Wednesday, December 10, 2014

DAYS 76 to 80 – 30 August to 3 September 2014; In London and back home – Part II

At the time of planning the road trip to London I had mailed the various Indian Embassies, Consulates and High Commissions en route. One of the first responses I had was from Ranjan Mathai, the Indian High Commissioner to London. He had expressed concern that he would be unavailable till 31 August – my original schedule was to return to Cochin on 30 August. However, with the slight change in schedule I was given an appointment to meet His Excellency on the morning of 2 September. Being a working day, Lal and I had to shell out nearly GBP 46 apiece for the return tickets as compared to just GBP 16 apiece just a few days before, which was a holiday. We had a most interesting time with the High Commissioner, who displayed a lot of enthusiasm to understand our journey. Aldwych House is a historic building in Central London. Vivek Thampy, Social Secretary to the High Commissioner, who coordinated our meeting with the High Commissioner explained a few important plaques in the building and also gave us a copy of the coffee table book that vividly explained the heritage building.

Ali, our benefactor from Kazakhstan, had requested us to spend some time, if possible, with Anandam Chechi. What an experience that turned out to be. She gave us explicit directions to reach the train station closest to her house, even changing a train en route, where she picked us up. The sprightly 80 plus entertained us over an hour with her life experiences. Some of them would even seem too bold for the present generation! Before dropping us back at the train station she gave us copies of the excellent books she had penned. She had been through a lot of emotional trauma in the recent past, losing her favourite son, which she said was restraining her from putting pen to paper. We spent more time than we should have to get back to Hayward’s Heath as we took a train in the wrong direction and reached London Bridge! Lal got into a flap since he was yet to complete packing. In the end we did reach the Kingsley home in time for the final bits and pieces.

We bade farewell to Julie and the kids before Anil drove us to Heathrow. The journey was done in better time than was anticipated and we reached the airport with a lot of time to kill. Before checking in we decided to get the check in baggage wrapped and paid a bomb for it – GBP 10 per piece! The check in was smooth and we got a window and aisle as we wanted. While moving away from the counter I realised that my shirt pocket felt light. I had lost something that had been a permanent fixture in my shirt pocket for over 8 years – a picture of Our Lady, the prayer to St. Jude and the photo of my parents. They were in a pouch and that pouch was missing. I was almost inconsolable for I believed that I had lost my Graces. I walked around the complex, all the places I had been inside the airport for almost a half hour. I could not find it. Later I rationalised that possibly it was His means of telling me how the Graces had worked over the past years and it was the right time to take leave of them. New Graces, new meaning to life; maybe!

The flight from Heathrow by Sri Lankan was on schedule and I spend most of the time partaking of the airline hospitality and watching movies. The connection at Colombo was met without any hiccups and the final leg of the journey to Cochin was largely uneventful. Trans Asian Shipping Services Pvt Ltd organised a grand homecoming with almost the entire top management turning up to receive us – they even wanted to organise a press interaction, which Lal was not in favour of since a section of the media had been most unfair in reporting the break up with Baiju. The highlight of the reception was the ‘Chenda Melam’. Maya, Ajay and Eva formed part of the family reception at the airport. The Press did not turn up at all. The drive from the Cochin international airport to my home in Alfa Serene was the most stressful of the past 80 days. It took us nearly 2 hours to cover the distance, albeit including a short diversion to offer thanksgiving at the St. Joseph’s Church at Thevara.

The epic journey had lasted 75 days –starting from Hotel Crowne Plaza, Cochin on 16 June and ending in Tavistock Square, London on 29 August. When I got back home I had realised yet another dream that had its roots in 1997. It drove home the fact that dreams, however big and dubbed impossible, can be realised if they are broken down into smaller practical units and pursued with unwavering passion.  Not much time elapsed before I was asked if I had planned any other road journeys! It was a fact that I have outlined many. They need to be fleshed out and sponsors found to help. Amongst others, I have planned to travel extensively in USA and Australia. I have even made out an itinerary to drive solo to London and back. Then there is this trip to Indonesia by road! One of the trips I want to do, not far from now, is an 80 day trip around the world mimicking the Jules Verne classic, “Around the World in 80 days”. I consider the protagonist of the novel, Philleas Fogg, the first modern backpacker! Thus, there is no shortage of dreams and I have plenty of time on my hands to invest on them. But, availability of funds is another matter. Good Samaritans reading this and out there are most welcome to lend helping hands and shoulders.

DAYS 76 to 80 – 30 August to 3 September 2014; In London and back home – Part I

At the start of the trip an overwhelming worry was that we would fall short on finances to complete the trip. When the trip was concluded in London on 29 August 2014 such thoughts were farthest from my mind, for we had been hosted by friends and family, including the Indian Railways, for a total of seven weeks – we stayed in paid accommodation only for 31 days of the 80. The wonderful hosts that looked after everything that we wanted from washing machines to shopping to home cooked food made sure that we were most comfortable. The journey would not have been as memorable but for their contribution. The Kingsleys in London exemplified that experience.

