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Rickshaw Retrospective: My Finest Hour

Rickshaw Retrospective: My Finest Hour


By Adam Slight


Bluesfest is a very important time of the year for a rickshaw runner in Ottawa. My business partner, Brian often describes it as “more exciting than Christmas” so that must mean something. Bluefest is a large outdoor music festival that takes place in mid-July. It exhibits world-class musicians from all over the world, and has seen bands like Kiss, Iron Maiden, Keith Urban, and Ludacris (to provide a very, very shallow sample). In 2010 the festival saw over 300 000 spectators over its 12-day stretch.

From a rickshaw runner’s stand-point this is an extremely lucrative opportunity. Every Bluesfest day means gold, and thousands of spectators means a guaranteed abundance of fares. You will find that a lot of the stories I post here will have taken place at this venue. The location of Bluefest itself also offers an interesting twist in a rickshaw runner’s summer. Bluesfest is held at LeBreton Flats, about 3 km from the ByWard Market.

As the name suggests, LaBreton Flats is a flat area. In 1820 the Rideau Canal was originally intended to be carved directly through this low-plain area. Capt. John LaBreton, an acclaimed war hero, overheard of this plan from his contemporary, Lord Dalhousie. Quickly, he bought all of the land in the area for $1500, turning around and offering it to Dalhousie for $3000. Out of spite, Dalhousie altered the planned placement of the canal, bypassing the lands now named after LaBreton. The geography of LaBreton Flats is also significant to a rickshaw runner, as it is located within a valley, promising gruelling uphill rickshaw rides no matter which direction you’re asked to go.

These gruelling rides characterize the greatest challenges we face in a summer. They promise huge fares, and often bigger tips (sometimes out of pity), but also sometimes great disappointments (when you put actual blood sweat and tears into your ride and get complaints that you’re going too slowly). They also play into the politics of how to execute a good Bluefest shift. A successful Bluesfest night will reward you with $300 and sore calves, while an exceptional night might send you home with $400-500. As the crowds begin to leave the concert you have a limited amount of time to make your daily bread. You need to strategize which hills you’ll conquer, and conquer them quickly so you can return for more. As the crowds dwindle, most runners then aim for the gold: a ride back to the ByWard Market.

This ride is marked by 3km of steep, 40-degree incline, passing through downtown, past the Parliament Buildings into the Market. It’s a $50 ride, and you get one just about every night. However, it isn’t unheard of that someone pays $70-100 to be pulled through that gauntlet. And if a runner is lucky enough to get one of these rides early, they can always sprint back to Bluesfest to try and fish for another big ride.

I’m painting this picture to illustrate how much of an event Bluesfest is to a rickshaw runner. It is an exhausting 12-day period, both physically and mentally, but it is also rewarding. One tries to do their best to work all 12 nights in a row.

While my first year running I managed the 12-night streak, in my last year running I didn’t have such luck. I was struck with sickness from being in the sun for too long (an 18-hour shift on Canada Day followed by a nice day at the beach), and missed three very lucrative weekend nights at Bluesfest. Being sick was bad enough, but thinking about all of the money-making opportunities I had missed out on filled me with a desire to put in 200% effort for the next few shifts.

The next night I went out to work, there were three of us coming out to work early. Omar, Marc, and I arrived at the festival at about 7pm, and we parked near a bus terminal where we planned to ferry lazy patrons to the front gate for $10. Business was down, but my resolve remained high.

As time passed, and business failed to present itself or focus turned to the black storm clouds billowing towards us in the distance. Nothing kills rickshaw business like bad weather, particularly lightning striking your stainless-steel rickshaw. As the rain began to pelt down on us Omar and Marc took quick action. They sprinted down the street and out of sight in hopes of finding shelter. I’m not sure if it was my determination to make up for the days that I had missed, or my own plain stupidity, but my main concern when the rain fell was to keep my rickshaw seat dry. As long as the seat was dry, I could continue working!

The rain was falling in sheets, with mud bubbling up onto the streets when I jumped to the back of my rickshaw to find the blue tarp I kept there for emergencies. The vinyl canopy on the rickshaw was good for keeping the sun off of passengers’ heads, but it couldn’t keep this downpour from drenching the rickshaw seat for long. Grabbing the tarp I hoped into the rickshaw seat and spread the small tarp over my head so that it could keep me and my rickshaw dry.

While the tarp did its job, I felt like a seasoned sailor trying to keep his ship afloat during a hurricane. Buckets of cold rain blasted against me, soaking my running shoes, as gusts of wind swept underneath the tarp threatening to blow it from my hands. I could hear people outside fleeing, soaked, as thunder cracked overhead. I texted my girlfriend to say my last goodbyes…

As the tempest carried on, I was joined by two strangers. I gave them shelter and in exchange they helped me battle the storm, holding down the tarp. I was fixated on keeping the rickshaw seat dry, no matter the cost, and at this point I couldn’t even change my mind unless I wanted to leave my rickshaw and let the weather sweep me away in oblivion. The strangers were friendly and much more light-hearted about the storm. They had already accepted that they would be arriving home dripping with rain water. As I watched them depart I temporarily peeked out from my makeshift shelter. My heart sunk to see thousands of people emptying out of the festival. This was a normal sight at 11pm, but it was barely 9 O’Clock. I had battled the storm, and still the night was lost.

Suddenly inspiration hit me. I realized the opportunity that had fallen into my lap. I had the entire Bluesfest crowd to myself, with no one to share with! I had to work quickly. I began to rummage through the back of my rickshaw and found two long bungee cords that I kept for emergencies. I fastened the tarp to the front of the rickshaw as a protective screen.

It wasn’t 20 seconds after I pulled my rickshaw into the rain and people that I had my first offer. I suppose my sheltered rickshaw had graduated from “novelty” to “necessity” given the circumstances.  An older couple asked me to take them to their car, and because of the rain money was not an issue. I sealed them away into my rickshaw safety chamber. While they couldn’t see much, they claimed they were perfectly dry.

Rain beat on my face as I pulled my modified rickshaw like a parachute against the wind. Running 400 lbs up a 40-degree incline is difficult enough as it is, but it took every ounce of my energy to pull it with a tarp catching the wind. Despite this, I felt a very strong drive to get these passengers to their car as dry as possible. As silly as it may sound, it was a heroic moment for me, having lasted through the worst of the storm surviving to carry on with business.

The older couple was very appreciative when I delivered them to their car, and provided a healthy tip. I managed to take on four other fares in the downpour, protecting my happy passengers from the rain. By 11 O’clock the rain had let up, and Bluesfest had ended early. As a rickshaw runner you are often rewarded for the extra effort apply. Sometimes you wait out a storm and the business dies and you go home empty-handed. Thankfully I was lucky this time.