Suresh Joseph 64, was born and raised in Kerala, the southern most state of India. He completed his BA degree from Loyola College, Chennai, MA in Economics from the St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi and MSc in Industrial Relations from London School of Economics & Social Science. After a brief stint with Malayalam Plantations in Munnar he joined the Indian Railway Traffic Service in 1981 and worked in Southern, South Eastern and South Western Railways before taking voluntary retirement in 2005. For the next five years he helmed the development of the International Container Transshipment Terminal in Vallarpadam, Kerala and is currently engaged as Consultant to the Genchi Global Group of Companies, based in Chennai.
A man with an undying passion for travel, since 2010 Suresh Joseph has been regularly taking time out to drive across India and a few countries abroad. To his credit, he has written 8 books, of which 7 of them are travelogues. He is also the holder of 15 National and 3 World records related to travel. He believes, he is the only person on the planet to have driven on the four longest highways of the world, all alone. This seasoned traveller, who has chosen the Sultanate of Oman as his 53rd destination, and is visiting the country from 10th to 19th May 2022, spoke in detail to Editor Deepak Nair.
"Have read so much about the friendly Omanis that I am waiting to experience that.”
You have visited 52 countries so far and Oman is going to be your 53rd country. What made you choose Oman and why are you visiting Oman in May during peak summer and not in the regular tourism months which is in winter months.
Cochin Port had hosted the Volvo Ocean Race in December 2008. A restored sail ship from Oman that had been used for trading between Salalah and North Kerala Coast was on display then. The rich heritage of interaction between Oman and Kerala was amply described in one of the plaques on the dhow. The intention to visit Oman is built on that. Everything happens in time and at its own pace – with so much travel in the past dozen years, I slotted the travel to Oman to coincide with my birthday this year. This visit is a birthday gift to myself. As for the season, I believe that every country has something to offer at all times. The low season may be a time to explore places without being jostled, and the rates for accommodation are normally quite affordable. What is constant though, is the hospitality of the people. Have read so much about the friendly Omanis that I am waiting to experience that.
“Everything happens in time and at its own pace - with so much travel in the past dozen years, I slotted the travel to Oman to coincide with my birthday this year. This visit is a birthday gift to myself.”
When did you start visiting other countries? What was the trigger?
My first visit abroad had been to London in 1995, where I went as a student to the London School of Economics, on sabbatical from the Indian Railways. That is where the backpacking and driving bug bit me and I did a fair bit of it in Europe at the conclusion of scholastic work. Strangely, my first drive abroad was also to London where I drove to in 2014. The conclusion of that drive was at the Mahatma Gandhi statue in Tavistock Square, London, which I used to walk by for a year when I was in London in 1995-96.
The idea of driving from India to London first surfaced in 1997 when I had made elaborate plans to exchange letters between the then Prime Ministers of the two countries, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Tony Blair, on the occasion of India’s 50th year of independence. That fell through because of a job change. However, I was able to realise that dream after 17 years in 2014.
Why is your drive called Record Drive?
That came about quite accidentally. After I got my first Limca Book of Records certificate for my All India drive in 2010-11, I decided to attempt a record drive between Leh and Kanyakumari. I discussed the idea with Muthoot Group, Kochi and they readily agreed to sponsor the attempt, facilitate the log book entries along the route and brand the drive. The branded Maruti Swift had the decals “Record Drive” stuck on its side. That was when Record Drive was born. I have used it ever since, because most road trips thereafter have been to better old records or set new ones.
Do you drive on your own in every country that you visit?
There have been 15 editions of Record Drive in the past 12 years. 11 of these have been solo drives. The first drive on which I took others along was the Cochin-London drive in 2014 which got mired in a huge controversy when I had to part ways with one of them midway through the trip. It was a huge learning experience and hurt me emotionally for a considerable time because the two who came with me took to various media to bash me for years taking advantage of their status as journalist and film celebrity.
Is the drive sponsored by anyone? If not, why?
Only two drives in India, the Kanyakumari-Leh-Kanyakumari (Muthoot Group) and Golden Quadrilateral (Eastern Curry Powder) were fully sponsored. A part of the London drive was sponsored by Coral Builders, Builders’ Association of India, Hedge Finance, Cherian Varkey Construction and the entire Bank Guarantee of Rs. 66 lakhs was put up by Trans Asian Shipping Services. Attempts since 2014 to find sponsors never bore fruits and hence, I decided to fund my travels out of my savings.
You are from Kerala, which is known as God’s own country. Have you travelled across Kerala? Which would be your favourite destination in Kerala?
I did a two week drive across Kerala in 2009 in a Mahindra Scorpio when I was General Manager of DP World. That was the time when I discovered the Malabar Coast and North Kerala. There is so much to explore in Kerala that I found the two weeks woefully short. Idukki, Munnar, the Backwaters of Kottayam & Alleppey, Kovalam, Silent Valley, Wayanad and Nilambur are some of my favourite destinations in Kerala.
Can you narrate the best and worst experiences you have had with Record Drive so far?
The best experiences were on the drive to London in 2014. Tuo Tuo is a border town of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. When we were entering a Sichuan restaurant for lunch a middle aged Tibetan asked the guide, if we were from India, to which she answered in the affirmative. We did exchange smiles then not knowing how else to communicate with him. After lunch when were in the car the man came running towards us with a white shawl. He tied the ‘Katha’ around the special lights on the front grill, said a short prayer and folded his hands in greeting, wishing us well during the drive.
