Novels could be written and films could be produced about the epic journeys made by a generation of fragrant hippies who traveled overland from London to New Delhi by bus between the late 1960’s and mid ’70’s. I’ll contain myself to an overview of a few thousand words or so in two parts based on my personal experience of an accidental journey I took almost fourty years ago.
In the late 60’s and early ’70’s I was a ‘Dead Head’ traveling the concert circuit , sleeping in parks, hanging out in crash pads, panhandling, hitch hiking around the continent with my dog ‘Jim’ , so named after my hero Jim Morrison, and visiting trippy communes . Travel was deemed a calling back then and as everywhere was mired in global recession no one had a job, we all just sort of drifted around with no particular place to go. The fortunate ones had Moms and Dads to pay their way through university until the shit blew over, I was not one of those. After a stay on a beach commune in Maui HI., in my very early teens I had shed all connection with the real world. Poverty and aimless wandering made me what I am today, hooray for poverty and aimless wandering.
The dream of Woodstock and Isle of Wight was still fresh in our minds. The Kent State massacre and Vietnam were glaring social flash points. North American cities were war zones and places to avoid , all of our heroes were dying. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had recently passed away from substance abuse. The promise of enlightenment through drug use turned out to be a devils bargain. Guru’s like Timothy Leary and Alan Ginsberg were proving to be false prophets. The hippie days peaked to the music of a beautiful crescendo with the 1967 Summer of Love and was far behind us by the time the 1970’s had arrived. The once flower strewn street scene was turning uglier by the day as happy hippies were becoming hard core street drug addicts and all the weirdness that comes with that scene.
At the first opportunity I fled North America and headed to Europe after an invite from a friend in London to crash ‘for a while’. A popular surge in travel to Europe ‘on $5 dollars a day’ had opened opportunities for air travel discounters like the famous Ward Air to offer bucket shop low fares to Great Britain. I was near broke, I was there, that was all that was important to me at the time. There’s something inherently unique and wonderful about the mind set of a twenty year old who decides that no plans are the best plans.
My English friends were busy working at paying rent which left me lots of time to bum around the city between pints. Of course I was attracted to the travelers scene and headed straight to Earls Court. At the time this was ‘the‘ place for cheap rooms . Cafes’ and pubs were full of travelers exchanging stories, crabs and smoke. There was a famous notice board on the outside wall of a laundromat mid block up from the Earls Court tube station for people with return tickets to sell or buy and those looking for lost acquaintances and trying to make new ones, ads for room mates, sex, idea’s etc.
At the time a majority of routards were focused on European destinations. Spain and Greece were the most popular due to the super cheap cost of living and great weather during the summer season. Colonies of hippies and others had blossomed in Majorca and Ibiza. Wine was cheap, love and sunshine were free. There was a sub set of travelers who wanted to venture further, of these there only enough to count on your fingers and toe’s.
The Beatles famous pilgrimage to India for a Himalayan meditation retreat in Rishikesh under the guidance of an ancient ascetic, Maharishi Mehesh Yogi, and pictured being surrounded by wandering troops of vermillion painted ash encrusted Sadhu’s brought the esoteric desires of a generation into focus. Those who were called onto the spiritual path and the rest of us who needed someplace cheap to go, found an open door in India and Nepal. The Beatles didn’t start the passage to India but they certainly popularized it. India was still relatively undiscovered as guide books hadn’t been invented yet.
There had always been ‘diggers’ in the hippie community, people who did things out of the goodness of their hearts to help people fulfill their needs and desires. It was into that arena that guys like ‘Eddy’ made an indelible mark on the hip culture. With an ancient diesel bus he began driving people back and forth from London to New Delhi for a pittance. A famous 60’s rock band came out with a song ‘Magic Bus’ , I’m not sure who preceded who, but I think Eddy came first, based on what I know of his time lines. As always , cheeky chaos and my own trickster angel intervened, rearranging my life without asking by orchestrating an opportunity for me to meet my fate , here’s how.
