Jay Kannaiyan: Reclaiming the Spirit of Adventure
Humanity resembles its ancient ancestors in many ways, but none so striking than in our enduring desire for movement. This desire to push boundaries, physical or otherwise, is at the very core of our being. For generations, it has fueled our creativity and our spirit of inquiry. At a certain age, all games are exercises in exploration. Children, the ones born into places where survival is not the primary objective, are regaled with stories of the great explorers of history — men and women who walked courageously into the unknown. Then, almost overnight, society demands that children forgo the dreams of adventure that they were raised on, and fall into line with the rest of the herd. These dreams will be dismissed as nothing more than childish fantasies. Most people see this as a natural transition. There’s nothing natural about it.
A special few manage to preserve a spark of this magic, until one day it transforms into the fire it was always meant to be.
Jay Kannaiyan is one of these special few.
He is too modest to accept this title, but it takes a specific brand of grit to let go of life, a job and a home to answer the call of the open road. He’s always been more at ease on his bike than he ever was behind a desk. So, in the summer of 2010, he quit his job and sold most of his worldly possessions. Then he prepared SanDRina, his trusted Suzuki DR650, for a transcontinental journey across the Global South. He began in Chicago, and over the next three years, he covered over 103,000 km before he reached his destination – New Delhi. For these years, he visited 33 countries, spanning across five continents on the globe.
Since then, he has started Jammin Global Adventures a company that takes people on unforgettable journeys(while accompanied by Jay himself) through some of the most incredible locales across the world. And if that wasn’t enough, Jay made his foray into clean technology by starting Smart Air Filters – A company that produces affordable air filters.
TheVibe catches up with Jay to learn more about the experience he gained while on this expedition, and the others that followed:
Your travels must have had you running across some very interesting people, and perhaps some unsavoury ones as well. After all this time, which of these people stand out in your memory and why?
One common theme was that the people I met in rural places seemed to be more accommodating and welcoming than urban dwellers. Not that I didn’t meet many lovely urban dwellers.
The most interesting person that I met was Saleh in northern Sudan. He’s a fisherman and farmer living on the banks of the Nile, surrounded by the Sahara. I stumbled upon his fishing camp, and he invited me to stay with him for a few days. Saleh knew of the outside world, where I came from, and yet he was fully content in the self-sustaining and thriving life he had created for himself. Besides living in harmony with nature, he also knew about astronomy, and how technology was going to change his world. There are definitely good and bad people out in the world, but I can’t recall the bad ones. I choose not to remember them.
During your travels, where did you feel the safest and most at home? What about the places on the other end of the spectrum?
In general, I felt the safest in remote and rural places, whether that was in South America, Africa, or India. I feel the dangers that I was worried about, such as getting mugged or getting hit by other vehicles, are primarily driven by how many other humans there are around. I felt very much at home camping in the wild in the White Desert in central Egypt or the barren steppes of Patagonia in southern Argentina. I felt most at home in Brazil, from the wilds of the Amazon rainforest to the picturesque fishing villages near Rio de Janeiro. There’s a good connection between Indians and Brazilians. I want to live there at some point in my life.
On journeys like this brushes with death are inevitable. Can you tell us about a close call you’ve had along the way?
All the close calls with death, on my journey, had to do with other vehicles on the road. In Bolivia, I started on a 5,000 km section of the journey from La Paz to Sao Luis on the Coast of Brazil. On that trip, I saw my life flash before my eyes. The mountainous road was engulfed in thick fog, and the pavement was extremely slippery and steep. I was proceeding with caution, wiping the fog from my goggles when all of sudden a large truck appeared in front of me. I knew that a single touch on my brakes would make me slip. I couldn’t pass normally as I couldn’t see oncoming traffic, so I decided to pass on the inside, the shoulder. Bad decision. The shoulder was covered in slime, and sanDRina’s front wheel slipped, and we fell right next to the truck. Its massive rear wheels passed just a few inches from my head and proceeded to roll over and break sanDRina’s windscreen. That was a really close call.
