Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Around the world in diary days

It is 40 years ago today that I upped and left my home and family to travel round the world, not to return for nearly three years. That day - 18 June 1974 - also marks a watershed in my diary-keeping habit, in that I started keeping a daily diary, to record my travels; and I have kept up the diary habit (although not every day) since then.

I completed my university degree in mid-1973, and had no idea what to do with my life. I went from temporary job to temporary job, and my parents, eventually, kicked me out of their house, believing I should pay my own way. As chance would have it, I found a flat share in Earl’s Court, and my flatmates were all travellers, Aussies and Kiwis, who had come overland across Asia. It wasn’t many months before I decided to go off and explore the world too. My aim was to hitchhike across Asia, to Bali, then fly to Australia where I would work until I had enough money to get to South America and travel there for a while.

With relatively little preparation - I bought traveller’s cheques, forwarded money to a bank in Singapore, and tried to get some preventative medicines - I set off. I had no visas, there was little in my rucksack apart from clothes, books, a map of Europe, and - most importantly - a photostatted guide put together by travellers for travellers to India and beyond. At the time, there were no Lonely Planet or Rough Guide books, so the photocopies were a near-essential supplement to the information gathered along the way - from others on the so-called Hippy Trail.

Oh yes, and in the rucksack, I also had a 1973 desk diary which I planned to use as a journal. I don’t recall why I used an out-of-date diary, with all the confusion of the days being wrong, but it was probably to save me buying a new one. (There was a half a page for each day, which was often insufficient, so I would write in other parts of the book, going backwards from the June start point, and note down something like ‘see also 23 May’ - thus I filled the book even though it only covers my travelling for about six months.)

I hitchhiked much of the way to Bali, although trains were far easier (and very cheap) in India; aeroplane was the only way across Burma at the time (though, one could stop for a week there on route to Thailand), and from Bali to Darwin. I also took a plane out of Laos, and from Singapore to Bali; plus I took boats across the Persian Gulf and to and from Sumatra. But hitchhiking was the always the aim: generally it was free (and, when drivers charged, it was still cheaper than any other form of transport), and, it brought me into direct contact with all kinds of people, mostly from the country I was in, who would often enhance my experience in some way.

The journey took me through the following countries: Belgium, Germany, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (and Tibet), Burma, Thailand, Laos, Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia. And these are a few of the experiences I found in this, the first part of my round-the-world adventure: seeing Nureyev perform in Swan Lake (see below); driving a truck across sand-rutted desert; watching a car accident in the middle of the Persian Gulf waters (!); discovering deserted ancient cities; walking hand-in-hand with Arab boys; selling blood; feeling hash-induced paranoia in the middle of tribal Afghanistan; having bedouin hosts eat scraps from my own plate; watching four Pakistanis fully occupied in operating a domestic lawnmower; seeing dead people burn; losing and finding my diary; meeting godless priests in a remote Himalayan monastery; overviewing the largest book in the world; window-gazing in Bangkok; receiving charity from the poor; learning to swim against the current in crocodile-infested rivers; finding the largest flower in the world; being stoned by children; fearing moonlight sacrifices; working in a power station; being nearly wiped out by a cyclone.

Any how, in memory of that thing I did, 40 years ago, upping and leaving, so casually, to travel the world - something which surely has affected my whole life long - here are the first few diary entries I wrote in that first travel diary (NB: the World Cup was taking place in West Germany - England hadn’t qualified, but Scotland had!).

18 June 1974
‘The English Channel
Last day in England. I drive father into work because his car is in the garage waiting for the fridge man. At Endsleigh I buy five months insurance for £16 - the chemist can’t get me any Daraprim. I pack and bathe after salmon salad - watch the football - pick father up. Half way through Scotland-Brazil I leave home - I am crying and so is Mum - I virtually run out. I am in a daze right the way through to Brent, it is as much as I can do to keep my eyes dry on the tube. Total funds: £150 in envelope, £85 in wallet, $240 in traveller cheques, £150 in Singapore.’

19 June 1974
I meet a Kiwi on the coach from the waiting room to the ferry. He’s from Christchurch - we have a couple of lifts together. He’s off to Amsterdam and me to Brussels. Oh dear what a job to remember my French. I am quite weary and despondent. I ask a copper how to get to Rue Charles De Groux and walk the long way round Congress to Rue Belliard. A pharmacie is getting me the Daraprim. My forged letter gets me a current international student card. Mutti, my stepfather’s mother, makes me very welcome. I fall asleep on Mutti’s floor watching the football.’

20 June 1974
Mutti talks and talks and there’s never anything I can directly disagree and debate with her, it’s always ‘yes I suppose so’. She is very healthy - we walk miles and I am more tired than she. At the Musee, there is a large section on ancient Iran and Anatolie and Egypt - some fine examples of original letters and envelopes of the day. Mutti dresses for bridge - I suss out the tram system and go north. I’m most impressed by the Atomium from Expo 60. Father turns up before seven and we go to a typical Belgian restaurant - plain decor, good service and excellent food - Waterzooie - prawn croquets. I walk a little - rub a brass for luck and visit the Manikin Piss.’

