While undertaking a journey of such magnitude one of the most important ingredients is most definitely the car. Baiju, being the automobile expert, provided critical inputs to this area. He suggested that we should source a car with automatic transmission and with as much comfort as it could provide, for which the suspension was crucial. To me the vehicle had to be roomy to carry the luggage of all three, accommodate guides in a couple of countries, provide shelter in times of dire need and capable of being serviced across Continents. Baiju was certain that we would be able to get automobile manufacturers interested in the venture for it would be value for money for them to partner in a never before done ‘ad’venture. We knocked on many doors – BMW, Toyota, Audi, Pajero, Isuzu, Mahindra, Ford, Volvo, etc. We test drove almost all of them. The shortlist comprised of the Pajero, Isuzu MU7 and Rexton. Almost daily interactions with interlocutors of auto manufacturers kept us interested and hopeful with the sponsorship of the car. We had a few conditions to take the car from the manufacturers – the car had to be registered in the name of one of the team members (a stipulation for obtaining the Carnet), the Company had to obtain the Carnet for us and also provide international insurance and service.
I had factored the Carnet as a critical component of the documentation to apply for visas. It would also attest to the fact that we would be driving into the countries rather than flying in; most visa authorities insist on confirmed flight bookings to consider visa applications. Hence, obtaining a car was higher up on the event sequence. Days, weeks and months were going by without any real progress with the automobile manufacturers. It was decided that we would wait till the Auto Expo in Delhi, during when Baiju was hopeful of getting the ‘deal done’. Well, to cut a long and agonizing story short, it did not happen. We were quite hopeful of Isuzu partnering us for they were to launch the MU7 in Cochin. Publicity of the partnership could have done much to promote the model, we felt; the feeling was enhanced in the light of its poor acceptance in the Kerala market thereafter. It was later confirmed that Isuzu was bothered about the impact to its brand in case something went wrong during the journey.
After prolonged discussions, presentations and pleading I decided in late February that it was time to put an end to all uncertainty regarding the vehicle. I decided to source a suitable used car in reasonable condition. Besides, it had to be pocket friendly; there was not a pie in the bank! Baiju and his colleague, Kuruvilla, got right into the action and started evaluating multiple options. In the end we were able to identify a 2010 Ford Endeavour in reasonably good condition. It had done nearly 56,000 kms but was owner driven and well maintained. Though it had a few ‘extra fittings’ all the tyres were due replacement. We struck a quick deal, arranged personal finance to temporarily fund the purchase and came in possession of it in less than a week. Thus, the first challenge was met; on March 10 I became the proud owner of a Ford Endeavour. We had something to show regarding the impending journey. It is interesting to observe how each event adds to excitement – once we started talking to people about the Ford Endeavour they started taking the journey more seriously. Of course, questions were asked as to why we went in for the car that we did. It was not possible to explain to most of them the travails and anguish. But the fact is that this was what we could do with the limitations of automobile manufacturers refusing to see value in the epic adventure.
While a person requires a visa to travel from one country to another a Carnet de Passage en Douane (CPD), a customs document that identifies the motor vehicle, is a sine qua non for taking a car through various foreign countries. The Carnet permits hassle free movement of vehicles across borders without cash deposits at the border. It is, in essence, a guarantee for temporary import and re-export of the private vehicle. Some countries like China do not participate in the Union and hence, the car permit has to be sought separately. European countries neither insist on the CPD nor on border deposits. Therefore, specific to this trip the Carnet is required for India and Nepal, not required for the European countries and to be obtained at the borders of the Central Asian countries. The Carnet is issued in India by the Automobile Associations. I approached the AA of Southern India in Chennai and got to know of the extremely rigorous conditions – the vehicle had to be in the name of one of the drivers (no borrowed vehicles), the vehicle had to be produced before the Association for certification and most importantly, a bank guarantee covering three and half times the original invoiced value of the car had to be deposited with the Association till the vehicle is returned to India. These regulations are irksome, but they are not show stoppers. Another restriction is that the route prescribed in the Carnet has to be followed. Any last minute or planned diversions could lead to problems en route. In addition, in case the car gets stolen or cannot be returned to India for some reason within 6 months of its exit from India, the bank guarantee will be cashed in by the Automobile Association to meet Customs demand. The Carnet has to be properly stamped at all the international borders to ensure that the bank guarantee is discharged upon return to India.
The issue of bank guarantee for the CPD had to be tackled urgently to even apply to the AASI. I asked Mr. Johnson Mathew of Trans Asia if the Company could assist me in the BG. He was spontaneously positive about it. The entire process was efficiently and promptly handled by the Finance team of the Company. AASI insisted that the BG should be drawn on a bank branch in Chennai. Even that was covered by Trans Asia. I got the ownership of the car changed within a week and applied for the CPD. The Secretary of AASI was extremely forthcoming in guiding me through the process and his team in Chennai handled the application efficiently and promptly. I drove the car to AASI Chennai on 24th April, took a lifetime membership of the Association and within 24 hours of inspection of the car I had the CPD in hand – at least the car was ready for the trip, even though the sponsorship and visas were not! The co-operation of the Secretary and the rest of the AASI team was indeed a revelation. However, it made me wonder why the AASI chapter in Cochin was not empowered to do these jobs to a member. I was told that Kerala government was one of the few that did not empower the Automobile Associations to issue an International Driving Permit. Imagine a Keralite who has to drive his car outside the country – the person has to get the IDP from Kerala and the Carnet from Chennai. I wish this changes sometime soon.