In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all
You couldn’t see these cold water restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads
From Joni Mitchell’s Hejira
When the Beatles and their partners, with Donovan and Mia Farrow in tow, travelled to India to sit at the well-kissed feet of the Maharishi, they would’ve travelled by BOAC jetliner. But hundreds if not thousands of young people from Europe and North America were already making their own own way, by boats, trains, trucks and automobiles, motorbikes and bicycles, and in extremis, shank’s pony, some ten thousand kilometres and more to the end of the line, be this Kathmandu, Kolkata (where I ended up), South East Asia (Tim Page, a recently departed friend, ended up there as a war photographer in America’s “crazy Asian war) or Australia (that’s where my uni pals washed up – see below). Other adventurers set out in the opposite direction from conservative Australia and New Zealand-Aotearoa heading for Britain, the “old country” and a wider world. The numbers would swell during the seventies and the “overland” as it was then called became the well-travelled “Hippie Trail” – until the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan wars effectively blocked it to all but a resolute and crazy-brave few.
I’d never intended to hit the hippie trail back in the day. In the northern summer of 1971, I didn’t even know it existed.
I’d just finished my final exams, graduating with a good degree, but after three exciting and formative years, it was as if everything had suddenly ground to a halt. Uni was over; a romantic relationship was on the rocks; I was footloose and free, floating and feeling the urge to escape elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere. I’d no idea at all what I would do next, other than an inchoate plan to undertake post-graduate study – guided by my tutor and mentor exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely, my academic interest was Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but that was to be down the track.
When the finals results came out, I spent the evening at the student union with friends, unwinding and getting pissed; and the very next day, I walked into the Student Travel office and booked a one-way air ticket to Athens (only my second time on an aeroplane), passage by steamer from Piraeus, Athen’s port, to Alexandria, Egytpt, via Limassol, Cyprus, and back from Egypt to Piraeus and thence to Tel Aviv, Israel, with no bookings for onward travel.
Seized by the idea of visiting the two principal antagonists of the almost recent Six Day War, I’d a naive and uninformed notion to view both sides of the Arab-Israeli puzzle (and we’re no nearer a solution today, and I’ve spent half a century since watching and waiting – but that is another story). Within a few weeks, I’d bought a second-hand rucksack and sleeping bag, converted my savings to traveler’s cheques – there were still currency restrictions in the UK on how much cash you could take out of the country – packed a few things, and in the words of Cat Stevens, I was “on the road to find out”.
That road took me through the Middle East, and on and on, until I reached Kolkata in Bengal. What was planned as but a two month holiday to “clear my mind out”, to quote that Cat song again, extended to over six months as the appetite grew with the eating.
I traveled through lands of which I knew very little, picking up fragments of history and heritage, parables and politics as eastwards I roamed, through the lands of antiquity and of empire: Greece and Cyprus; Egypt and Israel; the Levant (old French for the lands of the rising sun – Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan); Iraq before Saddam, and Iran under the Shah; Pakistan and India, who went to war with each other as I crossed their frontiers (a story for another time); and then back to Britain by way of Turkey and the fabled Pudding Shop.
I stood beside the great rivers of ancient stories – the Nile and the Jordan, the Orontes and the Yarmouk, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Ganges. I traveled though deserts and mountains, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. I climbed through the Kyber Pass, immortalised by imperial endeavour and hubris, and the valley of Kashmir, a betrayed and battered paradise. I crossed Lake Van, in the shadow of Mount Ararat, and the Bosphorus, from into Europe. I stood atop ancient stones in Memphis and Masada, Baalbek and Babylon, Jalalabad and Jerusalem.
On my return, my plan to specialize in Soviet Studies evaporated as I resolved to learn more about these lands, their peoples, and their histories, and this I did. The Middle East has long-since captivated and colonized much of my intellectual life, imbuing it with a passion that has found expression in my persona, my politics, my prose, my poetry, and my songs.
See: East – an anthology and Song of the Road (1) – my hitchhiking days
Broken statues, empty tombs.
Ghosts of commoners and kings
Walk the walls and catacombs,
The castles and the shrines,
Marking lives and story lines,
Lie the ruins and the bones,
The ruins and the bones,
Ruins and bones.
Through the desert to the beyond …
I was at the end of the beginning. Having travelled through Egypt and Israel, I’d decided, for many reasons, that I wasn’t ready to return to England as planned, and recalling the advice of a fellow traveler I’d met in Cairo, I resolved to head east …
In early 1972, I wrote in an empty1962 diary: “Friday 20th August 1971, a fateful day indeed, when manifold and manifest destinies unfolded, when plans were forgotten and begotten, when the past was shelved and the future postponed. To the desert. Through the desert. To the beyond. To see. To decide. To move forever onwards with no direction home. With no grip of time to defeat me or dictate to me …”
Less prosaically, my actual travel diary recorded on that day:
“Arriving in Nicosia from Tel Aviv at 15.15 after a neglectful and body-shaking El Al flight, I headed straight into town from.an almost deserted airport. How much Anglo, how much Greek, how empty. Hot and boring in my mobile mood. Bought a ticket to Beirut and headed straight out again on the six o’clock Air Liban Boeing 707. A highly hospitable fifty five minute flight and by seven o’clock I was passing through Lebanese customs … “
The following day, I wrote:
Saturday, 21st August 1971, Beirut
“Now for a calculation space … I have £55 in travelers’ cheques and £25 in cash. Eighty quid in all. How far will that go? Syria? Iraq? Jordan? Afghanistan, Iran? Then home? Visas, maybe five quid? Amman to Baghdad, four? Damascus Amman Two? Amman to Baghdad, Teheran, Kabul 10 quid? That’s £21 all up. Kabul to Istanbul, £13, so £34 in all. £3 max in each for contingencies? £15 or £49. Leaving about 30 quid by Istanbul. Cutting Jordan, could save four. India? There is time, but little money … Even if the three quid were cut and Jordan too, that would leave £19 from Kabul to Delhi – but I must eat, I must eat somewhere – hence, no India…this time … “
But the appetite grew with the eating and the road led on and on …
Life on the road …
People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Others just come to harm
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
Joni Mitchell, Amelia
Traveling was sooo different back then in the days before ubiquitous air travel, the Internet and mobile phones. On the road, our destinations were set, but these were fluid in their timeline and attainment. Much of our information came by word of mouth from other travellers on the road. You’d head to places other people had recommended, without having seen pictures and read descriptions on the internet. You couldn’t book a hotel room in advance so we often never knew where we’d sleep. You’d find a bed for the night once we’d arrived in a city, town or village or if you were in the information loop, you’d rock up at well-frequented hostelries like Amir Kabir in central Teheran, Mrs Dunkeley’s Guest House in the heart of New Delhi, and the famed houseboats on Dal Lake in Kashmir. Often, you slept on floors, in railway station waiting rooms, in constant fear of robbery, or beneath the stars. You’d spend long hours waiting in the post office to place a call home, and sometimes the operator didn’t know where that was. Letters would take an age to reach their destination. I wrote letters to England from Amir Kabir, and picked up the replies on my return journey months later. You’d work out how to deal with banks and money changers to convert travelers cheques to the local currency – and keep a close count of every cent because these were limited, and you were constantly worried about being ripped off.
