maharajah of the road

Day 2

Maharajah of the road

Muscle cars


Day 2

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From Mumbai to Surat

Surat is a port city in the Indian state of Gujarat. As of 2007, Surat and its metropolitan area had a population about the same size as Singapore, approximately 4 million. It is the second largest city in Gujarat and ninth largest in India.

Surat is also considered a relatively clean city in India. Surat has a tropical wet and dry climate, moderated strongly by the Arabian Sea. The summer begins in early March and lasts till June. April is the hottest month, the average temperature being 30°C. Surat is famous for its diamond industry and textile industry, along with silk and chemicals.

It is at the heart of India's thriving diamond-polishing industry, which in 2005 cut 92% of the world's diamond pieces and earned India $15 billion in exports. Surat is well known in India for its Surti cuisine. Surti cuisine is not as sweet as other Gujarati food, and is quite spicy.

Saturday 17th January 2009

All timings according to Indian Standard Time – IST

The port city of Surat belongs to the Indian state of Gujrat. Gujrat comes en route to the State of Rajasthan; where we will be spending most of our time on this trip. Rajasthan, famous for its grand forts, romantic castles and the slowly diminishing yet ever fascinating Royal lifestyle; is where we will be touring extensively as we drive through the desert state in the 10 Mustangs. But much will be seen, heard and experienced in Rajasthan, so let’s leave these discussions for then.

Coming back to today. Our first day on the open road, we are a fascinating potpourri of cultures on the move. American muscle cars, on Indian highways, driven around by distinguished guests from literally all over the world. A convoy to reckon with!

In order to avoid the infamous rush-hour traffic of Bombay, we decided to make an early start. But that isn’t the only reason we are pushing off in the wee hours of the morning. Brightly colored sports cars are not a common sight on these roads, and we really want to avoid getting mobbed! Also, the guests will be driving the Mustangs on Indian roads, which are notorious for being a very, very unique experience! Apart from the Mustangs being Left-hand drive vehicles, being driven through a Right-hand drive country; coupled the very different road rules and civic sensibilities followed on Indian roads; it can be quite a culture shock for most! That, with the multitude of pedestrian and livestock driven vehicles that use the same roads as us; so, our timely start promises to give us open roads, and relatively controlled driving conditions for at least a few hours to start with. A warm up for the 250km drive ahead.

But trouble catches up with us early on, as the prized ’68 Shelby GT500 KR stalls just as we are nearly halfway out of the busy areas. We have stopped close to the Toll Bridge that marks the exit from the city boundaries. This is quite unfortunate as the Toll booth acts is a halting point on the way to the highway, and everyone who stops to pay their toll can’t help but look at the outlandish lot of Mustangs parked by the roadside! Such a novel sight is a hard one to pass by, and as predicted, in no time at all a large crowd has surrounded us. But the problem with the KR seems to be fairly minor and we are ready to push off in no time at all! So after lots of smiling, posing by the cars, and waving, we finally depart the toll booth, and hit the highway. On the road again!

The cars, the roads, and the general ambience of the trip take a little time to settle in, and as our drivers get their bearings in this new, and fascinatingly different landscape, we as a team learn a thing or two about trouble shooting. Any road trip comes with its own set of pros and cons, and these are all lessons learnt on the go. And even the best planners will tell you, that travelling with a convoy of 20 is no easy business. Especially not on the first day. And given our extenuating circumstances, we must brace ourselves for any eventuality at this point. And so we shall.

The cars keep halting, a result of the disparity in the fuel it seems. These cars need a specialized type of fuel, a very high grade fuel not very easily available on these Indian roads, and even when we find it, the slight differences of quality and texture are causing havoc in the engines! So we are faced with a strange conundrum. The cars need a very large amount of fuel, being high performance cars, with high fuel consumptions to augment their legendary power. So, when the cars are fueled, they react badly to the foreign fuel. So after many fuel stops, the cars finally seem to have got a hang of the new fuel. In a way it’s good. This morning has been a test drive of sorts. And we have located many cogs in our machinery of our plan, and can hopefully remove them, and look forward to the ride ahead to be a lot easier now.

