I was born to wander, it’s in my bones. This calling took me at a young age. They built a highway through the forest near my childhood home in rural British Columbia. I watched the big machines tearing apart the cowboy forts and voyageur trails that had been the fantasy world of our tightly knit neighborhood society of boys . The cut was so wide and deep I thought they were building another Panama Canal and ships would soon be rushing through my forest to connect with the mighty Fraser river . That great river in the valley and the railway tracks that drew their lifeblood from the water were the only superhighways I had ever known.
How could I know that it was the Trans Canada Highway that was under construction to connect Vancouver to the rest of the country and for the first time it would be possible to drive across the country in a straight line? I sat on the high berm left on my side of the construction site and watched with an increasing state of fascination as the work progressed. Next a bridge was assembled to straddle the river and suddenly the crews had moved on leaving an unblemished strip of black asphalt where the tree’s used to be.
It seemed senseless and impossible to leave that perfect strip alone so we dragged our bicycles down the embankment and made like we were racing towards the city we knew lay in the distance. The bravest of us clambered up the catwalks of the vacant bridge and entered the hollow steel beams of the supporting span to conquer that broad arch. We could pass over the entire length of the span to the opposite bank of the river without once setting foot on the deck below. Now that I think of it, I was being inextricably coaxed farther and farther away from my home as if I was being groomed by a force of nature. It was too easy to draw the distance towards me and I felt empowered.
One day I was swept away by a vagrant wind as if i were a dust tangle caught in a thermal vortex. I was somehow deposited on the side of that highway and the rest of my life would be written on the mile markers as I passed them by. My first experiences with travel was as a hitch hiker, I traveled from coast to coast and back just to watch the miles roll by, east coast , west coast it was all mine. At that time there was no sense of time or distance because I had no destination and nothing calling me to return. I would go wherever the road took me. Being ‘on the road’ was a state reserved for a very special kind of person.
This was a time long before mass tourism and guidebooks had been invented. This was a time when travel was a calling in the aftermath of a disenchanted generation.The children of the fifties were hitting the road in the sixties when hope and any prospect of a better life had all but disappeared. We sought freedom and the highway offered up a fantasy that cost nothing in a time of great recession. Young people traveling began as a state of mind that became a movement that mattered. Traveling was a statement. The culture of hitch hiking became to resemble a wandering tribe across the country. In 1968 there were masses of young people hitch hiking across Canada following rock shows, weather, good times, rumours of drugs and open communes where a weary traveler could rest. There were very few who ventured out into the world.
An enterprising couple named Tony and Maureen Wheeler invented the guidebook. They penned the first Lonely Planet, although it wasn’t called that at first. Across Asia on a Shoestring was written while Tony was on the road across Europe and Turkey. The diligent routards of the time used to write a trip log in dog eared diaries and pass the information back and forth among each other as they met in cafe’s and bus stops along the road. I still have one of my originals. Tony figured out how to make a buck, too bad for the rest of us. Prior to the ‘Across Asia on a Shoestring’ which nobody noticed and the subsequent follow up South East Asia on a Shoestring in 1973 which everyone noticed there was no youth tourism market to speak of apart from the purists, the travelers.
Rumour has it that Tony and Maureen were putting the final touches on SE Asia on a Shoestring while staying at the Malaysia Hotel on Rama IV Road in Bangkok. The Malaysia was custom built for the American GI rest and recuperation traffic while the Vietnam war was still in progress. The hotel was the only inexpensive tourist hotel in Bangkok with a swimming pool at the time, imagine that, no guest houses or cheap hotels in Bangkok. I couldn’t afford it, I stayed at a flop down by the railway station, much cooler, but I’ll tell that story in a later installment.
The Sri Hualompong near the train station had beds for tourists in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. It was designed to take in people who were waiting for a train north to Chiang Mai or south to Hat Yai. Whether you liked soldiers or not, if you were in Bangkok and wanted a dip in the pool, the Malaysia was the only place in town . It was always filled with creepy agents of the CIA variety and other strange characters. But once in a while we travelers would recognize one another in the bar and get together to swap stories. No matter where you were staying, the Malaysia was the place to meet the other perhaps six travelers in Bangkok at any given time.
The Wheelers invented mass youth tourism in Asia. I am not sure if their efforts have improved the world, it’s a matter of opinion. When Tony and Maureen would have been staying at the Malaysia in the early 70’s I was also in Bangkok doing my thing. If I had known what effect the Wheelers would have on my world I would have politely asked them to stop and reconsider, they might have if they realized the effect on the cool factor of traveling their work would have. If I had a time machine, this is the first program I would initiate.
The world as I knew it fell apart when tens of thousands of backpackers began descending on the ancient temples and islands I thought were a precious heaven on Earth. On the other hand, globalization and the tourist industry has lifted millions of people out of poverty in Asia and the third world generally. It would be selfish to the extreme to wish that the peoples of Asia didn’t deserve a better life in order to keep the secret world of the traveler….secret. I am speaking from the perspective of a romantic. Oh, the world was such a beautiful place back then without the tourist business and disco beat.
I want to remember Asia the way it was until the late 70’s when the tourism business became mainstream. I want to remember when places like Thailand and Bali had pristine beaches and moved to the unhurried rhythm of ancient cultures wending their way across time. There was a time when you could swim in the sea offshore of Phuket and Kuta. My first house in Goa cost me .16 cents a day. A fisherman had to move his family into a lean-to to accommodate me. There was no restaurants, only fishermen baking fresh caught fish in the sand.There were no roads only trails leading to the beach. No condo’s along a beach front strip mall, can you imagine?
There was a time when there no tour buses blowing blue diesel up the Monkey Forest Road in Ubud, it was still an intensely spiritual place. Even the monkeys seem to have lost their gentle nature now. I was mugged for a chip bag not too long ago and the bugger who nipped me was no stranger to bad vibes. I had to sleep in the sand when I discovered Phukets Kata Beach uninhabited. It had been a long walk through the jungle to find it. I had to carry my own food and water, but those stars at night…ooooo la la.
Places like Cabo San Lucas was for Mexican fishermen who let me sleep on the floor of a cantina in the days before Sammy Haggar and a million burning tourists moved in. Puerto Escondido was know only to the usually close mouthed surfers and a few others like me who were ‘in on it’. I traveled in a different time from those who come to Khao San Road looking for an ‘experience’. Is the world a better place because it’s easy to get to? That depends on who you talk to.
Look for Installment two of ‘the time traveler’ coming soon.
© 2011 J West Hardin aka Wayne Olson- Poet, Novelist, Travel Writer, Travel Blogger, You Tuber, contributor ‘hackwriters’, Columnist for ‘The Travel Itch’ magazine