There never was a merry world since the fairies left off dancing, and the Parson left conjuring
John Selden, "Parson," Table Talk, 1689
It was not perhaps a dignified departure, but to Blackie and Whitey it was more important that at least they were away. The boat was waiting and the sea was relatively calm. They walked through Belgian Customs and Immigration without a hitch, the first and one of the easiest of the half-dozen borders those tickets would take them through. They changed trains in Munich, then headed south-east through Austria and down the long axis of Yugoslavia.
The ride was immensely boring but even that was a relief of sorts. They had been cooped up in a petit-bourgeois hell for a week with nothing to distract them but fear and the telly. Now at least there was motion. They could feel it, in the regularly unpredictable asymmetry of the rails, they could see it in the lights at night, the little ones like stars slowly drifting by, the vivid rush of the houses by the tracks, the northbound trains that blurred to nothing and left sudden images of startling clarity. They saw a man pissing out of a carriage door and saluted his memory with honest laughter. They saw trucks lying on their side, abandoned in pairs by the side of the long empty road. They saw buildings still collapsed from an earthquake five years before and wondered why they hadn't been rebuilt yet. They sat behind the glass as the world moved past and slowly they began to rejoice.
On the second morning they crossed into Greece and disembarked at Thessaloniki. It was the crossroads of the ancient world, they read, and thought it well put. The weather was hot and the writing on the wall looked like essence of calculus. Hot damn, this must be traveling.
On the advice of a likely-looking young Dutch couple they saw near the station, they headed for the Youth Hostel, which they were assured did not require membership cards, manual labor or morning prayers. It was in fact located above a 24-hour mega-volume jukebox, the centerpiece of the neighborhood hang-out not so much a hostel as a hostelry, which was much better. Here they paused to regroup, disband their preconceptions and orchestrate the adventure. Bleary over a pair of lagers, they were surprised to hear an English voice calling for a "Fix." Blackie looked over.
"Fix?" he enquired.
The new guy raised a bottle of a fizzy orange drink with the Greek letters printed on it and laughed.
"Fix, man. Greek Fanta. Really, it's not bad, I've been looking for a Fix for days." He cackled some more. "You guys must be heading East."
"Lucky sods. I've got to get back to college."
This caused the metaphorical raising of an eyebrow. (To do it literally would have been to violate the code of cool and that would never do.) The stranger did not look like the proverbial clean-cut kid who'd been to college too. (Five years was plenty of time to turn Dylan's bon mots into proverbs in those days.) Nor did he look like a traditional pasty-faced junkie, nor have the low-rent pseudo-rock-star image that was so fashionable in undergraduate circles, nor was he a degenerate version of anything obvious at all. Later sociologists would see his kind as the missing link between the flower children and the heavy metal archetype, but in Western experience thus far, he was sui generis. This was not to last. Welcome to the traveling freak.
Thin as a coke dealer's smile and coughing behind the cheapest rot-gut tobacco available, he had glee in his eyes and knots in his beard. His hair was long and obviously innocent of Sassoon's scissors, his face burned to the point where his teeth seemed to gleam, which flattered them. From south to north, he wore: leather Indian sandals with loops for the big toe, broken in but still not bending the way western shoemakers would want; pajama pants of thin cotton that once had surely been white; a decorative scarf, printed in light purple with symbols and miscellaneous icons of presumably religious origin and worn as a sort of belt; a buttonless shirt with wide, three-quarter-length sleeves and an embroidered pattern around its deep vee neck, under an extremely small waistcoat with pockets big enough at a pinch for rolling papers and loud enough in its psychedelic weirdness to wake up the street with its angular patterns of red and gold and blue from the high Himalaya. Prayer beads, ankle bracelet, copper amulet and silver earrings completed the ensemble. Had he been French, he would have topped it off with kohl around the eyes, but even without that final touch, he looked as bizarre even in Greece as a tropical fish in a London pet shop.
Like the fish, he would fade when he languished too long out of his element.
"How long you been gone?" asked Blackie, talking as much to talk as anything.
