Route, Re-Route, Re-Re-Route!We started filling up multiple spread sheets deciding our route. Every new development, research and piece of information started changing our way to Mumbai.The starting point is fixed (New York) and our final destination is fixed (Mumbai). The rest is to be decided. The plan is to fly from New York to London and then start driving from London across land borders to Mumbai.The safety, uncertainty of borders, costs, visa requirements, road conditions are the factors which kept changing our routes very frequently.The original proposed plan was:UK - France - Germany - Austria - Hungary - Romania - Bulgaria - Turkey - Georgia - Azerbaijan - Kazakhstan - Kyrgyzstan - China - Nepal - IndiaWe found out that the Nepal border is currently closed due to the earthquake in 2015. So entering India from Myanmar is our next option.Chinese travel agencies suggested avoiding Tibet and entering from the Mongolian border into China and then going south to Myanmar. This can reduce paper work and costs involved, but that also means taking a complete deroute to get to India and many more days on the road.We contemplated the safety situation in Turkey and also the predictability of crossing the Caspian Sea by Cargo Ship. It involved more time at border crossings and shipping the car. So we decided to go through Russia.Once in Russia, we decided to go from St. Petersburg down south to Sochi. Since Sochi was the host city for 2014 winter Olympics we expect that it will have better roads there. We planned to enter Georgia from Sochi and then continue to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan.Reading more about Georgia-Russia relations, we think passing by that border will increase the uncertainties. Passing through Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan involves more Visas.So our final decided route (up to now!) is US- UK - France - Switzerland - Germany - Poland - Lithuania - Latvia - Estonia - Russia - Kazakhstan - Kyrgyzstan - China - Myanmar - India.I think route is a very dynamic thing and it keeps changing with more research. We simply hope to reach Mumbai.
What to name it?We started brain-storming on what to name the project. We did not think such a simple looking task could be so difficult. The name had to be something which reflects the purpose and our beliefs, yet simple and gripping. We knew we had adventure and charity coming together in the project.
The list of ideas and names were exhaustive.
To list a few of them-
1. Ojas: A word of Sanskrit origin which means splendor, vitality and vigor. It could best describe the energy and the spirit of our team to move many miles for the passion of charity and adventure.
2. Project RAY: Raising awareness amongst youth : We are a group of young people pursuing a project which the youth can relate to and hence the RAY. We are a ray from the entire sunshine trying to reach the masses creating a Ray of hope in peoples lives.
3. Ammonite: Ammonite is the fossil of a marine animal which is found in the Himalayas at the peak thus showing that the mountains were originally submerged under water. Thus a word which relates to finding one's own roots.
4. Project ACE (Adventure Charity Explore): This option is an acronym for what we believe in.
5. Project Drive: The drive within us leading us to drive 10,000+ miles.
6. Project Light: Light (as in traffic light), because before we start a journey we can not wait for all the lights on our way to be green. There are many obstacles in the way and they will eventually turn green once we start moving. Also the traffic light is a symbol for driving.
We asked our opinions from friends and family and received various suggestions. Some tried to focus on the beliefs, some tried to be more catchy and appealing, some had a deeper meaning associated with the name.
Some of the names suggested were Project DISHA (meaning direction), Project Kaizen (meaning constant improvement), Project Horn- Ok -Please (a common written statement behind Indian trucks), Speed breakers ahead, Bumps, PATH, I4India, RAVI (meaning SUN), Project YES etc.
It was a fun discussion and great to have creative inputs from people.We emailed, messaged and talked to friends and took an opinion poll on the names. The name which received maximum votes and which we all loved was:
Spark is created when two objects strike against each other. Here we have adventure coming in confluence with the idea of charity and thus creating the Spark. It is the Spark within us which inspires us to take up the journey.
So 'Project Spark' it is !
Travelling through ChinaWe contacted several travel agencies to inquire about the logistics of driving through China. The primary research showed that China, and Tibet in specific, require elaborate paperwork for self driving trips in China.
The paperwork and requirements are as follows
1. A Temporary Chinese driving license and vehicle number plate are required to drive a foreign registered vehicle in China.
2. The route should be fixed and approved by the government.
3. A Chinese guide must accompany the group throughout the trip.
4. Since 2007, Chinese customs require a vehicle deposit (depending on the value of the car, manufacture year and displacement of the vehicle). The deposit is paid at the entry border/port and is refunded once the vehicle leaves China.