One day while I was sitting out front of the laundromat in Earls Court and watching the world go by, a freaky dude looking half junky and half Fabulous Furry Freak Brother came by and pinned up a hand drawn and coloured flyer of a psychedelic bus onto the cork board beside the door. It was ‘Eddy,’ and we got to talking. He told me he was getting ready to drive across Europe and Asia to India as soon as he could collect enough passengers. I looked at the flyer and read, ‘Magic Bus…Going to India’, followed by several lines of cryptic instructions. I said , “That sounds pretty cool man,” and told him I had no money. He offered me a discount if I could help find some passengers. Of course I agreed to go along . The trip had my name written all over it.
I scoured the coffee shops and flops where I knew travelers were hanging out to sell the idea with a wad of Eddy’s handsome flyers in hand. It took a week to find enough willing and able souls, but soon I was headed off on what would be the best trip of my life…..ever. The entire six, or was it eight, weeks on the road in a bus with twenty ‘freaks’ would burn itself into my brain in one fantastic flash bulb memory. It was so cool I didn’t count the days.
I’m sure there are those people whose lives I affected forever that remember me walking up to them ‘out of the blue’ on the street in London and asking, “Hey , you wanna go to India on a Magic Bus?” I have no recollection if Eddy and I ever talked about money again, we had a shared purpose he and I. It was all about ‘the journey’ we agreed , Eddy and I were soul mates in that regard. There was no place better to lay your head than on the road. To this day I sleep best in any form of conveyance, trains, cars, trucks, buses, mid flight, it doesn’t matter, I rock to sleep like a baby when in motion…and the dreams mon petite chou…the dreams.
Let me describe myself to you as you would have met me on the street in the early 1970’s, ankle length embroidered Afghan sheep herders coat with very smelly fur , long fuzzy frazzled hair loosely braided and sometimes enhanced with feathers, a goatish goatee, paisley Apache ceremonial shirt with coloured ribbons sewn at intervals, blown out Seafarer highwaisted jeans patched with every coloured swatch of cloth and leather square, circle and star, so wide at the bottom that my thick leather square toed side buckle Fry boots were invisible. At the time this gear was considered the height of hippy style. I cut quite the figure back then but I’m not sure I’d get anyone to follow me around the world looking like that today, or maybe I would. It’s exciting to meet people so strange that you can’t help yourself from enjoining them in conversation.
The day we were to leave I was righteously hungover from the wild send off my mates in London had thrown me at a swish townhouse in Knightsbridge. A lot of posh people from the neighborhood had come over to meet ‘the Canadian traveler’ , it felt a bit like a petting zoo and I drank too much to compensate. My friends were busy working on a little cult film called ‘Superman’ out at Shepparton Studio’s and that put them in a certain social set to which I have never become accustomed.
Venturing out the following morning after spending my last night in London with a winsome Parisian talent agent I had almost met my doom on the bumper of a speeding car when crossing the road while I was looking left instead of right on Brompton Road High Street a half block from Harrods at a time when there was only the one car and myself in the street. It felt to me as if I were an aging matador and the car an angry bull in a cosmic ring and he was charging at me on my blind side. It would have been a cruel irony that a penniless traveler like me should have been smoked in one of the richest neighborhoods in the world by the only car on the street.
The close encounter with death convinced me that I was assured a sanctioned mission by which ever God watches over hungover fools and drunken ruin-baggers. I waited in the chill of the morning with my sleepy eyed fellow travelers smoking Gauloise cigarettes and making idle chit chat. Our meeting with Eddy was scheduled for nine o’clock outside the laundromat on Earl’s Court or ‘Kangaroo Court’ as some called it because of the legions of young Aussie’s who were beginning to descend on London for work as cheap kitchen and bar staff.
