Monday, December 14, 2015

MATTER OF PRIDE

Accidents on big mountains happen when people's ambitions cloud their good judgment. Good climbing is about climbing with heart and with instinct, not ambition and pride. - Bear Grylls

Through all the expeditions and roads journeys I have been constantly asked what it is that I gain from them. To me such interludes help rejuvenate the soul and help spend quality time with oneself, help understand the sameness of humankind despite obvious differences, help appreciate culture, food, dress habits and local customs, help open one’s mind to diverse thoughts and beliefs, help admire the cosmic balance and beauty that Nature holds, help conquer fear of the unknown, help spread smiles across lands and peoples and much, much more. They fulfill the internal drive to travel and experience adventure, fulfill a certain ‘calling’, fulfill a sense of ‘been there, done that’, fulfill a yearning of achievement and such other. However, to me the greatest gain is the inspiration one’s travels provide for others to attempt similar or other adventures. I consider that the young must travel for it is education to them and the elderly must travel for it adds to their experience. The overland trips I undertook to London and Singapore from Kochi in 2014-15, to be immodest without gumption, did provide a few ‘sparks’ that saw many such tours being planned and executed.

Anand Baid and his young family undertook a path breaking journey from Bangalore to Annesy, France. The uniqueness of his overland trip was that he and his wife took their two young children on the 111 day trip. I am certain that the young family gained immensely and bonded differently when faced with challenges like the Nepal earthquake in April 2015. I understand that though they were stranded for over 96 hours they were almost the last ones to use the Kodari-Lhasa route in a long time; the damage to infrastructure in Nepal and China saw the closure of the route for many months. A group of four Suratis were forced to rethink their route to London due to the same natural calamity. I could share my experience of travel through Myanmar that assisted Hetal and Rajiv Shah of Network Tours & Travels, Surat who had organised the road expedition, to re-route them via Myanmar and China. My travelogues have been edited by Thomas Chacko, a Chartered Accountant by profession, and an adventurer himself. He undertook a trip all around India in a Tata Nano after editing the first travelogue, “Ek Swift Bharat Yatra”. He is currently on a journey around the world in his Hyundai i20. Continuing in the immodest vein I have been through this paragraph, I would claim that editing “A Glorious Endeavour” – the travelogue on the journey to London – inspired him to undertake the global car jaunt! The soft spoken Atul Warrier from Trichur was another I could share my experiences with before he took off on a world trip on his bike. There are many others who have taken tips and queried me seriously to plan overland trips. Such experiences have been the true gains from the expeditions I have made so far. To prove that it is ‘do’able and that leave a template for others to follow are matters of great pride. The shock on friends’ faces when told that one can reach Singapore by road and that only one short ferry ride is involved in the road trip to London are indelible gains too!


One question I am invariably asked when people meet me during my journeys, across countries and cultures, is “how old are you”? I would like to think that it is only the mop of grey hair that prompts them to get curious about my age! When told that I am about to close out the third decade of my existence on Planet Earth I have seen many heave sighs of relief that still have the time to do what they want to do. To the many who think that there is an age limit to indulge in what they want to I would only say that, while age is just a number and youth an experience, overarching passion and the unwavering focus on what one wants to do are the keys; no matter what the age is.

CHALLENGES

Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory. - George S. Patton

An expedition has many elements of risk attached to it, some known and many unknown, and braving challenges is integral to it. Some challenges could be life threatening, some a matter of hearsay and many are simply products of the fear of the unknown. Putting together information from people who have done the routes in the past and collating as much information as possible from published sources is a matter of prudent detail. Therefore, when you attempt something unique and unprecedented you would be, by and large, beating a new path. The two international expeditions to London and Singapore and three of the five Indian expeditions I have undertaken so far fall into the category of ‘being done for the first time’. Hence, there is very little data to fall back on and much less that make cogent sense.

Planning the route and making provisions for night halts is one of the first challenges that I come across with every expedition. As long as the attempt is better or set a new Limca Record the route is made available by the company. Then it is a matter of combining experience and gathered information to decide on where to pitch the night camp. Even after elaborate planning is done one should anticipate last minute changes. I experienced that on the Coast-to-Coast and East-West expeditions when plans had to be recast almost on an hourly basis. So also was the case during the South East Asian Odyssey when refusal of Vietnamese Customs to permit the car into the country had me scrambling to make changes in the itinerary in a foreign country. This could be a show stopper and extremely challenging in the normal case. However, visa on arrival in many of the South East Asian nations for Indian nationals are a boon under such circumstances when rerouting has to be done.

Understanding and taking care of requisite documentation is another area that requires close attention. Carnet de Passages en Douane (CPD) is a crucial document that facilitates international transportation of a vehicle. Obtaining it is cumbersome and financially difficult in India. It is made even more with processes varying between chapters of the Automobile Associations in India. Getting the carnet stamped and officially validated across borders and varying procedural formalities could make hair stand on its end. I had an issue at the Thai-Lao border when the Thai immigration insisted that I was in the country with the car illegally, as I had not obtained an immigration document for the car at the entry point into Thailand from Myanmar! That I had to part with a handsome amount as fine is quite another matter. But the attendant tension and stress are unbearable at times, especially when one is alone. For the Trans Himalayan Expedition I have to cross two international borders, those of Nepal and Bhutan. I have confirmed from friends and from the internet that short duration stays in these countries can be managed without a carnet. Permits have to be obtained. Similarly, travel through Arunachal Pradesh requires an Inner Line Permit. I have requested Seju Kuruvila, IPS, who was formerly Superintendent of Police in Tezu, the capital of Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh, to help me with this part of documentation.

Limca Book of Records has a strict code for documenting a Record Drive. One of them is to get physical certification at check points mentioned by it along the route. The Trans Himalayan Expedition will require 55 certifications on the laid down log sheet format from Jammu to Tezu! While by itself it is an enormous challenge, it is made more so by the time taken to do the same; when attempting a speed record every minute matters. Hence, it is all the more reason to ensure that credible digital recording is done to the extent that it is accepted by the authorities concerned. It will be useful to leverage known contacts who will help out with the documentation process.

Anticipating tough locations where assistance would be required is another area that requires close attention, especially when one is attempting an expedition in the hills, such as the Trans Himalayan. Weather reports coming in from various parts of the country such as Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and J&K were forbidding, to say the least. Washed off roads, broken down bridges, diverted routes, closed sections, swirling waters and many such reports fill newspapers these days. They are extremely worrying and could, at any point, turn out to be show stoppers. The earthquake in Nepal had been one such in the recent past. Even though information emanating from the country suggests that most roads are motorable now a series of aftershocks have kept the nation and its citizens on their toes since the April disaster. Very little is known about driving in Bhutan, except that in the recent past the roads have improved; night driving is not advised. Time taken to negotiate small stretches of 200 kms could be as high as 10 hours, I understand. Finding nourishment and camps in such terrain could be an issue. Unpredictable weather conditions have to be factored in during the monsoon season, when flash floods, cloud bursts and landslides accompany an adventurer and adds to the excitement. I have also prepared a list and spoken to friends and members of the network who could be of assistance in case of dire need. Sudhir Pratap Singh, an erstwhile railway colleague and now a senior IPS officer, has agreed to assist in J&K, where the latest issue is regarding the entry of private vehicles into Leh. The local taxi associations have been on the warpath citing threat to environment and livelihood. Sanjiv Garg, Chief Operations Manager of Northern Railway, has pitched in with railway accommodation in places like Chandigarh, Jammu, Manali, Shimla and Mussoorie. Mohan Bandaru, an erstwhile colleague in Container Corporation of India, has promised border facilitation and accommodation in Nepal. Seju Kuruvila, as mentioned earlier, has been approached for help in Arunachal Pradesh. The route in Arunachal Pradesh is challenging and calls for negotiating many water bodies and landslide prone locations. Emergency contacts and supplies may have to be leveraged at short notice.


