When Geoff flew off into the sunset, I hung about in London for a while, going to as many West End and similar shows, art galleries, bookshops, movies and other attractions as I could fit in - a real glut of kulture. Eventually I figured I should be going home, but I wanted to go overland, preferably with a guy for protection. I started to organise innoculations and visas, then answered a couple of ads for travel companions. The two guys I met were very different; one was into real tourist things - the beerfest in Munich, for example - and the other just wanted a girl to sleep with on the long trip home. Neither appealed to me at all. Just as I was giving up I saw an ad in TimeOut for a van driving to India, leaving at the end of the week. I rang up, went out to Croydon to meet the owners of the van, and on Saturday I set off for India, along with the driver, his wife and two kids, his sister-in-law and baby, plus eight fellow travellers. The kids came as news to me, but it was too late to back out. It was a big ex-bullion van, and we all crammed in. The driver had a bunch of tents we could use to sleep in, and we each paid him fourty pounds for the trip.
Don't ask me where we went - I was just another lump of meat in the back of the van, jolting about in discomfort, wondering what the hell I was doing there. We drove as fast as possible through Europe, driving late into the nights then camping by the side of the road, no concessions to sightseeing or comfort. It turned out that the owner-driver of the van had another van in India, and needed to get there quickly to rescue it from the authorities. My strongest memories are of Yugoslavia - driving down one of the main streets in Belgrade while a crop-duster roared low overhead, dusting us with god-knows-what; stopping by a schoolyard, and Jerry bringing out his puppet, putting on an impromptu show for the children who first threw stones at us, then stopped, enchanted by the doll; camping in the 3am bitter cold - too cold to sleep - drinking plum brandy in the truckies cafe to thaw us out and numb our brains, then sleeping all huddled up together for body warmth.
The first place we stopped for any length of time was in Greece, on a bay where my skin-diving gear came into its own, and we all caught up on sleep and food before crossing into Turkey.
Istanbul was magic - the market and tea houses; chocolate pudding shops; totally amazing buildings; the son et lumiere on the Blue Mosque. Above all else, a chance to get away from the van, the endless driving, the shitty driver. The womens' bath house, down near the market, was something else again. We luxuriated in the damp atmosphere, endlessly pouring water over ourselves and each other, before hiring one of the bath attendants to wash and massage us. What a sensuous way to get clean! The woman who washed me was so soft that my arms sank deep into the folds of her belly and breast while she pulled me this way and that, tut-tutting at the days of dirt that scrubbed off at the rubbing of the loofa.
Ferrying across the Bosperous emphasises a division between Europe and Asia, far stronger feelings than you would get driving across the bridge. I have real regrets about the way we traveled through Turkey - too fast to see and appreciate the country, just glimpsing the possibilities before the bloody driver was urging us to get a move on and cover yet more miles. This was the first time I had seen the phenomenum of people materialising out of nothing and nowhere whenever we stopped the van, no matter how remote and isolated we seemed to be. Stop for a pee, and men would gallop up on horseback, just to enjoy the spectacle!
Eastern Turkey was more rough-and-ready. There were less women on the streets, and we attracted more aggresive attention in some places. In Esurum all of us independant (!) travelers ended up taking a single room, piling the beds against the door to keep out the local men. Whenever one of the girls had to go to the loo we took two of the guys with us - there was no door, and we figured that we'd prefer that two guys we knew oggled us than all the men in the town.
Into Iran, and the country towns now had no women on the streets - little children and men only. However, the agression experienced in Turkey wasn't repeated here, and people were unfailingly kind to us, helping us find the food or goods we stopped to buy. By our very nature we were a kind of circus every time we stopped in some little village, and it was a relief to get to Teheran. Five minutes into the traffic, and the feeling of relief swept away. That is the only time I have ever seen someone open their car door, only to have it snatched out of their hands and ripped off the car by a passing vehicle. It is also the only time I've ever been passed on the inside by a car which drove up onto the 'footpath' at full speed to get past, scattering people, chickens, and goods in the process. Horns blared, people yelled, everyone just drove flat out and no-one stopped for anything. Despite the traffic, Teheran was a bit of R&R for us. This was still in the time of the Shah; women went unveiled, dressed in high fashion; we drank at night in the Chelsea Pub, a tavern that attracted expats and locals alike.