We were a disparate unlikely bunch of time travelers composed of a few fresh faced newbie mendicants in college kit on stolen time from their parents care looking for their first romantic adventure alongside a dreamy band of international gypsy’s of either sex who were patched and raggedy, patchouli smelling, die hard long hair street people like myself who’d been on the hippy trail ‘forever’. It would turn out that we hippies would ‘set the tone’ of the mind baking journey by acting the fool, storytelling and altering reality so as to produce something out of nothing where nothing seemed to exist, all the things that hippies did best.
That is what I recall of that cool morning in London as Eddy’s bus, a gleaming silver giant with ‘Magic Bus Line’ painted down both sides in psychedelic script, was pulling around the corner onto Earls Court Road in ultra slow motion. I think time stood still for all twenty people standing on the sidewalk amongst the garbage and the flowers of the previous nights revelry. Everyone in their own way recognized that it was entirely possible that we stood on the precipice of an epic journey. I could see the vision quest glowing in their eyes.
One couple were on their first trip away from home. They’d been swept up in the romantic notions I’d described to them of a glorious life on the road. I held my breath as the bus came closer, someone showed up with a tray of coffee and donuts from one of the cafe’s, as if to bid farewell to our group of departing heroes who were off for a pilgrimage to the promised land. It was all I could do not to pee myself, I was that excited. OK, I may have peed a little as I danced with delight from curb to cobblestone. This wasn’t my first crusade but no drug could have made me as high as I was on the expectation of what was to come.
Eddy established himself as captain and commander. He swung the big door open with a hydraulic swoosh and decamped into the street to open the undercarriage luggage locker with a flare and a flourish that suited a swashbuckler. He was in his element. I helped him collect the money, a pittance for the distance we would travel. He was obviously not doing this for profit. He detailed the journey we would take across Europe, into Asia, across the deserts of Iran and Afghanistan and finally through Pakistan’s Khyber Pass and down into the high plains of India as we tossed our bags in to the belly of the bus and munched our jelly donuts.
“Far out man,” was all I could think of saying when I clambered up the four stairs into the bus. I repeated myself over and over again as if I were chanting a mantra. The door might as well have been a portal to another dimension because I was transported. The interior had been luxuriously decorated with the flags and banners of the hippy kingdom. Black light posters of my dead heroes plastered the ceiling like fallen stars against a silver sky, the windows were draped with multipatterned Indian cotton tapestries. It smelled as if the seats had been pressed out of incense paste. Ravi Shankar was on the sitar. OMG, it was so….groovy.
I was in deep space, this was the culmination of a lifetime dream . I had grown up with Rudyard Kipling and Marco Polo, this was the stuff that dreams were made of. I had bussed and vanned across North America with traveling freak shows many times, but this was different, this had the amazing rainbow of destiny painted all over it. Maps were out, possible alternatives floated, discussions undertaken and decisions put to a vote. I was part of a hippie democracy on wheels. On to Paris. I raised enough votes to ensure that our first stop would be Jim Morrison’s graveside in the Pere Lachaise cemetery.
Our route would take us across France from north to south and then veer due east along the Mediterranean coast . Everyone liked the idea of seeing San Tropez and Nice. Along the way we pitched in our meager savings and ‘special items’ into the communal pot. We ate , drank and made merry rolling down the humpbacked highway. At night we’d sleep beside the road, under the stars, in vine yards or the red sandy soil of fresh plowed fields. If it rained we piled atop one another inside the bus aisles to smell the earthy dirt and distant sea air wafting through the windows to mix with our own heady scent. Whenever possible we did ‘flash showers’ in village fountains and roadside streams much to the dismay of the townsmen and women . Wet and laughing we sped away naked down the highway , music blaring like a carnival ride at the summer fair. The ‘balling bench’ at the back of the bus was never unoccupied for long. Laughter filled the air like a familiar song on heavy rotation.