Like many on the road, I travelled on the cheap, crowded onto local buses, struggling to grab a third class seat on packed trains, eating street food. watched every dinar and dollar, rial and rupee. To supplement my diminishing funds, I washed dishes – and sold blood twice, to the Red Crescent in Jerusalem’s Old City (risky) and In New Delhi (in hindsight, potentially suicidal).
I’d only intended to be out of the country for about a month, but had cleaned out my bank account. I’d worked on building sites in Birmingham during the summer breaks from University, and had earned enough to keep me in books and records and other “luxuries” and also for travel. And I got to India and back to Istanbul before I ran out of cash and had to get my folks to wire me enough for a ticket home. My university pals who took The Overland a year later washed up in Darwin stoney broke and had to work their way all the way south to Bondi Beach, where they’d resolved to rent a flat overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Of the five who roved out, three returned to England, but two remained, establishing careers, marrying “sheilas” and raising children and grandchildren – by happy circumstance, I too settled in Australia six years later, and John (RIP) and Christian became my oldest friends in Australia.
Most of us travelled without cameras and so relied on travel diaries and memories. I had a dinky old Kodak and couldn’t afford a lot of film – I sold some for extra cash somewhere along the way – so I had had just a few pictures on a couple of rolls. And I had to wait until my return to England to take them to Boots Chemist for processing. And looking back, perhaps it was easier and also most adventurous in those days to be present, to live in the moment, and to be surprised over things you hadn’t seen before, not even in books and photographs. So many everyday things are now very practical with ATMs and mobile phones and travel advisories to hand, whilst our mobile phones and tablets absorb so much of our attention. In some ways these take away much of the vicarious risks and also, magic. I’m sure glad to have experienced travelling in the old-fashioned way.
If you never go, you’ll never grow
I’ll conclude this story by observing in the present how in all my journeying, I never came to harm, whether by mishap or misadventure, malice or malignancy.
The accidental journey was driven by a combination of whim, thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, by a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive feeling of dare-devil invulnerability.
Passers-by, and local people I’d meet would often ask where I was going and why I traveled thus. They’d tell me it was dangerous, that there were men out there who would rob me or do me harm. When I returned home, folk would ask if I faced danger and if I was afraid. Yet, we who traveled the world before jumbo jets and cruise ships understood that bad things could happen and that they sometimes did whether you journeyed by thumb, van, bus or train. In hotels and hostels from Beirut to Baghdad, Kabul to Kolkata, you’d pick up word-of-mouth “travel advisories”, warnings and “war stories”. In India, I’d been told of a chap who’d been robbed and stranded in Afghanistan, and I actually met him when I bunked down in a backpackers’ in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, on my way back to Britain.
As I journeyed “there and back again”, I took risks on rickety buses and in reckless cars. I’d walk alone through slums and shanty towns and eat food sold on the streets. I risked typhoid and cholera outbreaks, caught “Cairo belly”, sold blood in “third world” clinics, and ran from thrown stones and the sound of gunfire. I was arrested for spying on the Aswan Dam in upper Egypt (though released soon afterwards) and handcuffed as a “joke” in a Beirut police station. I’d crossed a battle-scarred landscape between Syria and Jordan on foot, and watched the military buildup in Kashmir as the Indo-Pakistan war was breaking out.
So yes, there always was a risk; but if you think too much about it, you’d never go, and if you never go, you’ll never grow.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Walking Song, JRR Tolkien
© Paul Hemphill 2023 All rights reserved
My road in pictures
Bondi or Bust
The morning after the night before …
In late summer 1972 we housemates threw an all-night farewell party before going our separate ways. Christian, Brendan, John, Mike and Eric embarked on the hippie trail across Asia and ended up in God’s Own Country. Having recently returned from that same odyssey, I remained in London, but destiny saw me washed up DownUnder five years later. The first picture portrays the laid-back lethargy of that morning in East Finchley. Chris is in the shot so Brendan must’ve taken the photograph. The second is taken when we got it all together for a more formal tableau with Chris behind the camera.
Shortly thereafter, the five pioneers set off for Dover and the East. Many years later, Christian revealed these pictures from their journey. The first is of John and Chris soon after landing in northern Australia. The others are pictures of Chris’ tote bag. He still has it.