Abrams on the Hippie Trail: A Wander Through the Prose (The Long of It)
Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: August 1, 2002
Last month I shared a summary review of Steven Abrams’ untitled diary recording his overland trip from England to Australia in the late 1960’s. I promised then to share a summary of its highlights, and that then is what I’d like to offer this month – an annotated walk through the best and worst of Abram’s prose. Put simply, I hope to offer you much, perhaps most, of what this diary has to offer! Let’s take a stroll …
A healthy summary is very worthwhile.
Abrams spent three years travelling alltold, his partner Louis 10. They began on the 2rd of Cotober in 1968, Abrams was 22 years old. This diary records the first 6 months and 5 days of Abrams’ travels, being how long it took him to reach Darwin from Liverpool. They traversed countries as follows: Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, India, Burma,Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, Australia. Abrams travelled 32, 717 km, hitched 181 lifts, and spent £235 in the process. It has taken him 7 years thus far to produce the on-line diary from his written notes!
He blitzed through Europe in a mad rush, reaching Turkey just one week and 21 lifts into the trip. The real story begins in Asia.
In Iran they encountered an admanat skepticism regarding their chances of hitching the distance from one of the many people they met driving it!
The bus driver was an Australian who called himself Bluey. He had driven the route from London to Delhi and back at least half a dozen times before, being one of a number of tour bus operators travelling the route at that time. He expressed his surprise "that we had got this f...... far by hitch hiking and frankly didn't give a s... for our chances of getting to India in a month of f...... Sundays". (That was the clean version.) He told us that "we didn't stand a chance of getting over the Iran/Afghanistan border. The only vehicles that passed that way were tourist buses like his or oil tankers, and he wouldn't give us a lift. The oil tankers would charge us US$10 just for a ride on top of the tank." His best advice was to give up while we were ahead.
In Afghanistan, 1 month after leaving England:
Having finished all the cheese we brought from England we tried to find some more.
In Pakistan Abrams neatly summarises how wrong Bluey was:
We then got a series of short lifts, first one was in the back of a Dodge pick up truck, then in a lorry to Taxilla where we bought a large bag of tangerines to eat on the way. Next we got a lift on top of a truck load of cement bags, and after a half hour wait while very few vehicles went past, we got a lift to Haripur. While waiting for our next lift a local person bought us some tea and biscuits… After tea we got a lift in an army jeep belonging to the medical corps …
In India they finally abandon their thumbs for a while:
Hitch hiking was all well and good, but in India the traffic moves so slowly in the countryside that it would take forever to cover the large distances involved. For the first time since leaving England we abandoned our prime method of transport and moved onto the public transport system.
And of course encounter the inevitable toilet dramas, sharing them in perhaps unwanted detail:
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 oportunity to wash and change and also to wash my now quite dirty underpants.
Driving in India was wildly entertaining:
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.
and even the cyclists were good for rides:
I started to walk to the park and jokingly tried to hitch hike from some passing cyclists. Much to my surprise, one of them stopped for me and gave me a lift to the park on the back of his cycle. We didn't go straight to the park, but the cyclist rode all around the town pointing out all the places of interest.
In Nepal we see the reality beginnings of the tourism and backpacking boom in ernest:
That evening I felt a bit better and we decided to go out to eat. 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. The food was great too. It was the first time I had managed to have steak and chips since we left England. One of the main features of the Camp Hotel was the chillum (a funnel shaped pipe filled with hashish) that was passed around compliments of the management. Although Louis and I passed the chillum on when it came to us we overlooked the fact that the fumes were in the air and within a short time I was stoned. It all helped me to feel a lot better and to forget the flu that I was now starting to shake off. Considering how ill I felt that morning, the day ended very well. I was still feeling ill but the effects of the evening made me feel a lot better.
and Abrams demonstrates some peculiar English precosciousness:
The pies were really delicious and were probably big enough to have each fed a family, though the pastry was a bit of a funny colour mainly due to the local flour not being the pure white that we are used to in England.
Back in India, a most amazing form of environmentalism:
The hot drinks were sold in clay cups that slowly dissolved in the liquid if you didn't drink it quickly enough. The taste of the drink also changed with every mouthful as more and more of the cup got dissolved. This also meant that like French wines that change their flavour according to the type of soil that the grapes grow in, the tea at every station has a unique tast according to the type of clay that the cups were made from. When you finished the drink you just threw the cup out of the window and as it disintegrated it would become part of the track. When the monsoon came the clay would be washed back into the holes that it had originally been dug from, only to be recycled again the following season.
