What is it that anyone is after on a cross border road trip? Food? Beautiful landscapes? Seeing historic monuments? Planning the route very carefully? Documentation? Currency? Making sure every aspect is covered? After driving for so many years, I have come to realize that all you need is access to the country and everything else is somehow taken care of. What is a road trip without a bit of apprehension, a bit of curiosity, a bit of uncertainty, a bit of no planning?
Or should I say that we planned to not plan?
We entered Malaysia without any road maps, without a gps, with any local currency, without a clue about how to get to Penang, which we first thought was a city, but it turned out that Penang is not in fact a city, but a region. Ignorant, amateurish…you may call us but if you ask me, it turned out to be the best plan! If you want to absorb a country, meet people going about their regular everyday chores, smell the routine staple food, then you got to first allow yourself to do that! How? Stop worrying about what ifs! What if we run out of money? What if we lose our way? What if the bus leaves? What if we don’t find a hotel? What if the restaurant closes?
At the Thai-Malaysian border, while looking for the counter for getting our vehicle permits, Sanglee, a local Tamil Malaysian man, approached us,
“Are you guys from India, can I help you?” he asked with a broad smile on his face
That was our first impression of Malaysia. We had heard about a lot of South Indian people from Tamil Nadu living in Malaysia, and here was our first encounter. Sanglee spoke fluent Malay, he was born and brought up in Malaysia, he owns a ‘big bike’ showroom in Penang, and he was sent straight by the highway gods of Malaysia to our rescue.
“You need to go to Penang? Where in Penang?” he asked
“Umm, umm, umm, actually, umm, one of our friends will be meeting us in Penang” I replied trying to dodge his question.
“Yes, but in which town of Penang?” he was adamant!
“Umm, in Penang, he said” I replied
“Ya, ok, but which town? Penang is a region, not a town” he replied, he wouldn’t let go.
“Umm, I don’t know” I replied feeling quite embarrassed
“Ok, ok, no problem, I live in Penang, you can follow my car and call your friend on the way and find out where to rendezvous with him” he added
“We will be passing a few tolls on way to Penang from the border, I hope you guys are carrying local currency” he asked
“Umm, umm, actually, no, we don’t have any local currency” I replied feeling more embarrassed
“No problem, I will give you my wife’s toll card, it’s a prepaid card, just touch it on every toll and the barrier will open” he said as he handed over his wife’s id card to us
We handed him a radio set to keep communicating between our cars and started following him. It was difficult to keep pace with him as he sped at 150 km/hr on the highway while trailing a broken down BMW motorbike behind his pickup truck.
“Since we are going to Penang, my wife would like you to come to our area and have lunch with us in a local Tamil restaurant. Will that be ok with you guys?” Sanglee asked over the radio.
Taking care of documentation at the border, paying toll tax for us multiple times, feeding us in a local Tamil restaurant, arranging for a local person to guide us to Little India…all this was taken care of by Sanglee, how long did we know him for? A couple of hours! Could any of this have happened if we had a route map or local currency or knowledge about the routes? I rest my case.
We said our goodbyes and followed a tall, dark, pony tailed, big built Tamilian man who was going to guide us to Georgetown, a 200 year old historic town on Penang Island where Little India was also located.
“Cmon, I don’t have time, I have a lot of work to do” he said in a rude, loud tone. Not only did he sound very rude, he looked very intimidating. Sanglee had arranged for him to lead us till Georgetown in Penang Island. We were keen on going to Penang Island for 2 reasons. One, we would be crossing the longest bridge built on sea that connected Penang Mainland and Penang Island and two, we wanted to visit Mini India, a small locality inhabited by Tamil people living in Penang. We continued following the scary man and I almost committed suicide when at a traffic light, while stopping behind him, I managed to give a little ‘kiss’ at the rear of his sedan with the front bumper of our car.
“Oh my god, what have I done!” I said in a shocked state
“Sir ji, he is an angry man, let’s hope he doesn’t come out of his car to beat us up” Sanjay replied.
Just then, he came out aggressively to check the damage, fortunately, nothing happened, but he looked at me with a lot of hatred and anger in his eyes. I just raised both my hands, looked at him and shrugged my shoulders a bit to apologize.
“Are you sure this guy has been appointed to help us?” Prasad said slowly
“Can I please go and kill myself somewhere?” I replied
We followed him till Little India and I dreaded the moment when he came out of his car. He once again checked the bumper, then walked towards me, for a moment I thought he would slap me, but fortunately he wasn’t feeling too well,
“I need to go back, I am feeling a bit sick, this is Little India, take care, bye” he replied and went back to his car without even a handshake
“Phew! Thank god!” I smiled
We took a round of Little India in Penang Island. Tamil songs blaring on the radios, idlis and dosas, traditional sweets, Lord Murugan temples, it was almost like visiting a local village in Tamil Nadu.
After an hour of visiting Little India, we once again crossed the bridge and went back towards Penang Mainland where Awing, one of my friends from ASEAN India car rally was waiting for us. Awing was part of the Malaysia Team during the rally and once he got to know that we were visiting Malaysia, he drove 700 km from his home town to spend a couple of days with us. A tall, fair, well built, handsome man, he met us in a parking lot just after we crossed the longest bridge. He was waiting with a local policeman and after I hugged him, he introduced us to his cop friend,
“Meet my friend, he is local traffic police” he said
“Look at my new bike, Malaysian police give to me yesterday” his cop friend proudly showed off his swanky white and blue sports bike.
