September 29, 2016

Confessions of a Rickshaw driver

It’s that time of year again – Oktoberfest – for many a fifth season in Munich. Every July, the tents start to go up, and after that, piece by piece, the carnival rides and stalls appear. With that, a sort of heightened anticipation lingers in the air – a phenomenon that can only be compared to Christmas. It keeps building until the large “Welcome” sign hovers over the entrance and the organism that is Oktoberfest starts to come to life with all its lights and sounds. Oktoberfest is also a special time for me because every year, I bring out my rickshaw.

A warm welcome at Oktoberfest!

If you haven’t been to Oktoberfest in the last few years (or if you’ve never been), we don’t actually ride on to the Oktoberfest grounds (though remember the good old days when…). No, we wait along the edges and take visitors to the train station, to the nearest pub, back to their hotel or hostel – that is, if they remember what it’s called or where it is. Please note: Einbahnstraße means “one-way street” and is not a street name! In the days ahead, I feel a mix of nervous excitement, pure joy and reluctance, because I know that ahead of me lies the hardest but best two weeks of the year.

What do rickshaw drivers need during Oktoberfest?

IMG_5689
Rafael is getting ready for his first guests …

Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the details of the special permit allowing me to carry a person on a bike or with the operating license I’m required to hold. Other than a rickshaw, whether bought or rented (or homemade for those comfortable with welding), you should know your city well. I know most hotels in Munich, as well as many pubs and their clientele and the establishments frequented only by men. I also know where to get a great kebab, or just where the nearest food is. I also know which hostel is “the one near the train station with the green letters”. Other than knowing your way around, you also need patience. Because business is often unpredictable, you only really make money if you work long hours and sometimes if you’re just lucky. Last but not least, you need to love your bike, because driving a rickshaw is seriously exhausting.

Varying conditions and the right gear

Wiesn Panorama

Since my days as a bike messenger, I’ve known that spending so many hours outside is only possible with the right clothing. But it’s even more extreme as a rickshaw driver. On a sunny day, you can expect about 25°C, but toward the evening and later at night, it will cool all the way down to below 10°C. It happens regularly that I might be out biking without a break for hours (read: sweaty), just to sit and wait for the next 2-3 hours, and I need to make sure I don’t cool down too much. With all that in mind, nothing beats my WINDSTOPPER® Soft Shell to keep me warm and dry on top. But not without a base layer and possibly a second layer as well. And all out of functional fabric. Even the best membrane doesn’t stand a chance if you’ve got a soaked cotton t-shirt underneath.

Cycling trousers are the only option when spending so many of those hours seated. Being on the go in cooler weather, I always have my leg warmers. These are my secret weapon and one of my absolute go-tos for any kind of cycling. I also always have on some light cycling gloves when I’m on my rickshaw, not for the handlebars so much as for the high fives I customarily share with my passengers. I can only imagine where those hands have been… I carry a heavier pair of gloves as well as hats with me for the very cold hours of the night. If it’s warmer, I go for the race cap to show just how fast I am!

Rickshaw basics, whatever the weather.

What else? Rain gear – shoe covers, rain pants, a rain jacket and gloves – which all fits comfortably in the compartment under the passenger bench. Also to be found in the passenger bench: spare inner tubes, repair kit, pump, flashlight, batteries, pasta salad and energy bars, several bottles of water and sometimes gifts from happy customers. Gifts range from standard plastic roses to roasted almonds to magnum bottles of champagne (empty, of course).

Long days and slurred speech

Wiesn Bär
Why doesn’t my fish sandwich taste good? Because you’re eating your phone.

How does my day look? I wake up at around noon and gather my energy: a little stretching, coffee, cereal. A little more coffee and I’m well on my way to having the strength to cook some pasta. Another quick afternoon coffee and I’m out the door at 3pm. The afternoons are normally quite relaxed. Passengers usually include families and people wanting to go to the Oktoberfest grounds, so almost all of them are sober and easygoing. The real action starts at around 10pm when the tents have closed and a little later, the stalls as well. We drivers call this the Run. Hordes stumble out into the streets and all of them want to go somewhere, so you have to be quick. This stream of happily paying customers lasts around an hour, on the weekends sometimes two.

Those other tools, the ones you can’t buy, are highly useful during these times: language skills, not only English, Italian and Spanish, but also Bavarian, and in varying degrees of clarity from sober to drunk. An ability to negotiate is also helpful, because like my colleagues, I also have a basic pricing strategy that depends on the offer, the demand and the likeability of my potential passengers. I try to be ready with a quick but friendly response to any questions or comments from the various moods of those passing by. Even with the most difficult people, I stay patient, friendly and assertive.

In the later hours, sometime between midnight and 3, the very motivated usually want to be taken to clubs downtown. It’s a bonus if I know which clubs the Bayern Munich players frequent. When everything starts to calm down, I hope for a passenger looking for a ride somewhere on my way home and then I enjoy a beer after a long day.

Still not entirely clear? Here are my responses to the most common questions or comments I get:

You must be a student.
Good deduction, Watson! Surely. I was but haven’t been for a long time.

Isn’t it exhausting?
Usually yes, especially going up a hill. But with two slender guests such as yourselves, it’s no work at all!

SHUHMUHTUHBUDUNUH?
Sorry?

You charge more than a taxi! Why should I take you?
That’s true. It’s more expensive because it’s more work for me and it’s more fun for you! And at this time of day, I’m faster than a taxi.

How much do you earn just during Oktoberfest?
With a little luck and good weather and if I don’t get sick, then I make around <COUGH> euros.

You must totally have crazy strong legs!
Totally. Crazy.

Can I feel?
No.

Aw, really? Please?
I guess it depends on my tip.

Do you do this when it isn’t Oktoberfest?
Many of my colleagues do, but they tend to offer sightseeing trips. Many of them are… yep… students.

Could you take me to the airport?
No, but I will gladly take you to the train station, where you can go straight to the airport.

Could you take me to Berlin?
Would you pay me for that? That’s what I thought.

Would you take me for free?
I have actually taken passengers for free. We call them Karma rides. When you do something nice for good people, then maybe it’ll come back to you. But they were always people who didn’t specifically ask for it. So, no.

Do you also take this crumpled, soggy 20 euro note?
Of course. In technical terms, we would say that money has been “lederhosen’d”.

Can I try?
Maybe, if you’re really sobe…no.

Can I at least honk?
Of course. _______Alright, I think that’s enough now.

Can you take me somewhere I can meet some girls?
Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to drive into the beer tents.

How much does a rickshaw weigh?
The rickshaw is 80kg, the equipment is 20kg, and I weigh 80kg. With you two, it’s about 300-400kg in all.

Do you get to enjoy Oktoberfest yourself?
Sure! I go at least twice every year.

What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you as a driver?
<BEEEEEEEEEEEEP>. It was a pretty good offer but no thanks!

Where is my hotel?
I’m sorry, I don’t know if you can’t tell me what it’s called.

 

Could you … BAAARRRFFFFEEUUGHH!
Ew.

What’s the furthest you’ve taken someone?
Erding. That’s almost as far as the airport (ca. 35 km) and it took us three hours! The two guys were happy to pay and really enjoyed it. I called it a day afterwards, though.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you as a driver?
Oktoberfest visitors are practically breaking that record on a daily basis, especially when they try to conquer the insurmountable curbstone right next to the rickshaw rank. Hence the name, “stunt curb”.

And with that, I say ride on and cheers!
Rafael


My favorite products on the rickshaw:

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