Back to days and nights of driving. The driver got worse, never stopping until the early hours of the morning, when we poor benumbed passengers had no energy to put up tents. Many nights we slept sitting up, slumped against each other in the back of the van. As we drove east the roads deteriorated, and the driving got more and more difficult to take. Each pot hole would send us collectively up into the air, only to crash down in a stomach-jolting heap on the benches. Dust roiled in through the gaps in the back door, and we sat with scarves tied over our mouths, hot, dusty and sick. At one stop for fuel I sat and talked to a local man. After a little while he proposed marriage, but eventually worked his way to asking for ten minutes behind the shed. It was all done in good humour, and the driving was so bad at that stage I could have been tempted!
We had a blowout as we drove across the top of the great salt lake - that's when we found out that we had no spare tire. Luckily the back axle was double, and we were able to shuffle the tires around and run on single tires at the back for a while. Night driving was incredible. The drivers play the 'lights game'. When two vehicles approach each other, one driver turns off his lights completely and drives blind, letting the other driver get a good look at the road in between them, to see if it is clear. Then the second driver does the same thing, giving the other guy a go. Neither of them slows down while this goes on. They do it because people leave all sorts of things on the road - abandoned vehicles, rocks, animals - with no markers.
This eastern part of Iran was also home to leopards. We found that out when our beloved driver did another of his late night drives, stopping at about one in the morning. Some of us couldn't be bothered setting up tents and just wanted to get out of the van, so we set off up the road, walking with only the light from the blazing stars. We must have walked for about half an hour when a deep cough froze us completely, and someone remembered that Iran hadn't killed off all its wild life. Four very quick campers made it back to the van in record time, and were happy to pile in and huddle down for a cramped and secure sleep.
Meshad is a strange distorted memory. I was ill here, sleeping in the tent at the camping ground, struggling into the city once, just to say I had seen it, but all I remember is buying a very ugly lapis bracelet. When we drove out of the city I was laying on the floor of the van, oblivious of the dirty feet and shoes all around me, too sick to care. Because of the hard way we were traveling, I was eating badly - just brown rice and dried veg every night, with a few local breads and fruit thrown in if we stopped long enough to shop - and I had little resistance to whatever made me ill.
The Afghani border was amazing. There was about 20km of no-man's land between Iran and Afghanistan. We were ushered out of Iran late in the day, and the Afghani border was closed, so we slept in the middle. There was a full service industry there - buses ferrying people between the border posts, hotels, restaurants, drug pushers - you name it. Endless men chatted us up and pressed dark afghani hash on us, just being friendly. We slept in the grubby hotel, then faced the border in the morning. They were a bit difficult, and we were very aware of the lingering hash, suffering minor paranoia that we had been set for a bust, but they were more interested in our innoculations, and the driver's sister-in-law had to have a smallpox injection on the spot, something anyone would have wanted to avoid.
I hate to think of Afghanistan now. It was a wonderful place to visit - the people were friendly and easy to get on with and the places we stopped were fantastic. Herat was a place to fall in love with. By now, the passengers and the driver were in open warfare, and I nearly walked away from it all - I offloaded all my gear into my hotel room and promptly had lots of it stolen, so I decided to stick with the van! Theft notwithstanding, I thoroughly enjoyed our stop in Herat. I bought a dress from a beautiful dark-eyed boy, trying it on while he held up a blanket to shield me from the street. Later that night he and his brother took three of us girls to a sitar concert. The audience was all male; there was a women's balcony where veiled women could go, but we were treated as honourary males and permitted to sit in the main auditorium. I could have developed a passion for Afghani men - so sweetly beautiful when young and so strong and hawklike when older. And all those beards!