Sanjay asked a few techie questions about the bike and gauging Sanjays’ interest in bikes, the cop insisted that Sanjay should ride it. He actually pushed Sanjay towards the bike and made sure he rode it. So here we were, after a close escape from being beaten by a Tamilian to riding a Malaysian cops’ brand new official motorbike.
Awing was riding a pickup truck and we thought it would be a good idea for Prasad to go sit in the truck and shoot our vehicle as we followed the truck.
“Awing, please drive slow as Prasad will be sitting in the open carriage of your truck to shoot us” we said to Awing.
He took us to a resort in Gurung Jerai, one of the highest points of Malaysia from where you could see paddy fields in every direction and also catch a glimpse of the ocean in the far distance. The resort was built on top of the mountain and as we sat in the balcony of our room overlooking the valley down below, the entire area got engulfed by clouds. From India to Myanmar to Thailand to Malaysia, meeting Sanglee during the day and then be sitting in the balcony overlooking a beautiful landscape in Malaysia, we couldn’t help get a bit philosophical.
“Travelling through so many countries, experiencing different cultures, meeting different faces everyday makes me realize where I belong” Sanjay said looking far ahead in the distance.
“What we are doing, what we are experiencing, what we are achieving together is rare, I think it will take a few years before even we will realize what we did. It is going to stay with us forever.” I added
After the clouds had cleared, the Black Label had emptied and the birds had started chirping, we were lost in our own dreams. My mind would jump from one continent to another.
“Calm down, come back, this is only the first leg, one step at a time, one day at a time” I would need to keep reminding myself.
Next day, on our way to Kuala Lumpur, Awing took us to a hard core sea food restaurant.
“Seems like they have put the entire sea life on my plate!” I said as a bowl filled with lobsters, tiger prawns, crabs and squid was put in front of me.
I had never eaten prawns before but Sanjay very lovingly kept peeling off the skin and giving me one prawn at a time.
“How do I eat this crab now?” I asked
“Don’t worry, here you go” once again, Sanjay did all the hard work on the crab and simply put the meat in my plate. He is like an elder brother who was always taking care of me and Prasad. Always calm, always patient, always smiling, even in the most difficult situations he would remain composed and only think of solutions.
If it was left to me, I would have probably suffered a heart attack during the planning stage itself. We didn’t have even half the funds needed to do the journey but it was only due to his positive attitude and belief that once we start the journey, everything will fall in place that got us where we are.
Kuala Lumpur was a nicer version of Bangkok. The highlight of course was the twin towers of Petronas.
“Isn’t this where Shahrukh Khan’s Don was filmed”? That was my observation looking at one of the tallest structures in the world. Sorry, I am a movie buff, I love Bollywood and I love Shahrukh Khan films.
“Yes, of course, he was running on that bridge that connects the 2 towers” our very own director from Bollywood, Mr Prasad added.
Another call, another new face, another free dinner was organised by Nishant, a 28 year old Entrepreneur who took us for dinner to an authentic North Indian restaurant in KL tower, the second tallest structure in Malaysia.
“I have been living here for the last 5 years, I like it here, but in a few years I really hope to move back to India. I miss my family, my friends, the food, my regular life. India is home, Malaysia is, well, good for my career” he said
He was one of the very few north Indian faces we saw in Malaysia where normally you would keep seeing south Indian people from Tamil Nadu. But the interesting part is that they don’t consider themselves Indian.
“Of course I am Malaysian, I am proud to be a Malaysian, yes I follow all Indian customs, rituals, festivals, traditions, but I am a Malaysian” said the principle of a Tamil school in Kuala Lumpur. We met quite a few Malaysians of Indian Origin who all looked very happy with their lives in Malaysia.
“Malaysia is a very peaceful country where people from all religions live in harmony with each other” the principle added
Our journey in Malaysia started on a high note when we met Sanglee at the border, it became more interesting when we met Awing but what took it to a completely different level was the support given to us by the Automobile Association of Malaysia(AAM). Mr T.K. Malhotra, President of Automobile Association of Upper India (AAUI) had written to the President of AAM about our journey. He had requested AAM to provide us with on-ground support and media coverage in Malaysia. AAM team went out of their way to welcome us. Not only did they get our car fully serviced at their very own workshop, they even managed to get us LIVE on the Breakfast Show on NTV7 Channel, the national news channel of Malaysia.
Sitting in the green room getting a ‘touch up’ done on our faces, Sanjay, Prasad and I couldn’t help but look at each other and giggle.
“Driving can take you places, from highways to deserts to mountains to a makeup room” Sanjay laughed
Towards the fag end of our journey in Malaysia, we realised that we still hadn’t given any name to our car. We had been thinking about the right name for a few months already.
“I think we should have a feminine or at least a soft, calming name for the car. We shouldn’t name it like rally cars calling it Hercules or Tiger or something like that” I said to Sanjay
“The name has to relate to us, it has to show our personality, it has to be something that we are proud of” Sanjay said.
After much deliberation, brain storming, lots of options, finally, we zeroed in on the perfect name of our Fortuner. So amidst drums rolling, loud cheering, huge applause, it gives me great pleasure to declare that from now onwards, Fortuner is not just a Fortuner, it is…Forrest.
We took the name Forrest from the Oscar winning movie Forrest Gump. Not only is Forrest Gump Sanjay’s and my favourite movie, the character Forrest played by Tom Hanks is one that we both found very moving. A vulnerable, honest, dedicated, sincere, humble, innocent person, he always achieved success without chasing for it. He was devoted towards his friends and towards the love of his life and never harmed anyone. So ladies and gentlemen, please join your hands and welcome ‘Forrest’ to The Great Indian World Trip!