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.