On through the night, through Kandihar to Kabul, and more fights with the driver, who had a network of places to stay where he got free accomodation for delivering us like trussed chooks; we rebelled, and scattered all over the city to places of our choice. Another wonderful place. The other night I watched a TV documentary that showed Kabul now - just heartbreaking. I think about the people I met and wonder what happened to them; did they survive? how could they survive? they were part of the tourist industry, and would have been seen as undesirable by the regime. I stayed with a couple of other girls at the Green Hotel, and met Joseph, the owner's brother. He was incredibly kind to us, showing us all around the city, the gardens on the outskirts, the museum that is now in ruins (I saw it on the documentary the other night), the zoo (by far the worst I had ever seen!) and the back streets of the bazaar.
When we finally left, Joseph asked us to do him a favour - to post a letter to a girl in India. We took the letter but didn't post it; our decision to hand-deliver it turned out to be a very good one.
There was lots more room in the van after Kabul. The driver's sister-in-law and baby stayed behind, and we also lost Jerry; all his money had been stolen, and the driver was setting out before he could sort out his problems. The extra room just meant we had more room to jolt and crash about in as we ground up the Kyber Pass, dust thick in the air. The pass was dramatic, made even more so by the host of little boys who lined some sections, collecting rocks to throw at the passing vehicles.
The Pakistan border was another interesting one. We sat in the van awaiting processing, while the sleazy local drug pusher offered us coke, hash, pills and a wide assortment of illegal substances right outside the customs house.
Pakistan left a very bad impression with me. Once again we became a circus, with everyone pushing and shoving to see the clowns whenever we pulled to a halt. In one town it became quite scarey, with the crowd pushing the van, trying to overturn us, until someone with a bit of sense and authority stopped the men who were inciting the pushing. When we stopped at a bank for the driver to exchange money, the entire van-load of us were welcomed into the manager's office, but he expected us to perform for him, demanding that we dance or sing to entertain his staff. This was strange stuff.
Glad to be leaving Pakistan, we hurried to the border, only to find it shut in mid-afternoon. We went swimming in the local water-buffalo hole, and slept the night in the customs hall, on the counters. Once through into India, we had to face their tough border post. The boy in front of me in the queue, travelling independantly with a girl, could only protest in horror as the Indian immigration tore out his photo from his passport - it showed him with long hair, and he had cut his hair before setting off on his trip. "This isn't you - it's your sister" they said, and refused him entry. His girlfriend was already through, and we had to break the news to her when we at last were allowed into India. We had been afraid that the van would be searched for hours, but apparently the driver knew the immigration official and slipped him a couple of (banned) Playboy magazines - bribery and corruption in action.
Amritsar was interesting. We visited the Golden Temple and heard the bloody history of the Punjab.
The Great Trunk Road was abuzz. It was marriage season, with dazzling decorated brides on buffalo-drawn carts, crowds of happy guests, bridegrooms on white horses. In Delhi, we stopped in the caravan park, overwhelmed by the crowds that gathered for a festival. Three huge effigies were burned in the nearby park, and literally millions of people thronged the streets, all moving in the one direction.
Once Delhi cleared of the mob, it was an easy place to get around. I picked up my money and mail from AmEx and found a letter from Geoff asking me to join him in New Zealand. Oh, callous Kaye. I was enjoying this trip like nothing else I had ever done, and now, free of the van, I intended to see more of what looked like the most fantastic place I'd ever seen. I wrote back and said I'd turn up in my own good time, or words to that effect, and carried on.
I went with two other girls to deliver Joseph's letter. It was address to the Ceylon Buddhist Mission, and there we met Douglas. He took charge of the letter, but asked us about what we were doing, where we were staying, and what we wanted to do. He was appalled that we were in the caravan park, and arranged for us to move into the empty servants' flat of a Buddhist monk. We spent a week there, visiting the monk each evening to talk, and spending lots of time with the girls next door, a Burmese family that had fled to India. We explored Delhi from top to toe, and had a great time. The three of us decided to travel to Nepal together, taking the train first to Agra (Taj Mahal) then to Varanasi.
