Thursday, February 21, 2013

4 Feb 13 – Bangalore to Cochin

Mathew had suggested a 4 am getaway but the resolution the night before and fatigue finally catching up made me sleep without a care in the world. I got up late, by normal standards and was ready to leave for Cochin, after a cup of coffee, at 7 am. Mathew, yet again, had made a remarkable recovery.

Hosur zipped by and we were in Krishnagiri for breakfast at A2B (Adyar Ananda Bhavan). I ordered sweets to be packed for friends in Cochin. Breakfast was huge and, once again, Mathew wondered how all this would fold into my stomach. The road between Avinashi and Coimbatore has improved and hence was able to get through to Coimbatore by 12.30 pm, where Mathew got off to go to his work place in Sulur. The view of the Western Ghats was the sure sign that Kerala border is a short distance away. I stopped at the welcome gate near Walayar and clicked away. The entry into Kerala was emotional; home, sweet home not too far.

I had arranged with Sreekumar, the photo journalist of Malayala Manorama, to meet up at Palarivattom junction. We send some time clicking a few pictures for a story on the expeditions in the newspaper. When I reached the Alfa Serene Apartment complex, my wife, daughter and a few friends had gathered to receive me. Sweets, bouquet and photos later it was unloading the luggage and relaxing at home.

It is Thomas Jefferson who said, “One travels more usefully when alone, because he reflects more". Later in the night, while emptying the left over Bacardi breezers, I closed my eyes for a silent Thanksgiving. To Him and His Guardian Angels went out the first. I ‘saw’ them and their ‘interventions’ during the journey. My health and spirits were maintained in top condition all through the 29 days that I was away. This was due to the prayers and good wishes of friends and relations. A host of railway colleagues, friends in Service, erstwhile colleagues, friends and relations who helped me with logistics and support and those who readily agreed to attest the log sheets along the way contributed immensely to the success of the expeditions. In fact, without them the expeditions would have remained incomplete. In all the travels, it is not the success of them, but the meeting up with friends, forging new relationships and learning from them that I have found rewarding.

Thus, Manoj Sasidharan, Seju Kuruvila, Meghna, Deepan, Rajesh, Mrs and Mr Goswami, SC Jethi, RK Tandon, George, Amit Sanyal, BP Tayal, CP Sharma, Deepak Chhabra, Gopal Mohanty, GD Brahma, Thulasiram Nair, Avirappi, Mathew Philip, Tamilvannan, Fr Benny, Fr Jacob, the Sisters at Mahua, Cherian Abraham, Jibu Itty, Chakochan, Anupa and Swarupa (not to miss out, the young Michel), Mrs and Mr Binson Mathew, Mrs and Mr. Jose Tharakan, Jose Mathew, Diwia Thomas, Mary George, Sumodh, Sugesh, Satheesh, Anita and Joe, and many, many others were responsible for the twin successes. I thank them all (more so, the many I have inadvertently left out).

Hail Suresh! The Swift seacoast farer,
While we sat on the bench, you set the bench marks,
While we left imprints on the bench (our bench marks),
You made yours in the sands of time.

(RK Tandon, Chief Operations Manager, Western Railway on 13 Feb 2013)

"We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls". Anais Nin

3 Feb 13 – Pune to Bangalore

We had scheduled a 4 am start. When I woke up in the morning, not knowing if Mathew will be able to start as appointed, he pranced into my room with a healthy morning greeting. I was happy to know that the rest had done him good and that he had recovered. We hit the road shortly after 4 am and, after the initial hiccups, we got on to the Satara road. As we hit the road to Satara after the Khandala ghats we stopped for tea and stretched our limbs. The road to Bangalore was superb. There were tolls aplenty but it was an 800 plus km drive with hardly any stress. We had late breakfast at a Kamat Upachar outlet in Dharwad (Mathew was shocked that such quantities could find space in my stomach) and lunch at the Kamat outlet in Sira, where we found groups of Harley Davidson bikers having a break.

