June 25, 2017

WHY I QUIT THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD…

Words: Ouseph Chacko
Underwater Photography: Gunnhild Soras

‘I got myself PADI dive master certified, a house to live in for 3500 and a whole lot of fresh air to breathe’

...AND GOT A BETTER ONE. WHAT IT’S LIKE TO GO FROM BUSINESS CLASS TO BEACH BUM

I am 35 years old. I don’t own a house, the car I drive has never been in my name and my long term resolution, much to the chagrin of my parents, is to not get hitched. I sometimes worry that I will get old and have no one by my side when Alzheimers and whatever else old age brings with it hits me. And then I look back at my relatively short life. I’ve been quite lucky. I’ve driven a car on a frozen lake just south of the Arctic circle, gotten stuck in the Sahara, been robbed in Costa Rica, almost had my toes amputated in Himachal Pradesh, sunk a Mahindra Legend in the Arabian sea, driven a Ferrari across Italy, driven off a cliff in Kerala and, most horrifying of all, eaten an entirely delicious looking, almost uncooked goat in Africa. It is important you know I am not exaggerating. All of this has happened. Twelve years of working the best job in the world – motoring journalism – allows you these ethereal experiences and they happen mostly intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. Riding a Ducati Multistrada all the way from Mumbai to Himachal Pradesh and camping under a billion stars for ten days and getting paid for it, feeling the hair on your neck stand up as the Yamaha R1 under you banshees past 250kmph, having the Bologna polizzei order you to break the speed limits just so they can hear the 3000 decibel exhaust of the Ferrari 458 you are driving – what other job in the mortal world lets you do that? Oh, and they fly you business class everywhere.

So I quit. I took a 90 per cent hit on my salary and went to a tropical island to live the life of a beach bum/dive master. No one seems to understand. They think I’ve lost the plot, they think I’ve bought the farm so, allow me to tell you why you should do something seemingly stupid every once in a while. It was 2004 and I was fresh out of St. Xavier’s, Mumbai. My mark sheet read like a binary chart owing to the fact that I simply HAD to go see The Rolling Stones playing at Brabourne stadium the night before my third year finals. My degree in Economics and Commerce didn’t really prepare me for the outside world either – Harrod Domar’s theory is based on a whole bunch of ‘what ifs’ and ‘what nots’ anyway. Wondering what to do with my life, I came up on this story in a Sunday newspaper – an interview with Hormazd Sorabjee, the editor of Autocar India – where he said he wasn’t great at studies either. I remember the dim bulb in my head blinking saying ‘Hey! This guy is not going to ask me for my mark sheet!’ I’ve always loved cars and an auto magazine sounded like a fun place to work. I’d just read a story in an American magazine called Car & Driver about a chap who drove a bright yellow Lamborghini Diablo across the States. I’d also heard of another chap called Richard Bremner who convinced Ferrari to let him drive a Testarossa all the way from Italy to the Sahara! It sounded like something right up my alley. I begged, pleaded and hounded Hormazd till he gave me a job and I think he might have caved in simply to get me out of his face for a while. That’s how years of Marutis , Hyundais, Tatas and commuter bikes started.

Twelve years driving everything from Nanos to Ferraris

In motoring journalism, you don’t slide into the scooped out leather seats of a Ferrari or a Porsche the day you get enlisted. There is a long ladder of not crashing cars, acting responsibly and working on your word craft to climb before you see 9000rpm on a 4.5- litre V8. To a testosterone charged, 22-year old, it can be frustrating but I surprised myself by actually working at it, learning my craft from Hormazd and deputy editor Shapur Kotwal and having an incredible time being uncharacteristically responsible. A decade flew by in a whirl of high-octane exhaust fumes and noise. Seven Italian tunnels in a 458 Spider, a 911 cornering on three wheels, a wide-eyed 250kmph in a Lamborghini Aventador and many other adventures later, I found myself needing change. At that time, I didn’t properly know why I wanted change but I’ll get to that. I moved to Pune and evo India. The two years that followed were even crazier than the last decade. I held an AK47 at 18,500 feet with absolutely no one supervising me. I went in search of snow in the winter deep, into Spiti valley on a Triumph Speed Triple, found myself stranded in a Thar full of frozen diesel at the North Face Everest base camp in Tibet, drove the breadth of Arunachal Pradesh in the dead of night and spent five days in a Goan jungle getting eaten alive by mosquitoes while trying to cover the Rainforest Challenge.