Southern France went by like a beautiful dream. We were traveling through the ‘Provence’ and countryside of Van Gogh. Green gold fields of wheat and oats slowly ripening were bordered with row after row of purple lavender, so thick and rich that the air had become perfume sweet a hundred miles before. These were eighteenth century rural landscapes untouched by modernity. The simple farm plots were yet to see the suburban sprawl of Marseilles that would one day encroach on these hallowed hills. No one could have known that we were time travelers from the future seeing the last of the old world as it had been since time immemorial before the onrush of modern mass tourism and the crushing blow of urban civilization. The towns of Aix en Provence and Arles were just as Vincent van Gogh had painted them, shoeless men walking behind horse drawn plows and all.
The beaches of the French Riviera were pristine natural and unsullied by commercialism. White towns and silent villages quiet , rustic cottages dotted the green hills unspoiled by chain hotels or international fast food outlets. This was long before the introduction of the Euro currency caused massive price inflation to areas of the world that had been inexpensive for two thousand years. We’re seeing the fallout of that fallacy now, but that’s another story.
I remember taking our empty wine bottles to the local cave’ and having them refilled for pennies. The French country wines were heavenly. I had grown up drinking ‘Champipple,’ a street wine mixture of seven up and cheap Ripple fruit wine from California, which in the late sixties cost about sixty cents a bottle. The producer raised the price a penny a year to match with the chronology of our insane hippy world of zero economics. In 1969 a bottle of Ripple cost sixty nine cents and so on. The rich fresh wines, crusty sweet baguettes, brilliant local cheeses and the thin sliced country meats of France had us time travelers eating like kings, certainly better than I ever had. We were the princes and princesses of the road dining on the generosity of this fantasy kingdom, gorging ourselves on free love along the way.
No Russian billionaire, African dictator or drug czar had yet built a single garish hilltop Xanadu or moored a four hundred foot mega yacht off the simple coast of fisherman and their quaint klinker built wooden dorries. Tourism was limited to the seasonal visitations from upper crust Europe. Rich Americans had only just began to discover these places after several popular movies starring David Niven , Tony Curtis, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly splashed the stunning landscapes across the big screens and popular consciousness of ‘that world’ far away. Bridget Bardot’s bust-line blew St.Tropez into the headlines as her popularity grew and eventually obscenely degraded the quality of life of the hidden village she had sought solace in after her fame had overwhelmed her.
Our fearless freak brother and ships captain Eddy had advised us that the trip would take ‘over a month’, depending on the route we took. When Eddy said ‘a month or so’ he rolled his eyes and made a show of counting his fingers so that I knew he had no idea. That was cool with me. Thirty days turned out to be conversation and a dollop of wild optimism. Every day was a fantastic voyage as far as I was concerned. The trip could have gone on forever. This old world was timeless without measure. The time honoured activities of farmers tending to the soil was painted on the bus windows like a strip of endless paper in a spinning zoetrope. There was mile after mile of undeveloped country punctuated by tiny villages jutting out of impossible rock faces and atop ragged hilltops built out of rough hewn stones hundreds and thousands of years before as protection from sea borne barbarians, wandering cut throats and errant vagabonds.
Eddy was enjoying himself by taking the most circuitous routes at whim. I think the open road was cathartic to him. He always had a smile on his face. We passed through France into the farmlands of Yugoslavia to mountainous Italy and post card Monaco through mysterious Macedonia towards Turkey. All the while a never ending party raged on inside our silver tardis. Twenty fat and sassy, not to mention slight tipsy hippies, were having the time of their lives.
Coming from North America I had never seen so much history outside a library. The picture books of my childhood had come alive. It was a constant thrill to see ancient hill forts and ruined castles dotting the landscape. I could only imagine what had transpired in these places. At every possible opportunity we got off the bus and discovered what lay about in the grass and dirt. I have always felt a connection with those who have gone before me. Walking in the ancient tracks of people who had lived thousands ago is a spiritual experience. I imagined myself as a shaman conjuring up the souls of the departed and feeding them baguettes .