Through all this, I have always experienced the ‘invisible hand’ that protects and cares. The omnipresent Guardian Angel, who appears in many forms and shapes, is what guides me in my travels, particularly when it comes to negotiating challenges. Knowing this and trusting fully in the intervention of the Guardian Angel, I welcome challenges. The fear of the unknown recedes into the background. Of greater help in keeping a calm and cool mind in trying circumstances is to understand that you are not indispensable. The Sun does not rise to see your face nor does the Moon complete its course to greet you.

GETTING THE FAMILIAR SCHEDULE TOGETHER

As a rule, we find what we look for; we achieve what we get ready for. - James Cash Penney

As the expedition was being finalised I had to decide on the car to undertake it in. The choice was between the Swift, in which I had undertaken five Indian Record Drives, and the Ford Endeavour, in which I had done two international expeditions. The four wheel drive and automatic transmission of the Ford tipped the scales in its favour. The Endeavour had suffered two ‘knocks’ during the drive back from the South East Asian Odyssey. I had bumped into a mini truck meant to carry poultry as I was descending the ghats from Kohima to Dimapur. The truck had cut in sharply in front of me and braked. The reaction time I had could only reduce the impact. The extra Hella lamps got crushed on hitting the crash guard of the truck. That was the only damage I could perceive on a cursory inspection at the accident spot. The poultry truck, after seeing that it had not suffered any damage, left the spot without any verbal exchange. The damaged lamps were an eyesore and produced a grating sound. Once I got through the busy traffic of Dimapur I turned into a nondescript garage to remove the damaged lamps. That’s when I was told that the impact of the rear ending had pushed the grill in and jammed the bonnet of the car. It would take some time to get those attended to. Hence, I decided to drive on to the next big city, Guwahati or Kolkata, before attending to the repair. I was worried that I would be in a soup if I had to attend to anything under the hood, even if it were to top up the coolant or brake fluid. The accident had set off funny sounds in the car. It started as a whistling sound while accelerating. Higher the acceleration the higher was the whistling sound. After a while I learnt how to reduce the sound by controlling acceleration. Nevertheless, the sound was definitely there. Pedestrians and drivers stared at the car; in some ways, I got unwanted attention. Then came a grating sound. I had no idea where it all emanated from or the reason for it. I was convinced that the car would not last till the end of the expedition. Fortunately, nothing of that happened till I reached Cochin. But there was a grating sound that got louder with each passing day and a drag on the transmission, which prevented me from accelerating the way I wanted.

The second knock was on the way from Malda to Kolkata. A speeding freight truck got too close and knocked off the left side mirror. The place where it happened was so crowded and busy that I didn’t dare to stop and pick up broken parts from the road. What was left of the side mirror on the car helplessly flapped in the wind. I drove on with these major handicaps, thanking my lucky stars that the accidents had not happened on foreign soil. In Visakhapatnam Thulasiram taped the debris of the side mirror to make it look respectable.

Even though I had reached Cochin without too much of a fuss I had to get the vehicle repaired before setting off on the next expedition. For a few weeks the hunt for the side mirror proved despairing. Ford dealerships estimated the electronic mirror to cost anything between Rs. 18,000 to Rs. 25,000 with a two week order time. That is when I was introduced to Atulbhai in Surat by Rajiv Shah, my travel agent friend. Atulbhai is a genius with cars. His passion for cars and its parts is absolutely infectious. He can talk authoritatively for hours on the subject. What surprised me even more was that he acquired all his knowledge from magazines and articles and put the passion to use on vehicles he and his friends owned. I asked Atulbhai if he could source the left side mirror for the Ford from his network. All that I had to give him were photographs and details of the make of the car. In a week the brand new part was delivered by courier to my residence. What added lustre to the assistance was the bargain Atulbhai struck with his source. I got it for one third the Ford estimate!

I handed over the car to the Kairali Ford service station for the check up, repair and servicing of the Endeavour after the side mirror, the grill and the bonnet were attended to in another garage. Rakesh of Kairali Ford had been associated with the upkeep fo the Endeavour ever since I purchased her second hand in early 2014. He had been responsible for its excellent performance on the two international expeditions to London and Singapore. It was to him that I turned again to make her ship shape for the Trans Himalayan Expedition that could pose serious challenges to the man as well as the machine. Rakesh took just one test drive and correctly assessed what had to be done. The drag to the transmission came from the drive shaft. I left the car in his care for over a week and finally got it back with all issues attended to. The drive had once again become smooth and the car felt eager and ready to face the challenges of the expedition.

I am singularly unlucky with sponsorship for my expeditions. It could be my approach to the whole issue, but it seldom works out. Four of the seven expeditions have been fully funded out of personal savings. For the four week trip I anticipated an expense of Rs. 2,50,000 after factoring in family hospitality and government accommodation. Idea Cellular pitched in with a data card for the expedition in response to a sponsorship appeal. Since my appeals to Ford had gone unanswered for the previous two trips I did not approach them for this either. My appeals to Maruti too had fallen on deaf ears in the past. It is a pity that car companies do not see value in a partnership, especially when it involves challenges that are unique.

The itinerary for the Trans Himalayan Expedition was given by Limca Book of Records. The start and end points are Jammu and Tezu. I had initially planned to start from Tezu and finish in Jammu, when the Trans Himalayan was part of the double header earlier in the year. As it was now a standalone expedition I decided to start in Jammu and drew up the itinerary accordingly. The round trip would be about 13,500 km with the Record Drive comprising about 6,000 km of it. While the entire duration of the trip would be 29 days the compete portion would last 16 days from Jammu to Tezu. This expedition has not been attempted solo as yet and there lay the uniqueness of it. While finalising the itinerary I took into consideration the distance, the terrain and the possibility of getting decent accommodation along the route. Before zeroing in on THE route I made many changes based on input from friends and those who had experienced sections of the route.


Making a list of all that one has to take is another part of the preparation for the expedition. With the experience of many expeditions under my belt making the packing list had become less of a challenge as expeditions went by. Anticipated weather is a critical input to decide what one takes along. I had to factor in the plains and the Himalayan reaches while putting stuff into the bag. Material for documentation such as cameras, log sheets, laptop, rough journals and the like were part of the list. Food items formed a major part of the planning process. Liquids and energy sources were essentials. Emergency supplies had to be taken care of. Similarly medicines and emergency kit, car spares and all of the like were decided on. One by one the items were bagged and readied to be put into the car, a day prior to the start of the expedition.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

AN UNFINISHED AGENDA BUBBLES


A couple of weeks before I hit the road for the South East Asian Odyssey, the Trans Himalayan Expedition was added on to make it a mega double header. The overarching reasons for it were two. First, the weather conditions and the season to undertake the Trans Himalayan Expedition are extremely crucial. The passes have to be open while, at the same time, rains shouldn’t play spoil sport with landslides and unmotorable road conditions. The months of March-April and October-November would be ideal from the monsoon point of view. But many passes are not open then and the Leh-Manali route is closed during these months. Therefore, the months of May-June and August-September emerge the best bets. However, the risk of rainfall is high during these months, particularly in the north east of the country. There can never be ideal conditions; they have to be met and overcome as they happen. Second, I have a very large ‘non-compete’ drive from Cochin to start and end the expedition. I would have to drive nearly 4000 km to the start point from Cochin and a similar distance from the end point to get back to Cochin. Thus, clubbing the South East Asian Odyssey and the Trans Himalayan Expedition would shorten the ‘non-compete’ portion, at least in one direction. By going from Kohima to Tezu, the start point of the expedition, I would transit only 600 km instead of 4000 km!