21 June 1974
Say goodbye to Mutti and am on the road by 11.30. First lift is from a friendly van driver - we communicate little in French. Lifts take me past Liege and Aachen and Koln - from the autobahn there is a magnificent view of Koln and the cathedral. Two splendid lifts follow - the first to Frankfurt from a young guy who offers to take me into town for a meal after two hours at a conference - I decline. But I am very lucky to change some money - the E-5 goes straight by the airport - phew! - I will eat this weekend. A student in a rented car takes me to and around Wurzburg. It is very lovely - there’s an old chateaux by the castle on the hill overlooking all, and an old palace where an international Mozart festival is being held. I finish off the night with a non-talking falling-asleep lift to just outside Nurnberg.’

22 June 1974
I sleep reasonably well on lumpy ground in some services - and feel really ace after a thorough wash and clean in the services. It takes me over an hour to get a lift to Nurnberg. I tour round all the lovely buildings c/o Nurnburg tourist organisation. I am sitting underneath a cloudless sky on some parapets overlooking the city. Just now more tourists are coming to see the view. Nurnberg is more lovely than Wurzburg. The countryside is splendid, forests rolling like dunes out of sight. A long walk, a long beer and big hassle getting out of town. Regensburg is second rate - but I am hungry, the last thing I ate was a roll yesterday morning. I look and look for a non rip-off place to eat and eventually find a snack bar - schnitzel and chips for DM 3.95 (like a dream come true finding this). I lie in the park and clean my feet in the fountain. I have a bad head all afternoon and evening, from the sun I suppose. One beer lasts the whole of the Scotland-Yugoslavia match - 1-1.’

23 June 1974
A heavy dew in the night. An hour and a half till 8:30 to get a lift - two lifts to Passau. Everywhere in this area there are churches - very beautiful, very old. Here in Passau, does one of them contains the biggest organ in Europe? Many houses too are old, and the castle-type houses on the tops of small hills always make the scene beautiful. I am sitting on a bench looking out across where the Danube and the Inn meet - church bells are peeling and the sun is hot. It is so peaceful here, the water flowing fast to pass Wien and Budapest and Bucharest, a long way to the Adriatic.

I get a lift from the head of the largest spectacles frame-maker in the world, in a Merc - following the Danube with the forest and fields and beautiful views to Linz. Some Austrian hamburgers ‘mit salat’ - tasty. A little sleep and a hefty walk and a long wait for a lift to Wien, but I make it by 6:00. A bier and football - Poland 2 Italy 1 - and a map from tourist information. I walk around, although it’s a bit of hassle, of course, with the pack - some fabulous buildings - the Hofburg home of the Habsburgs in winter - Baroque mostly - statues abound - Austrian elections for President - everyone must vote.

A real hassle finding somewhere to sleep - I’m wandering around this park up by the Sud Bahnhof - strange men keep following - it is half an hour before I realise it’s the local gay playground. I storm off and sleep very well in the gardens of some college.’

24 June 1974
About 7:00, I buy a lemon tea, wash in the toilets, and a sit in Goethe Park. I talk for a while to a pigeon man - he’s a much travelled journalist, but getting old now he works in a library and writes - every morning he brings food for the pigeons and talks to them. He shows me the way to the periodicals room where I read the Guardian (19 June). It’s also a good place to leave my bag. I go to the Esperanto museum but it looks dead and decayed so I don’t bother - the Neue Gallerie where I find Cezanne, Van Gogh (best of which is his self portrait), Degas, Munch. I meet two chatty girls from Brighton - graduates who’ve been to Prague and Budapest.

We meet outside the Vienna State Opera at 4:00 to get tickets for the ballet - crowds of people, and our numbers are shouted out. This entitles us to a place in the queue where we wait until 5:30. I buy a ticket and then have to wait again to have the ticket torn and again, with even more of crush near the top of the stairs, to find a place - but I have to check my rucksack in and so lose the chance of securing a place. I meet a couple from New Zealand who let me join their patch, and for one act I have a seat. This is first ballet I’ve ever seen live, and what a way to start - Carol Cain and Nureyev in Swan Lake. Cain is fabulous. Her movements, with Nureyev controlling her, are faultless - apparently Nureyev rewrote acts 1, 3 and 4 and changed Tchaikovsky’s music. There are tremendous applauses through each act and after - at the end I leave before the encores have finished. I am invited to join the NZ couple for coffee but I don’t have enough Austrian funds. I sleep in the same place.’


Unknown said...


Catching up slowly on a bunch of saved reading lists. Thanks for sharing this lovely set of excerpts from the diary that started it all. Enjoyed it.

These days, people don't do travel diaries as much because of smartphones and social media. But, I wonder if we've lost something from that personal, quiet reflective process that a travel diary/journal gives us vs the more accessible sharing that social technologies today provide.

Paul K Lyons said...

Thanks Jenny, nice to hear from you. Paul