Entry in India can be from
1.China - Nepal - India
China - Nepal (Zhangmu Kodari) is still closed after the April 25th, 2015 earthquake. Hence it is not possible to enter India from that border.
Another China - Nepal border (Guyrong) is currently open only to tourist groups but not to self-driving vehicles.
2. China - Sikkim(India)
Nathu La Pass border is only open to Indian pilgrim groups.
3. There is no established diplomatic relationship between China and Bhutan.
4. China - Myanmar - India
The China - Myanmar (Ruili) Muse border is available at present and thus entering India from Moreh (Manipur - India) is possible.
Kunal, Shrida and I hoped to travel to Mt. Kailash when we are in China. Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar have been of great significance to us while growing up.
We realized that to travel to Kailash we needed a permit from the National Tourism Administration of China as well as a provincial Xinjiang and Tibet travel permit.
The Tibet travel permit (issued by the Tibetian Tourism Bureau) is complicated for Indian passport holders as they need a 'Special permit' (from the China Indian Pilgrim Service Center) to enter Mt. Kailash.
If we intend to enter from Myanmar and pass through other parts of China, Indian passport holders will also need a 'Normal Tibet permit'.
And a Normal and Special Tibet permit both are not granted to a person at the same time.
Thus we realized
- Driving in China requires elaborate paper work.
- It is expensive to have a guide and pay for the custom deposits.
- It is difficult to visit Mt. Kailash.
This gave us second thoughts on
- Entering India through the Pakistan border
- To do a back pack trip and avoid the liability of a Car.
- To travel through China straight to Mongolia and then travel south thus avoiding Tibet and the extra expenses.
After discussions and arguments we decided to stick to the Krygyzstan - China - Myanmar - India route. We decided to look for other travel groups and join with them and thus share the costs.
We are hoping for stars to work in our favor and the China - Nepal border will open up by August 2016.
Education for Tribal GirlsA family friend Suryakant Shah introduced us to a couple Aparna and Pankaj Kadikar, who presently live in Dharampur, Valsad, Gujarat India. This couple of Indian origin lived in Los Angeles, US and worked as Architect and Investment banker. At age 45 they made a decision to move back to India and opened a residential school for tribal girls in a small district of Gujarat, India.
They saw that problems facing girls education were:
1. Lack of schools: The educational facilities available are very scarce, offering negligible quality education and any existing ones are located in distant areas. Hostel facilities are rare in those places.
2. Gender inequality: Even today the girl child does not get the same importance and emphasis to education in tribal communities of Dharampur and Dang districts due to social reasons.
3. Poverty and Deprivation: Lots of families live under the poverty line. This forces girls to child labour and taking care of siblings. The essential health care, living conditions and food necessities are barely met, so spending money for the education of girls is an unnecessary expense.
Aparna and Pankaj opened up a school with residential facilities free of cost for these girls in grade 8 to grade 12. The focus of education was quality of education and holistic development of these girls. Along with academic education, vocational training and environmental education, hygiene and sanitation training is imparted to these girls. Education and training is driven to make them self independent and economically stable.
The initial few years were full of challenges for Pankaj and Aparna. They went door to door convincing parents in the tribal district to send their girls to Kedi School. Now in its 10th year, the school is running successfully as the community has seen the difference in their daughters and overall progress in their families. There are around 100 girls presently in the school with a staff of 10-12 teachers.
Kunal, Shrida and I really liked the cause. We were really impressed by Aparna and Pankaj's work. The change they are bringing about by working at the root level is really commendable. I thought to myself, may be I will like to do something similar in my later life.
Kedi school is coming up with a new project for scholarship programs for girls after 12th grade. We decided to raise awareness and funds for this efforts.
