Things are different today
How often do I hear that? You've gone off on a gap year, decided to dump the job and hit the road or whatever. People have been doing that for millennia. Look at Marco Polo for instance, he discovered all kinds of things and they named a mint after him. No airplanes or Internet, just a ship (they only had sails then), the odd horse or two and off he went.
As a teenager, my father was stationed at a US Air Force base in the State of Washington. There was a chaplain there named Phil. He was okay. One evening he said to me, "When you're a bit older, pack your little ditty bag and hit the road for a while." I did and during one of my trips spent some time with him. He apologized saying maybe his suggestion wasn't such a great idea after all. My response was, "but I would never have learned what I know now, nor be able to do things I couldn't do before, had I not followed your advice".
Today we have planes that can carry us half-way around the world in less than 24 hours. Our friends and family keep in touch via Facebook, Twitter and eMail. In our pocket is a smartphone to send texts or Tweet. We have state of the art backpacks, suitcases with wheels and little handles to ease the burden plus Google to let us know where we are in conjunction with our GPS. How can anyone ever get lost? Then, of course, there's TripAdvisor, Airbnb and Hostelworld (you can book ahead nowadays). We're spoiled rotten!
What was it like?After arriving in England, where my parents had retired to, I became an IBM Mainframe Operations Specialist and Analyst. It started with Concorde development then I went pro. We got paid exceptionally well and I would do a contract, travel, contract, travel etc-etc. This is a part of one of those journeys.
In 1971, I set out for North Central Spain, to meet up with a guy I knew. I had a military backpack with a chrome-moly steel frame you could sit on or use as a base to hold up a bivvy. It had leather straps with a quick release function (saved my life they did) and held what I needed for my journey.
My hotel was a small, thin canvas, tent with no floor and it weighed about a pound and half. I slept wherever I wanted. Once in somebody's front yard in France, between a huge bush and kind of hedge. It had just got dark, I pitched the tent sort of in the bush (out of sight) and was gone by daybreakthey didn't even know I'd been there.
We had Twitter in the early 1970's (well, sort of)
In many of the places traveled, you'd often see a message board. Usually a 4x8 foot piece of plywood painted some obscure, faded color. There would be all these little pieces of paper with notes written on them, held in place by thumbtacks.
A month to Southern France(The long, hard, way)
I had stuck out my thumb and hitch-hiked to Dover. There I caught a ferry, went through France for some body surfing in Biarritz then across Northern Spain to Llanes.
France was a serious pain. I tried to learn French along the way. Each town spoke it differently and the people were so obnoxious about the way I had learned a little in the previous town that I gave up on them. One place, all I wanted to do was use the toilet and the proprietor of the bar started getting really shirty with me. He held out his pocket like he wanted me to pee in itjust to be plain old rude. So I unzipped, whipped it out and pointed. He jumped back in abject horror and directed me to the toilet. I went, then told him he could shove his ropey country and refused to speak to these people unless absolutely necessary while I headed for Spain.
En-route a nasty almost happened. I can't recall the town, but this Dutch girl wanted to latch onto me and hitch-hike together. The last thing I wanted was someone slowing me down and walked away. About 10 feet and I had this very serious "gut thing" happen. Turning around I said she could come along. About a day or so later we were walking up this long hill and the road curved to the right at the top. Out of nowhere, these two guys appear. She asked them about the next town and without engaging her small brain, started walking down this dirt road with them.
I stopped, beckoned her back, "You do realize they plan to rape and kill you. Don't you!" She dee-dahhed, "but they know where the town is." I pulled out my Michelin Map, showed her where we were, marched her to the top of the hill and there below was the town. She turned almost pure white and I finally parted with her at the point where she was headed for. A couple of years later in the press and on TV in the UK, was a story about two men and some dead bodies on their property, in that region of Franceit was those two guys who had shown up by the side of the road. I've payed attention to "gut punches" ever since.
Biarritz had a beach outside the city, where the waves were breaking around 10-12 feet. No board surfers there, so off I set. I saw the big one coming and was heading down the face of an 18 footer, when this wall of sand appears in front me, I hit it head on. Six odd years later (in the States) my neck hurt and the doctor asked when I'd fractured it. Then I remembered that sand bar. It doesn't bother me now.
After Biarritz is Irun, the border into Spain. I had walked through to the customs and everyone did their necessary bits. A train was sitting in the station and it was going all the way across to Oviedo, so I got a ticket and boarded it.
Trains in the north of Spain were a bit different then. Little steam engines pulled several carriages and I rode in Third class. Wooden bench seats and nobody spoke English. I had my Berlitz phrase book to help out. On the train were all these older women wearing black (widows I guess). I was in good shape (had to be to carry an 80lb backpack full of stuff). These dear ladies would come up, pinch my arm, reckoned I needed fattening up a little and dump all kinds of food on my lap. All I did on that 3 day journey was eat. During the ride we passed this black blot on the landscape named Bilbaoit's a lot brighter now.
