Rickshaw Ride


Part One.


I’d been staying at the seedy, crumbling edifice known as the Noble Hotel in the old part of town for about a week when Ojay, my drug contact, suggested I move. He’d been horrified when he discovered where I was living. The woman manager, he assured me was not to be trusted. “She’s a sneaking snake, ” he hissed venomously and peered over his shoulder, as though even now she lay coiled, listening on the other side of the flimsy door. Then he launched into a long, convoluted tale of local betrayal and treachery. I only half listened though, I was too busy imbibing his drugs. Besides, it was a tale I had heard many times before.

He had a point though. I’d only selected the Noble out of desperation in the first place, when I arrived on the island after midnight to find every hotel apparently packed with Norwegians. My rickshaw driver, a jaunty young Malay, wore a white singlet to show off his manly physique and his many gold chains. He claimed to know every hotel night-clerk personally, but after half a dozen or so front-desk arguments even he was starting to look desperate. Finally, he took me to the Noble.

Erected some time during the Reign of Queen Victoria it was a crumbling, paint-peeling mound, half torn down by the huge banyan tree in front, whose serpentine roots were slowly eating into the retaining wall. It soon became apparent that upstairs was run as a low rent brothel, the foyer was filled with syphilitic, drug addicted wraiths sitting around smoking and waiting for customers.

So I took a room on the ground floor, within view of the concierges desk, which I hoped would at least offer me some security, seeing as how the lock to my room was apparently constructed early in the nineteenth century.

“Go to the Imperial Hotel ” urged Ojay,” I used to live there myself.” he offered, by way of recommendation.

So I packed my bags, handed back the enormous iron key to my room and headed onto the street to find my new home. All I knew was that it was somewhere in the warren of back-streets that composed the Old Town. Ojay hadn’t offered me anything as prosaic as directions.

“Just ask any rickshaw driver to take you to the Imperial..they all know it.”

But it was one of those rare occasions when there was not a rickshaw to be seen. No-one even tried to sell me something. An unaccustomed lull seemed to have Old Town in its grip. Maybe it was time for prayers.

I was pondering my situation when a cracked and creaking voice made its way into my presence.

“You want ride? I take you.”

Deliverance! I thought and turned around only to discover the most decrepit rickshaw I had ever seen, and its owner, who appeared to be the world’s oldest living opium addict. He was a wizened little Chinese man with a skull like face. The skin wrapped tightly around his thin frame was like yellow paper that had been folded and creased many times. He appeared not to have an ounce of muscle, you could see all the tendons and bones work. His only attire was a pair of faded grey shorts.

Maybe he was sixty, maybe he was only thirty-five, but he looked about a hundred. He looked, in fact, like he’d been pulling rickshaws since the town was a proud bastion of the British Empire. It wasn’t even bicycle powered, for god sake, like most modern rickshaws, but an ancient two poled, foot-powered contraption.

As he stood looking at me hopefully I pictured myself lolling back in the rickshaw like a true son of the Vanished Empire, while this emaciated, feeble old man hauled my decadent white carcass through the streets of a third world slum for a handful of change. I winced at the image.

No. I just couldn’t do it. It was one thing riding in a rickshaw being hauled by a cheerful, muscular, young opportunist, but this was too much like a bad carictature of Exploitation. I wasn’t going to be a burden to this poor old man.

And yet he wanted the work. His next pipe of opium probably counted on it. I was a devotee of the Dragon myself at the time, so I sympathised. Besides if I turned him down and took the next rickshaw I would have hurt his pride. There was straight out charity of course, but maybe that was worse. The beggars here sat on the ground with one hand palm out for money and the other hand shielding their face so no-one could see their shame.

So I went with an impulsive decision.

“Ok”, I said, tossing my bags in the carriage, “But I want to drive. You can ride with the luggage and give directions.”

Why not, I thought, how hard can it be? After all the old guy looks like he only weighs about fifty pounds and I am young and strong. If he can manage to haul chunky Norwegians around surely it should be easy enough for me?

Well it took a little while to explain my plan and convince him of my earnest desire to swap roles. I just want to see what its like, I told him, you’ll still get paid. Hey I’ll pay extra for the inconvenience (it was little enough).

I’m not sure he understood my reasoning but in the end I convinced him to go with my plan. No doubt it just went to confirm that all foreigners are crazy.


I was instructed in the mysteries of his trade. These being that there were two poles to hold and a leather harness strap in between to lean against. He would shout directions.

So off we went. It wasn’t that hard once you got started but as always it was hot and humid and I was soon sweating. We must have been an interesting sight, even for Old Town. The three Indian women who spent all day sullenly chewing betel nut outside the shop opposite the hotel, stopped their relentless grinding for the first time in their lives in order to let their jaws drop.

“White mans burden,” I explained cheerfully.

With sweating palms I tried to keep my grip on the slippery poles. I had trouble steering and braking too, but we got on well enough in the back streets till we got to the intersection.

Here I hestitated. What were the road rules here? Did they even have rules or was it the law of the jungle?

“Straight! Straight!” my passenger commanded.

Ok. I plunged into the maelstrom of the intersection. A shiny new car swerved around me horn blasting. The driver slowed down just enough to let fly a voluble stream of what I took to be curses in an unfamiliar language. Adrenalim pumping I responded with a few choice expressions in my own dialect. My “passenger” found the whole exchange hilarious.

At the time I was too busy navigating the narrow back streets for philosophic contemplation, but later looking back over the episode, I thought I detected a whiff of archtypal symbolism to the affair. What could it mean that I came to be pulling around a rickshaw whose passenger was a hundred year old opium addict. It was certainly symbolic of something but what? White, liberal guilt? The dynamics of the Drug trade? My own addiction? First world/ Third world economic interdependence? I wasn’t sure.


I suspect we didn’t go directly to our destination; he wanted to show me off to his friends. Or perhaps it just happened that our way took us past the stone steps where the rickshaws habitually congregated. Either way, he called out to them cheerfully as we trotted past and set them all a-chattering like a tree full of agitated monkeys. He found that funny too, grinning mouth spread wide to reveal his toothless gums. I was glad he was enjoying the ride, when I first saw him I didn’t think he could smile.


Eventually we found the Imperial hotel. It was another crumbling, paint-peeling mound erected some time during the reign of Queen Victoria. There was no tree eating into the side of the building this time however, which disappointed me. I’d rather liked the banyan tree.

I paid “my passenger” and he went shuffling off into the labyrinth, carting his rickety rickshaw behind him. Thankfully, despite its external appearance, the Imperial’s interior was rather more salubrious than the Noble. There was no brothel, and instead of drug ravaged prostitutes in the foyer, the proprieter’s family lived there instead. In the evening his polite, well-groomed children would do their homework sitting on the cool, red tiled floor, and later they would drag in some fold out stretcher beds and sleep there beneath the ever whirling ceiling fans.. 



Tune into next weeks Sunday Sermon for the stunning conclusion to this ambiguous tale.



The Reverend Hellfire is a practising Performance Poet and an ordained Minister of the Church of Spiritual humanists AND the Church of the Universe.

Like Edith Piaf, he regrets nothing.



~ by reverendhellfire on June 17, 2012.

2 Responses to “RICKSHAW RIDE”

  1. Looking forward to the second part…

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