Pursuit of Happiness

Falling off the map

Mjunction Services’ Viresh Oberoi has backpacked around the world — and has the tales to prove it

Sandipan Chatterjee

Viresh Oberoi has backpacked through Europe, Africa and large parts of Asia over the past 18 years. The longest such trip was across Europe and it lasted three months. Apart from being a backpacker, Oberoi is also the founder-CEO and managing director of Mjunction Services, a 50:50 joint venture between Steel Authority of India (Sail) and Tata Steel, India’s largest B2B e-commerce platform for steel and coal (transaction value worth ₹24,800 crore in FY11). Back then, Oberoi and his wife mostly went with a fixed budget and came back to India when they ran out of money. “Money was a constraint, time was not,” recalls Oberoi, who spent 24 years in Tata Steel, which he joined in 1978 as a sales trainee straight out of college. “We backpacked at least once a year and we kept our itineraries flexible.” 

On one such trip, the initial plan was to spend three days in Turkey before moving on to Greece. A chance encounter with another backpacking couple, who shared enchanting tales about their visit to the Ottoman Empire, made the Oberois change their mind. They subsequently spent three weeks in Turkey. The couple stayed in youth hostels, B&Bs and, at times, even at parks and railway stations. Sometimes, they got lucky, like when in a small German town, they heard a blonde talking on the phone in fluent Hindi. She had been to India to learn the language and offered to host them for the night — provided they talked to her only in Hindi!  

The trick, Oberoi says, is to make the most out of any situation — for instance, on a sailing trip from Santorini Island to Athens, the boat got stuck at the port due to a storm. The Oberois happily stayed in the boat for the next three days, saving on hotel expenses and went sightseeing around the island.

That isn’t the only time they stretched their rupee by keeping their overhead costs down. Once low on cash while in Venice, they spent four nights at the railway station, moving around the city during the day. On the fifth night, the stationmaster asked them to move out as they were closing the station for maintenance. In the middle of the night, they managed to find shelter in a nunnery — but only after the head of the institution had ascertained to her satisfaction that they were indeed husband and wife. Another one from the dusty road: the manager of a youth hostel in New York noted that she was coming across a backpacking couple who shared a common surname for the first time in her career.

Time has taken a toll on Oberoi’s travels. “Now, the spirit is willing but the flesh is not,” he concedes. Now, he prefers short, weeklong breaks. A week in Israel in on the cards and then it’s a toss-up between Brazil and Alaska later in the year. These trips might not carry the flavour of backpacking but Oberoi continues to explore the off-beat.

At work, Oberoi uses the exercise of group travel to foster bonding and teamwork among new recruits. Every year, a group is sent to a high-altitude training camp in Uttarakhand run by Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to scale Mt Everest. “It takes them out of their comfort zone,” says Oberoi, who has revelled in that very experience on his many backpacking trips around the world.