Great train trip. Part of it was third class (no longer in existance), where we travelled in cattle trucks, or something that closely resembled them. I spent most of the trip sitting on the steps outside the carriage. The Taj was pretty stunning, but Varanasi was the best. I had my 26th birthday there, celebrating it with a family that had taken us under their wings. I wanted to understand more about the burning ghats, so my birthday treat was an escorted trip to the ghats and a running commentary about the cremation, followed by a trip out on the river. Just what I wanted. The family who were so kind to us were musicians, so each day they would take us to their house, where the father played tablar, the two older boys played sitar, and the little boy brought tea. We never saw any women in the household at all, but I have no doubt they saw us, peeking through the curtained doorway.
We picked up a fourth traveler - Jean Denis, a Canadian, joined us in Varanasi, and we headed up to Nepal - train, then bus to the border. Once through the border, it was a crushed bus through the mountains. We persuaded the driver to let us travel on the roof, and had one of the experiences of a lifetime, as we crested the last hill and saw the Himalya spread out before us, a mind-blowing panorama, as we sat with the wind in our faces, bodies wrapped in sleeping bags against the cold.
Kathmandu was great. Wonderful. Just something else. I had expected to stay a week. Within a couple of days I was extending my visa to two months. When we were leaving Delhi, Douglas gave us a letter to take to a Tibetan buddhist in Bodanath. We delivered the letter, and the man offered us a hut, about 10 minutes walk out of the village, so we moved in the next day and spent most of two weeks there. We had two rooms (one up, one down) and an open fire outside to cook on. Local people dropped in and chatted or shared out meals, the monks in the monestary invited us to puja, and we felt very welcome. One of my abiding memories is of walking back to the hut at night in the pitch dark. The stars were bright in the clear sky, and the fireflies packed the bushes along the path, so that we seemed to be walking through a tunnel of stars coming right down to the earth.
One of the boys in the van had told me about trekking. I had never heard of it before, but it sounded like a good thing to do, so I went and got a trekking permit for the Annapurna region. I set off with Jean Denis, but we had already agreed to separate on the first day and to go it alone. Actually, I could write another whole story just about the walk (maybe I will some time), but it was one of the best experiences of my life. No-one had said that women didn't just go and walk by themselves, so that is what I did for three weeks, from Phokara to Jhomsom and back. This was before the days of organised trekking lodges. I slept on floors with old grandmas, shared meals with families, had women younger than me come in and tuck me into bed, was attacked by a man wanting to screw me and got away, and met some of the most wonderful people you can imagine. I had lots of time to think, lots of time to appreciate what I was seeing, and lots of weary days when I couldn't think or appreciate things to save myself.
Back in Kathmandu the days were getting shorter, the nights colder, and my money was running out. I could have stayed there for ever, so I set a target sum of money - once I was down to that, I'd have to leave. Sadly, I bought a ticket to Thailand with a stopover in Burma, and flew off, with one last sunset-red view of the mountains from the plane.
We touched down in Rangoon and no-one stood up to get off. I made my way down the aisle and eventually a couple of other people came too - in all, there were six tourists on the plane for that week. This was at a time between bursts of unrest, the country was less restricted then - only seven day visas, but no 'Tourist Burma' to control where you stayed.
Burma was a strange destination in the 1970s - the black market was rife, there were severe restrictions on the parts of the country you could visit, but within that there was no restriction on what you did. I knew that the regime was repressive, but there was no widespread knowledge of abuses of human rights and I had no reason not to visit. Indeed, given how closed the country had been, I really wanted to visit, to see what it was like.
It was amazing - another of the places that I fell in love with at first glance, and another reinforcement of my mounting love af Asia. In Rangoon everyone seemed to know who I was - where I came from, where I planned to go, what I did - not threatening, just that there were few visitors, and all who did visit were interesting to the people. Many local people befriended me, taking me to places around the city, sitting and talking for hours. I stayed in Rangoon for a few days then took the train up to Mandalay. Everywhere I went the people were just fantastic, wanting to talk, eager to find out what was happening outside Burma. The night market in Mandalay was unforgettable - in the main streets everything from huge Irrawaddy prawns to birth control pills, and on the backstreets piles of weapons for sale - hand grenades, pistols, I imagine even machine guns if you cared to ask. It felt very frontier-like. I had joined up with another couple of Australian travelers and an English boy who had arrived on the same flight from Kathmandu, and we took the riverboat down to Pagan. No luxury craft then: we had a cabin which we shared with members of the Burma Rifles - we had booked the cabin; they shared by force. Pagan was astonishing in the soft light of dawn, as we scrambled off the boat and took the horse and cart into town. We spent the days exploring the temples and the evenings in the local restaurant (there was only one) talking to the local people and exchanging our western belongings for local handicrafts - lacquer ware and carved wood.
