How far would you go to pursue a dream? For Suresh Joseph, the answer lies in his four jumbo passports. 48 countries around the world in five continents. Not jet-setting but on dusty roads and highways. And solo at that. So irrepressible was his urge for “unfettered exploration on wheels” that this alumnus of Loyola and St.Stephens College and the London School of Economics who had joined the 1981 batch of the Indian Railway Traffic Service, opted for voluntary retirement, 24 years on, at the peak of his career, when he was the Chief Commercial Manager, South Western Railway, Hubli to switch tracks.
Post voluntary retirement, Suresh signed up with Dubai Ports World as its General Manager in Cochin where he was instrumental in the development and construction of the Greenfield International Container Transshipment Terminal at Vallarpadam, Cochin as well as the operation of the Rajiv Gandhi Container Terminal of the Cochin Port. “Providence has a lot to do with our lives and that nothing happens without a reason. While hurriedly scouring the newspaper in my railway guest house suite, I chanced upon a short write up about Dubai Ports International taking over operations of the Cochin Port Container Terminal. I rang up the Chairman of the Port to congratulate him. He told me that they were scouting for key personnel to man the Cochin business. One thing led to the other and by July 2005 I was chosen to head DPI in Cochin as its General Manager.”
Relinquishing a cushy government chair and lucrative corporate cabin for the driver’s seat, was quite a price to pay. Or was it? Travelling solo all across the huge expanse of the Indian landscape in a Maruti Swift, Suresh’s 124 day solo drive took him to all the state capitals and railway headquarters. “Between July 2012 and June 2013, I undertook four more solo national expeditions by car, setting new records and bettering existing ones.”
The excitement of the journey ahead, seemed to surpass what we saw in the British action adventure comedy film ‘Around The World In 80 Days’, based on Jules Verne’s novel! “Between June and August 2014, I became the first Indian to drive an Indian registered car from Cochin to London in 75 days across 27 countries and over 24,000 km. Another first was when I drove solo from Cochin to Singapore and back in 77 days between February and May 2015.”
Suresh stayed in top gear. There was no looking back. And the feats seem endless. “I was also the first person to successfully complete the Trans-Himalayan expedition solo in August-September 2015. Then I completed the 21,000 km Trans-Siberian Expedition in May-June 2016 driving an XUV500 from Chennai to St. Petersburg, Russia through Myanmar and China, becoming the first Indian to drive solo across the third longest highway in the world, the Trans-Siberian highway. In March-April 2018 I became the first Indian to successfully drive solo along the longest highway in the world – Australia Highway 1 – when I drove 16,728 km across all the states of the country in 33 days. Between May and June 2019 I travelled across the second longest highway in the world from Victoria to Newfoundland in Canada creating another world record.”
That’s an impressive three World and 15 National driving records recognised by Limca Book of Records, India Book of Records and International Book of Records, with Suresh having successfully completed 13 national and international road expeditions in 10 years.
Records and memories are two sides of the same coin for a die hard traveller. In Khabarovsk when Suresh was on the Trans-Siberian expedition in 2016, he had reached the city which lay 800 km from Vladivostok and just 30 km from the Chinese border. “I had not had any lunch during the ten hour drive and therefore, was hungry. I crossed the street from the hotel where I was staying and found a small kiosk on the sidewalk. I saw sausage buns, breads and large samosas. I picked up a samosa and a sausage bun. The owner of the kiosk was a smiling, grey haired man. As I was paying for the snacks he asked where I was from. When I mentioned India, he broke into a sing song “Mera Jhoota Hai Japani, Yeh Patloon Englishstani…”. “Who can forget Raj Kapoor?”, he asked. It was Khadir from Kyrgyzstan, who had migrated to Khabarovsk 8 years ago and has been running the snack kiosk there since then. He invited me into his small kiosk to take a selfie with me. I was a bit embarrassed as many customers had lined up to buy stuff from him. However, Khadir asked his customers to wait till he finished the selfie with “my Indian friend”! When I was ready to leave after paying for the samosa and bun Khadir handed me a freshly minted coin with Khabarovsk on the face of it as a keepsake for the visit. He said that the coin would bring me luck on the expedition and help remember it in the future. It is incidents such as these that prove that ‘Goodwill Knows No Boundaries’.
