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!