Thus was born the double header; twin expeditions across 11 countries, 20 states of the Indian union spanning 28,000 km in 100 days. The car was branded accordingly, the driver’s side for the South East Asian Odyssey and the passenger’s side for the Trans Himalayan Expedition. Different sets of clothes were packed for the two legs of the double header because warm clothing was an additional requirement for the second leg, as also altitude related medication, camping gear and such other. While making a comprehensive packing list was absolutely critical packing them into different bags was another challenge. Also to be kept in mind was the overlapping gear required for the two legs and how one had to be repacked before the start of the other. All these were done and the Odyssey cum Expedition was flagged off at an impressive ceremony at Tyrex, Cochin on 28 February 2015.

The South East Asian Odyssey was going on as per schedule, except for minor readjustments, necessitated by the refusal by the Customs authorities at the Vietnam border to permit my car into Vietnam till I had what they called ‘proper documents’. The drive through Vietnam had to be abandoned. However, the adjustments did not prove to be either financially or physically expensive. By the time I reached Siem Reap in Cambodia I had attained the original trajectory. Thereafter, the rest of the South East Asian Odyssey went as per script. On 25 April I crossed over from Malaysia to Thailand; from the little known Malaysian town of Kuala Perlis to Ko Lanta, the Thai island resort centre. On that day, unknown to me, disaster struck in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal. A violent earthquake rattled the country which, besides the destruction and misery, resulted in the death of thousands. During expeditions, I normally do not get time to surf TV channels or scour newspapers. It was the same on 25 April; I didn’t know the convulsions that gripped the country I had travelled through during the epic expedition to London. The next day I had frantic messages from family, friends and well-wishers wanting to know if all was well with me and my Odyssey. There were appeals to call off the Himalayan Expedition, if it was not already on. At that point I did not consider it necessary to take a call on the second leg of my expedition because there were nearly three weeks to go before the Himalayan Expedition began from Tezu in Arunachal Pradesh. Surely, things would be alright in the time, I reasoned. That false sense of comfort was, as I later understood, because I did not have details of the disaster, which I got when I reached Tak in Thailand. The tragedy and the scale of it hit me full blast when I was pointlessly skimming TV channels in the hotel. Ghastly pictures of the quake, rescue efforts and misery of the human tragedy made me decide against the Himalayan Expedition. That could be done another time. I made necessary changes in the itinerary to return to Cochin after crossing over to India. The second leg of the expedition was aborted.

In the media interaction in Cochin, on return from the South East Asian Odyssey, I declared that I would not be taking up any more expeditions for at least a year.  I was low on surplus funds as two international expeditions had lopped off a healthy chunk of my savings. “You are born for expedition”, came the message from Hetal Shah, a Facebook friend from Surat. That was a call to shake off any apathy that may have set in and to explore new frontiers. Those words played over and over again and took me to the office table yet again to cast plans for the next twelve plans. How such a call to action can energise the mind and grow you wings is one to be experienced. 
‘Matah, Pitah, Guru, Daivam’, the adage from the ancient, has been variously explained. One of them is that the mother points the father out to the child, the father to the teacher and the teacher to God. The other is that parents and teachers are the true representatives of God on earth. I adopted the latter from a very early age and put my parents and teachers on a pedestal different from others in my life. They were the role models who shared and instilled values and principles of life and those who were, for me, benchmarks to better. I remember verbal duels in school, and sometimes even physical exchanges, to establish whose parents and teachers were better. Those were the days when humans walked tall in this world. Then technology took over. Today the verbal duels and physical jousts are to establish which child has access to the most ‘awesome’ technology! Machine replaced man. Cold technology replaced warm human emotions. However, one cannot, and should not, be judgemental about such developments in the continuous evolution of the human race. “After me, the deluge”, is a megalomaniacal cry. But, I consider that there are certain values that transcend time; Matah, Pitah, Guru, Daivam is one such. I wanted to do my bit to rejuvenate the age old wisdom. I made out a plan to walk from the south of Kerala to the north – Kovalam to Kasargod – to spread awareness of the adage. Over 600 km to be completed in 30 days by foot! The plan was to walk over 20 km every day, between 4am and 9am, terminate the walk in a school chosen in advance, where students, parents and students from neighbouring schools would gather. I would then address the unique assembly sharing the concept behind the walk. Spending the rest of the day with people of the area would also help me gather varied views on a variety of subjects, pick up local folklore, beliefs and superstitions, flavour local cuisine and make new friends, I reasoned. The walk was planned to be done in September-October partnering either the Rotary or the Lions Club.


The Trans Himalayan Expedition that had to be postponed due to the Nepal earthquake remained an unfinished agenda. And that had to be attempted in May 2016, which completed a twelve month plan. Whilst I was working on details to execute the walk my sister, Geetha George, called up to say that she would be visiting us in September. She was coming to India from the US after two years and was juggling dates gingerly to accommodate her vacation. Moreover, the unpredictable monsoon rains could be a wet blanket enveloping the proposed walk in September-October, I gathered. In a short while I rearranged the twelve month plan – undertake the Trans Himalayan Expedition in August-September and the walk in February-March. The plans were thus recast and the Trans Himalayan Expedition – the unfinished agenda of the double header in early 2015 – would begin from Jammu on 21 August, for which I would leave Cochin in the Ford Endeavour on 15 August 2015. Thus I dreamed today for a few of my tomorrows.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Post Trip - 16 May 2015 - Oh, What an Odyssey!

The South East Asian Odyssey was planned in three months and executed over 77 days, covering 21635 kms. The odyssey took me through 9 countries, of which 8 were by car. The countries covered were India (8268 km – 17 days), Myanmar (3369 km – 11 days), Thailand (4744 km – 15 days), Lao DPR (2395 km – 9 days), Cambodia (688 kms – 3 days), Malaysia (2112 kms – 10 days), Singapore (59 kms – 4 days), Vietnam (0 km – 5 days), Indonesia (0km – 3 days). The Ford Endeavour, KL 29C 2131, consumed 2400 litres of diesel oil, with an average price of Rs. 51.50 across countries with mileage of 9 kms to a litre. 340 kms were covered per day, on an average, if the 64 driving days alone are factored in. Else, over the 77 days 280 kms were covered per day, on an average. 27 border crossings were done during the onward and return journeys, of which 25 were with the car. While the average cost of accommodation was Rs. 2000 per night, food and beverages cost Rs. 500 per day.