Prior to hitting Bangalore I had a message from my cousin, Anita, and her husband, Joe, if we could meet up for dinner. I have always welcomed their company and readily agreed to the proposal. We reached the outskirts of Bangalore before 5 pm. It took us an hour to navigate to the Bangalore City railway station. By the time we reached the ORH Mathew started showing signs of fever, once again. He decided to rest and give the dinner engagement a miss. Ajay, my son who is a student of St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore, reached the ORH. Together we rearranged some of the luggage and got ready for dinner.

The Portland Steakhouse and Café is situated on Brunton Road, off MG Road. Factoring in that I would miss the right turnings at least a few times we left early, after fetching idlis for Mathew. As luck would have it, the wrong turnings were fewer and we reached the Steakhouse earlier than appointed. We sat and chatted in the car and went through the photographs I had taken during the expedition.

At 8 pm we walked into the restaurant. My jaws fell apart when I saw Lily Ammayi, my God Mother and Anita’s mother, with Anita and Joe. She was the surprise of the evening. The dinner orders were placed – the steward suggested a medium steak; a well done, he said, would taste a bit burnt. Table conversation effortlessly turned from the journey to children to food and Joe’s whisky tasting sessions. That was informative. The next time I have a single malt whisky I will try it with 10 drops of room temperature water. It was fascinating to hear the story of the Indian malt whisky, Amrut, which, according to some experts (noses), rank right up there with the best. Homegrown we don’t care; we crave for what is brought in from another land.

The food was excellent and so were the desserts (sizzling brownie and ice cream and cheesecake). Anita is an accepted authority on rating hotel and restaurant services. She pointed out some areas where service levels ought to improve at the Steakhouse. It was time to leave and goodbyes were quickly said. Ajay insisted on taking the public transport back to his hostel despite Anita offering him a lift. I took all the wrong turnings on the way back to the ORH and spent more time taking U-turns than driving straight! When I finally got back to the ORH I found Mathew still in some degree of discomfort. I decided that I would not rush the departure from Bangalore in the morning.

2 Feb 13 – Vadodara to Pune

When I set out on the 7th of January from Cochin the entire trip was scheduled to be completed in 27 days. The extra day I had to spend in Tezu pushed the itinerary to 28 days. And by the end of the day it went up to 29 days. I had made arrangements to halt the night in Hubli. With this end in mind I loaded the luggage into the car in Vadodara. A few parking attendants wanted to know how I came to be there in a Kerala registration car. When I told them about the expeditions they broke into compliments and “Wah, Wahs”. They knew how to earn an honest buck! I left them with a hundred rupee note, even though I had struck a deal for Rs. 70 last evening.

The highway to Mumbai was crowded and the poor lane discipline slowed me down. In addition, I had eased up a bit after the expeditions. I got held up for a while on the approach to the Golden Bridge between Bharuch and Ankaleswar. On the approach to Thane my cousin was on the phone with directions to reach his place. At a crucial point the signals dunked and I overshot the designated turn. I got caught in the most amazing traffic snarl I had been in the past month. I lost an hour in the muddle. By the time I got to Hiranandani Estate I had gone past the decided departure time. The warmth of the family and the Puttu and kadala for lunch delayed me pleasantly.

From Mumbai I was joined by my friend, Mathew Phillip, who had come to the city on work. He hopped on for a ride to Coimbatore. When we had arranged our bags and were ready to leave, George suspected that the tyres required refilling. He took us to an outlet where nitrogen was topped up and we left on the road to Hubli. Getting out of the city and reaching Panvel itself consumed time – it was close to 5 pm. To make matters worse, Mathew started running temperature. We decided to abort the day’s schedule at Pune. I rang up my good friend, C.P Sharma, who was Chief Commercial Manager, Western Railway for ORH accommodation in Pune. In a short while CP confirmed the accommodation and Sr. Divisional Commercial Manager of Pune Division gave me direction to reach the ORH.

We reached the superb ORH near the ‘Maal Dhaka’ (goods shed) after some help from auto drivers and shop keepers en route. Mathew took some medicines and took rest. I ordered dinner and spend the intervening time updating expenses, noting down points for the blog and sipping a couple of Bacardi breezers. When the food arrived I called Mathew to join. He took some time to come to the dining table as he was feeling weak and feverish. He barely took a morsel and went back to bed. I slept on the sofa so that Mathew would have uninterrupted rest in the bedroom.