Why Charity?The project started with a sense of adventure, so why add the aspect of charity now? We realized that as we started talking about our project to our friends, families, colleagues it was always associated with a 'WOW!' factor. We thought that the journey can be the best way to raise awareness about a cause, instead of just talking about the journey and the route when we talk to people. It would be like running a marathon for a cause. Shrida's participation on the team also strengthened our spirit towards working for a cause.Our journey will have 3 phases:Preparation Phase:During the 'Preparation' phase, we figured that we can spread the word about our journey and our charities at our workplaces, among friends and family and anyone we meet. Distributing t-shirts and other merchandise, writing blogs, web site, facebook and twitter pages, holding fund raising events towards the launch will help promote the journey and the charities.On the Road Phase:During the 'On the Road' phase, we plan to use our vehicle as our mode of transportation as well as our tool of communication. We plan to print decals on the car which will mention the charities. Traveling 17,000 kms for about 70-80 days and passing through 15 countries, we expect to meet innumerable people and glancing eyeballs. Apart from that, we would be distributing stickers and visiting cards mentioning our website, charities and sponsors. We plan to visit the 'Skanda Vale Hospice care' in the UK and the 'Kedi School' in India at the beginning and the near end of our journey.Back Home Phase:During the 'Back Home' phase, we continue to share our stories with our engaged audience via photos, blog posts and plan to produce a video from the footages we have gathered. We hope this journey will ignite a spark in many others towards adventure for charity.Thus we found that adventure and charity go together.
Why the trip?The most elementary and vital question was why do we want to do this trip? I should have started of the blog with this. But honestly these thought were more preeminent as we thought more of the trip and asked ourselves why are we embarking this journey.It appeared crazy and meaningless to some.Quitting jobs, wasting money, unnecessary exposing one selves to dangers were the few of varied responses we got from people.
But in our heads and hearts we knew why we wanted to do the journey.
The idea for this journey was born when Kunal drove an ambulance from London, UK to Bamako, Mali 4 years ago along with 3 other team mates as part of Timbuktu Challenge. http://lastresponders.org/timbuktuchallenge2012.html
He wanted to travel back to his homeland in similar manner. He wanted to mimic the silk route. The idea of driving across borders fascinated Kunal. The Timbuktu Challenge had generated the spark for adventure and travel in him and had convinced him that ordinary people can also pull off a seemingly impossible task and work towards a charitable cause.
Born and raised in Mumbai I had moved to the United States year and a half back. I was working in Midtown Manhattan for last 8 months as a Physical Therapist and met a varied diverse population and encountered different cultures and people with varied mind sets. Things which appeared obvious or natural to me were strange to them and vice versa. It was an amazing experience. I learned a lot in this time frame. I wonder what will be out to explore more in the world. I have no experience of long trips and I am a novice driver. A sense to explore the different cultures, meeting different people and learning something new drives me. I am ready to face unforeseen challenges and face them.
Sole purpose and mission of Shrida about driving was to work for a cause. She has ran many half marathons and 10 ks to raise awareness for a charity. She is clear in her head the purpose of her journey. She firmly believes in giving back to the community in a humble way. .She mentioned that as she drives across miles,talking to hundreds of people about her project and mission,she would be sowing a seed of goodness in that individuals mind. "Even if that person will not donate or contribute to my charity he will feel like contributing it towards some other charity." "Its like working off field for my project." Its about raising awareness about a mission. Shrida has been an active member in raising awareness, fund raising for lot of projects including but not limited to the hospice center and cancer research institute.
Meet the teamKunal Modi: Software , 29, New JerseyKunal is an inquisitive, adventurous explorer and finds crossing land borders fascinating. He is born and raised in Mumbai, India and lives in New Jersey since the past 8 years. He was part of team last responders for the London to Mali road trip in 2012. Having done trip to Mali, Kunal always wanted to travel back to his native land by road. The cause of education is very dear to him.He can be described as having an analytical mind, as the one who loves to follow and read maps and as the one who loves to get lost on the road before he finds the right route.Devanshi Modi: Physical Therapist, 29, New JerseyDevanshi is a motivated learner, the one ready to face unforeseen challenges. Loves talking and interacting with different people. Natural beauty enchants her. She is born and raised in Mumbai, India and lives in Jersey since past year and a half. Working as a Physical Therapist and seeing the benefits of rehabilitation in her patients; she really feels for the cause.She can be described as being free spirited, excited as well as anxious to drive on unknown narrow roads and to parallel park.Shrida Shah: Teacher, UKShrida is an enthusiastic young mother. Idea of charity drives her. She is an active member for fund raising events and volunteering for many charities. Originally from India, Shrida lives in London for the past 15 years. She firmly believes in giving back to the community and is a fine hockey player.She can be described as an excited, enthusiastic soul. She mentions to carry a hockey stick everywhere she goes in case she finds a field to play.