Then there is the story of a ‘Guardian Angel’ from his drive to Singapore from Cochin in 2015. “When I drove over the bridge to the Malaysian side from Thailand, I was not sure how to handle the immigration and Customs because not a single instruction was in English. I saw a line of cars driving through a lane and getting passports, or what looked like them, stamped. I too joined the queue and was pleasantly surprised when my passport was accepted, visa examined and entry stamped in less than five minutes. The officer also confirmed that I did not require any immigration clearance for the car and asked me to drive through to Customs. A few meters away there were two lanes, one for vehicles with goods and the other without. I drove through the Green Channel and passed through the Customs barrier. I could have driven on but for the Carnet formality. At the exit of the ICQS (Immigration, Customs, Quarantine and Security) complex I parked the car and approached the Customs station. And that is when I met the Guardian Angel – Faizah,who was one among the three Customs officials manning the inward gate. I handed over the Carnet to her and asked for it to be stamped. She offered a chair and went in search of the authority who had to do the needful. She returned in a short while and requested me to wait a while. While doing that I asked if she could help me with getting insurance for the car as well as to exchange currency. She said would after the Carnet is stamped. While waiting, I told her about the expedition and she said, “You are brave man, I respect”. The senior officer came to the gate with the Carnet and without any fuss the job was done. I had to only tell them what had to be filled up where. Then Faizah took over. She took me to a counter where she thought the insurance could be done. Some discussion later she decided to take me in her car further down the road in search of insurers. Each one of them was closed for lunch. Then she took me to the Duty Free Shop, where she thought she could get currency exchanged for me. That also proved futile, but she would not give up. She got one of the guys in the shop to take me on his bike to a money changer. Faizah and I had lunch in a small restaurant while waiting for the insurers to open after 2.30 pm. In the car and over the meal we exchanged a lot of information. I became certain that I have journeyed with this soul in the past. It is only travel that can help to connect up such dots in your life and see a larger picture.”
“Faizah kept telling people that her Uncle had come to visit her from India! When I asked her why she was doing all this for me, which is something I could not have expected even in my own country, she said that I should be comfortable in her country. I could not believe what I was hearing and experiencing. She mentioned that it is not often that Kelantan gets foreign tourists; she wanted me to know that they are a friendly people in a beautiful land. Yes, people make the land and Faizah exemplified it.”
One would imagine that automobile majors would queue up outside Suresh’s home to sign him up as a Brand Ambassador. Inexplicably, there was no such luck. For his 13 car expeditions, only two of his Indian expeditions were funded. “The London trip from Cochin drew a tepid response. The rest have been done with my own savings, as the automobile giants I approached never even bothered to respond to appeals for assistance. I manage to economise on expenses by accepting hospitality wherever offered, eating cheap street food, booking budget or government accommodation and walking as much as possible during sightseeing trips.”
Before Suresh began his car expeditions, he had just been to the UK for higher studies), Dubai, for work and leisure, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore on backpacking trips. When working with Indian Railways all his leisure travel was on trains. “My romance with car trips began at a young age when my parents used to travel every year from Trivandrum to Madras, to spend quality family time during the Christmas vacation. What I still recall of those absolutely fascinating trips was the planning that went into them, food stops under massive trees, hobbies and talents developed during the drive and the discipline that went into handling en-route challenges.”
Disclipline and setting records are in the genes. Suresh’s father M.K. Joseph made history in the Indian Police Service. A 1956 batch IPS officer of the Kerala cadre, he was the youngest and longest serving Director General of Police in the country, with his six and a half year tenure unsurpassed till date.
Why road? And why solo? “Road travel gives me a lot of flexibility in scheduling the expedition. I can start when I want to, stop where I want to and spend as much time anywhere I want to. Moreover, the car becomes a second home during the expedition; I am not restricted in what I carry with me.”
Staying away from the family was “never a challenge as I was encouraged by my parents to be self-sufficient from when I was young.” Travelling as part of various cricket teams during adolescence, excursion trips from school and stints in boarding schools and college hostels trained Suresh for it. “Besides, I learnt the concept of ‘detached attachment’ from a close friend of mine during probation in the Indian Railways. The essence of that is to be attached to those close to you and yet be detached from them so as not to be an emotional and physical burden on them. It is yogic in spirit and practice. In fact, one of the oft repeated questions during speaking sessions in various fora is how I manage to get the permission of my wife to travel alone! My first car expedition was the 124 day pan-India tour. I left my home in Cochin when my wife was away in Bangalore, visiting her parents. Therefore, she was not around physically to take permission from!”
Donning multiple hats and with a track record of going places under his seat belt, Suresh is a much sought after raconteur and travel writer. “I have authored seven books of which, six are travelogues. The eighth book is under publication, titled ‘Maple, Moose and Me’, and is based on the 2019 road expeditions in Canada. My dream is to travel in all the continents and as many countries as possible, Insha Covid!” A toast to a man who will never have that Robert Frost like sigh over the ‘road not taken’.
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, Columnist, Author, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)