Rowan native to drive Rickshaw across India to raise awareness for literacy

Rowan County native Renee Alexander hugs her teammate  Vastal Dholabhai during a fundraiser for Room to Read. Their team, the Reading Rickshaws, is driving across India in motorized rickshaws to raise money and awareness for the group.
Rowan County native Renee Alexander hugs her teammate Vastal Dholabhai during a fundraiser for Room to Read. Their team, the Reading Rickshaws, is driving across India in motorized rickshaws to raise money and awareness for the group.

By this time next week Renee Alexander will be in India preparing for her first Rickshaw Run.

The Rowan County native plans to leave her San Francisco home Saturday to begin the unique adventure.

Alexander’s team dubbed the “Reading Rickshaws” will drive two of the three-wheeled, glorified lawnmowers across the country

“This is my first time doing anything like this,” Alexander said. “It’s exciting because this is the kind of travel that really intrigues me. I’ve never done anything quite this elaborate or crazy.”

The 2,000-mile trip across India is expected to take between two or three weeks and run through unkempt, traffic filled roads. During the journey, the four-person team is planning to make a few stops.

Alexander said they’ll visit Room to Read-supported libraries along the way. The team is raising money and awareness for the American charity that promotes literacy equality in India and beyond. They’ve already raised most of their $10,000 goal.

“Reading is a big deal for all of us,” she said. “We all learned to read at an early age and it opened the door to opportunity and adventure.”

Vastal Dholabhai, one of Alexander’s teammates, said growing up in India he knows just how important groups like Room to Read are.

“The concept of libraries is picking up, but they still aren’t very accessible,” he said. “We have 4.5 million people for one public library, they’re not really that common.

“Among this many people, no matter how many libraries you put together it’s not going to be enough.”

Dholabhai said he was fortunate to grow up in a family that “really believed in reading.”

“We would have one book fair in our town each year that my family tried to organize,” he said. “Me and my siblings would be tasked with reading as many books as possible in those three days, so we wouldn’t have to buy them.”

Alexander can vouch for Dholabhai’s love of books.

“Whenever he gets a book, he puts a cover on it,” she said. “He never writes in it or folds down the pages, and he’s appalled when he sees me do those things.”

Dholabhai said the team chose Room to Read over other literacy groups because instead of just giving communities a books, they partner with local government to establish libraries that will continue to grow and thrive.

Alexander, who graduated from East Rowan High School and Catawba College, said she’s always wanted to go to India, but she’s been holding off for the right time.

“I always told myself I would go with a native because I know how overwhelming it could be,” she said. “I wanted to be with someone who could offer some guidance.”

When Alexander and Dholabhai met several years ago, they became fast friends and later decided to round up a group for the Rickshaw Run.

“When I first heard about this event, I said ‘Oh my God, this is great, let’s do this,’” he said. “At the same time, we thought wouldn’t it be better if we could raise money and awareness.”

Dholabhai said the journey will allow him to see his native country in a different way.

“For me, this trip is about really exploring where I’m from,” he said. “It’s a way to really see all of its elements.”

The group has received multiple vaccinations in preparation for their trip. They’ve also obtained motorcycle licenses.

“That won’t help us drive the rickshaw any better, it’s just a requirement,” Alexander said. “When people think of a rickshaw, they think it’s like a bicycle, but we are actually taking motorized rickshaws, so there won’t be any pedaling.”

Before leaving the finish line on Sept. 8, the team’s rickshaw will be “pimped out” with colorful painted designs.

“Vastal’s convinced they won’t do a good enough job, so he’s prepared to break out the paintbrush,” Alexander said.

Dholabhai said it won’t be a surprise if the teams’ two rickshaws break down during the trip, as it happens regularly.

“No matter how much you plan or try to plan, things are not going to go according to planned,” he said. “Our team works very well together and we are all very resourceful, so we’ll come up with solutions when problems arrive.”

The team will crash with friends along the way.

“When people asked what they can do to help, I said ‘A shower, a clean bed, a home cooked meal would be nice,’” Alexander said.

After completing the journey, they’ll spend the remainder of September in India with Dholabhai’s family.

“They have graciously offered to host us, so we’ll get to spend a few days outside the rickshaw living like real human beings,” Alexander said.

Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.



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