When that was done, I signed up to be a part of the evo India team that drove a Mercedes-Benz GLA and GL from Spain to Morocco and then from Mexico to Panama. I pinched myself many times to remind myself that I was actually living all of this when that feeling of restlessness started setting in again. I think it happened because back in 2011, a friend introduced me to scuba diving. I was on a month long break in the Andamans and I had the time of my life. I met a bunch of people who were deeply tanned, perpetually smiling, lived in thatched huts and went to work barefoot. A pair of shorts and a slept-in t-shirt was the best dressed you could be and then I met the sea, or rather, what’s below the surface of the sea. Sharks, sting rays, moray eels, giant groupers, nudibranchs, ship-wrecks – it was unlike anything I had seen before. Good diving is also all about achieving near weightlessness and when you get it right on days when you get forty metre visibility underwater, it feels like you are diving in a fairytale. I remember this day at a dive site called Johnny’s Gorge where we were surrounded by at least two hundred barracudas. I felt like I had stepped into another world. I was gobsmacked and I was hooked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and when the evo restlessness happened, I figured it was time to pack my bags and trade in my Joe Rockets for a pair of Aqualung fins.

It is terrifying to leave the only thing you know and jump blindly into the unknown. I didn’t know if I would be good at it and working on an island versus going there on holiday are two entirely different things. I was also worried if I would be able to pull it off financially – the new salary is a fraction of the old – but I figured I’d give it a shot. You only get one chance to do these things right? So, I got myself a PADI divemaster certification, a house to live in for `3500 a month and a whole lot of unpolluted sea air to live on. It has been six months since I took the plunge and I think I’m all the better for it. I no longer rush from press conference to the laptop, no longer feel the pressure to tweet about every little detail of a new car before another journalist does was hooked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and when the evo restlessness happened, I figured it was time to pack my bags and trade in my Joe Rockets for a pair of Aqualung fins.

It is terrifying to leave the only thing you know and jump blindly into the unknown. I didn’t know if I would be good at it and working on an island versus going there on holiday are two entirely different things. I was also worried if I would be able to pull it off financially – the new salary is a fraction of the old – but I figured I’d give it a shot. You only get one chance to do these things right? So, I got myself a PADI divemaster certification, a house to live in for `3500 a month and a whole lot of unpolluted sea air to live on. It has been six months since I took the plunge and I think I’m all the better for it. I no longer rush from press conference to the laptop, no longer feel the pressure to tweet about every little detail of a new car before another journalist does and my rewards now come in the form of spectacular sunsets and the happy faces of customers who have just spotted four Devil Rays swimming in fighter jet formation. It is not all hunky dory though – I am now in the service industry and therefore, have to look after other people’s needs rather than them having to look after mine. It took a bit of a brain rewire to adjust to this. A big part of the new job involves me leading dives so I am now directly responsible for people’s lives and that, I must admit is quite stressful. I have to make sure they enjoy the dive, that they stay safe, that everyone likes the company I work for – Dive India – and will come back to dive with us. It is a whole new set of challenges and I am learning as I go along. I also have to keep a straight face when first time divers tell me the water is too salty (!) and when they look at the sea and tell me there’s too much water! Yes, that has happened.

Aston Martin DB7 Zagato on top of the Bernina Pass.

Do I miss the old job? Of course, I do. I miss the adrenaline rush. Recreational diving is all about staying calm, moving slowly and using as little air from your tank as possible to extend your dive time. It is the diametric opposite of when your Triumph Tiger leaps off a hidden bump at 100kmph and stays airborne for four heart-in-the mouth seconds. The poor Honda Activa I rent on the island bears the brunt of this missing adrenaline rush but, no matter how much I wring its throttle, it falls waaaay short. The island is also a small place so it is easy to feel like there’s nowhere to go. I then go for a swim in the sea. Sometimes at 3AM. It is unbelievably beautiful swimming in starlight with a couple of mermaids around. Heh! So, I think I am richer for chucking it all and diving headfirst into the unknown. I think it is essential to break the mould just before mould sets in. I now live on a pittance but I live healthier, I’m far less stressed than I’ve ever been and I go to work in chappals. I meet all kinds of people from around the world every other day, I made a whole bunch of new friends who are very different from my whole bunch of old friends and now, more than ever before, I feel light-hearted. I also think I have a better understanding of why I felt restless all those years ago. I think the essence of being alive is the need to have new experiences. I think it is important to throw yourself in the deep end every once in a while and in exchange, you will learn new things, meet new people and teach the old dog in you new tricks. I think old age can wait. You have only one life right?

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