Cambodia was the only foreign country where USD didn’t have to be changed to local currency because of its wide acceptance from fruit juice vendors to hotels. Vietnam was a heart break because Customs officials did not accept the Carnet and insisted on ‘proper documents’ from the Ministry of Road Transport. The Ministry, in turn, wanted the application routed through an approved local tour operator and 5 to 10 working days to process the application, would have thrown my schedule completely off balance. Hence, the drive in Vietnam ended in their territory at the Tay Trang border post. The Ro-Ro ferry to Batam had been discontinued many years before and hence, my driving experience did not extend to Indonesia. Thailand is the only country that requires ‘Immigration Clearance’ for the car by way of ‘Information on Conveyance’ that has to be filled out and stamped at the importation border and submitted at the exportation border. Not knowing this cost me time, effort and money at Nong Khai, the Thai border with Lao DPR. While an immigration official wanted me to go back to the importation border and secure the relevant papers I managed to wriggle out of the tricky situation by paying a fine of THB 4000. Insurance for the car in Myanmar was secured by the tour agency while the Automobile Association of Singapore charged USD 200 for 6 days. I was unable to obtain car insurance for the rest of the countries despite my best efforts at the borders and in neighbouring towns. Some countries are even legally barred from insuring foreign registered vehicles.

The major hurdle for travelling by motorised transport from India to foreign countries is the need to obtain the Carnet de Passages en Douane (CPD or Carnet, in short), which identifies the driver’s motor vehicle. It is accepted by over 85 countries the world over as an alternative to paying duty deposits for temporary importation and exportation of the vehicle. European and Central Asian countries on the Kochi-London route did not require the Carnet. All countries on the South East Asian countries, except Vietnam, accepted the Carnet. The agency in India tasked with issuing the Carnet is the Automobile Association. The major hassle is making necessary Bank Guarantee for obtaining the Carnet. There is no standard practice either, which makes it discretionary. While the Western Indian AA accepts 200 per cent of the depreciated value of the vehicle as BG, the Southern Indian chapter takes 350 per cent of the original value of the vehicle. The difference between the chapters is not correct especially because the Carnet papers for customers in Chennai are sourced from Mumbai. Another major problem is the physical presentation and verification of the vehicle in the premises of the AA. While I had to take the car to Chennai to get the Carnet done, and later to get the BG released, involving huge costs, I am told that Western Indian AA requires only photographs of the car, the chassis and engine numbers. I wonder why there should be such major differences in the issuance of the Carnet within the country.

With the doors of Pakistan being virtually closed to tourists from India due to diplomatic and safety reasons the route options to Europe is via Nepal and China or from Iran after shipping the vehicle from Mumbai to Bandar Abbas. Nepal is grappling with the aftermath of one of the worst earthquakes in human history. Under the circumstances the India tourist will detour via Myanmar to China and thereon to Europe. Both Myanmar and China have financially crippling regulations unless the trip is in a group where the overheads can be spread over a larger group of tourists. I had to provide transport, accommodation and food for three persons during the Myanmar leg of the SEA Odyssey. The Rs. 3.5 lakhs for transiting Myanmar was more than one third of the overall cost if the trip.

The successful completion of the South East Asian Odyssey was possible only due the contribution of a large network of friends, family and professional organisations. It would be wrong not to mention them and a major faux pas if I missed out on even one of them. Weighing the options, therefore, I choose to acknowledge their contribution en bloc. I enjoyed their assistance, hospitality, friendship, suggestion, advice, encouragement and constructive criticism all through the odyssey. I made friends with amazing people who shared their wonderful experiences with me. I was always treated as family by people with who I stayed with and accepted unreservedly as a friend by those who I came to know on the journey. Help came from unexpected sources and the ‘invisible hand’ was visible all the time. Prayers of near and dear saw me through challenges that even threatened life. I am certain that I will never be able to repay even a fraction of the kindness and assistance I have received, but I remain indebted to all, may be even across lives. Because, I believe that one of the purposes of my travels is to meet fellow souls who travel with me through time and space.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Day 77 - 15 May 2015 - Chennai to Cochin

Yes, this was the day when the expedition would end in Cochin. UPM Advertising has been a major force in ensuring visibility of the expedition at the flag off, on social media and among friends and relatives. Mary George and Phillip Cherian have been pillars of support for almost all my expeditions. And it is with them that the responsibility of organising a reception in Tyrex vested. Silently they worked on it and all that I had to do was to confirm the time of arrival into Cochin. After I reached Chennai I confirmed to Mary that I would reach Cochin at 5 pm on 15 May.

Yesterday I half thought of engaging a Ford service station to take a look at the car because the acceleration was almost capped at 100 kmph and the initial resistance was accompanied by increasing sounds! Even then I decided to push the machine to its limits. After all, my expeditions have been about “Pushing The Limits”. And I banked on the ‘soul’ understanding the importance of the occasion and coming to the party. I was absolutely spot on as the Ford Endeavour stood up to be counted as a tough and hardy SUV that could be pushed to its limits.

I have done the Chennai-Cochin 650 plus stretch in about 10 hours, a few times in the past. However, this day I gave myself a couple of hours slack and left Chennai on the dot at 5 am. At the first toll gate on the Old Madras Road the attendant asked for Rs.10 without a ticket and let me pass. He made some pocket money this morning. Tushara had informed me that the article about the expedition would appear in this morning’s edition of The Hindu. Since it would be on the MetroPlus page I had to get a copy before leaving Chennai. I stopped after Pallavaram at a tea shop that had newspapers for sale. I picked up a copy of The Hindu and ordered a cup of coffee. While reading the article the Malayalee owner of the tea stall recognised the car from the picture and launched into a conversation. Subjects ranged from the Kerala registered car to the weather in Kerala; curiosity intertwined with factual information. When he started on the Mani controversy I decided to leave because a political discussion with a Malayalee could keep you pitched for hours!

Before Chingelput the skies opened up and copious rains lasted more than 30 minutes. Visibility was affected and traffic slowed down. Haphazard and negligent driving added to the risk of driving in such weather. The toll plaza at Chingelput was congested with drivers manoeuvring to get to the head of the queue. I wondered why queue discipline cannot be enforced in India if the same was possible before the Beverages Corporation outlets in Kerala!

Once the toll plaza was done with the drive up to Salem was fantastic. By about 10 am I reached Hotel Saravana Bhavan for breakfast. I normally stop at this neat and clean restaurant for a bite whenever I am on this route. I relaxed for a while and had idlis, dosa and coffee before getting back to the highway. Manoj Mullur, a friend who resided in Kodakara, was on a business visit to Tirupur. He requested for a lift back to his home town. We arranged to meet up on the highway and continued on the journey. Feeding on what was in the car and the coconut buns Manoj had got we decided to save time by skipping lunch.

The never ending road works between Coimbatore and Walayar did cost me time, but I was still operating to schedule. Crossing into Kerala at Walayar was an emotional moment – back home after 11 weeks. The condition of the road from Walayar to Palghat has improved considerably in the past year with most of it being four laned. Most of the private buses operating on this stretch are guilty of dangerous driving. On bad roads they are a nuisance and on good roads they are a risk.