Three days later I'm in Llanes to meet the friend. He had decided to get stoned out of his mind and never arrived. Only one guy spoke English and not much of it. That evening, I ascended this mountain next to the Bay of Biscay. The storms there are legendary and this one didn't ruin the reputation. The thunder was almost non stop as lightening bolts came downhitting the ground all around me. The whole place was shaking: I raised my arms, let out a primal yell, then erected my tent just as the rain started. I slept through the rest of the storm and woke up the next morning. After that: a bit of an explore, then on to Madrid and stayed with some old friends from the military for a few days, from there I aimed for the Med.
Spanish coastal towns are kinda strange, even today. Back then, just the same. Except this time a massive storm hit. What's the weather got against me? The skies opened and a torrential downpour kept going for days. Rivers burst their banks. Sewers overflowed and the entire place stunk. The water system had been compromised, cholera had broken outBarcelona was trashed.
It got worse
The railroad was washed away in parts all along the coast to France. Bridges were out and in France they didn't have rain. No, just one of the biggest bushfires in French history. It burned everything all the way to the Med. And I was heading in that direction.
Finally managed to get on a train, along with some other backpackers (we all somehow, gravitated together on the way to the station). It took us days to get to France. During that time the railroad company was repairing the track in front of the train, as it moved. We'd roll a hundred yards, they'd lay more track and the train would move another hundred yards. A whole bridge had to be built and we sat for most of a day while that happened. During which we had very little water and less to eat. Did you know a Snickers Bar can feed seven people!
At one point, the train stopped near a small town which was higher than some places we had been through. It had not been affected by the storm itself, but another bridge beyond was gone. This girl backpacker was looking at the buildings and asked, "What does Alimentación mean?"
We thought that was a very nice thing indeed and bought as much food and wine as we could carry. Sitting on the grass about 50 feet from the train, we stuffed and drank ourselves silly. We enjoyed every moment of it, for the first time in 2 1/2 days. Several hours later, the train moved again.
The French fires ahead and the storm behind, resulted in loss of many lives and a lot of damage. Fortunately it did not last very long, especially the floods. Otherwise it would have been much worse in Spain. France was bad enough.
There were hardly any customs officials left when we arrived at the French border, a day and a half after the feast. They just stamped our passports numbly, as we went through. I still wonder how many of them had lost a relative, friend or home in the fire. The air was full of the smell of death and ash. As the train progressed it was still slow. Now it was a French one as the Spanish trains were broad gauge and couldn't travel on French track. For many miles we witnessed the charred remains of houses and land. Montpellier was a very welcome site.
Guess what? Nobody knew where any of us were, from Barcelona to Montpellier, because phone and telegraph lines were either flooded or burned. No Internet back then: no cellphones, no Emailno nothing! Just some railroad employees and seven backpackers going from one disaster zone to the next. That was it.
I look back on all this now as an adventure, even though at times I didn't know if we would make it through (a bridge collapsed behind the train in France as we went over it). Afterwards I realized that it had done me good.
Did anything good ever take place?Oh yeah. There were the parties and great times in Amsterdam etc. It just seems that I got drawn the short straw on some things.
Once I was around the coast of North Africa (18 months after the above stuff), on a remote beach and the sun was setting over the Atlantic. This is probably the one event I recall most. The sky was filled, horizon to horizon, with little tiny cotton ball type clouds with flat bottoms. It was lit up with this blaze of red sunset and the light reflected from under all the clouds onto the beach, almost like spot lights. I just sat there speechless, surrounded by dancing light. It went on for over 2 hours. I felt very small and privileged.
All the parties, trips and other stuff just fade into nothingness, in comparison to that incredibly glorious sunset.
Is there a difference today?The San Fermin existed: so did Songkran, La Tomatina, Oktoberfest and a host of other parties to have fun in. The buildings and sites you go to today were there then. Rome is still Rome, Bangkok is still Bangkok and it takes almost the same amount of time to go between all the towns we visit. The same trails existed and your feet get just as tired hiking them. Ryan Air is as miserable as those old third class, wooden seats on trains pulled by steam engines that carried us around (the trains were more friendlier though). In fact, airline seats were a lot nicer in the 70's than they are today.
The only big deal now is electronic communication (in its various forms) and backpacker hostels.
Differences? No, there are no real differences today.
You never know what's going to come up on the road
or where it will lead to.....
. . . . . . . .
This post is part of a series beginning here.
Aug 31, 2017
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