Haven’t you heard people saying, ‘I wish I had more money so that I could travel the world’? There are even travel quotes saying ““If travelling was free, you’d never see me again” and many similar ones.
You will suddenly realise that these are all actually pure excuses like it was mentioned in this article when you finally get to know the story of this couple from Kerala who runs a small tea shop, yet travels around the world.
This is the story of passion, a burning desire to see the world and overcoming the obstacles with determination. This is the story of Vijayan and Mohana, who are in their early 70’s, who travel the world by selling tea and snacks.
Why would I take my motorbike out and ride through the morning traffic of Kochi city when food is available at 2 minutes of walk from my lodging, some of you might wonder. Because it is at Sree Balaji Coffee house, Mr Vijayan and Mrs Mohana serve their delicious food when they are not travelling the world and I had to meet them and get to know their stories from them!
I set the address on google map and headed to my destination. After some time when I reached Salim Rajan road in Gandhi Nagar, ‘Google aunty’ said, “You’ve reached your destination”, but I couldn’t find my destination!
It took me a while to spot this nondescript small tea shop on the roadside as it is very easy to miss if you are not very attentive.
I parked my bike and went inside the darker interior of the tea shop which was lit up by a few tube lights even during the day time, through an alley created by all the tea boilers and other utensils on one side and an uncharming wooden display box which had become more like a storage space on the other side.
As you enter Sree Balaji Coffee house, if you are lucky, you will see Vijayan and Mohana manning the counter and preparing food. I was indeed lucky that they didn’t plan a trip while I was visiting. The shop would have been closed otherwise.
As soon as you pass this small counter which is basically heart, brain and everything of this small shop, you will be greeted with once a happy bright wall, fitted with an array of wall-mounted clocks, picture frames with newspaper articles, cover stories from magazines, pictures of the couple with famous personalities and pictures taken from around the world.
Inside there were 4 small tables, a long bench behind each table and a few plastic sitting stools ready to be arranged anywhere on the other side of the narrow tables. Each tables could accommodate 2 people at a time. But true to Indian tradition, it can be stretched to three if needed. So if you do the Math correctly and include the ‘Indian coefficient factor’, you can understand that this shop can probably accommodate a maximum of 12 at a time.
There were a couple of people eating when I got there. I sat under those clocks that showed the time from Argentina and Canada.
Looked like the favourite items were Poori bhaji and Dosa chutney. I gave my order and with the characteristic quickness of small tea shops, I got freshly made hot and delicious breakfast.
It was really good and it was way too economical! The prices were super nominal which shouldn’t be a surprise for a small shop like that. But even for the small shop’s pricing perspective, this was even cheaper than the usual.
Since it was very delicious and super economical and also because I was super hungry as it was almost 11 AM without breakfast, I ordered more food. With a few plates of food and a couple of glasses of tea to my name, I ended up paying way under 100 Indian rupees or let’s say less than 1 US$!!
So this is where it all starts! I was at the very place that funds and fuels the wanderlust of this couple!
But the earlier mentioned math didn’t make much sense to me. Having lived a bit of unconventional life, the math and practicality behind wanderlusting decisions shouldn’t bother me much. Even then it was a bit difficult to understand how this couple had pulled off the feat of visiting more than 20 countries around the world in the past, just by running this small shop and saving up from it.
It was time for me to pay, meet and talk to the couple. But by then I could read many of the articles on the wall and get to know their story better.
It all started in 2010 with Mr Vijayan’s first international trip on a Holyland trip. There is a backstory too, how the desire to travel far and wide came about.
Being an ardent follower of Balaji, Mr Vijayan frequently visits Balaji temple in Tirupati, even today. In 2010 he went to Tirupati with a bunch of friends.
It was then he saw a plane flying above their head and expressed his wish to travel on a plane someday. His friends ridiculed him and said it was for the rich, not a poor man’s game. Everyone called him crazy.
Sure it is not possible for someone with a meagre income coming from a teashop to be a frequent flier. But it is possible to give wings to their dream and fly to foreign lands to satiate their wanderlust if one is determined.