You were one of the first people to travel the length of the AH-1. What was it like traveling down a road that few have taken before?
Being the first is not that important to me, but I know that blazing the trail (paperwork-wise and route-wise) would make it easier for other riders to do the journey. I’m committed to helping anyone else that would like to do this amazing overland journey out of India. Crossing the metal bridge at Moreh, the border town in Manipur, and entering Myanmar on the other side felt like I was crossing an “iron-curtain ” into a mysterious land. Over the two weeks that followed, I experienced this new country from its mountains to pagodas to salads. I was enthralled by this nation that I wasn’t familiar with before I got there.
Travel Sagas always feature people that experience moments where the world melts away, and they experience an inexplicable wholeness or connection to all things. What were those moments for you? And where did they occur?
This was an underlying mission of mine on this journey – to seek oneness with the world and the Universe. It finally happened in the southern Andes of Bolivia. I journeyed into the Andes on a remote track toward Chile, called Ruta de la Joyas Andino (Route of the Jewels in the Andes). Camping in the absolute middle-of-nowhere, next to a salt lagoon high up in the Andes felt very much at home for me. I did not feel an ounce of loneliness. Instead, I felt a full connection to nature. The stars provided companionship at night. I was a part of the Universe, and it was a part of me. I told myself that if I died the next day, this journey would have been everything I was seeking. And in India, I felt that same way up in Ladakh. Not in Leh or any of the dhaba camps along the way, but along a glacial stream somewhere between Sarchu and Pang. Seeing grand nature evokes a strong emotion in us, and we should be receptive to it. The Universe is talking to us in those moments.
How many languages have you picked up along the way? Was it exclusively through cultural immersion and conversation? Or did you have to block part of your journeys to pick up the language?
Along the way, I picked up languages as I needed them, and I had a great technique for that. I used the language tapes from Michel Thomas, who has a brilliant way for people to pick up languages quickly. I put them on my iPod and listened to them when I was on the highway. I actively sought outstays with locals through various travelling networks like CouchSurfing that encouraged me to start speaking in the local language. One technique I picked up from other travellers was to find someone in a new country and have them translate for me basic phrases that I would need, such as “Where is the petrol station? How much does it cost? Is this the way to…? Thank you and Hello.” Just saying a few phrases in a new language can engender a strong connection with the local people.
You’re a big proponent of minimalist and slow travel. Can you share the experiences you had on the road that led you to this?
I feel slow travel as a concept is what is so romantic about long-term travel. It allows me to get a feel for a place instead of just quickly snapping photos to share on social networks. I took three-plus years to ride from the US to India, while it’s possible to do that journey in less than a year. I feel travelling on a set schedule with every activity, and hotel planned out makes for quite a shallow experience. I guess it reflects the time we live in where people want to cram in as much as they can in as little time as they can afford. In the end, travel should be about taking a break from our regular hamster-wheel life, but I understand that it’s hard to achieve, especially with the current pressures from our lives where we’re rewarded for travelling to as many places as possible and bragging about stats such as kilometres ridden or countries visited. Wouldn’t it be interesting if social media rewarded us for the number of stories we could tell or poems we could recite that we picked up in faraway places? This made me think long and hard about my possessions, and I carried just what I needed to stay sane on the road. So besides bike tools and camping gear, I also carried speakers because music is really important to me, and it helps create a sense of home when I set up in a new place.
Minimalist travel, in the end, is about paring down your possessions to those few things that are important to you and ignoring the other stuff. It was a liberating experience to sell off my junk and just be content for a few years with the few possessions that I had. Even so, at the end of the trip, as I settled into a new life in Delhi, I suddenly needed 3 pairs of shoes and 3 pairs of jeans. I yearn for living in just one pair of cargo pants and one pair of Keen sandals. I still have those cargo pants and sandals…
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