1 Feb 13 – Koteswar to Vadodara

The first task in the morning was to rearrange the luggage. What was not needed for the rest of the journey had to find its place in the boot of the car. With this in mind I took the car out from the parking lot of the Inn, where there was hardly any light to help me, and parked it right in front, next to a Scorpio. I did not realize that it was too early for others to start the day. When I opened the door of my car it woke up the driver of the Scorpio, who was unhappy that his sleep was cut short. When I opened the boot of the car a strange smell assailed me. I then remembered the Wakro oranges I had packed in a cardboard box. When I took the box out and opened it I realized from the smell that some oranges had rotten. The watchman of the Inn helped me sort them out. Just a couple of dozen oranges had survived the rot; almost 150 oranges had fallen prey to the fungal attack. I put the rotten oranges in the cardboard box and placed it by the wall, where some garbage was already deposited. The watchman told me that they would get cleared out soon. As soon as I had left the rotten oranges a couple of cows came to it and started feeding on them. The driver of the adjacent vehicle came out and angrily told me to deposit the oranges elsewhere. When the watchman reasoned with him that it was okay to leave them where I had, the driver gave his reason why it should not be left there: “Yeh sab khake, gai bakri mere gaadi par gobar karega (the cows and goats will eat this and deposit their dung on my vehicle”)! Why he believed that his vehicle would be specially targeted was beyond me. But, to defuse the situation I moved the box of rotten oranges away.

I was to reach Mumbai in the night where I was to lodge with George Kuriakose, my cousin. Having completed the expeditions I had every right to relax. As I could not take pictures yesterday at Koteswar I went there after getting ready and making the payment for the Inn. When I was taking photographs the driver, with who I had interacted earlier came there with his guests. When his guests went up to the temple I went to him and apologised to him for having disturbed him. He broke into a smile and told me not to worry about it. Another driver joined him and they quizzed me about my journey. One even asked me for the better route to Allahabad! A couple of families joined in the conversation.

When I drove out of Koteswar I started chatting on the phone, thanking and informing people who I had to. In the process I lost my way. Instead of taking the route to Mundra I went on my merry way to Bhuj. When I realized the mistake I had already wasted half an hour. I informed Cherian Abraham, who was expecting me in Mundra, of the mistake and possibility of being late. The road was an absolute beauty. However, I had a narrow miss with a Nilgai. It darted across from left to right avoiding a bus, a scooter and my car. All the vehicles were traveling at a fair pace, but somehow the Nilgai maneuvered expertly and vanished among the bushes. It was a close call.

By noon I reached Mundra and spent the next three hours fascinated by the development in the area. Cherian first took me to the hospice for animals where the 765 kilogram horns of bull was exhibited, which was recorded in the Guinness Records. The hospice claims to be the biggest in Asia, treats animals for diseases we think are exclusive to the human race – cancer, paralysis, blindness, cataract, etc. A couple of cows were convalescing after caesarian births. As you drive through the Adani port complex you get a feel of driving through Jebel Ali. The vision of the man and his team is visible all across the 32000 acres under its control, where a slew of business opportunities have been enabled over the past 10 years. The role of the Gujarat Maritime Board has to be complemented; a desert land has been made to bloom. We, in India, have the habit of dissecting projects and issues many years after the context has blurred and make mincemeat of them. The role of the media in this is particularly vile.

Cherian gave me a tour of the container terminals with a detailed commentary. I left the terminals impressed by the project management capabilities of the Adani Group. Just before lunch Jibu Itty, the GM Operations of the DP World terminal and my erstwhile colleague in Cochin, joined for a chat. Lunch was an elaborate Chinese affair. When I returned to Cherian’s residential complex, where I had left my car, the security personnel had got her washed and spruced up. By the time I left Mundra close to a half hour after three I knew that getting to Mumbai would be a tall order. Hence, I promised to meet my cousin in Mumbai over lunch the next day and made arrangements through my batch mate, R.K. Tandon, to halt in Vadodara in the ORH.

