Abrams on the Hippie Trail: The Short and the Long of It
Abrams on the Hippie Trail: The Short and the Long of It
Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: July 1, 2002
I’ve been collecting and reviewing hitch-hiking literature for over 5 years now. I’ve shared with you the written accounts of decade long global hitches, penniless trans-Asian and American hitches, pre-war, post-war, short and
long, the literature isn’t abundant but it’s not exactly thin on the ground either. Then there are the volumes in my library I’ve not reviewed (yet).
Over those years I’d met a good few old men who’d hitched Europe to Asia in the ‘60s or ‘70s along what was called the Hippie Trail. They forged an overland trail from Britain to Australia, collecting in noticeable numbers in decisive spots like Istanbul, Kathmandu, Goa. They left an indelible mark on Kathmandu which still has a street dedicated to their memory (Freak Street).
The era has fascinated me for a long while, but I couldn’t pin it down easily. I’d meant to interview some of these older men some time, quiz them in more detail on some of their memories, their experiences, but they always slipped through my hands somehow. Shifting priorities, my motion and theirs through space and time all denied me the chance – in theory it’s not a very difficult theme to research after all, participants are abundant and mostly still alive.
Never have I laid hands on a written account from one of these thumbers. There were not many writers among them it seems.
Steven Abrams changed that. He dropped me a line over a year ago pointing to his on-line diary. He’s been typing it for over 7 years now, from his extensive notes of the time. He was one of those hippies, thumbing from Liverpool to Australia in 1968/69 . Well he wasn’t a hippie really, not even close, more of a proper young lad with a polite streak of larrikinism I’d say, but he kept a diligent, arguably pedantic diary of the trip – quite probably because he wasn’t a hippie (or he might have spun off volumes of acid poetry instead I guess).
His diary is quite a tome, in fact an epic according to the Fiction Factor, with its roughly 140,000 words. Far too long for convenient or comfortable on-line consumption. It’s longer than your average novel, and broken into about 20 chunky rambling chapters, one for each country on the way. Steven’s trying to make it easy for us, providing PDF downloads to print, take home and read in a more convenient format than hours of bleary-eyed screen staring. Even on paper though, I’ll warn you, it’s a slog to read through.
Let’s be frank, Steven’s on a journey, into his own past, reliving, reminiscing, and opening up for us to share. He’s not writing a book, nor pretending too, and as a consequence it reads much like a diary, an overly detailed, pedantic diary at that in all its unadulterated “I did this … then I did that … then I did that … then this happened …” detail.
Don’t get me wrong though, while it’s not exactly entertainment it is an historically significant and fascinating text. It lends insights into the time that are rarely found in writing, never mind so freely and easily accessible and so detailed and vivid (soooo detailed). And while it drags on, and could do with a major trim down, in places Abrams’ prose is excellent, and his tales just outright charming and evocative. There is material here worth reading believe me, some real eye openers, some hearty laughs, some gripping adventures!
He takes god advantage of the visual element the web provides too. It is beautifully illustrated with wonderful photos all the way, and some of the most impressive route maps I’ve ever seen accompanying a road trip diary (kudos). They add an incredible spice to the work I find.
It’s being on-line though, the all too rampant art of cut and paste is an indulgence I couldn’t deny myself in the effort to distil for you, in a digestible format the highlights and lowlights of this rather incredible contribution to our (hitch-hikers’) literature! I pulled some 5000 words of quotes which far outstrips what I can share in a reasonable on-line review, so I’ll dip into the short of it here, and share the long of it another time.
Abrams set out with a friend (Louis) from Liverpool on October 3rd 1968 and arrived in Darwin Australia on April 8th 1969, having (mainly) thumbed through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and East Timor on the way - 32,717 km in 181 lifts, and some train rides, bus rides, ferry crossings and a flight in slightly more than 6 months.
Abrams (and his partner Louis), both Jewish, do little to dispel stereotypes in their approach to finances. Abrams keeps meticulous records (and good on him) - can tell us to this day they spent an average of 35 pence a day on living expenses, 44 pence a day on transport needs and 34 pence a day on duty free electronics (the tip of his book-keeping iceberg). Lou puts in his entry for miser of the decade when in Singapore they …
… decided to catch a taxi back to the hotel. We worked out that if we all got into one taxi, the fare back would work out at just 20 cents each more than the bus fare. It would also be a lot quicker, because we would need to catch two busses to get back. Lou was the only one that voted for the bus. When we all decided to use the taxi he refused to join in with us, so we all left him there and we caught the taxi … (Lou paid .60 for bus saving 20 cents - 3 pence by Abrams’ reckoning of the day).
One of the most striking features of the trip is just how populated the overland track was with backpackers and other travellers on the Europe-Australia route. They are constantly crossing paths with same travellers on the route, in one hostel or another – very reminiscent of the modern backpacking experience:
Louis has spent the day finding out where everything was and had found that the "in" place for backpackers to eat was the Camp Hotel. The place was heaving; I hadn't met so many backpackers in one place before, including Judy, Suzanne and Stephen who had broken away from the Sundowners tour.
They even cross paths with a London to Sydney road race (an amazing idea reminoiscent of the Wacky Races of which I can find no other trace on-line)!
Later in the month was the road race from London to Sydney passing through Afghanistan the same route as we were travelling. During the day we saw the occasional rally cars going the other way heading back to London ready for the start after having practised for their forthcoming race.
