Kiran Oza’s anecdotes have a fairy-tale quality that is oddly comforting—his travels around the world centre on the kindness of strangers. “My wife and I met a medical student on the train in Bucharest, Romania,” he says. They had asked her for directions to their hotel. She, instead, convinced them to stay at her student quarters for free. The three of them continue to keep in touch—she’s even visited the Ozas at their home in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. “She still doesn’t know our names; she calls us mummy and daddy,” he laughs.
Oza remembers breaking his ekadashi fast some years ago at the house of a restaurant owner in Nairobi, Kenya, who insisted on cooking him a vegetarian feast. Once, he even unwittingly lunched with the kind wife of the defence minister of an African country.
A childlike enthusiasm to initiate conversations with strangers—often to the point of being gregarious —and a childhood love for geography have helped the intrepid traveller navigate his way through an astonishing 153 countries.
Oza is the longest-serving Indian member of the exclusive Los Angeles-based Travelers’ Century Club (TCC), a networking platform for prolific travellers who have been to more than 100 countries and territories. TCC’s list recognises 327 of them. They have six members from India and going by the universally accepted UN list, a confirmed four have travelled to more than 100 countries.
TRAVELLING IN THE ’80S
Oza first travelled abroad in 1981 to Paris. With no itinerary planned, he spent his days wandering about, aimless and happy. “Those days, the only sources of information were the embassies. They gave us booklets,” he says. In 1995, on the strength of sound investments, Oza decided to retire from his day job and travel. His standout memories include gorilla spotting in Rwanda, exploring the Amazon forest, sailing through the Panama and Suez Canals, and having his heart broken at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. “You can see everything left behind—toys, TVs, radios… The people had to evacuate in just two hours. It’s so tragic,” he recollects. A day trip organised by the Ukraine government for $250 in 2016 allowed Oza to see the plant from close quarters. “People are not usually allowed to breach the 30-kilometre radius imposed by the authorities due to the radiation.” Next on Oza’s travel itinerary is Algeria in January, but he also wants to visit the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Réunion Island, Faroe Island, Senegal, Lampedusa (an Italian island), the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In February 2011, Oza travelled to Fairbanks, Alaska, to watch the Northern Lights. He remembers the moment he craned his neck to take in the visual spectacle. “It was -30°C. Green lights are quite common but I was lucky to see yellow lights,” he recounts. Lucky, yes, but this was no chance encounter. A year earlier, he had sought a meeting with a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to get foolproof advice on the best time to catch the natural phenomenon in all its glory.
Oza’s mantra is simple—plan in advance. “I’ve booked a bus ticket from Gdansk, Poland, to Kaliningrad, Russia, for ¤1 while it usually costs ¤30. I’ve booked a hotel in Antigua for ¤5 while the normal rate is ¤60.” He opts for public transportation, stays in hostels and does his own cooking. His travel hack is to halve the luggage and double the money for unforeseen expenses. “Once we had to pay $80 at Caracas airport, Venezuela, as tax,” he says.
THE END OF THE WORLD
Vivek Bellur spent most of his childhood reading, his head buried deep in books like Journey to the End of the Earth on his hero Alexander the Great. He, too, aims to ‘reach the ends of the world’.
“Travelling tests you,” says Bellur, who recently visited Darvaza (and its famous gas crater) in Turkmenistan. “It shakes you out of your comfort zone, breaks monotony and gives you a better perspective.” The Bengaluru resident has travelled to 112 countries. “I exhausted my list of places to see in 2016,” says the 44-year-old. However, the updated version includes Western Australia, Papua New Guinea, Palau, Brunei, Timor-Leste, Paraguay and Suriname. “I am a property lawyer and agriculturist. My profession allows me the flexibility to travel,” says the history buff.
In 2011, he visited one of the most ‘inhospitable’ places on the planet—Erta Ale in Ethiopia. The temperature in the active volcano touches 60°C and it has the world’s oldest lava lake. Bellur hired two SUVs—one as backup—and drove across the desert for a day and a half to get to the crater. “You have to wait till sunset for the trek to the crater, or else it gets too hot. I spent the night breathing through a sulphur mask,” says Bellur, who has also trekked Mount Kailash.
One of his toughest trips was to Mongolia in 2008. “To travel across the Gobi Desert and the Eurasian steppe region through rugged roads and mountains was challenging. I visited Karakoram where the erstwhile capital of Genghis Khan’s Mongol empire once existed.” In 2008, he flew from Punta Arenas (at the southernmost tip of Chile) to a research centre in Antarctica, where he watched scientists place a microchip in a birds nest to record the rise and dip in temperature through the day. “They studied its link to the mother’s departure and arrival,” he recalls.
Bellur has been to nearly every site of historical significance—Alexander’s birthplace Pella, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, the archaeological site of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic (the first city ‘discovered’ by Columbus in the New World), and the skeletal remains of ‘Lucy’ in Ethiopia.
He advises to blend in with the crowd and research the weather, attire, transportation, language, places of interest, visa and vaccination requirements. “When you travel, you represent 130 crore Indians. So travel responsibly,” he says.
ON THE ROAD
It took Chennai-based Ramachandra Murthy (aka A.S.R. Murthy) 18 years to hit a century. “My company deputed me to Mumbai in 1999. One day, I saw a travel agency’s advertisement with the tagline ‘holiday now, pay later’ for a tour package to Western Europe. That was “the turning point”—it got him hopelessly hooked to travel for life. Until then, says the 62-year-old, trips were limited to family vacations within India with his banker wife and two daughters.
So far, he has visited 100 UN member states, Taiwan, Vatican City, the state of Palestine and Kosovo. “I discovered travelling only after I turned 44,” he says. He was determined to make the most of it. Luckily, his employers sent him abroad and he planned trips around the countries. “I have exhausted six passports, and two of them are jumbo ones,” he chuckles.
In 2002, Murthy was in Johannesburg for three months for work. Bored, he befriended a South African who ran a local travel agency. “With his help, I travelled to seven neighbouring countries via road—Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In Namibia, we went to the Fish River Canyon. We travelled 1,133 kilometres from Johannesburg to Keetmanshoop in Namibia where we stayed the night. It was my longest road trip in a single day. We made it to the canyon the following day by covering another 155 kilometres.”
Inspired by the TV series Roots, Murthy also visited three important slave ports—Cape Coast in Ghana, Badagry in Nigeria and Goree Island in Senegal. “Millions of slaves were transported to the Americas, and French and British colonies from these places,” he says. In 2006, Murthy landed in Tel Aviv (he’d applied for a passport exclusively for the visa, for a holy tour in Jerusalem and Bethlehem), coincidentally, on the last day of the Sukkot festival. “People erect tents (called sukkah) and eat inside, to replicate the lives Jews led centuries ago,” he remembers. More recently, he has been to the seven Central American countries.
It’s not always smooth sailing. Once he nearly lost his phone travelling from Budapest to Bratislava by train; another time his notaphilist ways almost got him in trouble. “While returning from the Bailiwick of Guernsey to London, the customs officer’s dog, who was trained to sniff out currency notes, caught hold of my bag. The officer asked me about my currency collection and eventually let me off with a smile,” he says. Once, at Abidjan in Ivory Coast, he was locked in a room and forced to give away all dollars. But nothing can top his most bitter experience yet—a 17-hour cruise from Helsinki to St Petersburg where no one spoke English.