the incredibly shrinking world

I first travelled to Asia, from Britain, in 1973. I hitch-hiked across Europe, then took a ferry, trains and buses to Nepal. It was a long way.

One miserable January afternoon, my mum dropped me off at the top of Blackheath Hill to hitch to Dover and catch the ferry to Ostend in Belgium. I told her I would keep going as long as the money (a meagre hundred pounds or so) lasted, not wanting to admit my secret wish to trek in the Himalayas. (Having recently – in one case, just four days ago – gone through similar farewells as my own two children set off on similar rites-of-passage journeys, I now have a keener appreciation of what her feelings must have been at that time. Poor mum!) It was a grey day with a fine drizzle and cars driving with headlights in the afternoon. I carried a small backpack.

Early the next morning, I walked through a deserted Ostend and slept in a field. The next night was luxury, courtesy of a compassionate Belgian-Canadian couple who for their weekend were heading to the Black Forest in southern Germany; they took me along and put me up in the same hotel they were staying at. The following morning, they drove me onwards for a couple of hours before dropping me off, turning around and heading back to Brussels for another work week. Sunday night was wet with my sleeping bag absorbing moisture from the snow somewhere in Austria. On Monday evening, I was admitted to Italy without ceremony, walked through a long tunnel and crawled into my soaking sleeping back under a crisp starlit sky and woke with numb legs. A series of rides from maniacal testostorone-fuelled Italian males (there’s some tautology here; perhaps ‘Italian’ is sufficient) brought me south to some town whose name I cannot remember but which offered shelter in the form of a house under reconstruction – the owners were initially nonplussed to find me asleep in their front room – which opened on to the main street through town, was missing glass in the window openings and easily accessible – when they came by in the morning to monitor renovation progress. The following night I slept on the ferry from Brindisi, in southern Italy, to Athens.

Crossing the Adriatic from Brindisi to Athens in 1973

I hadn’t wanted to change money for each country I passed through so I was pretty hungry, thirsty and rundown, and was turned away when I tried to sell blood in Athens. (Ten days recuperating in the sunshine on the Greek island of Crete must have done some good, though, because I had no trouble selling blood on my return to Athens.) Then it was Asia, with a forty hour train trip across Turkey to Ernakulum in the east, small pickup trucks to the Iranian border, buses to Tehran and the a train across the exceptionally inhospitable Great Salt Desert and Meshed close to the Afghani border.

Herat, Afghanistan, 1973

Afghanistan took, by choice, one month with about a week in of Herat, Kandahar and Kabul before going through the Khyber Pass, and into Pakistani border town of Peshawar.

Back on trains; across to Lahore in time to cross into India for the one day a week the border was open at that time (India and Pakistan had been at war two years before); an exhilarating day at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and an equally memorable night train (I spent the first few hours hanging on the outside of the impossibly crowded third-class carriage before I could squeeze myself aboard) to Agra and the Taj Mahal; through Benares (Varanasi) to the Indian-Nepali border and a mosquito-infested hotel room; a final day on top of a truck, sitting on the load swaying over the hairpin bends over precipitous ravines bearing grim evidence of previous less fortunate traffic, into Kathmanu Valley. Ten weeks.

The return trip was equally complicated: robbery, destitution, an opium dealer, police bribery, immigrant-smuggling, planned murder, a fair-haired Swiss angel and malaria. But that story is for another day.

That was forty years ago. The journey to Asia was far from trivial, air travel was not as accessible as it is today. Even communication between Asia and Europe or America was difficult: phones calls expensive and prone to interruption or disconnection, hard to arrange. Telegrams of a few words, and charged by the word, were for emergencies only. Aerogrammes (air mail letters written on special prepaid light paper) were the most practical way to communicate with ‘back home’ and they weren’t particularly speedy.

Now, life is very different. Asia is ten hours away, not ten weeks. Many travellers carry laptop computers. Most (in Thailand, at any rate) have cell phones and can call or text friends and family anywhere and easily. Instant communication is the norm. Hotels and restaurants have wireless Internet connections.

This evening I sat under a fan in my room and video-chatted with my wife at home in Canada. Saw her smile. Watched her eat breakfast on the other side of the world. Amazing.

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