Cinosh is a Facebook friend. He was in touch with me from the time I left Erode.  He wanted to meet me briefly when I was passing through Wadakkencherry. Followers like this enrich the expedition too. When you interact with them you realise how many dreams of travel lie unfulfilled in them. Therefore, your journey is vicariously fulfilling for them. We met up in front of a tea shop, where had had come with a friend of his. I tried to answer his questions as best as I could over a cup of tea and paripu vadas. Manoj had arranged for pudding cake at a shop in Kodakara. This is a speciality of this town. It is the ‘secret recipe’ of a household in Kodakara. The cake is a pudding too; it is heavenly with vanilla ice cream. I bought two kgs of the pudding cake, had a couple of lime sherbets and made for the highway – the last stretch to the finish point.

When I left Kodakara I had about two hours to reach Cochin. It would be enough, in the normal course. But traffic is unpredictable after Alwaye and the ongoing Metro works could delay you beyond reasonable time. However, this day I was lucky. I informed Mary that I would reach at least 15 minutes before time. She wanted me to stay on the road and come in only after the media personnel and others had arrived. I did that and reached Tyrex when I was asked too. The media was well represented. Photo sessions, interviews and interaction went on for more than an hour. I felt bad that I could not spend time with those who had come to greet me, friends and relatives. Once the media interaction was over the log sheet was filled up for the last time, the sticker for India was affixed signifying the end of the Expedition and the released bank Guarantee was handed over to Trans Asia.

Friends in Alfa Serene, my residence, waited for over an hour there with bouquet and cake for me to complete the Tyrex rendezvous. Many were still there when I reached the apartment close to 7pm. We spent some time together over a few stories from the expedition. And the homecoming was complete. The South East Asian Odyssey was done and dusted successfully. The Himalayan Expedition remains a dream. Some day, not too far, I hope!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Day 76 - 14 May 2015 - In Chennai

The photoshoot in the morning in Marina Beach would happen only if it didn’t rain, Suzanne had said last night. Abraham had warned me to be at the location in time because Suzanne and Tushara would be there as the clock strikes, he was sure. With light to medium rain clouds gathering in the distant I forewent breakfast and reached the Gandhi Statue on Marine Drive a half hour before the appointed time. With the beach and the Police headquarters in the background, I was taking a few selfies when a police constable requested me to park the car parallel to the kerb. I had not realised that the length of the car would be an obstruction to through traffic during peak time. Watching the calm sea that morning I could not fathom the destruction that tsunami waves had caused there that fateful Christmas Eve.

Ashok Thomas, Tushara and the photographer arrived just when the sun shone brightly and the light was right for the photoshoot. Suzanne informed that she was on the way and that the shoot could proceed. In between positioning the car and posing for pictures I caught up on matters personal and professional with Ashok. In about an hour’s time we were almost done with the session when Susanne arrived by her two wheeler, drenched from head to toe. Apparently, she had been delayed en route by heavy rain and later she just braved it and landed up at the location. She brought rain to Marina Beach along with her. We all sought refuge in the car till a slight let up permitted us to say goodbyes and clamber into our own transports to head back to where we wanted to.

My immediate task was to get to Saravana Bhavan for breakfast. I seldom miss an opportunity to have ‘tiffin’ in the restaurant when I visit Chennai. Over the years the restaurant chain has spread its wings far and wide, with branches in the Gulf, USA and Europe. My personal favourite in the city is the one on Dr Radhakrishnan Salai. Parking is often a problem there during peak hours. But I managed a slot this time without having to wait. The interior of the restaurant has remained the same over the past fifteen years, as also the taste of ‘sambar’, which is the best in the country to me. I ordered mini tiffin, which had small portions of 14 idlis, masala dosa, pongal and rava kesari. The strong coffee shook off any lethargy that may have crept up, willy nilly, in the wet weather.

The additional day was scheduled in Chennai to complete redemption formalities of the Bank Guarantee in the office of the Automobile Association of Southern India. The car will be inspected as part of the process and the Carnet papers examined before the BG is returned. I had informed the Secretary of the AASI in advance and he had already done the preliminary work by the time I reached the office. In less than an hour the redeemed BG was in my possession. As I was leaving the office Shanmughum, the Secretary, told me that he had two visitors who wanted to drive a three wheeler from India to Europe. I met them on the way out and wished them well.

Thereafter, I had two business meetings, one over lunch, exploring consultancy options. When I was in the first, Rahul and Naveen, the duo who were preparing to travel to Europe by a solar tuk-tuk, sought an appointment. I met them halfway through the luncheon meeting at the Taj Vivanta. I was fascinated by the efforts of the two planning a zero emission drive. The vehicle is being put together by them from scratch and that is posing them a problem about obtaining Carnet since the original specs of the vehicle is totally altered and it also does not have registration details, which the AASI was insisting on. I passed on whatever information I had based on my two overseas expedition experiences. They have planned to ship the tuk-tuk to Bander Abbas in Iran and drive on through 10 countries and 10,000 kms in Europe. Such initiatives, I suggested to AASI, must be encouraged.

I got back to Perungudi to spend time with Mrs and Mr Pius Joseph, Peechappan Uncle and Mariamma Elayamma to me. They have been more like parents to me and they have always treated me as their own.  I had proposed to go out for dinner, but Peechappan Uncle suggested that we spend time at home. The hospitality of the couple is legendary and you get the best food in Chennai in their home. He also organised a lovely cake to celebrate my 57th birthday.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Day 75 - 13 May 2015 - Visakhapatnam to Chennai

It was time to leave the City of Destiny. Except for a few of my expeditions like North-South, East-West and that to London, Visakhapatnam always figured in the itinerary. The hospitality of Thulasi Ram and his family has been the prime reason for that. During this expedition Visakhapatnam had not originally figured in the return trip because of the Himalayan Expedition that was to be attempted immediately on conclusion of this one in Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh. However, the earthquake and aftershocks in Nepal changed all that. It was only ten days back that I redid the South East Asian itinerary to cut out the Himalayan Expedition. When the reroute was done I sought the assistance of Gopal Mohanty in Kolkata and Thulasi Ram in Visakhapatnam for accommodation in Guwahati, Malda, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam. It was standard operating procedure. No matter what, they were always there for me. Into this category fall KB Singh in Imphal, Moncy Thomas in Bangkok, Ajo David in Batam, Sreekanth Nair in Singapore and Anand Kumar in Kuala Lumpur, whose support and encouragement were singular factors in the successful and enjoyable completion of this expedition. The rich interactions and experiential learnings through these helpful souls, and others who they helped network with, enriched the expedition’s objective – Goodwill Knows No Boundaries.

Thulasi Ram was ready with a hot cup of coffee by the time I woke up and started putting my things together. He insisted on another before a bath and getting dressed for the last city on the East coast, Chennai.  He also loaded up the car with plenty of water and a flask of hot water, my basic essentials. The sky was slowly getting lit up to welcome the planet’s residents on this part of it to another glorious day when I drove the short distance from the flat to the highway. The first task was to fill fuel, which I did soon. The curiosity of the fuel station attendant about the expedition was overwhelmed by my shock on seeing the rate per litre of diesel – Rs. 57.44 – the highest I paid during the entire expedition! I wished it would last till I exited the state. The average fuel price thus far on the expedition has been Rs. 51.25.