We flew back to Rangoon and had time for one last treat - there was a festival down at one of the temples, complete with a unpowered nearly full-sized ferris wheel, driven by boys who scaled the structure and used their body weight to rotate it. There were performing monkeys, puppet show, and all night theatre where people came and went from the audience, sqatting on mats on the floor. When we arrived in the tent the performance stopped, and the actors welcomed us - very disconcerting! They did a very modern play about male/female roles, in Burmese, but quite understandable just from the actions. At one point one of the boys came out dressed as a woman and declared that this was the latest fashion from 'Sydney, Australia'. The entire cast and audience stopped and looked at us, laughing at the in-joke, knowing we were Australian. More traditional theatre followed, with elaborate costurmes and tales from the Ramayana. We finally staggered off at 3am, to be driven home by some boys at the gate, worried for our safety in the dark streets. No need to tell them where we were staying - they already knew.
Bangkok came as a rude shock. I checked in to one of the then famous old R&R hotels converted to a hippy hotel, but absolutely hated the city with its noise and traffic - such a contrast from my months of rural peace in Nepal and Burma. In desperation I got the receptionist at the hotel to find me the quickest way to get out of there, and was soon headed for Chiang Mai, then a small town with a smattering of hippy hotels, a few silk factories, and a base for treks into the tribal villages. I wasn't too well at the time (one of the hazards of extended travel), but managed to visit some of the tribal villages where opium poppies were still the main cash crop, and where they played incredible pipes made from gourds and bamboo. The temples in the area were also wonderful places to visit.
Back south, and I went straight through Bangkok, down to Phuket. This is another place that has changed dramatically in the last 20 years! When I visited, there was one hippy hotel with a few shacks, a thatched restaurant, and nothing else. The mask and snorkle I had carted with me all over the mountains now had good use, as I skin-dived in the coral waters. I met another Australian girl who had been offered a room in the local school teacher's house. She was reluctant to go alone, but the two of us moved over to stay with the family, allowing the teacher to practice his English. We stayed in a thatched hut on the top of a hill, in the middle of a coconut plantation. The teacher, his 9-month pregnant wife, and two children were in another hut; the shower was a well just down the hill, shared with other families. We were on a beach just north of the main Phuket settlement, with only a few fishing huts down in the palms. It was Christmas, so Jenny and I prepared the Christmas dinner for the family and invited guests - other teachers and friends of the family from Bangkok. It was totally idyllic.
Jenny and I took the train to Malaysia. I had anticipated trouble at the border; I had little money on me by this time, and no ticket home, but had sent money on ahead to a bank in Singapore and had the foresight to get a statement from them, sufficient to talk my way through immigration. We went to Penang, where Jenny met up with a local boy whose family were fishermen. They took us out on boats around the island, and took us to temples and festivals, explaining things we didn't understand.
I had a good friend in Ipoh, so left Jenny in Penang and too the bus to Thim's mother's house. We spent a few days there, with Thim showing me around, then the two of us went down to Singapore, where he worked.
I had infinite time to travel, with no deadlines to meet, and with a fresh cash injection from my bank I could have carried on, but staying with Thim was just like being home, and it was just too difficult to gird up my loins and launch into another hard travel slog through Indonesia, so I called a halt and flew back to Australia, then on to New Zealand, to rejoin Geoff.
This trip really opened my eyes to travel. Driving around in a van through Europe had done nothing for me, but travel on local transport and trekking in Asia was just wonderful. Almost my first words to Geoff were 'We have to go back', and I really meant it! Since this trip all our travel has been made in a similar fashion, no fixed route, minimal organisation, and selecting places that are culturally different from our own home - way to go!