An interview with Jay Kanniyan


What could possibly drive someone to quit his job in Chicago sell most of his worldly belongings and head off into a journey that lasted 3 years, 3 months covering 103,200 km across 33 countries on 5 continents? Read more about Jay Kanniyan and his journey of ‘Jammin thru the Global South’

Tell us a little bit about yourself

My name is Jay and I love going with the flow. So when a traveller I met invited me to come and spend a few days with her at a remote Mayan village in southern Mexico, I changed my trip plans and went and it was a lovely experience. The same ethos got me invited to a traditional Bolivian wedding with my tour guide after he finished showing me around Che’s memorial.

Tell us a little about your childhood & earlier days

I was born in Hyderabad but moved at an early age to Zambia, in Africa and then came back to India to finish my schooling. Safaris to the local Game Park and beach trips to Lake Malawi fill my childhood and I remember that the first time I saw animals in a zoo; I asked my parents why those animals were in jail?

When did you realise your calling for the outdoors and biking?

My affinity for nature grew out of my boarding school days up in Kodaikanal. I went for regular hikes, camped out in the woods and learned to just enjoy being surrounded by nature. I got into motorbiking when I was studying in the States and realized I had a natural flair for it and felt very comfortable taking multi-day trips regularly and that soon extended to 10 day trips and then two weeks and then three weeks before I set off on the big one.

Tell us a little bit about your journey “Jammin thru the Global South”

I left Chicago and my life in the States in early March, 2010 with the idea to ride overland to India, in essence moving back home but taking the slow, scenic route through a lot of countries in the Global South, a term used to describe the developing countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia. It was an open-ended trip and I didn’t know exactly when or how I would get to India and in the end it took me 3 years and 3 months and I journeyed a 103,200 kms through 33 countries before the trip ended in New Delhi in early June, 2013.

What inspired you to begin this journey?

It was a feeling that grew out of the many smaller motorcycle trips I made when I was living in Chicago. I couldn’t ignore this feeling that kept showing me that I felt more at home when I was on the road, travelling, than actually at home going to office. That signalled to me that perhaps I needed to go on a long journey and then I spent a few years working out the logistics of it all.

How has this journey inspired you?

I travelled to many remote wildernesses and am happy to report that a lot of the Earth is still very epic and stunning but she is under threat and it is us humans and our current way of civilization that is not in harmony with nature’s way. I saw some instances of people, mostly rural, living in harmony with nature but mostly everyone else is aspiring to consume and waste as much as the developed world and we don’t have enough resources on this planet for everyone to live like the developed world does. I want to do my part to ensure that we leave the planet a better place than we found it so that our future generations can have a chance at life on this planet.

How was the shift from Chicago to India?

I knew there were going to be some things I would miss, like the instant consumption at 24 hour supermarkets and the incredible choice of goods but I’m don’t miss the rigidity, such as in driving culture. After riding through so many developing countries where road rules are just a suggestion, I couldn’t go back to a country where I would have to drive within the white lines or otherwise I would get a ticket from a nearby policeman. As crazy as Indian driving is, I enjoy it and love the lawlessness of the roads.

What have you learnt from India?

Never refuse chai. There are many situations, such as waiting at the mechanics, waiting for a landslide to clear or waiting anywhere else where pretty soon someone offers you chai and you take it, even if you don’t like milk in your tea. It’s a bonding experience and an invitation to come closer.

What have you learnt from your journeys?

The age-old truth that the people with the least seem the happiest and the most willing to share. I was travelling through very remote places of northern Bolivia, where I camped with villagers and ranchers and everyone offered me some of their food, even though I had my own. But I knew better than to refuse for there is great pride in being a benefactor and if this poor villager wanted to share some of his fried pork, which no doubt came at a high expense to him, with me, the best thing I could do was to accept and share a smile. It was very humbling to experience the generosity of the poor.

Tell us a few memorable incidents of your journey

My first real breakdown happened in this small Peruvian town, south of Cusco and I was rescued by the only German resident, Helmut. He had been living there for about 20 years and was running his own development project for remote communities. Over the few days it took for us to repair my bike, I got to see a slice of small-town Peruvian life and partook in a festival where there was a beauty contest for lamas! Oh and we drank lots of chicha, a local brew made from maize.