Toll plazas are many on the NH5, from Kolkata to Chennai, as they are on most major highways. Some of them are so congested that it generates handsome business for local residents, who vend eatables, newspaper, flowers and the like. Besides the large number of vehicles indiscipline by road users, some of whom decide that queues are not meant for them, add to the delay and unnecessary stress. I wonder why the worthies that hire such drivers do not rein them in. Even if they are in such a tearing hurry why don’t they realise that others in the queue value their time too. Such things happen purely because of lack of respect for their fellow human beings. To top it all, I have been absolutely frustrated by toll plaza attendants who cannot muster enough change or some that are downright inefficient.

Is there no alternative to the humongous infrastructure for toll collection that NHAI puts up as part of the road building initiative? Of course, there are. During the drive to London I experienced one such. At the border to a country one could buy a toll token for a specific number of days; the rate varied depending on the number of days, with a basic minimum number of days. Once that is stuck on the windshield one could drive for that many days on the highways of the country without having to stop anywhere to pay for the transit. As simple as that. The use of smart cards is another alternative deployed in Malaysia and Singapore. Can we not introduce a system in India where we would be able to purchase tolls for specific trips or on monthly basis on line, depending on the intensity of use? Making the use of smart cards compulsory is another alternative. These initiatives will not only obviate the need for capital expenditure on large toll plazas the government will not have to depend on an external agency for collection of revenues due to it. Most importantly, the money is realised prior to the use of the infrastructure without collection cost. Disputes with collection agencies will also be eliminated.

By 9.30 am I could no longer control hunger; biscuits, coffee and dry fruits had struck a temporary truce, but the stomach yearned for a hot meal. I stopped at a wayside shop for a quick bite of cold and oily puris and hot peas and potato curry. The breakfast cost me Rs.8! The drive, thereafter, to Chennai was largely uneventful through Vijayawada, Guntur and Nellore. The road surfacing was good and the traffic not so heavy.

I had a 7.30pm rendezvous with Suzanne Myrtle Lazarus of The Hindu for an interview, which was facilitated by Ashok Thomas, a good friend I have known since his student days in Chennai. He is the founder of a successful communications agency. The interview was scheduled at The Raintree in Adyar and Google Maps led me to the one on Mount Road! However, I recovered in time to reach the appointed venue a bit behind schedule, where I met up with Suzanna and Ashok’s colleague, Tushara. Over the next one hour Suzanna quizzed me on points that she had already jotted down and some others that arose from the discussion. Before taking leave she wanted to see the Champion that had been my uncomplaining companion for the expedition. I pointed out to her the scars of ‘injury’ she suffered in Nagaland and West Bengal; the accidents that I had had in those states. We parted after deciding to meet up in Marina Beach the next day morning for a photoshoot session.

My cousins, Tommy and Abraham, and nephew Ajay reached The Raintree just as the interview session was winding up.  We went to the Boat Club for dinner. I was amazed by the transformation of the premises. I hadn’t been there for many years. The restaurant was aesthetically done up and was commodious. Despite the slow service I enjoyed the rum and food, after which we headed for Perungudi. I was the ‘mehman’ of Abraham for the two days that I would be in Chennai.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Day 74 - 12 May 2015 - Kolkata to Visakhapatnam

I did not think I would survive the road journey this day to write this piece. It was a day on which I lurched from one ‘near death’ experience to another. I had no inkling of what was in store when I left the Garden Reach ORH just as the sky was lighting up with traces of a new dawn. The Vidya Sagar Setu Bridge looked lovely decked up in multi coloured lights. The Rs. 10 toll charge for the bridge must be the lowest anywhere in the world. Kolkata is still one of the cheapest cities to live in in India. Being fond of street food I ventured into a small eatery opposite the SER headquarters building last evening and had four chappatis and vegetable curry for Rs. 12! I was embarrassed to hand over a 500 rupee note, but the vendor returned change without hesitating even once!

The concrete road up to Balasore was treacherous since it has been excavated at intermittent intervals for repairs. Every km had at least two diversions. The road closures were unscientific; instead of closing off one side of the road for, say, 50 km there were more than 50 diversions for that distance shifting from one side to the other. NHAI and the contracting agency must be proceeded against for taking up such major works without adequate safety precautions. When diversions are made traffic from the opposite side is not warned of the traffic that may come headlong at them. Moreover, the vehicles taking the diversion must be asked to switch on their headlights to warn the vehicles on the correct side of the road. Speed must be restricted for such diverted traffic to 40 kmph and rumble strips must be placed to facilitate this. In addition, even when there is no diversion tractors and motor bikes wantonly switch lanes and drive on in the wrong direction. In a couple of such instances I braked and prayed, which was all I could do since a crash was imminent. In a couple of others I swerved and missed the oncoming car and bike.

The Commissioner for Railway Safety approves the opening of a section of the railway track for passenger traffic, after ensuring that all construction and safety standards have been complied with. Such a statutory regulation ensures that standards are not flouted and guarantees certain quality in construction and uncompromising safety requirements. It is my considered thought that the central Transport Ministry must create a similar authority tasked with ensuring construction and safety standards. The ‘Commissioner for Road Safety’ should approve the road design and safety features incorporated in the design, inspect the construction at frequent intervals and approve the section of the road before throwing it open for movement of traffic, whether freight or passenger. Even closing major section of roads for repairs must have his ‘work process’ consent and compliance must be strictly monitored.

I had every intention of taking the car to the Ford service station in Bhubaneswar, as Thulasi Ram had made arrangements for priority inspection and attention. As I neared Cuttack I changed the plan because of the time I would lose in the process. Between Cuttack and Bhubaneswar I lost a lot of time in congestion and decided to drive through to Visakhapatnam. The sounds emanating from the car had abated some, I reasoned. Acceleration was affected still and the grating sound was persistent. However, I thought it better to drive on and attend to the car in Chennai, where I had an extra day. I prayed that she would go on till then.

Will the correct NH number please identify itself? The leg of the quadrilateral from Kolkata to Chennai had the nomenclature of NH5 and was arguably the best among the NHs in India. However, this day’s driving experience suggested that that was past glory. Driving on from Kolkata to Visakhapatnam the National Highway number for that stretch varied from NH5 to NH60 to NH16! How crass? NHAI may be in the process of evolving a different set of numbers, but then, they should be consistent. Moreover, when new signages are placed the old ones must be removed so that the road user is not given conflicting or wrong information.

Once I got past Bhubaneswar the condition of the road improved and I was able to make up some time. Gopalpur, Berhampore and Ichchapuram passed by. I crossed over from Odisha to Andhra Pradesh. Freight traffic was not so high, which permitted faster motoring, without having to weave and dodge them. Thulasi Ram had arranged with the correspondent of The Hindu to do a report on the expedition. Accordingly, the photographer of the newspaper met us at the outskirts of the city. The car had gathered dust and grime over the past few days on the road. Before the arrival of the photographer she was given a minor makeover with water and soap solution. Once the photography session was over Thulasi Ram piloted me to his flat, which was just a short deviation from the highway.