By shear chance after this incident at Tirupati, Mr Vijayan saw an advertisement on the TV, related to Holyland tours. Not having passport didn’t deter him from inquiring about the trip. He saw this as an opportunity and used all the money he had to get a passport and to sign up for this trip.
With that first international trip, he got the taste of distant lands and different cultures. From that point onwards the dream finally got its wings. While achieving this dream, his wife joined hands with him. He considers her, the pillar of support for all these endeavours. Thus they both started travelling around the world together.
And if you do some math again, you will find that their globe-trotting journey started well after their 50’s! So who thinks age is a barrier to travel, now?!!
From 2010 to till now they have visited about 25 countries which includes Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Brazil, Peru, USA, China, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and many more. And on all these trips, they went together.
Right from 2010, the main income that funded their trips was coming from this small tea shop, believe it or not.
This might be a surprising revelation to all those who lament that they don’t have enough money to travel!
This couple has devised a financial strategy of saving up 300 rupees every day towards their travel funds from the income generated at the tea shop. If that was not enough, they would bravely go ahead and take bank loans to fund their travels. They would then come back and pay off the debt little by little. They have also sold and pawned gold jewellery on a few occasions it seems!
According to them, it takes about 3 years to pay off the bank debts! And when the debts are paid off, it is time for yet another trip and this cycle continues. They have been doing this for many years and continuing to do this till now, even though it is not as easy as it sounds.
Unlike many of us, they are not worried about the future or saving up for emergencies and so on, and thereby forgetting to live NOW.
Like Paulo Coelho said in his 1988 book ‘The Alchemist’, “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it“, this couple also got some help from the universe.
Their amazing story made a few headlines in the local newspaper at first, a few years ago in 2013 and slowly people started to get to know more about them. In 2015 Hari M Mohanan, a filmmaker from Kerala made a short film about this couple after reading one such news, which later won the Best Film-Non-Fiction Category’ in the Filmfare Awards, 2018.
In 2019, popular YouTuber Drew Binsky found out about this couple’s story and made a short video which became viral.
This was later tweeted and shared by Anand Mahindra of Mahindra group with a request to crowdfund a campaign to gift the couple with a travel package for their anniversary.
Series of such events helped their world travels in various ways.
Finally, when there was a small gap between serving food and dealing with the cash transactions, I could speak to Mr Vijayan and Mrs Mohana.
They then shared some of their stories and future plans.
It was one of their bigger dreams to visit USA. Most Indians who tried to apply for any sort of US visa would agree how difficult the whole process can get.
They were also having certain troubles with the visa. But some of the influential well-wishers got them sponsorship and finally, they were able to visit the US.
One more example of the universe conspiring to make something happen when the heart desires!
Also, I could see many posters from Soman’s Leisure Tours Pvt Ltd who sponsored some of their international trips. Through many turn of events and with the help of such well-wishers, the list of visited countries is increasing for them.
They also shared their plan to visit China, but this time it was not just the two of them but along with their family members. He also expressed his wish to see their story turning into a book. Looks like the dream he shared with me 3 years ago is a reality now. (Though the book is in Malayalam language.)
It is very clear from the real life incidents on this couple that whatever maybe your dream, whatever maybe your circumstances, if you have a burning desire to achieve it, it is very much possible.
Like Mr Vijayan shared in the short film if you worry about the future, if you worry about closing the shop for many days, if you worry about not being able to pay off the debts, you won’t be able to do anything in life.
So stop worrying and start living!
Also, in that process of chasing your big dream there will be people to ridicule you, tell you that those are too big of a dream, discourage you by showing you all the obstacles on the way, but all it matters is to have the focus on the burning desire in your heart which propels you forward.
Coming back to travel goals, if you ever see or hear anyone complaining that they don’t have enough money, enough time, too old or any other excuses, do share with them the story of Mohana and Vijayan.
Let Vijayan and Mohana to inspire us to chase our dreams no matter what it is.
What do you think about their story?
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