Friday, February 27, 2015

Change of plans

A bad night, when sleep deserts me, is when plans undergo revisions and changes. The Himalayan Expedition has been on my radar since 2012. In my communication with the Limca Book of Records I learnt that the expedition has never been attempted solo, and that fired me; doing something that has not been done before. The All-India, Coast to Coast, East to West and Kochi-London expeditions fall into that category; never before done solo expeditions. The North-South and Golden Quadrilateral expeditions sought to improve existing records. These expeditions were personally enriching and fetched nine certificates from Limca Book of Records. I almost did the Himalayan Expedition in 2013. However, lack of funds put paid to the planning efforts. In hindsight, it was divine intervention, I realised. Planning the Himalayan Expedition is a tricky matter. Weather conditions play a major role since they vary widely across the nearly 7000 kms of the proposed route. While the Manali sector is ideally tackled end-May, the eastern parts receive copious rainfall by that time. In May/June 2013 Arunachal Pradesh suffered from major landslides and segments along the Himalayan Expedition remained cut off for weeks on end.
 
The itinerary I have for the South East Asian Odyssey details the return to Manipur by 10 May 2015. Since I anticipate at least 10 days of clear weather before the monsoon breaks over Arunachal Pradesh I have decided to dovetail the Himalayan Expedition to the South East Asian Odyssey. Thus, there are three legs in the extended expedition - the first is the travel to Indonesia, the second is the return to India and the third is the Himalayan expedition. Key stats of the trip are 2 Expeditions, 11 Countries, 20 States, 28000 kms and 100 days!

Logistics for such a trip is naturally a matter of great importance. Finance, accommodation, visas, travel rules, border controls, packing and preparing the car assume various degrees of importance. The initial budget of INR 25,00,000 was drastically pruned due to absence of sponsors. Despite my best efforts at belt tightening I still had to factor in the expensive journey through Myanmar and agency fees. Kiran of Tyrex, Cochin outfitted the car with brand new Hankook tyres and a friend chipped in with INR 150,000 for accommodation. Thomas Cherukara of Kairali Ford serviced the car and provided spares. Friends and Facebook acquaintances have offered hospitality en route in India and abroad. Indian Missions quickly confirmed appointments sought to meet the head of missions. Lifestyle Services, Delhi and Air Travel Enterprises, Cochin worked efficiently to put visas together.

I never miss an opportunity to share my travel experiences, in private or public. One query that is common in all interfaces is: How did you convince your wife to travel alone. It is so predictable, especially when the audience has males aged 40 plus among them! When I tell them about my concept of redundancy, and the art of getting away by oneself, they gape and then confirm that the plan is so simple. Well, the concept of redundancy is to ensure that people with you are empowered so as to make your absence provide a platform for their growth. In a professional environment it is making sure that there is a well defined succession plan. At home it is ensuring that your wife and kids have the space to grow and become independent and confident. The concept should not be taken speciously. It is something that should flow from your heart and become firm as a value system. Professionally and personally one has to shed the notion that you are the centre of the ‘solar system’; that everything and everybody revolves around you. It is not easy. When practising the concept of redundancy, there will be times when you experience ‘nothingness’. If you give into the feeling you will slip back into the ‘art of dependency’; a certain clinginess that makes you feel ‘inexpendable’. I believe that if you do not find your successor and groom him in office, you will always be the ‘best man’ and never the ‘groom’. At home, you will be eternally condemned to carry grocery bags and inanely watch from vantage perches how deals are struck in ‘Kalyan Silks’!
As part of the preparations for the journey, a visit to Stylx, the hair stylists in Panampilly Nagar, was part of the 'to do' sequence list. I have been a regular client there since 2007. Invariably, I seek out Gopakumar to make me look presentable, at least forehead upwards! This time when I reclined on the chair he told me his personal story. He grew up in Mundakkayam, Kerala, where his father worked in the TR&T estates. His father spent his handsome earnings in wine shops, gambling dens and houses of ill repute. Gopakumar said that he vividly remembers waiting eagerly with his mother and brother for their bread winner to return home with provisions, so that a wholesome meal could be had at home. Most often, their wait was in vain. His father became the butt of jokes and derision in the community. An intemperate person is often ‘comedy’ for others while for the near and dear it is great ‘tragedy’, he said. Such behaviour went on for years and the family despaired. Gopakumar and his brother were negatively impacted by their father’s behaviour. But their mother kept hopes and the hearth alive. As luck would have it, his father decided to attend a church retreat, as suggested by some local people. And that changed him a full 180 degree, in due course. He gave up drinks and his other vices and turned to religion to provide him succour. He and his family converted to Christianity 20 years ago when Gopakumar was 17. The family was baptised in the local church. And Gopakumar became Alfie Francis. Gopakumar told me that besides that he does not remember learning prayers or that anything else was forced on them. There wasn’t any resistance from others in the extended family, because they saw the transformation that Gopakumar’s father went through. However, he said, that he found it difficult to find a match, as proposals would hit a roadblock once it is mentioned that they are a converted family. So, he did the next best thing that was in his control. He romanced a young girl and they were convinced that they are made for each other, for a life together. It was not easy convincing the families. They came around, eventually, despite threats from some members of the girl’s family. He said that the confidence of youth carried the day and they are a happily wedded couple with a lovely child. Over a period of time, Gopakumar became totally acceptable in the family; his character, the love for his wife and child and his affable ways became more important than religion.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Planning a South East Asian Odyssey