Quitting your job & selling your belongings, how did family & friends react?

My family thought I was crazy and couldn’t understand why I was doing this. I tried to explain that I wasn’t throwing my life away but was actually investing in an interesting future (if I survived till the end). Of course they were most worried about my safety and I was too, but I had been following the live blogs of many other travellers and knew which places were safe and where I had to take extra caution. My friends were privy to me hatching this plan and when I finally turned in my resignation letter, they were all extremely happy that my dream was coming true.

What is the difference in the Indian landscape as opposed to the American landscape?

In the American landscape, especially in the western states, there are many places where you can go for days without seeing another human. Not so in India. While I did see some remote land in northern Maharashtra and of course in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, there were still people around. I would stop for a break in a remote place and within a few minutes someone would walk by. It’s a comforting feeling but also one that lets you know that privacy is rare in the outdoors here.

Barley Saturday - Sadwrn Barlys

What in the outdoors inspires you?

The feeling of being free! I am amazed at the wonders that science has revealed about nature. When I’m riding all day with mountains in my view, I ponder the giant forces at play under the Earth that slowly created these mountains and the pervasive erosive forces that are tearing them down – an epic drama. When I’m camping under giant trees in the Chilean Patagonia, I let my mind marvel at the number of years it took of slowing converting CO2 and nutrients into cellulose to make layer upon layer of bark that now results in this giant tree that I’m camping under and using its dead branches for my fire. Nature moves at a different timescale than our human one and being far away from civilization allows me to appreciate these slow but ever-present forces that shape our lives.

What do you do in your free time?

I enjoy cooking and experimenting with different foods. I really enjoy my music and am almost always plugged into a playlist. I enjoy interesting conversation and love to debate about philosophies of life or which engine oil is the best.

What kind of books do you like?

When I was young, I used to enjoy a lot of spy novels, like Frederick Forsyth and Tom Clancy, then I moved on to non-fiction books that covered sustainability and food, such as EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As I’m working on writing my own book about my journey, I’ve been given a lot of travel books, such as ones from Pico Iyer and Vikram Seth.

What has been the most important part of your travel/journey?

I guess the message that things that are old and reliable still have a place in today’s shiny, buy-the-latest-model mind-set. I did this whole journey with a bike that was 12 years old when I started the trip and already had 35,000 kms on her clock. Sure I had my breakdowns but it was nothing I couldn’t fix and finishing the journey on the same bike has sent the message that you don’t need the latest and greatest like the marketing people will have you believe. It’s not really about the gear you have in your life but it’s more about what you do with what you have. Almost everything I travelled with was bought used or refurbished and I hope this message gets carried further. We need to reduce our consumption, reuse what we have and recycle our waste if our civilization has any hope of surviving into the far future.

Jay 3

What have you learnt from the different cultures across?

Giving respect and a smile will get you far in any culture, as opposed to being arrogant and bossy, which usually gets you a cold shoulder. I’ve happened to find favour in every culture I’ve travelled through by showing humility yet displaying confidence in where I am and that gets me back respect, which builds a good friendship, however short or long it may be. Everyone is just trying to make it through life and enjoy the happy moments when they can and throwing a smile makes you less of a stranger and more like a friend in any culture.

Which places have you visited?

In all, 33 countries from the USA through Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, some of Europe, then Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa and India.

What are the 3 most important things in your life?

My Leatherman Wave multi-tool, my chicken curry and my ability to make a friend wherever I go.

Jay 2

What are your belief systems?

I believe we have only one life and this is it, so make it count. I know that the molecules in my body and everything on this planet was once synthesized in the hot core of giant stars and that means we’re all made of star dust, literally and that makes me smile. It shows how interconnected everything is and how we all come from the same place, making all our perceived differences in culture inconsequential in the big picture. There is so much strife in the world today and most of it is due to one group of people not liking another group of people. We need to move beyond these petty issues and see the wonderful opportunity of life that we’ve been blessed with on this third rock from the Sun. I believe all life in the Universe is connected, either subconsciously or in the world of the quantum and if we don’t destroy ourselves in the near future, there are exciting times ahead!

Jay 1


Note – This interview was taken for Gear for Life – Wildcraft India Blog


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