Supporters at IJM, and other sponsors, including friends and family, inspired them to finish. Keller described how the encouragement they received from sponsors after the wreck convinced them to continue. "We are like a family now," he adds referring to those at IJM that helped them through.
On May 3, two days after the race had officially ended, Keller and Dahl were met with a crowd as they crossed the finish line. They were the last team to make it.
The team has raised a total of $1,684 for IJM through their website, and, though this was far below their goal of $10,000, they plan to continue to raise money for the cause. "At the end of the day, we want to make an impact," Dahl says, reflecting on their experience, adding, "If we can help a few more people -- if we can help just one more person, it will be worth it."
Keller, however, believes more must be done. He plans on continuing to raise awareness about human trafficking and he insists that, "the impact won't be satisfying until the problem is solved." Both Keller and Dahl agree, however, that their experience was worth it.
"About halfway through we all agreed that this was the stupidest thing we had ever done. Now we all agree that this was the most epic thing we had ever done -- so far," Keller says.
Registration for the next Rickshaw Romp is currently open, but Dahl advises this race is not for the faint of heart.
He insists that "it is an adventure, not a vacation," but adds, "I hope people can do ridiculous things and smile -- to remind them they are alive. If they can do it for a cause, all the better."