by Arthur Veríssimo
Article translated from the Brazilian magazine Trip
June, 2012 edition
After miles and miles traveling aboard tuk tuks across India, Pakistan, China and Peru, our exceptional reporter is faced with a new challenge: going for a ride in the busy city of São Paulo, Brazil, in the charming SerTãoBras tuk tuk.
They have spread throughout all continents. They abound in various remote as well as populous places across the planet. They are part of the day to day of travelers and of entire populations who make full use of their practicality. Square and modest in appearance, looking much like a loaf of bread on three wheels, they are cheap and their upkeep simple. The tuk tuk, also known as motocar, auto rickshaw, trishaw, is a three wheeled vehicle that is very popular in some Asian and Latin American countries. In high style, our team set off into the busy São Paulo streets to test the versatility and charisma of this three wheeler that has revolutionized transport in developing regions round the globe. For this test drive we got in touch with NGO SerTãoBras, which has been battling to implant the tuk tuk in Brazil. In their garage we were to find one of them, yellow, full of pizzazz. And to venture to the streets we called on our mezzo-Sikh, mezzo-Pakistanian pilot Alex Singh, otherwise known as Alex Cassalho, the art editor of our intercontinental Trip Magazine. Without much ado, Alex Singh took out of his kurta (classic Indian long shirt) an international driver’s license, category A, the same as required for driving motorcycles, that would allow him to drive the tuk tuk with intrepidity.
We began our saga going up the steep streets of the Pacaembu area of São Paulo. With its 150 cylinder motor, our bolide tuk tuked hard uphill. In his ancestral turban, Alex Singh complained of the gears, since the tuk tuks piloted in Rawalpindi, Lahore and Islamabad were four stroke, single cylinder and go into reverse. I could perfectly understand Mr. Singh’s attitude, as the ones there are better fit for traffic; our model follows the Peruvian and Thai standards, quite different from those running the streets of India and Pakistan. When we reached the smooth, flat Dr. Arnaldo Avenue, our tuk tuk lost its shyness and moved in all solemnity. The exotic look of the tuk tuk drew great curiosity. Its bumper and part of the cabin are of metal. Its drop down sides and roof are yellow plastic canvas, similar to jeep and buggy hoods. Swell and handy. In other words, a sophisticated, motorized carriage, totally different from the vehicles everyone is used to seeing in Brazil. Mr. Singh snorted pleasurably turning on, turning off and changing gears with his foot. Ecstatic, he babbled in Punjabi, Urdu, English and in backlands Brazilian dialect.
I understood only when he started on a powerful prayer to the patriarch of Sikhism, the guru Nanak. I subtly put a hault to his prayers and asked him to get moving with our saga, as a traffic policewoman was approaching us. According to the producer (Motocar), the model is for two passengers plus the driver, and meets the Contram (Brazilian Transport Department) 129 regulation: “The circulation of the 3- wheeled automotor with closed cabin is restricted to urban streets, its circulation being prohibited in federal, state and municipal roadways; Art. 2. To circulate in urban areas, without the driver and passengers being required to use safety helmets, the closed cabin three wheeled automotor must be equipped with the following: parking and service brakes, emmergency flasher, seat belts, back bumper, horn, speedometer, windshield wipers, fire extinguisher, headlights, tail lights, backplate lighting.” Our yellow MTX 150 had all this plus front disk brake and light alloy wheels.
On Paulista Avenue, the traffic literally stopped to look at us. We headed on followed by a continuous flux of honks, people waving, blowing kisses and pedestrians taking photos with their mobiles. Full of grace and elegance, Alex Singh greeted the enraptured crowds. At all moments, displays of affection and surprise. A baby pink haired woman sitting in her Honda Fit at a red light, got a fright, then messed up all her make-up in fits of laughter. She wanted to know the price of the 3 wheeled bolide. I said it cost R$ 8.950,00 (around $4, 475,00) in Manaus, but in Peru it sold for a trifling R$ 2 thousand (circa $1, 000,00). The woman got all excited, it seemed she really wanted one. On fancy Oscar Freire St. in the Jardins neighborhood, we stopped to fill up at a gas station. The average fuel consumption of the tuk tuk is 30 kilometers per liter and its tank capacity is 13 liters. Next, we stopped in front of the Emiliano Hotel, leaving valet service and security guard baffled. They didn’t know what to do faced with the special pachyderm. I yelled my orders to Mr. Singh, who with a booming “Yes, Siiiiiiiir” got into gear and left smiling.
Evening was approaching, and amidst heavy traffic, we cruised slowly along Estados Unidos St. My memory sparked up recalling the ancestors of the tuk tuk. According to historians, the name Rickshaw stems from the Japanese word jinrikisha- which means human traction vehicle. The first appeared in Tokyo in 1868, facilitating life in the city. It was a success. In 1872 more than 40 thousand rickshaws circulated in the small streets of the Japanese capital. The example spread throughout Asia, transforming public transport forever. Evolution led to the cycle riskshaw before reaching motorized tricyles.
To Go for a Ride, Yes; as Taxi, No.
While quite the darling on our ride, around here the tuk tuk is still a rarity and auto manufacturers don’t show interest in them. They cannot compete with automobiles, but could be a good means of transport in areas of difficult access in the outskirts of big cities or in places with no public transport.
Returning to our pleasurable epic, it was time for us to head back. At SerTãoBras headquarters, NGO director Li An, a tuk tuk supporter and enthusiast, concluded:
“There are even models that run on natural gas, and solar and electrical energy. But the hardships are many, such as the fact that no insurance company wants to insure this tuk tuk. The present law in Brazil allows its circulation, but it cannot be used as a taxi. In Peru this indomitable 3 wheeler revolutionized and facilitated the life of millions of people. More than 500 thousand tuk tuk taxis circulate from jungle to coast to mountains. Besides being economical, it carries passengers, cargo, and protects people from the sun, wind and rain at low prices.”
Translated from Portuguese by Robin Geld