"Three months, I guess, pretty much. I pissed off early so I better not get back late." He chuckled and re-lit his bidi, offering them around. "You tried these? El cheapo Indian ciggies, sort of. They're great, except they're always going out. Once I found these, I only bought regular fags to make joints with."
"Oh man, it's everywhere. Leastwise, once you get past Iran."
"Yep. It's not too cool here and for Chrissake be careful in Turkey and Iran. You heard of the Sultan Ahmet?"
"Uh-uh. Where's that?"
"Place to go in Istanbul. You want to check out what's happening, go to the Pudding Shop in Sultan Ahmet. Don't eat there, it's awful and anyway it's full of fucking Aussie overlanders, right pricks the lot of them, but everyone knows where it is, it's got a bulletin board and everything, and there's lots of cheap hotels right near it. They're all about the same I reckon.
"Anyway if you hang around Sultan Ahmet, this asshole'll come up and ask if you want to score some hash. Just don't do it. This is the deal: He shows you a lump, decent size piece, wants twenty lire or so for it, seems reasonable, you score, you head off to your room and you haven't even shut the door when the cops getcha. They take you for whatever they think they can get ten quid, hundred bucks, whatever, depending and if you don't pay you're looking at ten years in a fucking Turkish nick and you don't want to even think about that, so you pay up. The cops kick back some of it to the front guy and flip him back the dope too. That asshole's sold the same bit of hash god knows how many times this summer."
Blackie was nodding his head in appreciation.
"So he gets it coming and going."
"Too fucking right, mate, as the Aussies say. He keeps your bread, he gets a cut of the pay-off money and goes off to do it all over again. It's fucking criminal is what it is." He cracked up again. The spirit of the holy jokester was in fine form.
This was the Baedeker, the Bradshaw, the Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit of the time, and a damn sight more accurate than most: Talk to your fellow travelers and find out where to go. The only freak guidebook available at the time was BIT's, which basically told you to 'ignore this book' (not this one, theirs), although the hilarious Douglas Brown was already getting his research together for the groovy cats with the bread to score his rap and the efficient Tony Wheeler* would soon be on the scene. In fact, there probably weren't enough people on the road to make a viable market, not in the sense that Paris or Rome had a tourist market ... but there were certainly enough to form a floating community. And, like plaid-trousered and polka-dotted Mid-Westerners lost in Europe on $5 (then 10, then 20 ... 50) a day, they had their dress code, their rituals of inclusion, their shared tastes, their need to spend time with their own in the midst of the strangeness around them. When you saw another freak you said hi, and then you talked. And you talked about where you'd been and where you were going, and how, and what it cost.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? It was.
This technique wouldn't have worked so well for those in a tearing hurry to register proof of propinquity by exposing emulsion and jetting away. A series of social engagements were called for, ceremonial consumption of local beverages and, where not absolutely contra-indicated, other relaxing substances. One tended to hang out a while, resting between overnight buses or waiting for the other shirt to dry, considering options and counting cash, passing the map and speculating on the infinite possibilities it suggested.
In the end, you followed the trail. It was built around available local public transportation the Magic Bus came later, offering an almost-scheduled service from Amsterdam to Delhi in converted vans with mattresses in the back which was the source of a lot of the charm, much of the discomfort and all of the savings. West Asia on a dollar a day, if you didn't mind discomfort. Mediæval saints were said to recommend starving and mortification as spiritual exercises and not a few young freaks were similarly tempted. The normal reasons, however, were neither religious nor masochistic. They were much simpler. The less you spent each day, the more days you could afford to stay on the road.
Standard cultural conditioning, once again 'More Is Better' but incorporating that lovely late-sixties twist 'Less Is More'. So less was more or less better because less gave you more which was naturally better than less even though you couldn't have more without wanting less, which was clearly the not-goal not to aim for in the endless quest for not-being, or nirvana.
Have a chillum and ponder.
*Tony and his wife Maureen founded Lonely Planet to publish across ASIA on the cheap in 1973. Tony was kind enough to make available not only a photocopy of his first edition but also one of Brown's long-lost tome Overland to India, published in 1971 by new press in Toronto, a classic of the era that Flip&Jane once hauled all over the continent with emotions that developed from interest to anger to extreme amusement.