When I was on the flight back to India after the successful completion of the drive to London from Kochi I asked if I would like to give myself a break for a year before planning and undertaking the next adventure. While one part of me said I must, the wanderer in me refused to listen to that. Within a month of getting back home I lined up a few alternatives to consider, such as a six month long drive in USA covering 49 states and a portion of Canada, a three month long drive all along the coast of Australia from Perth to Perth, a three month solo drive from Kochi to London and back, a three month solo drive to Indonesia and back, an eighty day backpacking trip retracing the route of Philleas Fogg, the protagonist of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days and a backpacking tour of the North-East of India. For the USA adventure I planned to start in Alaska, buy a car there and motor all the states except Hawaii for six months, finally ending up in California. At the stage of detailed planning I discovered that there are strict emission norms varying across the states of USA. This would make it extremely expensive to buy a car in Alaska and dispose it off in California. Moreover, I cannot spare the time just now on such a trip. The coastal expedition along the Australian trip was also put on hold after detailed scheduling. I was told by Praveen Tomy, my cousin resident in Australia, after a fair amount of research, that it is not advisable to travel alone on the suggested route due to large tracts of uninhabited and sparsely populated areas. The London trip had just been done and hence, would be attempted a few years later, perhaps through Pakistan and Iran. I had covered the North Eastern states of India during the All-India drive in 2010-11. I want to give it a couple of years more before backpacking there.

Thus, the alternatives that remained were a drive of South East Asia and backpacking the Philleas Fogg route. I planned to do them both in 2015-16, hopefully. Since Fogg started his journey from London on 2 October I thought it would be a good idea to start from Mumbai on the same date. Detailed plans for the 80 day journey have been made. The crucial challenges I anticipate for successfully attempting it will be getting visas in time and arranging finances. Planning a journey in South East Asia was crucially dependent on weather conditions, particularly in Myanmar, and the volatile political conditions in some of the countries. From the Myanmar consular office I learned that the season from the second half of May to August is best avoided due to possibility of landslips and poor road conditions following the monsoon. The consul also told me, in response to an anxious query, that it is safer to travel in Myanmar as compared to Manipur! The friendly consul also put me in touch with an approved travel agency in Yangon to get the required permissions and permits. The Myanmar government has stipulated that one of its official and a guide accompany in the vehicle, which make the process a bit cumbersome and fairly expensive. Single room accommodations and food and beverages for the two gentlemen have to be paid for too for the duration of the trip.
It is also for this reason that I took China out of the equation in the itinerary; it is frightfully expensive for a solo traveller as the charges are per vehicle. The South East Asian Odyssey spanning eighty days will cover India, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. While the forward trip will take fifty days the return will take thirty days. I planned to travel both the east and west coasts of Thailand and Malaysia on the two legs. The travel through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia was planned from either south to north or reverse. To cover Indonesia I decided to take the ferry from Singapore to Batam.

The biggest challenge in planning the South East Asian odyssey was to convince the various consular services to issue visas so much in advance of the journey. The itinerary provided for three crossings through Thailand. The right amount of persuasion by Shrey of Lifestyle Services, my travel agent in Delhi, swung it in my favour. Finally, by the 20th of February all the visas were stamped on my passport, the last one being Singapore. Countries such as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia have provision for visas ‘on arrival’. I did not want to take any chances since I was driving into these countries and land borders have, at times, different rules and procedures for such facilitating mechanisms as compared to airport immigration. A word about obtaining visas would not be out of place here. Most consulates and embassies operate out of Delhi. Anticipating that travel back and forth, as required by the consulates, would cost me some I decided to engage the expertise of Lifestyle Services, particularly of Shrey to seamlessly work on this aspect for me. The engagement did not come cheap especially since it accounted as overheads for one person. However, it did save me a lot of hassle.
 
The journey to London gave me the right learnings to prepare and execute a road journey through foreign lands. I did not have to plan for different climatic conditions on this trip and hence, I pruned the packing list. The Ford Endeavour was serviced, thanks to Thomas Cherukara of Kairali Ford, and rebranded for the trip, courtesy UPM Advertising. Although an appeal for sponsorship by Hankook did not go through, Kiran of Tyrex volunteered to fit the car up with new tyres. Sponsorship appeals, once again, fell on deaf ears and hence, the plans were revisited to economise. One of the areas was accommodation. I sacrificed star status for affordable and came up with internet sourced accommodation for INR 150,000 for forty nine days of the journey. The lump sum tariff of INR 340,000 for the 12 day tour of Myanmar includes accommodation for self and the accompanying officials. I am scheduled to stay with friends and in railway rest houses during the travel in India, which is one fourth of the South East Asian itinerary. Fuel will cost about INR 200,000. INR 150,000 is the budget for food. Medical and car insurance have been done. However, I have to take car insurance for individual countries as I enter them. Trans Asian Shipping Services, the company I consult for in Cochin, was extremely gracious in arranging the bank guarantee to procure the Carnet de Passage en Douane (CPD or Carnet).

Without external financial support, the expedition will undoubtedly be a strain on personal finances. But then, any passion, makes you do irrational things; and what others consider sheer madness or unnecessarily risky.