Abrams spins some wonderful prose along the way. A few short examples from India, one of the more slapstick countries on the route:
A taxi ride in India can at the same time be one of the most thrilling and terrifying rides of your life. At least twice per minute you will be convinced that you are staring death in the face. Your driver has just pulled out into the oncoming traffic at the same time as a vehicle going the other way has just done the same thus blocking off your escape route. At the last moment everything seems to move out of the way and it is time to head for the next crisis. Drivers seem to know their clearance to within half of a coat of paint and anybody considering starting a dodgem car ride in India would be doomed to financial failure, as people would find it too much like real life to be bothered to go on them.
As the train was slowing down on the approach to Vishakhapatnam everybody seemed to come to life. Somebody shouted something out and suddenly people were jumping down from the roof of the moving train. Passengers were throwing luggage out of the window and climbing out after it. All hell seemed to be breaking loose. Everybody was shouting in their own language and I was beginning to think that maybe I should also be considering abandoning train. The only reason I didn't was because some other people were sitting it out and seemed to be laughing themselves silly. When the train finally pulled into the station the reason became obvious. The platform was lined with ticket inspectors. It was a raid. I have already said that most passengers in India don't bother to buy a ticket. These were the ones that had jumped off. The train now seemed quite empty as the inspectors moved through the carriages checking the tickets of the remaining passengers. They did remove a few protesting people who were either deaf, blind, or too infirm to jump from a moving train. Afterwards, as the train pulled out of the station to continue the journey, it slowed down briefly to allow all the evacuees to climb back on. Having walked around the station they were waiting en mass at the trackside to re-board.
Madras post restante was my first mail collection point since Bombay and I was looking forward to hearing some news from home. It was quite a disappointment when as soon as I handed over my passport the post restante official told me that there was no mail for me. I asked him how he knew without first looking in the A box. He replied that there was nothing at all in the A box, nor for that matter in the S (for Steven) box. I leaned over the counter to have a look and saw that there was hardly any mail at all in any of the boxes in the foreign mail section except for one box, which seemed to be overloaded. I asked what box that was and was told it was the M box. Nearly all the mail was for people with a surname beginning M, which I found hard to believe. I persuaded him to let me look through some of the M mail, only to find that anything addressed to Mr. Mrs. Miss Mme. Mlle, etc had been put in M box. That meant that more than 90% of the letters were totally wrongly allocated. I pointed this error out to him and fortunately he accepted my explanation. We spent the next half-hour or more sorting out the foreign mail into the correct boxes. Apart from all the mail in the M box, there was also another box full under the counter. Lo and behold, when we had finished there were three letters for me, which made all the effort worthwhile.
Good reading I thought. But to be fair, I’d have to confess the bulk of this text isn’t quite so palatable, interesting or entertaining. You’ll find gems like those nestled in among pages of detail like this:
The next day we all decided to go into KL to have a look around. The Youth Hostel was on the Ipoh Road a good few miles out of the centre and Doug had agreed to give us a lift. At first we thought we had missed them, but when we went to the cafe next door to have some breakfast we found them all having their breakfasts. After breakfast we all piled into the van, except for Yvonne who wanted to stay behind and have a rest. On the way Doug stopped to buy a new tyre to replace one that had almost worn out. It cost him M including the inner tube. We then visited the art gallery where Doug and Louis seemed to be enjoying themselves. Don and I were not too fussy on art galleries and we managed to prise the other two away. We then went on to the Parliament buildings and the National Monument. We then had an ice cream together then Doug and Don returned to the hostel to collect Yvonne. They gave us a lift through KL and on the way we passed a large Mosque where Louis decided to get out to have a look around. I carried on until we reached the post office where I bought some postcards of the festival to send home. The others were setting out to drive to Singapore that afternoon, so I said goodbye to them. We had been given an address in Singapore where all the backpackers stayed and I passed it on to them and arranged to meet up sometime.
As if we care? And if dismal detail on daily itineraries is not enough to numb your mind, you’ll find plenty of people mentioned once in passing, as you would in fact record in your diary), kind of like this:
Roger's friend, Ted arrived from Surabaya. He became very friendly with Danny and in the end they went off to travel together for the rest of the way to Australia. Also staying at the Kesuma was a Dutch girl called Jose. She had worked for a British travel company as a holiday rep before travelling East. Even though she was Dutch, she spoke English with a delightful Irish accent. There was a Londoner called John and an Indonesian called Loleks and the whole group of became best of friends during the time we spent in Bali.
None of these people play any further role or earlier role in the tale. They’re just there. Hi John, Loleks, Jose, Danny and Roger … nice knowing you.
There is a smile to be won in Abrams’ sexual prudishness:
As I went to shut the door I was met in the doorway by a very scantily clad Thai girl who grabbed me, and much to Louis' amusement she then pushed me down onto the bed and … (that part is censored). [Thailand]
Contrasted with his frank toilet tales:
My stomach was not completely better and although I felt better, I had still been almost caught short a number of times. Back at the hotel I took the opportunity to wash and change and also to wash my now quite dirty underpants. [India]
Though I’ll grant, a budget trip through the Indian sub-continent erodes most anyone prudishness regarding toilet even today!
There is much more to this diary. In sharing some of its banalities along with its highlights I hope to have done it justice. It is a significant and worthwhile piece, though granted not much of a read, perhaps more suited to someone researching the era, or with strong personal experiences in common with the tale.
That then is, the (longish) short of it. I’ll walk you through the highlights I’ve extracted another time, and that will be the (shortish) long of it I guess (some 6000 words to come). In the mean time, a heartfelt thank you to Steven Abrm for taking the time and energy to share this experience with us!