Thulasi Ram took me to the Cozinha De Goa for dinner, after a couple of bottles of Budweiser at home. He claimed that preparations of fish and seafood at the restaurant are unmatched in the City of Destiny. He could not have been more right. We were joined in the restaurant by Rani Devalla, the correspondent of The Hindu. Over heavy snacks of fish fry and prawns we discussed the expedition and Rani made notes. In a short while she was done with what she wanted and Thulasi Ram and I continued with the rest of the meal. The food was amazing and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

I had only two more days of heavy driving left to complete the expedition in Cochin, from where it had started on 28 February. This day I had done over 870 km in less than 14 hours of driving. Visakhapatnam being the midpoint between Kolkata and Chennai, it was another 850 km plus to the capital city of Tamil Nadu.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Day 73 - 11 May 2015 - Malda to Kolkata

It had rained heavily overnight and the sky was still overcast when I loaded the luggage into the car; the quantum of soiled clothes started outweighing the fresh ones. I calculated that for the remainder of the trip I would need a couple of fresh t-shirts and socks. The rest were fine. The caretaker of the ORH gave me a flask full of hot water so that I could have some coffee on the way.

I was apprehensive about Google Maps showing me the way out of the town because of the experience on the way into it. I had hit a few dead ends before reaching the ORH. But, this morning, a repeat did not happen and I eased on to the NH 34. Despite it being early morning truck traffic was heavy; on the approach to the Farakka Barrage there was a huge hold up that took away more than 30 minutes. That’s when I decided to have a cup of hot coffee waiting for the congestion to clear up. The traffic across the barrage was being directed by paramilitary personnel, who were also in charge of guarding the barrage. When I got on to the barrage I realised that the huge traffic jam was caused by the breakdown of two freight laden trucks at two critical places of the two km long barrage. The trucks looked so run down and sure to break down that it was no surprise that they had. However, the incident called into question the impact of such incidents at such a strategic location. It could be a sinister ploy with ulterior motives, to a conspiracy theorist.

The Farakka Barrage has an interesting history. The barrage was 14 years under construction between 1961 and 1975. The objective of the barrage across the Ganges was to divert water from the Ganges to the Hoogly River at such velocity as to flush sedimentation and obviate the need for mechanical dredging of siltation in the harbour. After commissioning the barrage it was discovered that the objective could not be met. Moreover, land banks along the Ganges started caving in leading to displacement of large populations. The project that did not fulfil its requirement cost the Indian exchequer Rs. 160 crores! Traffic across the barrage is regulated at 20 kmph and photography is prohibited. The poor condition of the road does not permit faster transit, which prompts people to take photographs at leisure!

Once I was through the Farakka hold up I expected to make steady progress. However, I experimented a lot with alternate routes to experience rural areas. While that was so I was also losing time as the roads did not permit fast drives. Moreover, many villages were busy organising VIP visits. I finally landed up at Memari after navigating through some of the narrowest lanes a car could get through. Before hitting the highway to Kolkata I turned into a fuel station to fill up the tank.

The fuel station attendant of the BPCL outlet was so curious about the stickers on the car that he launched into a long chat with me about the expedition. When he came to know that I am from Kerala he told me that the state has had a Chief Minister by his first name – Achuta (Menon). He amazed me by his knowledge of Kerala; later he mentioned that he had had a friend from Thiruvalla in Kerala and that he had visited the state for a function in his friend’s house. The inquisitiveness, the information base and the proclivity to open up to strangers are common to Kerala and West Bengal. Achutho was over the moon when I gave him a copy of Record Drives…And Then Some!

From the fuel station it was just 6 km to the NH2 that would take me to the link road to Garden Reach, the headquarters of South Eastern Railway (SER). I made very good progress on the brilliantly carpeted NH2 and caught up on some time I had lost in exploring the countryside. The sounds emanating from the car, during the course of the day, seemed to ebb and rise. The whistling sound reduced substantially but the grating was a bit louder. I had arranged with Pandey, Secretary to Chief Operations Manager (COM), SER, to find a Ford service station close to Garden Reach. He deputed a person so that I would not have to ask around. When we reached where we had to I was told that the service station had shifted to a location that would take me a few hours to navigate up and down. I decided to postpone the attention to the car. Thulasi Ram, my friend in Visakhapatnam, arranged with a Ford service station in Bhubaneswar to attend to the problem en route to Visakhapatnam from Kolkata tomorrow.

AK Gupta and I joined the Indian Railway Traffic Service as probationers on the same day in Mussoorie on 1 September 1981. He is among the senior most in my batch surviving the retirement ‘mela’. Batchmates have been retiring virtually every month. AK Gupta is presently the COM of the railway. He was at the fag end of his lunch when I walked in demanding samosas! He got me sandwiches and cutlets with excellent mangoes to wind up. Over many cups of tea I caught up on railway news and uploaded what I had to on social media and the blog site.

RK Gupta and I had been colleagues in Bilaspur Division of SER when I worked there in 1988-89. It was a tough working life in one of the heaviest freight loading divisions of the Indian Railways, but, at the same time, most enjoyable. Night morphed into day and vice versa in the office without, on many days, even going home. The camaraderie amongst officers cutting across departments was high and RK Gupta and his family became dear family friends during the sojourn in Bilaspur. Despite many phone conversations I had not been able to reconnect with them as our careers took us to different parts of India. Therefore, when I came to know that RK Gupta was in Kolkata, posted as General Manager of Eastern Railway, I lost no time in ‘demanding an audience’. The meeting was an occasion to motor down memory lane and I was proud to appreciate the wonderful career path his life had seen. His contribution to the Indian Railways as Chief Administrative Officer of the Jammu project will be written in letters of gold whenever that chapter is written.

Gopal Mohanty, the erstwhile COM of SER, and I spent a couple of hours exchanging notes and discussing the assignment he had picked up post retirement as Advisor to Steel Authority of India. Gopal is an infrastructure person. He has, therefore, been rightly tasked by SAIL to advise them on infrastructural requirements to handle the expansion plans of their plants.

Ahead of me lay two days of heavy driving. The Kolkata-Visakhapatnam and Visakhapatnam-Chennai segments were over 850 km each. It would take me more than 13 hours of driving on both the days. Moreover, I anticipated at least two hours of stoppage at the Ford service station in Bhubaneswar. Tomorrow would be a long day.

Day 72 - 10 May 2015 - Maligaon to Malda

There are days when nothing goes right. This day was one such. Indications of it came early when the GPS directed me from the rest house to the General Manager’s house, instead of on to the main road. Then I hit the busy railway gate of Kamakhya railway station and remained there for 15 minutes, instead of taking the alternate route to avoid it. At that time I did not know that greater delays were to happen during the journey to Malda.

The drive to Malda would take me about 12 hours, I calculated, to cover over 650 km. I have done the stretch many times in the past, including the forward leg of this expedition. Road conditions as well as the heavy freight traffic slow down traffic. Hence, I marked a 5 am start and made the rest house charges last night itself. Of the two routes to Malda I chose the Bongaigaon-Alipurduar-Dalkola route. Driving was alright till I reached the outskirts of Dalkola and I was maintaining an average speed of 55 kmph.

