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At Madam Tussauds, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The world in a teacup

Author: admin

This Kochi-based, globetrotting tea vendor has a powerful message for one and all—‘It’s possible’, writes K P Pushparaj

K R Vijayan and wife Mohana can barely contain their excitement ahead of their 44th wedding anniversary. The couple has gifted themselves a trip to China and, although still four months away, they can’t stop dreaming of their exotic, week-long tour. It’s an anniversary plan not unlike many others, yet this one is extra special because this globetrotting couple runs a tea stall for a living. If that’s hard to believe, there’s more. Vijayan, 68, and Mohana, 63, have visited over 50 foreign destinations in Asia, Europe and the US. And having travelled to three continents, they have their sights firmly set on Antarctica.

“I started out as a mobile tea vendor on a bicycle in and around North Cochin. Later, I started a thattukada [street-side eating joint] before I opened this tea shop in 1995. I serve 300 to 400 cups of tea a day, at ` 5 per cup, and a few simple snacks,” says Vijayan, owner of Sree Balaji Coffee House in Kathrikadavu, Cochin.

The bearded tea vendor—or intrepid globetrotter—depending on how you look at him, had travel written in his destiny. He credits his father, a tea vendor in Chertala in Alappuzha district, for his wanderlust. “I started visiting different places when I was eight or nine years old. My father would hire a bicycle and take me to new places in and around Alappuzha just to show me around. That experience made a lasting impact on me,” he recalls.

“As a schoolboy, I dreamt of visiting the big city, Cochin. I remember the thrill of travelling to Thiruvananthapuram by Kannur deluxe bus. After Kerala, my next dream destination was Madras in Tamil Nadu,” explains Vijayan, whose travels all over India are the stuff of envy even for the well-heeled. “My travel aspirations in my 20s took me to almost all popular Indian cities. I am so crazy about travelling that I also loved watching movies with overseas themes and stories,” he admits. Vijayan was lucky to find a travel companion in Mohana after they got married in 1973. It only encouraged him to scale up their travel plans to include more unusual destinations in the country. Overseas travel was still a long way off. “I was born and raised in Cochin and the first time I left the city was to travel to Tirupati with my husband. It was exciting to see places outside Cochin and I had no idea that it was the beginning of a life of travel,” says the soft-spoken Mohana.

Between 1973 and 2007, the couple’s travels took them to pilgrimage sites across India, to the deserts of Rajasthan, rugged mountains of Mussoorie and all the way to the Wagah border. But it was a trip to Tirupati in November 2007 that gave wing to the couple’s desire to journey overseas.

“While sitting outside the temple after darshan, an aeroplane flew above us. I wondered aloud about when I would be able to fly. Although my fellow pilgrims scoffed at me, saying those were dreams of the rich, the image of that plane stayed with me,” says Vijayan, for whom a challenge is nothing but a new goal to be achieved.

Soon after, he spotted an advertisement for a package tour to the Holy Land and he decided to take the plunge. It was the couple’s first trip overseas. “We had no passports but the tour operator helped us get them quickly so that we could sign up for the trip,” recalls Vijayan. “Our first-ever flight, on 27 December 2007, was unforgettable. And we enjoyed the 2008 New Year celebrations on the banks of the Nile,” says the tea vendor, adding that no horizon was too far to conquer after that.

Explaining the economics of their travel mania, Vijayan says they only opt for packages offered by tour companies. But, for tea vendors, isn’t that still a tad out of reach? Not quite. After the couple’s story made it to a local television channel, they attracted a lot of attention, and sponsorships started coming in from celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and Anupam Kher, and other well-wishers. Vijayan has shared his experiences on popular online platform TEDx and been invited to speak at various schools as well. The couple was also the subject of an award-winning documentary feature titled Invisible Wings, directed by Hari M Mohanan.

“Banks have also helped us with loans. We repay our loans as quickly as possible so that we can embark on our next trip,” he laughs. “I believe in celebrating life without hurting anyone and only creating enough wealth to meet our responsibilities.” He says they don’t have many major financial responsibilities, especially since both their daughters are married and well-settled.

Their travel adventures over the last decade have made for many happy memories, all of them captured on a point-and-shoot digicam. Neither of them can operate the camera properly, so their memories consist of a series of oddly framed images of the couple at destinations around the world—clicked by fellow travellers.

Speaking of memories, Vijayan says his most favourite ones are of their trip to Singapore, whose road discipline and civic sense had him at hello. For Mohana, Switzerland was a seductress. “The scenic beauty and lovely ambience of the place made me fall in love with it,” she says.

Vijayan and Mohana do not speak English but the language barrier has not stopped them from getting the most out of every trip. “We have no difficulty understanding the instructions of our tour guides or communicating with fellow travellers but find it difficult to express ourselves in international languages,” he reveals.

Asked to name one wild memory, and a sheepish grin lights up Vijayan’s face. “I thought I would try my luck at a casino in Las Vegas during our US visit in 2014 but I lost a hundred dollars on games like roulette, the slot machines and some card games.” Then he shakes his head, “Those games were so simple….”

If first-world comforts and the near-impeccable civic sense in Western countries never fail to wow our diehard travellers, there is one thing that Vijayan is not impressed with: the tea and coffee vending machines! “One day, maybe I will run a petty tea shop in the US, just to make the Americans taste real tea!

Photos: Hari M Mohanan
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
February 2018