“Not all those who wander are lost” — these famous words by writer JRR Tolkien are often misused in an age where ‘travelling‘ has become a way to garner social and cultural capital. But not for the four young men who decided to walk from Kerala to the Himalayas – Mohamed Mujtaba (24), Sreerag KT (23), Vibin (22) and Pradeep Sreedharan (24). There were no Enfield bikes, Buddhist prayer flags or DSLRs, instead a humble arabana (Malayalam for wheel barrow) covered in a tarpaulin sheet and a board that said “Kerala to Himalayas”. Their journey might just be one of the most sustainable journeys undertaken when it comes to travel and tourism.
The four began the journey from Tirur and Kanyakumari on December 7 and 1, 2021, respectively, ending in Khardung La in Ladakh. It was also a matter of coincidence that Mujtaba and Sreerag, two fine arts graduates and Vibin and Pradeep, two BCom graduates separately decided to undertake the strenuous journey, and met each other in Kurukshetra, Haryana. Says Pradeep, “We had stayed in touch with each other on Instagram and thought we would bump into each other in Karnataka. We missed out on that. Then we thought we would see each other in Maharashtra, which also did not happen.” In some of the places they stayed at, they clicked photographs, drew paintings, and made replicas of the scenes they came across. They drew live portraits and sold them to people to be able to sustain their expenses.
While Mujtaba and Sreerag, who are artists, planned an exhibition in this regard to translate their experiences into art, Vipin and Pradeep simply wanted to travel. Vibin says that their initial plan was to cycle which was later changed to making the journey on foot. “We thought this was the best way to know and understand the different cultures of India,” says Mujtaba.
The barrow soon grabbed eyeballs, even from thieves. “On March 10, in Faridabad, when we were asleep, some people stole the utensils and some solar items that we were carrying. They hid all of it in a nearby well. We tried to get help from the police but that was in vain. Finally, some locals helped us locate our things and get them back,” says Sreerag. Some locals asked them many questions, made judgments about their appearances. “At one point, they wanted our Aadhaar IDs and only when we received the OTP on our phones did they believe that we were who we said we were. But largely, the people we met were surprisingly nice to us. It restored our faith in humanity,” says Vibin.
Another reason, he adds, they chose the arabana instead of a backpack was because they did not want to strain their backs. However, Vibin severely injured his spine while storing the arabana, resulting in a 10-day bed rest during their trip. Help, both in cash and kind from the locals, has been something that perpetually surprised the four during their journey. In some of the most unexpected moments of trouble, they were taken on by families as well as individuals and given food and shelter. “After Vibin was injured, we went to Kathua Medical College in Jammu and Kashmir. He was bedridden. This person we met, Kanav, took us in. The medical cost was covered by our teachers and some of the people we met on the way,” says Pradeep.
In all their journey, they say, Kashmir was a place that came close to their hearts. “Kashmir is portrayed to be a volatile state in popular culture. But the kind of support we received from that state surpasses all of India. Some of the residents there took us home, fed us, gave us a roof to sleep under, making us a part of their family,” says Pradeep.
When it came to food, it was a mixed bag for the team. “Since it was essentially a zero-budget trip, there were days we survived on bread and ketchup because we could not afford jams. There were also days when we cooked biryani together. We would get tired, pitch a tent at a suitable place, like a river bank, just eat and sleep,” says Mujtaba.
The journey was not an easy one, but one of the most difficult things they had to deal with was explaining things to their families. “You set out to travel after saving money. Here we were on foot. They suggested we take trains or buses, but for us it was about meeting the people on the way and a vehicle would nullify this process,” adds Sreerag.
For now, the four are taking a break to recuperate and are finally taking a train back to Kerala from Delhi.