A new team memberWe discussed our project and plan to Kunal's cousin in London, Shrida. Shrida was excited on hearing the plan and wanted to join the team.Shrida is an economist and teacher at UCL, London. She lives with her husband and her two year old young daughter. Her decision to join the 'on-road' team came with a huge responsibility. As a mother of a two year old, it needs a lot of courage and inner strength to stay away from her child. Her husband Bhushan, is her core pillar who encouraged her to proceed with the journey.So now we are a team of three. More the merrier!
Sharing the idea
The first people to share the idea was with family. Vrunda (Kunal's sister) was really excited and had ample of constructive proposals.She was keen on being the on board team member; but for school she would have been on the road. She agreed on her complete backing and help us by all means. Mom had her initial concerns on our safety and the reasoning behind the trip,but soon signed in.Both said they would miss us,especially with Indian festivals like Diwali, Navratri around the corner.
We shared our idea with two friends of ours Stephen and Cathy, we met at Stephens office to discuss our idea on Dec 12 2015. Our formal first discussion.They are a part of team Last Responders - Adventuring for Charity.The team has been to three cross country rallies so far. Kunal was part of London to Mali trip in 2012. Stephen and Cathy were highly supportive of our journey.We discussed the route,expenses and their personal experiences briefly.
Our research had told us that China is going to be the most difficult and expensive part of the journey.We had realized that driving through China needs to be accompanied by a guide all through.Also it was going to be an expensive affair. Kunal and I were looking forward to visit Kailash mountain while passing through China, as it had always been of great significance while growing up.
- Such a trip is expensive
- Such a trip is risky
We understood at this juncture buying a home,getting settled,saving for the future might sound the normal thing to do.And for the avocation of travelling, taking vacations of work and visiting different places sounded logical.
How do we have the money for it? Being on road for 3 months (or longer if we are stuck somewhere) without job and income. To pay for the rent for apartment back in Jersey City and finding funds for the trip itself looks arduous.
I have just started my career in United States and Kunal is also in charge on a new position at work. Does it make sense in going off work, taking break, quitting job and spending a humongous amount on something which is not necessary. Is it not a big risk?
Navigating through unknown lands,crossing borders and wandering across countries like Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, China did sound scary. Is it not a risk? Wasn't it like exposing oneself to avoidable dangers and threats.
Re contemplating, We will never be 29 again.This is the time when health supports us.There are no added responsibilities of kids. We want to be travelers and not tourists. We can keep working,saving and have jobs all our life.Can I not borrow 3-4 months of my entire life for something which I want to do right now?
If It is tough and expensive now, time and progressing age is just going to make it worse.There might be more money later but not the same health. After hour lengths of discussions,arguments with self , justifying and convincing ourselves we landed up to a conclusion.
NOW is the time.
New York to Mumbai by Road
Present abode: Jersey City, New Jersey
Travel mode: By Road
"Is it even possible?" was my first reaction when Kunal my husband mentioned it to me one fine morning in November 2015. I knew Kunal can be adventurous and can come up with such unprecedented ideas, hence it was not surprising that he stated that.
Kunal mentioned that he wanted to do a road trip from New York to Mumbai. The plan was to fly to London and then drive across Europe - China and Nepal to India. It roughly means passing across 15 countries, which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Russia,China (including lot of countries I was oblivious about).
I speculated it was just a random thought and it would pass off. But he looked very serious about it and confabulated the same after few days. "Kunal, I have learnt driving only in the past 6 months. I can not drive!" When I drive, I cannot handle any distractions. No loud talks, no music. Just eyes on the road. My co-passengers are always on the edge on the seat and sometimes praying to reach the destination safely. How am I to drive 10000+ miles?
"Driving is just one small part of the entire journey, there are many more challenges to overcome. You will be fine with driving. I have faith in you and you will be able to do it" was his riposte.
I moved to United States in Oct 2014. I was witnessing new culture, new people and was loving new experiences. I work as a physical therapist at a outpatient clinic in New York City. It is close to the United Nations offices, This gave me an opportunity to interact with people from different countries who worked for their respective embassies. Now I imagined traveling through more than 15 countries and meeting even more people. That should be fun I told myself.
The very idea of being an explorer, to be on the road without knowing what is going to happen next, idea of crossing land borders, meeting new people who speak different languages, experiencing different cultures, exploring different food, facing challenges, encountering different weather conditions, feeling the energy of every city, enjoying natural beauty, learning the history of a new place, appreciating varied architectures and looking towards something new every moment of the journey sounded exciting!
"May be then as I drive, I will learn it.
I am in."