The magic tuk-tuk of Varanasi

Transporting our gear from the airport in Delhi, India felt like we were in one of those smuggling movies in the heart of Colombia, driving in circles through several police checkpoints with unintelligible foreign language questions between tropical forest trees, dilapidated buildings, boiling heat, mobile phones passed from one fixer to another, our airplane in a hanger and our precious metals behind one of those walls, through several doorways. “Just what are you smuggling inside all those massive metal boxes?”

Carrying 160 kg of gear from South Africa and Italy to India, proved to be one of the most taxing operations in the film production. We first drove the gear with jeep and car to the cargo terminal in Cape Town. In India, at one point we needed three big taxis to transport them with a few of us to our hotels, but our best solution was our 12-seater mini-bus in Himachal Pradesh. Even with the latter we wondered whether all the gear would fit, having to pack them around the seats.

Just when we thought the most difficult journey with the gear was over through the Himalayas, when we went to Varanasi… the streets where we were shooting were actually so narrow that no cars could enter. Only tuk-tuks were allowed in there, winding through many roads to take you to your set locations.

We thought we might gain special favour to break some rules for a car to get our gear through, and we laughed when several transporters suggested that we place all the gear in two tuk-tuks. They clearly knew nothing about the amount of gear we had at our disposal. It’d fill your large hotel bedroom if you stacked it in there. So then, how would we get around the narrow Varanasi streets with this gear? Add to that the intense humid conditions, and ten minutes after you walk outside between the cows and their dung, your whole body is drenched in perspiration from even standing about.

Driving a car through here would be like driving through the eye of a needle, so to speak, so the transporters concluded it’s only possible to order a number of tuk-tuks to get the gear around in several journeys back and forth… so we thought. You have to remember that a tuk-tuk carries two passengers, while one driver sits on the front like a motorcycler. In fact there were many other trips in Varanasi, where merely two of us couldn’t even fit on that backseat, depending on the size of the passengers.

For the gear, we were thinking we’d take three tuk-tuks requiring four trips to get everything through. Plus, another tuk-tuk for the transporters and I, to drive alongside them? For South Africa, our plan to transport the same gear, required to rent a van that’s normally used for film productions of the like.

But… no. This is where we enter the magic Indian tuk-tuk, which is actually the very same tuk-tuk everyone uses there. Firstly, all the gear fitted in this one tuk-tuk. That’s right. How? Were there magic compartments inside it? Secondly, on the same backseat with all the gear on it, two transporters sat together with it, partially hanging out since there’s no doors. Thirdly, I was made to sit in the same tuk-tuk beside the driver. Not on a seat but on a small space where I could barely fit on his left. Fourthly, on the right of the driver, there fitted a third transporter. So, there we were, while one carrier hung out with a sound boom in his hand as the old Indian chariot made its way through the Varanasi pathways.

We only needed a one-way trip in one magic tuk-tuk. What we learned (not for the first time in this film production) is that no matter how difficult the logistics, you can make it happen with a combination of determination and imagination.

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