The – km drive to Vadodara was a beauty after Bhachau. Till then container trailers and ongoing road works slowed me down. What impressed me most was the lane discipline on NE1 – Ahmedabad-Vadodara expressway. Heavy vehicles remained on the left track and the fast track was used for overtaking. If such discipline can be enforced or observed on this stretch, why can it not be all over the country? After all, the drivers who use these roads come from almost all over and they have all adopted the discipline. The State and the NHAI have to spend more to educate and ensure that the road users utilize the facilities properly. Driving on the wrong lanes, the wrong side of the road, poor road warnings or lack of signages will increase the accident rate as the density goes up. The objective should be “Speed with Safety”, as put up prominently at many places on the Expressway by the NHAI. Restricting speed without proper maintenance or road warnings lead to accidents; not speed by itself. Speed will be used responsibly if the conditions are conducive.

I had spent close to two years in Vadodara as a railway probationer in 1981-83. And, therefore, was familiar with the city then. I could not identify most places of the present day Vadodara, as I drove into the city and to the railway station. I parked in the lot identified by the attendant. He told me that it would cost me Rs. 100 for overnight parking. When I said that I am a railway officer, he immediately brought down the rate to Rs. 70. The new ORH on the first platform of Vadodara was a super experience. A complete suite excellently fitted out. Even though it was close to 11 pm I went to the food plaza and feasted on a plate of Chole and Bhaturas.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

31 Jan 13 – Indore to finish at Koteswar

The Station Master had told me to leave for Jhabua by 4 am. I did that after the morning attestation. The early start helped, but the road condition till the border of Gujarat was not conducive to speed with safety. I negotiated the road to Dhar in better condition than anticipated. The glorious sunrise near Jhabua over the Machili ghat lifted the spirits. At the fuelling station in Jhabua, where I had got in for attestation assured me that the road would get better after 15 kms. What he did not reveal is that it was 15 kms to the Gujarat border. The Gujarat road was certainly much better, but was not of the express standard. That would happen only after Bhachau.

The routing in Gujarat was unfathomable. What was given is Godhra-Kheda-Surendranagar-Morvi-Bhuj. I could not understand why it was not Godhra-Ahmedabad-Viramgam-Bhuj. The specified route was needlessly longer and time consuming. I intend writing to LBR about such unscientific routings I discerned in the two expeditions. I reached Bhuj by 8 pm; excitement was in the air with only 150 kms to go. I could surely complete it well before midnight. That is when I missed the warning of low fuel. I drove well out of Bhuj and saw the warning light. I turned back and got to a fuel station after some time.  I used the fuel bill and the GPS tracker data as documentation. I made haste towards Nakhatarana. I reached it in less than an hour and found the village deserted. I found a couple of elders out on a stroll and stopped to take directions from them. One of them happened to be a village elder, who agreed to attest the log sheet when I told him the purpose of my travel. He gave me his mobile number promising to visit Cochin!

I had only a 100 kms to go for Koteswar. As I was nearing the destination anxiety started building up once again. It always does. You start wondering if anything will happen to spoil the party. It was pitch dark on the lonely road – a flat tyre or a Nilgai in full flight. With these thoughts still exploding in my head I turned into the police station in Narayan Sarovar. They had been informed prior of the need to be in readiness to attest the end of the expedition in Koteswar. With the police team in tow I reached the land’s end at 10.55 pm – had covered 3799 kms in 114 hours and 25 minutes. Besides the time it was the fact that I am the first individual to complete the East-West expedition all alone that gave me the most satisfaction.

The regular SI was on leave and hence, photography was prohibited by BSF personnel. After the attestation I checked in at the Jain Inn. Thus, Koteswar was where it started – the beginning of the Coastal Expedition – and also where it ended – the East West Expedition. The beginning is the end and the end, the beginning.

Mission Fast track has been successfully completed. I became the first person in India (the World?) to complete the Coastal and the East West Expeditions solo and within the time proposed to LBR. Undertaking the expeditions as a double header did put additional strain, but its ‘conquest’ was immensely fulfilling. 

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...