When we were on the journey Boby George, a Facebook friend, had got in touch to volunteer hospitality in London. After many discussions it was agreed that accommodation would be arranged in Hayward’s Heath, with the Kingsleys. Last evening we drove more than an hour in failing light to reach the warm confines of the home of Judie and Anil Kingsley. I wondered then if I had made a mistake, for the place seemed so far out of London where I had scheduled to be in at least for two of the four days that we were there. Every minute we spent with the Kingsleys and Boby drove any such thoughts away from the mind. I felt as if I was back at home amongst my own kith and kin. Not for a moment did I feel that I was meeting them for the first time. To be honest they treated me as an older brother and I did not at any time feel that I was any different. Julie had the most important role to play in that. The way she cooked and served meals and snacks transported me back in memory and experience to the lifestyle of the Upper Kuttanad area of Kerala. The simplicity, warmth, genuine friendship and graceful offer of hospitality floored me. I treated the home as my own and raided the kitchen whenever I wanted, especially for the innumerable cups of ‘Nescafe Gold’ coffee. The four days that we spent with the Kingsleys – Sunil, the twin of Anil, joined us on 31 August from Robin Hood country (Anil and Sunil are married to twins Julie and Judie) – and Boby George were the right way to wind down the epic journey that had seen us wend through 27 countries in 2 Continents across 24796 kms in 80 days using nearly 3000 litres of diesel fuel.

Boby George took the responsibility of conducting us around Stonehenge, Lacock and CastleCombe the day after and the evening was spent with a few Keralites in the neighbourhood, friends of the Kingsleys, who wanted to capture golden moments with their idol Lal Jose and share our experiences of the drive with them. Everywhere we have been I witnessed and experienced how well the Indian diaspora, particularly the Keralites, have done in alien environments. They adapted extremely well to the transplanted countries and areas. Most of them possessed houses in Kerala, which they used on their vacations. It was rather disappointing to note that none of them wanted to resettle in Kerala, particularly as professionals. It was indeed a sad commentary of what the country and state had to provide them and the future generations. I was even more saddened to hear experiences of some who, out of emotional bonds, relocated to Kerala and in a short while were back to the country of adoption. Most of them were shocked by the way society treated them as resettlers as compared to occasional vacationers!

I decided that I would have a day all to myself in London to reminisce the fond experiences of 1995-96. I was fortunate to get cheap return rail tickets from Hayward’s Heath to London on 31 August. The entire day was spent, mostly walking, from Victoria to the sights that abound in the neighbourhood. After spending considerable time at the historic railway station I walked to the Buckingham palace and was engulfed in a sea of humanity. For a while I did not know why so many people had aggregated there till I was told that it was to witness the change of guard. Security was tight and it was not easy to move around to occupy a vantage position to experience the various elements of the noted ritual. However, I eventually got to position myself at the statue of Queen Victoria. I was there for almost an hour and was fortunate to get close to the parade. Thereafter, I walked to some of the more noticeable landmarks of the area such as the War Rooms, No.10 Downing Street, Trafalgar Square – where the statue of a huge blue cock hogged more attention than the fountains and the Nelson column - National Museum, London School of Economics – Oh! How much she has changed in nearly two decades with new buildings and facilities, including the renovated and modernised Lionel Robbins library - Passfield Hall, where I had stayed for a year with some fascinating younger friends. I took the Underground to explore the Old Scotland Yard, Baker Street, the Lords cricket ground – where a match was in progress and entry was restricted - and Marble Arch.

One of the major items of expenditure I had logged prior to the start of the trip was shipping the car back to Cochin. I had varying estimates for the same; most disturbing was that I did not have anyone reliable who could be handed a ‘turnkey’ task. Again He intervened. Prior to the start from Cochin we were invited to many functions. In a function that I could not attend Lal Jose requested a producer of one of his movies, Zulfiker Hasis, to contribute to the journey in some measure. Zulfi, as he is affectionately called, being the owner of DGL which provided Shipping and logistics services worldwide, based out of Dubai, offered to ship the car from London to Cochin at his cost. Throughout the trip what I experienced the myriad ways in which people have extended support and help. Here was Zulfi doing his bit. Lal told me about the offer of Zulfi a few days before we were to leave from Cochin. I heaved a sigh of relief that one of the loose ends could be tied up thus. However, the issue of our flight back from London to Cochin remained. I broached the subject to Zulfi requesting him to consider footing the bill of our return to Cochin. On the long distance call to Dubai I could make out that Zulfi did not even pause to think how much it would cost him. That’s genuine support. Zulfi agreed to reimburse our travel agent once the tickets were booked. He was more than true to his word. Immediately as I confirmed from London that the tickets had been booked his office wire transferred the amount to Akbar Travels, Cochin that did the booking.

Zulfi’s office in Dubai coordinated the despatch of the car from London through the Port of Felixstowe. I was asked to coordinate with Gary of Hemisphere Freight Services to drop the car off on in a warehouse in Ipswich. Before that I wanted to shop some so that I could send it in the car along with the clothes and other items. I only wanted to retain what was required for the journey to Cochin. The morning of 1 September was devoted to shopping. Accompanied by the Kingsleys, Anil and Sunil, I hopped from shop to shop in quick time and picked up some stuff. In one of the shops, a lady at the check in counter even asked me if I would not be able to get the stuff in India! By afternoon the car was loaded. I had planned to drive to the warehouse all by myself and return to Hayward’s Heath by public transport. Anil and Sunil would not hear of it. Sunil tailed us in his car, which we used to return form the warehouse.

I was amazed at what little documentation was required to hand over the car to the logistics company that was in charge of the shipment. Having been exposed to the hassles and the mountainous documentation that are faced in India I was even worried that I may be asked to return from Cochin to London to complete the documentation! In less than an hour the formalities were completed and, grief stricken, I handed over the spare key of the car to the warehouse manager. KL 29C 2131 had been my trusted companion and virtually a home to me over the past twelve weeks. Not once did she fail me. Not even a puncture or air leak. Some people back home did not believe that the journey was totally trouble free. The glorious endeavour in the Endeavour had ended eventually.

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...