In the car park of the Petergof, in St. Petersburg, a beefy Russian showed interest in the branding of the car. I gave him a bookmark which had details of the journey and we exchanged smiles. When I returned to the car a few hours later the car park attendant handed over a plastic bag with a traditional leather hat in it. On the cap was written, “St. Petersburg, Russia, Summer of 2014. Welcome back anytime”. It was a gift from the person who I had met while parking the car. Moral of the stories? That “Goodwill Knows No Boundaries”, which is the tagline of Record Drive and that a smile is the most universal language.
The worst part of my expeditions has to be the almost fatal accident I had near Srinagar (Uttar Pradesh) and the aftermath of it during the Trans Himalayan Expedition in 2015. The road beyond Srinagar consisted of sharp winding turns. While negotiating one a jeep taxi full of passengers, coming from the opposite direction, rammed so heavily into me that I thought I would lose control of the steering. If I had, I would have gone down a gorge with zero chances of survival. The Ford Endeavour had to be repaired before I could continue my journey because the damage was severe. Keen to find if I could locate a towing truck in Srinagar, I hitched a ride to the city. However, my search proved futile. I was shocked when I returned to the accident spot. The car had been moved and the left side front window had been broken in. A madman was sitting in the rear passenger seat eating my food and drinking orange juice that was in the car. He was also stuffing warm clothes that he had foraged from the suitcase in the car. I got him out of the car and surveyed the damage. Glass shrapnel was everywhere. The window had been smashed using a brick. To my chagrin I discovered that the Samsung notepad, GoPro Camera, Samsung phone, batteries and chargers had all been stolen from the car. Vandalism had cost me over Rs 3 lakhs.
How often in a year do you travel?
I make it a point to travel at least for two months in a year – the contract with my employers is structured this way. The pandemic years, of course, were bare. I am trying to catch up for the lost years!
Of the 52 countries you have visited which would be your favourite? And why?
To be very honest, I have found every country and every place I have travelled to so far interesting and enjoyable. There is a little something everywhere to be flavoured, felt and absorbed. For instance, the recent visit to Africa was a template shattering experience. What I had in mind about the countries there and the people were totally different from what I experienced. However, South East Asian countries such as, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos, Singapore and Cambodia are my favourites. The warmth of the people, humaneness you feel around you, food and drink, spirituality and affordability, besides its history and geography, are the reasons for this. However, the most pristine place I have so far visited is New Zealand. If there is a Paradise on earth today, it is in New Zealand. The human species is just about 900 years old in this country and great care has been taken to preserve the environment. The relatively peaceful integration of the locals and the settlers is another case in point.
“What I have learnt from travel are that ‘“Goodwill Knows No Boundaries”’, which is the tagline of Record Drive, and that a smile is the most universal language.”
How are you documenting your trips? Do digital platforms help you in planning & organizing your trips?
Photos, videos and blogs are my means of documenting my trips and experiences. I religiously write a blog on http://railwaymansj.blogspot.com every day when I am travelling. I have written seven travelogues, which I distribute free among those I feel would be motivated to travel or those which wished they had travelled.
I rely quite heavily on digital platforms to plan, organize and execute my trips. I read up whatever I can about the country or place I intend to travel to so that I can pick up the do’s and don’ts. Besides, I come across interesting tips and suggestions about food, places and travel conditions. I use Google Maps extensively, initially as a guide to plan halts and later as a navigation tool. I use booking.com and Airbnb to schedule accommodation.
What's the best and worst travel advice you've received before you have embarked on your trip?
I have been driving and travelling despite the suggestions and restrictions from many around me. They consider me insane for ignoring suggestions that they consider sensible. Shutting out such high decibel distractions have helped me do what I have wanted to do, in the way I have wanted to do, in travel, as in life.
The best advice I have received ever on travel is from Mohan IPS who was my Course Director in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, where I was a probationer in 1981. He had this to tell our group that was going on a tough trek to Gangotri and Yamnotri: “Pahadon se panga math lena” (Don’t pick up a fight with the mountains”). That has remained a watchword ever since. Respect the environment, respect privacy of wildlife and do your bit for its preservation and conservation.
The worst advice was given by a group of students in St. Petersburg in 2014 about the time taken to reach Helsinki from St. Petersburg. I firmly believe that one must not give information or advice when they are not either first hand or authentic. In the case mentioned, the students insisted that it would take only 4 hours between St. Petersburg and Helsinki. In the end it took 7 hours as they had not factored in the delays at the checkposts!
Which is the next country you plan to visit after Oman?
There are plenty on the bucket list. In the immediate may be a tour of South America and Antarctica followed by visits to Philippines, South Korea and Japan. When the neighbouring countries open up for self drive – China is closed with no indication of when it will open – I have plans to drive from India to 50 countries across Central Asia and Europe.
“The most pristine place I have so far visited is New Zealand. If there is a Paradise on earth today, it is New Zealand.”
What advise you would give to young aspiring travellers?
The first and foremost of it is to keep an open mind, open your eyes wide and listen to local people. That is how you can learn, see and imbibe the best of every place. The second is to experience the cuisine, culture and history of the place. Thirdly, it would be useful to read up as much as you can before you travel to the country or place. The do’s and don’ts are sometimes lifesaving. The fourth is not to venture out in the dark unless you have a trusted local person with you. We won’t know if we are at the wrong place or when the wrong time is. Fifthly, if you are driving do avoid the use of alcohol. Not only does it impair judgement, many countries have zero tolerance to alcohol as is the case with Norway. Lastly, after your travel share your experiences with friends and others and never shy away from any opportunity to get your experiences to a wider audience.
We are not gonna make spamming