As the son of a physician father who worked for the Indian Railways, we made many family trips within India which I am sure was the origin of my appetite for travel. I grew up in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and while in medical school occasionally contemplated quitting to become a pilot. Using my father’s passes I had traveled most of India by the time I graduated. By then my desire to see the world was intense but India had little foreign reserves so it was not possible to do serious travels.
My first foreign trip was to Singapore and Malaysia to write the qualifying examinations to come to the USA in 1974. I stayed with people I had never met. I was struck by how clean Singapore was and the roads in Malaysia were much better without any potholes. The next two years were spent in Internal Medicine residency and more internal travels within India and Nepal. I received my US visa valid for 6 days and arrived in the USA one day before the deadline with an immigrant visa and $6.50 in my pocket on a cold clammy January night in 1977. That commenced my passionate journey professionally and recreationally.
The Windy City, Chicago, was my home for residency training in Psychiatry. In my first year a month’s vacation was spent traveling Europe on an Eurail Pass from Narvik, Norway, to see the midnight sun, then to marvel at the renaissance structures of Florence and Rome, and on to Switzerland to further experience the Alps.
My first circumnavigation of the globe was in 1979 on Pan Am.In 1980 on a Pan Am Passport 30 ticket (unlimited Business Class flights for 30 days anywhere Pan Am flew), I flew to 6 continents and this included my first ever visits to Australia and Africa. It was a great year including six weeks in Europe and two circumnavigations of the globe. In 1983, I circumnavigated the earth for the fourth time visiting many South Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka over 3 months. By this time, I had visited every state in the USA. In January 1985, I was on a cruise to Antarctica and was the youngest passenger on board. I recall many older ladies wishing to fix me up with their granddaughters. On my return to Punta Arenas, Chile, my passport was detained, as I did not have a visa. Three days later, a security man flew me to Santiago and just before the departure gave my passport back and let me go. There was no stamp in my passport to show I was ever in Chile at all. Bright side to the delay was I shared my return flight with Claude Nicolier, who was training as an astronaut. He went on to become the first Swiss astronaut to fly four times on the space shuttle and repair the Hubble telescope. Now I had to plan a trip to space! In 1985, I paid an advance to be one of the first private passengers in space by year 1992. When the Challenger unfortunately crashed in 1986, the US government banned all private space programs.
By summer of 1986 I changed course and quit my job and took a year off to take my fifth circumnavigation which included a 20-day trek to Mount Everest base camp, folowed by two months in Africa that included a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, and a seven-week honeymoon trip around Europe. While I was following my passion for travels, I had no clue about any travel clubs and by 1987 I had already traveled to over 100 TCC countries!
The next 20 years my profession and family kept me busy. There were many family trips around the globe and within 20 years my spouse completed 100 TCC countries and my two sons had traveled to nearly 90 TCC countries. By early 2000 I finally became aware of TCC. At first I was using the list for my own count without joining.
Fast forward to 2008, I retired from the University and I had already retired from the Federal Government. In the last decade I had been working about 10 to 12 days and traveling approximately 5-6 months a year. All in all this amounted to about 10-14 international trips a year. By the time I joined TCC I had traveled to over 250 countries and visited 323 of 329 TCC countries leaving just Midway and Wake (USA), Tokelau (NZ) and Socotra (Yemen). We were hardly one hundred yards from Atafu Island of Tokelau and the village elders refused permission for us to land, despite our offer to donate $1,000 to their hospital. Hopefully I’ll get to these places in the near future.
With the extraordinary travels, I have learned that irrespective of the country there are more in common among us than differences. All people want to live peacefully and wish that their children would have a better future. Having said that, I have been impressed the most by the poor people in developing countries willing to share what little they have.
I mostly travel alone, but a third of my trips are with my family. I sometimes join with other travelers to visit difficult destinations. My wife always comments, “I knew that you had a passion for travel before I met you, but
now it has become an obsession”.
I have had my share of difficulties that comes with so much time on the move. I was mugged once in Gabon, but was not harmed. I spent a week to get a new passport, got the culprits arrested and saw the way they were treated in jail with tears in my eyes when the French interpreter commented “you cannot cry, they are criminals.” On the other hand, I have also maintained a few friends for over 40 years from different countries. Having traveled through Heathrow airport many times, some security personnel remember and actually greet me! Even in Vladivostok a S7 agent remembered me from the previous year and upgraded me to First Class.
Besides visiting all 193 UN countries, I have visited both the poles. On April 23 1985, I planted the Indian National flag at the North Pole and was the first Asian to achieve that. On my way back from the North Pole, I spent a night in an igloo at Grise Fiord, Canada. I had also spent three nights in a tent at the South Pole and joined the Centenary celebration of Amundsen first claiming the South Pole. There were more than 100 visitors including the Prime Minister of Norway on December 14 2011 at the high plateau of South Pole. Among the remote spots I have visited, Pitcairn Island surprised me as the people had many more amenities than I imagined. I never expected to be sitting and watching CNN, BBC, or a Hindi movie there. This contrasts with the mountain villages in Nepal and Peru that I visited over 30 years ago that were isolated with no roads available. The Quechua Indians only knew distances by how many days walking distance to and from their village.
I always look for uniqueness everywhere I visit and do not get disappointed. Life is a journey and not a destination. I had a passion to travel, meet people, and get to know them before I knew anything about the travel clubs. I find something new even in the places that I have visited before. My eventual goal is to try to visit the 4 islands that I have not visited on the TCC list. However, there is more to life than completing any lists and the bottom line is enjoying the process not just the end product.
My advice to young travelers is to keep an open mind and keep traveling every chance you get. At some point you may have the money but not the health. There may be political differences between countries but the people will surprise you. Ih ave been the recipient of unexpected assistance and hospitality in some countries that common wisdom would suggest otherwise. Always try to learn a few words in the local language as that breaks the ice. Last, learn of prohibited items in the country you will be traveling to to avoid trouble. Remember the dictum, “when in Rome be a Roman.” Happy travels!