However, now we have another complication to resolve. Looks like we will be entering the city of Surat soon. It is past midday, so we have no hopes for a discreet entry! Also, navigating around any new city is a difficult task in itself, but to do so with a convoy of 20, if which 10 are very noticeable cars, and a team consisting mostly of foreigners who don’t speak a word of the local language. Well, this looks like it is going to be an interesting experience.

We have been divided into 2 groups. One group is heading towards the hotel to rest, while the other group will be heading down to Surat’s famous Diamond polishing centers.

As we drive around the city, we are quite fascinated to see the dichotomy of cultures, and traditions that we can see around us. The one thing that strikes us all, is how clean a city Surat is!

Curiosity aroused, lets try and find out a little bit about Surat city then shall we?

The thriving merchant city of Surat has a rich history behind it indeed. Surat was originally the primary port of India during the rule of the Mughals, a distinction it lost to Bombay during the British colonialization. Local traditions fix the establishment of the city to the last years of the fifteenth century. In 1608, ships from the British East India Company started docking in Surat, using it as a trade and transit point. In 1612, the British overcame the Portuguese naval supremacy and obtained an imperial firman (a royal mandate) establishing a British factory at Surat. The city was made the seat of the presidency under the British East India Company. However, the prosperity of Surat received a fatal blow when Bombay was ceded to the British as part of the dowry for Catherine of Braganza's wedding to Charles II in 1662. Shortly afterwards, in 1668, the British East India company established a factory in Bombay (Mumbai) and Surat began its relative decline concurrent with the rise of British interests in Bombay. Coming back to the present, Surat is the second largest city in Gujarat and tenth largest in India with a population of approximately 4 millions. The city situated on the left bank of the Tapi River, with a moat that divides the older parts of the city with its narrow streets and handsome houses, and the newer suburbs. The city is most famous for its textile and diamond businesses. It is worth noting that diamonds and Surat are so finely intertwined, that it has earned itself the name ‘Diamond City’! But that isn’t the only reason. **Surat is home to the unique phenomenon of the Diamond Factories.

Why factory, you ask? Well, unlike Antwerp, which is also famous for its skilled diamond polishers, but who deals only with the finest, largest, most precious of the jewels; Surat, none less talented, nor skillful, manages the polishing of around 80% of all the world’s diamonds! Thus, majorities of the world’s diamonds are brought to Surat for cleaning and polishing; making the polishing houses veritable factories! A rough estimate puts the number of skilled diamond cutters in Surat at around 300,000. Every day mounds of diamonds are bought in to be cut, sliced and polished as skilled hands tease out the delicate shimmering beauty of these eternal gems. The diamond polishing industry in Surat alone churns out almost 150 million dollars worth of these priceless jewels each day! Imagine that... The Surat diamond industry is the largest cutting and polishing industry in the world, and is estimated to be worth around $ 14,466,062,371! It is said that 8 out of every 10 diamonds in the world are cut and polished in Surat. So with this solid legacy behind them, how can we pass though Surat without dropping in to visit the Diamond merchants?

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend they say, and all the girls here love diamonds! So it comes as no surprise when they all troop enthusiastically towards the diamond polishing centers, forgetting all about their fatigue. And the diamond centre lives up to its fables reputation. As imagined, we are surrounded by mini mountains of diamonds everywhere! There seems to be diamond dust swirling around us as we are spellbound by the play of light reflected off the countless facets of this ethereal stone. Stunning…Surrounded by so many diamonds of such varied sizes colors and shapes that we all loose track of time completely. However, utilizing all of our will power, we finally manage to walk out of the diamond factory, and head back to the cars.

As we start off for the hotel, we discover that trouble has caught up with us when we were marveling the diamonds… Apparently, due to some miscommunication between the vehicles, some members of the other group, heading towards the hotel, got waylaid, and are now lost in the by-lanes of Surat. Oh no!! This was what we were afraid of, as we were entering, and looks like it has come to pass.

After over an hour of never-ending twists and turns, and an impromptu tour in Surat’s baffling underbelly; the cars finally find their way back to the hotel. Quite an adventure for them I’m sure. Especially as not too many people speak English on the streets of Surat! After a much needed round of drinks, everyone votes for an early dinner, and an early night. So as to give tomorrow a healthier start.

So, tomorrow we meet again, to traverse from Surat to the beginning of the Rajasthan quest. To Dungarpur tomorrow, expect adventures!

Maharajah of the Road

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