On the morning of May 9, 2017, I go through pre-flight motions like a ghost at the NSCB International Airport, Kolkata, before shuffling aboard an aircraft bound for Mumbai. After two-and-a half hours in the air, I sleepwalk my way out of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport into Mumbai’s vicious summer humidity. It’s been an uneventful flight, as we’d just flown past 2,000 kms of fields, villages, towns, roads and rivers… and none of us in that giant metal tube had a clue about what’s really going on down there. Flights are a reduction in scale, quite literally giving you a zoomed out experience of your environment and what it contains. If you’d spent the last three weeks travelling like I did, the weight of this observation would be just as startling to you.
Rewind to the morning of April 18, outside Café Excelsior in south Mumbai. I am waiting for a Dutchman named Wiebe Wakker who has promised to drive me to Kolkata in the cornflower blue Volkswagen Golf that’s parked just outside the café. It is a conspicuous vehicle; bright, and plastered with various logos and text. The rear windows have been painted over with a message: “I am driving from Netherlands to Australia in this fully electric car to make a documentary about sustainability. Without any money, I completely rely on the energy I receive from people around the world. My route will be decided by you. Visit the website [plugmeinproject.com] to plug me in with energy and set my next destination.” Instead of an engine, the Golf has been fitted with a 150-kilowatt motor capable of generating up to 200 horsepower and speeds of 260kmph. It’s also equipped with the same drivetrain (group of components that delivers power to the driving wheels) as the Tesla Roadster, one of the best electric automobiles in the world. A long cable extends from where the car’s fuel hatch would be, and vanishes into a window somewhere above Café Excelsior. “Someone offered me a place to charge it, so I left the car here like this all night,” Wiebe explains.
Wiebe has travelled a fair amount in his 30 years, and the last 13 months has been spent driving through Europe and the Middle East as part of his newest project, ‘Plug Me In’, which combines three of his biggest passions: travel, filmmaking, and living cheap. It’s taken 399 days and over 20 different stamps in his passport to get from Amsterdam to Mumbai, during which time he’s spent close to no money. He has relied on people not just for electricity, but also their kindness. This will be his strategy in India too, as he cuts across the country, heading to Bangladesh via Kolkata, a journey that he estimates will take nearly two weeks. The car travels only 200kms at a time before it needs to be plugged in again. Wiebe often finds himself driving not towards his final destination, but in the direction of whoever is willing to provide food and shelter, making the trip slow and circuitous. Convincing him to take me along for a small fraction of this massive undertaking turns out to be easy. “India is going to throw up some unique challenges, so it’ll be good to have some help at hand,” he admits, aware that he is now far from the comforts of Europe and the UAE.
Road bumps and dead ends
These unique challenges began presenting themselves on day one, almost as soon as we set out. The summer heat turns out to be too much for the car’s fragile battery, which heats up quickly, prompting frequent pauses. We’re also driving without air conditioning to conserve power, while the weather outside peaks at a brutal 44 degrees Celsius. An even bigger issue is that the car is bogged down with a year’s worth of luggage and two spare tires, giving it a slim three inches of ground clearance. Every speed bump becomes a formidable obstacle we must either manoeuvre our way around, or turn away from, lest we end up damaging the battery that is strapped to the chassis underneath. This vehicle isn’t suited for Indian roads, and neither is Wiebe’s prim driving etiquette. “Do Indians buy their driver’s licenses at the supermarket?” he asks in mild frustration, which eventually gives way to full-blown road rage. By the end of the journey, several Dutch expletives have been added to my vocabulary.
The most harrowing problem, however, is charging the car itself. Power cuts, fluctuating voltages and a surprising lack of usable sockets turned this daily chore into a hellish ordeal for us. We’d sacrifice sleep, setting hourly alarms to and waking up multiple times at night to ensure the vehicle was indeed charging properly. “This hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world”, Wiebe tells me one afternoon, as we wait for power to arrive in a small town in Orissa, where we’d been stuck for a day and a half. “I suspect it’ll only get worse when I get to Bangladesh,” he ponders.
These issues have persisted for the entire length of the trip, but hardly prevent us from enjoying the drive. One of the advantages of travelling in short bursts — as opposed to the longer distances you’d cover in a fuel-driven car — is how much detail you take in. Over 14 days and 2,200-odd kms, we passed through four states and 13 different towns and villages: Nashik, Dhule, Jalgaon, Akola, Rawala, Nagpur, Rajnandgaon, Raipur, Saraipalli, Sambalpur, Keonjhar, Kharika Mathani and finally Kolkata.
We began in the Western Ghats, continuing into the heartland of Maharashtra, where the landscape is dry and dusty, and brown and bleak. The horizon travels with you in an unwavering straight line, breaking only when you approach the forests of Chhattisgarh, where it becomes rugged and green. The vastness disappears in Orissa, where the woods come closer and envelop you entirely on either side. The soil becomes soft and red, coating the vehicle in a film of fine, rust coloured dust. Every now and then, we’d stop to fly Wiebe’s nifty drone and get a bird’s eye view of our surroundings. The people, the food, the crops growing in the fields… everything changes every 50kms. Seeing our surroundings morph at this gradual pace feels like an applied version of my tenth grade geography syllabus, only way more exciting.
Kindness of strangers
We’d left Mumbai making arrangements to stay in only three places on our route, and my single biggest worry was whether or not we’d find places to sleep. But people, Wiebe assured me, are kinder than one expects. In Nashik, we were hosted by Amit Tulli and Jui Pethe, who are ecological consultants specialising in the conservation of local species. Wiebe’s sustainable travel project excited them greatly as they are trying to live “zero emission lifestyles”. Their home is a haven for anyone interested in minimising one’s carbon footprint. It runs on solar power, creates its own bio-fuel and manure, and the food they eat is grown on their organic farm, where they cultivate local varieties of grains and vegetables.
As we drive further east, more and more people who’d heard about Plug Me In through Wiebe’s vast support system came forward to help us. A company named Mass Tech, which is trying to bring electric vehicle infrastructure to India, generously covered hotel bills for three nights. Another NGO called Pradan — which promotes sustainable practices among poor farmers) arranged for us to sleep in their offices in Orissa and West Bengal for another three. In Rawala, we stayed with a man named Vinay Futane, an organic farmer who is a strong advocate for “sustenance first” agriculture, claiming that it will vastly reduce the number of farmer suicides India is witnessing.
In a stroke of luck, we scored a free room at the Hyatt in Raipur, who only asked to be featured on Plug Me In’s Facebook page. They even gave us access to their electric vehicle charging point, which probably had not been used in years. On days where our luck ran out, we’d simply make our way to the nearest circuit house, where government officials were only too happy to serve a white man in a fancy car.
Wiebe has spent every day of the last 13 months explaining his presence to those around him. This now had become my problem, seeing as I speak the language, and I find myself regurgitating the same basic information over and over to curious locals – “electric car, travel, sustainability, documentary…”, and “No, the gora cannot take any more selfies with you”. One middle-aged man in Jalgaon was simply unable to wrap his head around the point of it all, asking variations of the same question hoping for a more satisfactory answer. Ultimately he gave up, saying “I guess adventure issi baat mein hai.”
Condensing two weeks of action into a few hundred words hardly does justice to the experience, but I will say this: the next time you get out of the city, trying driving to wherever it is you want to go. It’s not exactly a vacation, but that’s also kind of the point.
See www.plugmeinproject.com for more details on Wiebe Wakker’s journey