When you badly want to scratch that pesky travel itch but can’t quite stretch your budget for your dream trip, you’re left with two options: a) moan and groan about how wanderlust is for those who are privileged enough; or b) throw caution to the wind and catch the next plane to your La La Land.
While most of us would comfortably choose the first option and be a travel naysayer, a Kochi-based tea shop owner and his wife dared to be different: Vijayan and Mohana, who have been married for over 44 years, have so far visited 18 countries with their meager earnings.
The couple is getting ready for their first China trip in April 2018. It was Mohana who chose China. Vijayan wanted to visit Latin America. But when Mohana said she was dying to see China, Vijayan postponed his Latin American trip to the next year.
When it comes to travel, people think the one thing that’s holding them back is money. But Vijayan attributes our travel apathy to “the fear of an uncertain future.”
Perhaps that old joke on the Malayali tea seller Neil Armstrong met on the moon was made after this man, who knows?
“They say you can find a Malayali tea-seller in every nook and corner of the world. Well, let me tell you – I am that proud tea seller,” he said, and burst out laughing. The echoes of his laughter filled the modest tea shop.
On the other end of the shop, from where the kitchen functions, Vijayan’s duteous travel partner had started grinding the batter for the next set of vada as it was four in the evening and it was about time customers made a beeline to their modest shop on KSRTC Road, Ernakulam.
Unlike other tea stalls in and around Kochi, the walls of Sree Balaji Coffee House is full of maps, global time zone charts, clocks showing the time of 10 different countries and framed photographs of the couple, taken in exotic locations.
Together, Vijayan and Mohana have traveled to the USA, Bahrain, Egypt, France, Singapore, Venice, Israel and Britain. Mohana, a loving mother of two daughters and grandmother to four, credits this superlative feat solely to her husband.
“I couldn’t step outside Kochi as a child or teenager. But after marriage, Vijayettan discovered that both of us were passionate about traveling. We never thought about future. I believe that (future) is something made of what we do in the present,” she said with a beaming smile.
But for Vijayan, the gene of wanderlust was inherited from his father. “My father would take me to places in south India, most of which were temples and holy lands. I remember having visited Tirupati, Palani and Madurai in my childhood itself. It was to relive that old nostalgic family trip that I decided to take Mohana there soon after our marriage. I guess that made for a wonderful start. We never had to look back,” Vijayan said.
It was only in the mid-nineties that the couple started the tea shop. Till then, Vijayan was a mobile tea vendor. With a steel canister full of the beverage, he would pedal around the city and sell it.
But even in those days, when they struggled to raise their children, the couple would religiously keep aside a small portion of their daily income for their travel plans. Once they conquered their dream destinations within the country, they started dreaming more and saving more – for overseas trips.
“A trip to Jerusalem marked the beginning of our international adventures. It took several decades for us to prepare mentally, physically and financially for such a long trip. The organizers took us all through the holy land and showed the traces of Jesus Christ's life from birth to death.
"We were so broke by the time we reached back. It took two whole years to go on another journey. We never save for anything else. We borrow money from friends and take loans to travel. Once we get back, the real struggle starts – to pay back the debt,” Vijayan said.
Now, Mohana saves Rs 300 a day to fund their journeys. “I know that is too less for the size of our dreams. But whenever Vijayettan gets depressed, tensed or stressed out, I take out my purse and tell him: ‘Come, let's go and explore'. That lightens him up,” she said.
Yes, they belong together – talk about soulmates, if you prefer. Mohana starts dreaming of their next trip even before they finish one, just like she refills the snacks' cupboard of their tea shop without waiting for Vijayan to call out from the reception.
“She grinds the batter, kneads the flour and heats the oil all by herself. And when someone compliments our vadas, she says 'Vijayettan makes the best vadas in town'. If not for her, I wouldn’t have visited these many places. Ours was an arranged marriage. But our match was truly made in heaven,” he said, hovering near his wife with an air of pride.
Although the duo is into the food business, they seldom taste any native cuisine when they travel. “Food is another passion. You can't mix it with travel. A traveler should eat frugally. Your focus should be on moving around and seeing maximum places,” he said.
Apparently, Mohana carries jars of chutney powder and tender mango pickle in her baggage wherever they go. “Rice is a common food. You get it everywhere. What else do you need when you have a plate of white rice and some mango pickle,” she wondered.
The couple's elder daughter, Usha, and her husband, Murali, manage the tea shop whenever they are away. Usha says that her parents enjoy such freedom because they don't have a male child.
“Both of us are married off and settled. They were relieved of their responsibilities at a very early age. I can't think of my mother sitting at home, looking after grandchildren and preparing meals for them. All that the children can do for their parents is to free them from their responsibilities as soon as possible," Usha said. Sounds like the perfect daughter, doesn't she? Well, what else can you expect from a power couple's kid?