I saw so many archeologically significant sites that it was like a history book had fallen open to the floor and I was running across the illustrated pages. The miles we traveled were a prevailing wind turning over each leaf for an eager reader like myself to explore. It was as if I had been transported to the ancient world of Romans, Gualles, Merovingians, Cathars and Franks. In essence, I had. We were following the route that Hannibal had taken to outflank an empire with an army of elephants. I knew that several of the towns along the coast of the Mediterranean had been established by Phoenicians and Carthaginians fleeing the tyranny of Egypt. As I had no home to send anything back to and no camera to record my experiences all I could do was to keep an occasional diary and regale my friends with my innocent knowledge. My brain was snapping pictures like crazy.
I did however have a sense of my own history and thought I must collect something for posterity. What I claimed were beer and wine labels as well as roadside flowers growing wild that I could preserve by drying, crushing flat and slipping between the pages of my note book amid my other hopes and secret dreams. To this day my recollections are still so vivid that at times I feel like I could project them through my eyes onto the wall for everyone to see. Our journey had bypassed the major cities until we arrived in Istanbul, a town straight out of the ‘Arabian Nights’ at the time. A narrow bridge over the Bosphorus Strait was all that tied Asia to Europe. We passed slowly across , almost reverentially and talked about Homer and the wine dark sea of Odysseus leading to the mythical kingdom of the Trojans, of Hector, Helen and Achilles. The architecture, both social and physical leapt out of the landscape as soon as we had crossed over to announce that we had entered a new world.
The largest edifice to dominate the skyline was the incredible ‘Blue Mosque’. In my inimitable style I was promptly thrown out for laying on the floor to look up at the ceiling and enjoy the artworks and murals painted there. Years later I would be kicked out of the Vatican for doing the same thing in the Sistine Chapel. I take great pride in having been thrown out of some of the worlds finest establishments for my irreverent behavior. I have always revered art while at the same time regarding the temporary ownership of art as irrelevant. The new religion of Turkey had done little to paint over the previous civilization and early Christian art was splashed across the cupola’s as if to deny any change of ownership and reconsecration had ever taken place. This was my first experience with Islamic art and use of the alien quasi crystal forms. I felt the incongruous effects of the design on my western psyche as soon as I had entered the city.
Once out of Europe it appeared that we had traveled back in time to a world mired in centuries past with no interest in modernity. Clothing styles were suddenly theatrical , red mud houses were fitted with comical domes, mustached men stalked the towns in gaggles and women were invisible. Only occasionally did we see the women, fleeting and as solitary as ghosts. They reminded me of footless floating wraiths, indistinct as they were covered from head to foot in gauzy sheets of faded material . I was told they were hiding themselves from the wrath of an angry desert spirit.
The further east we traveled, the fewer women we saw. They appeared like furtive ink spots rushing from shadow to darkness. Doorways magically opened as they approached and just as mysteriously slammed shut as they passed through. We had come unbidden into a land that produced only cap wearing males with bushy mustaches and mismatched suit jackets. In any town we stopped to provision, our bus was instantly surrounded by crowds of men of all ages who appeared from nowhere and stared intently upon our strangeness. The girls felt an instinctual discomfort and stayed inside behind the drapery. The people of the desert towns of Turkey were separated from modern times by an incalculable distance. Frankly, I was also feeling an instinctual discomfort. I had more hair than every man in the village put together, even throwing in the mustachio’s. Come to think of it , I hadn’t seen another hippy for several thousand miles.
The geography began to change as we approached the borderlands of Iran, then the empire of the Shaw Reza Pahlavi, the last Hashemite ruler. It was my first experience with the desert. Silent red mud villages punctuated with pointy domes popped out of the sand along the side of the highway east as if left behind by some force of erosion. I was blown away at how the sand color changed all day long from ocher red to pastel pink laced with blue shadows slipping along the shifting lips of sliding dunes under the varying intensities of sunlight and how this creeping shape shifter continued to reward the mystic heart of an ardent admirer well into the night with shades of impossibly deep purple and silver under the serious moonlight.
End of Part one…look for part two- Iran to Afghanistan