Dalkola is a busy three way intersection. One road comes in from the North East, on which I was, the other goes to Purnea in Bihar and the third is the Malda-Kolkota route. The last named, which is NH34, goes through the city of Dalkola while the Assam-Bihar link is NH31. As you drive in on NH31, NH34 is a left turn at the intersection. About three km short of the intersection there was an incredible traffic jam of freight vehicles in which the passenger vehicles were squeezed in. NH31, nearing the Dalkola intersection is a six lane dual carriageway. Vehicles for NH34 and those continuing on NH31 towards Purnea not only occupied every inch of space on the correct lanes, but also did so on two of the lanes meant for traffic in the opposite direction. I have always encountered some block at this junction during my drives in the past but this was absolutely the limit. I thought the traffic jam was caused by some accident or police checks. It was neither. It is corn harvesting time and vehicles of all shapes, sizes and vintage loaded with corn were wanting access to Dalkola. Not a single member of any traffic enforcement agency was in sight. Local enterprise kept traffic moving. It took me nearly an hour to clear that congestion and turn onto NH34. When I did that I thought that the worst was over. Not knowing the future has its merits. If I had known that 18 km of vehicle queue awaited me on NH34 I may have abandoned the car and walked away! Yes, the queue of trucks waiting to get to the intersection from NH34, from Kolkata, was 18 km long. After waiting an eternity in the queue towards Malda I followed an enterprising driver in a Scorpio, who took the road less travelled, and reached ahead of a part of the queue in the city. From there I did some aggressive driving and got to the top half of the queue from where I could see the reason for the congestion. Indiscipline and ‘might is right’ attitude was holding up traffic with no one in control. Not a single police man or anyone even remotely resembling them were anywhere in sight. Dalkola is an incredibly dirty city and with the congestion one gets to appreciate just that! After being stuck in queues for nearly two and half hours I slowly started moving on. I still had 125 km to reach the ORH in Malda. Light was fading fast and I am loathe to drive in the night for reasons of safety. Even during the daytime vehicles zip on the wrong side of the road and at many times I was taken unawares. Moreover at many places road works are in progress and there are no clear indications for diversion; vehicles head in your direction suddenly without warning of road on the other side being closed. In the night this problem gets magnified as the roads are unlit and whatever signages are placed are not visible. Shoulders of the concrete roads are thick without kerb stones placed to warn road users of the edge of the road. Many trucks lay on their side having misjudged the edge of the road. NHAI is culpable for poor warnings and inadequate safety measures during the construction phase of the project.

The accident I had yesterday in Nagaland had set off funny sounds in the car. It started as a whistling sound while accelerating. Higher the acceleration the higher was the whistling sound. After a while I learnt how to reduce the sound by controlling the acceleration. Nevertheless, the sound was definitely there. People on the road and drivers of other vehicles stared at the car. In some ways I got unwanted attention, but some vehicles moved to let me pass! Then came a grating sound. I was convinced that the car would not last till the end of the expedition. Moreover, the pick up of the car was also affected. I had to get it checked in Kolkata.

By the time I reached the Officers’ Rest House in Malda I was exhausted mentally. I had not had hot food right through the day. It had been figs, dates, biscuits, chocolates and candies. I yearned for a hot meal, but, at the same time, was inclined to go out to a restaurant after reaching the ORH. Fortunately, the caretaker of the ORH assured me a decent vegetarian meal and an omelette in 30 minutes. By the time I had refreshed and changed clothes the young man brought me rotis, dal, vegetable curry and omelette.

I made all the ORH payments since I intended to leave at 5 am for Kolkata. I needed some time there to attend to the car. By the time I went to bed I heard loud thunder in the distant and knew that it would be a stormy night. Would it delay my departure the next morning?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Day 71 - 9 May 2015 - Imphal to Maligaon

This is my third visit to Manipur, the second in this expedition. Every time I come here I learn something new. Something that may not be known to most people living outside the state is that the Indian Flag and the Constitution are ‘outlawed’ in Manipur. The more than 30 underground outfits – UGs or local armies, as they are known – have made it ‘punishable’ to display the Indian Flag and to owe allegiance to the Indian Constitution. Therefore, the flag is flown or displayed only in government offices. Republic and Independence Day celebrations are not conducted in public. They are normally days of ‘bandh’. Flag hoisting is confined to army camps and high government offices. Singing the National Anthem is a criminal offence as per the diktat of the UGs. Extortion by the UGs is rampant in the guise of local ‘tax’ and protection money. Recently many schools in Imphal faced forced closure for over a week as the managements refused to yield to the demand of the UGs for school seats, that are openly ‘sold’ by them to fund their outfit. Is this the result of the policies of the Indian Government over the many years when they refused to recognise and promote this strategically important, culturally significant and historically inalienable part of the Indian Union and ignored it? The ‘Look East’ policy of the present government will hopefully address this major policy flaw of the past.

Fr Joseph, my benefactor in Imphal, was up early. He was there with a cheerful smile and a loud greeting when I was arranging luggage in the car. Last evening he had told me about the marigold seeds he had brought from Switzerland, where he had been to visit his sister. The seeds have produced many beds of lovely flowers. I had expressed a desire to have some of the seeds to take back to Kerala. He handed me a packet of them this morning, even though I had forgotten it. Fr. Joseph is moving over to the elder priests’ residence next week, where he will lead a retired life.

In the two months that I travelled in South East Asia I took for granted good roads and disciplined user behaviour. While the stretch from Moreh to Imphal was in reasonable condition, that from Imphal to Dimapur is in an awful state of disrepair and neglect. Border Roads Organisation claims that they connect the nation. If the condition of the road is taken into consideration the connection is ‘missing’. Wide yawning craters, poor surfacing, dangerous undulations and unscientific speed bumps are a nightmare. I was almost a nervous wreck by the time I covered Dimapur, a distance of 200 plus km in 7 hours! Crawling through the 15 km congestion in Chumukadema and Dimapur added to the misery. The roads got better once I entered the Karbi Anglong district of Assam. Such poor infrastructure is a national shame. Do the people of the region not deserve anything better or is it the prevailing parallel state the reason for such abject conditions? Whatever, the condition is pathetic.

While coming down the last stretch of the hills to the police check post in Chumkudema I rear ended an empty poultry truck that cut in sharply and braked in front of the car. Even though I braked the distance was too short to prevent the mishap. From the driver’s seat I could see the Hella lights getting crushed. I parked to the side to examine the damage. The truck stopped too. By the time I had surveyed the damage to the car he had taken off after ascertaining that there was no damage to the truck! In Chumkudema I went to a small garage to remove the broken lights and the bracket. That is when I realised that the bonnet had got jammed because the grill got pushed in with the impact. I only hope that I am able to get back to Cochin to repair the damage without having to open the bonnet.

Once I got on to the NH 37 to Guwahati I was able to catch on some of the lost time. I reached the Railway Officers’ Rest House in Maligaon by 3.45 pm. The 480 km drive had taken me nearly 11 hours, of course with stoppages for breakfast at Mao, the Manipur border, and others necessitated by biological requirement. It looks to me that distances are longer in India due to the time required to cover them! In Maligaon I had enough time to clean the car, rearrange luggage and lounge around.

There was no WiFi in the ORH and without it I could not upload pictures and the blog post. I may have to wait till I get to Visakhapatnam because I do not expect the ORHs in Malda and Garden Reach, Kolkata to have them either. I learnt from the Caretaker of the rest house that it was Club Day that day and a movie would be screened in the auditorium. When I went there the movie had just begun – Hawaizaada. I watched it for a while. Actually the reason for going in there was to meet the officers of the zonal railway, which was defeated due to the movie. I returned to the room after 15 minutes and I sought the company of the ‘Mechin’ that KB Singh had presented me in Imphal. The excellent rice distillate was so potent that dinner still remains a mystery. I remember having walked to the dining hall, but not the walk back.