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.