A Railwayman’s Odyssey

Posted on June 29, 2015

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Reena Karim speaks to former railwayman Suresh Joseph on creating and breaking his travelling records, as well as his life-changing journeys.

To call Suresh Joseph an adventurous person would be an understatement. This 56 year-old former employee of the Indian Railway, and ex-CEO of Dubai Ports World Cochin, has travelled the length and breadth of India numerous times – and in record time. His expeditions have earned him eight national solo records in the Limca Book of Records, one of which included a 3,848 km gruelling drive from Leh to Kanyakumari in 99 hours and 30 minutes – breaking the existing record of 146 hours – and another where he toured all the states of India in 124 days in his Maruti Swift hatchback.

Suresh Joseph in Bangkok

Suresh Joseph in Bangkok

Between June and August of 2014 Suresh, along with Malayali film director Lal Jose and automobile journalist Baiju Nair, set off in a Ford Endeavour on a 75-day journey from Kochi to London. They travelled through 27 countries – namely Nepal, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Belgium, UK, and Ireland – covering a distance of 24,000 kms.

His wanderlust has once again got him on the road, and mid-way through his South East Asian expedition – which covers Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore – Suresh arrived in Bangkok in May and stopped by for a dinner held in his honour by the World Malayalee Council. Here he shared tales of his incredible adventures, before making his way to Myanmar, and finally back to his hometown of Kochi in India.

How did this insatiable thirst for travel come about?
My parents used to take my siblings and I on trips to Chennai by car every Christmas vacation. This two week-break was something we would plan for and look forward to every year because we, as a family, spent quality time together. Such trips were reinforced by real life stories of travel and adventure told to me by my grandparents who had travelled extensively, especially during the WWII era. Thereafter, working in the Indian Railways gave me the opportunity to tour extensively in India to see places and meet people. These were the catalysts that developed my passion for travel and adventure.

What inspired you to go on your first cross-country trip?
We have a certain mind set about our country and its inhabitants. Southerners are often referred to as ‘Madrasis’ and people of the North East are ‘Chinkies’, both due to their physical looks. Such stereotyping often leads to intolerance and poor understanding of culture. I wanted to break out of this mould and do what I could to change such outlooks. I travelled in a Maruti Swift all across the vast expanse of India, from October 2010 to February 2011. I dr ove 24, 000 km all by myself, and covered the entire country – travelling to every state, its capitals, and some of the tourist places, as well as the zonal headquarters of the Indian Railways. I planned the routes all by myself, poring over maps for over two weeks. It was a trip I undertook to satisfy an inner urge.

Your previous travels have inspired you to write three coffee table books. Tell us about that.
I write a daily blog documenting history, culture, experiences, people, food etc. When I get back after a trip I get the whole thing edited, supplement it with photographs and publish it as a book. I have three books to my credit, of which two are travel related – ‘Ek Swift Bharat Yatra’ and ‘Record Drives…And Then Some!’. The third, based on the London trip, is entitled ‘An Unforgettable Endeavour’ and will be released when I get back from this South East Asian expedition.

Your expeditions have set numerous records. Did you intend to make those records and do you now want to break them?
Some of the travels have been exclusively done with the intention of setting records. These have been documented in ‘Record Drives…And Then Some!’. The other records happened as a consequence of the journey as pioneering efforts.

How do you prepare yourself before undertaking a journey?
Route preparation, strategies to obtain visas, logistics arrangements, and fund-raising are some of the background preparations that happen prior to undertaking a trip.

What are some of the essentials you carry with you on all your trips?
Spares for the car, clothing – depending on the climatic conditions expected to be encountered along the route – first aid kit, food items such as dry fruits, biscuits, nuts and ready to eats, as well as cameras and documentation material, and plenty of bottled water.

Do you plan your accommodations much in advance, or are you an in-the-moment type of person?
Accommodation is arranged well in advance with small tweaks done to adjust to actual progress. However, I also pack in a tent, sleeping bag, and bio toilet to be prepared for any eventuality.

What does your family think of your undertakings? Have you ever considered taking them along?
They are my biggest support, with their prayers and encouragement. But I prefer to travel alone as I need quality time to myself during these journeys.

Do driving great distances ever get monotonous for you?
Never. When you do something you are passionate about, monotony does not enter into the equation at all. I keep myself engaged all the time when I am behind the wheel, be it singing, listening to music, thinking through deep philosophical questions, talking to the car and such.

What are some of the most frustrating or challenging aspects of travelling such distances?
Border crossing is the most challenging aspect of travelling distances and across countries, particularly in Asia. Language is another. For vegetarians food can be a major challenge.

You are currently on your South East Asian trip. Where are you heading next?
I am on the last leg of this expedition. I am headed to Myanmar and then to India. I had scheduled to do an expedition through the Himalayan route, but that has been kept aside for the time being due to the earthquake in Nepal, and the closure of the border.

How do you manage the funding for an adventure like this?
I have funded the current South East Asian expedition from my own savings. Hospitality of friends and acquaintances has also helped a great deal in reducing the impact.

How has travelling so extensively impacted your life?
It has changed me dramatically. I have realised that contentment, rather than economic security, is critical to me. I have also become more patient and humble as a person. The ability to tolerate differences is another change that has come over me. Human relationships have become dearer, and I have accepted that all things around us have souls that have to be respected. I also acknowledge that one of the basic reasons for my travel is to meet and understand souls that travel with me through time and space.

Tell us about your future endeavours?
They are many on the drawing board such as: retracing the path taken by Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days; driving coast to coast in Australia; driving through 48 states of USA; driving back and forth to London; and even walking from Kovalam to Kasargode in South India. However, these will depend on raising funds.

Any parting message?
Travel broadens the mind. So, travel as often as you can to places and lands that are beyond your comfort zone.
Follow Suresh Jospeh on his adventures
through his Facebook page Record Drive
and his blog railwaymansj.blogspot.co.in

A Railwayman’s Odyssey

Published in Masala magazine, June 2015

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Posted in: People