After an extended hjourney on public transport when they took to their thumbs again the experience wasn’t quite what they expected:
It was nice to be hitch hiking again and it was not long before we were given a lift in a jeep. The driver bought us both a Coca Cola when he stopped in a small village and eventually dropped us about 25 miles up the road. After waiting about an hour we were picked up by a lorry and climbed into the back where there were a number of passengers already. There was a woman in the back who started to shout and create [sic]. It seems that she objected to our company and so the driver stopped again and made us get off.
and their luck stayed a little low alas:
The driver probably was probably not able to judge his peculiar clearance and his rear wheels went straight over Louis' luggage that also had his combat jacket lying on top of it. It bent the frame, burst open the suitcase and broke the bottles of medicine that he had in his jacket pocket. (Louis suffered from a fungal infection on his hand which he needed to paint on some medicine each morning to control it). We managed to get the registration number of the lorry, but we had no way of being able to report it.
But it wasn’t all bad, hitching still had its advantages:
I could have caught a train from Marmagoa in Goa, but I didn't have a timetable and decided that it was quicker to hitch out of the state and catch a train on the main line.
Abrams was perhaps the antithesis of Jamie Salazar and this was the pinacle of his self-reported lascivious behaviour:
The journey was long and boring, the truck rarely exceeding 25 MPH. It was an unseasonably cold day and we were both freezing cold. I had to unpack a pullover and lend my combat jacket to Monica to keep her warm. It was a good opportunity to snuggle together.
I had to laugh out loud at this episode:
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.
And while Abrams was far fonder of sobriety than debauchery, he wasn’t always on the moral high ground:
Prohibition was in force in a lot of Indian states, and Madras was one such "dry" state. In most of these states it was possible for foreigners to register as alcoholics and receive a permit to buy up to two bottles of liquor per day from specially licensed shops. The Government of India Tourist Office issued the liquor permits, which was my next call. In exchange for one passport photograph I was declared an alcoholic and received my permit. I had been given the address of a shop near the YMCA where the owner would pay to use my permit, which is where I went to straight from the tourist office. The shop owner took me to the liquor shop and bought two bottles of whiskey on my permit, for which he paid me 16 rupees.
He indulged I his fair share of unashamed fare evasion as well, but wasn’t by any means alone:
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.
India was by far the most entertaining country he recorded, with such a wealth of humerous anecdote, but it presented it’s bizarrely macabre side as well:
Occasionally I would see somebody who I thought was asleep with their blanket pulled up over their heads and tucked in tight, with a begging bowl beside them. I often wondered how they managed to tuck themselves in so well before going to sleep, but dismissed any further thought because India is a truly wondrous country and people do many strange things. What I hadn't realised was that these were street people who had died. They were wrapped up and a bowl place beside them to collect for their cremation. One of these had appeared outside the hotel the day before and this lorry had come to collect him. Two of the men from the lorry lifted the body into the back while the driver collected the begging bowl. At this moment somebody ran down the street and snatched the bowl with the collected money out of the driver's hands, then ran away. The three men from the lorry got into a huddle to discuss what to do. They then climbed into the back of the lorry and lifted the body down again. Another bowl was place beside him and the lorry drove off. At this moment Fred came running out of the hotel and chased the lorry down the street. Because there are people teeming all over the road, traffic moves very slowly in the side roads and he was able to catch them up without too much difficulty. He then had a heated discussion with them. He was concerned that if the body were left much longer in the heat of the day it would start to smell. Eventually a price was agreed so Fred paid for the cremation and the lorry came back to collect the body again.
In Burma he overestimates perhaps his own uniqueness somewhat (a rather surprising contrast to the Nepali crowds):
We also realised that because tourism to Burma was not possible at that time, the group of us who had arrived on that flight were probably the only tourists in the country, even thought were only on a 24 hour transit visa.
and in Thailand we get another prudish hint of suprising sexuality:
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).
along with an open confession to loose fiscal morals:
Mike informed us that the conductors didn't expect foreigners to pay on the Bangkok busses and just to prove it, we followed his example and didn't pay. When the conductor came around to collect the fare we just ignored him and he went away without asking a second time. We found that this method worked on all busses in Bangkok and from that point on we became bus fare dodgers.
An amazing tale of contrasts from one ride to the next:
The next morning we managed to be out packed and breakfasted before 8 am. We caught the 29 bus and went right to the end of the route, which is about two kilometres past the airport. We had been told that hitching in Thailand was pretty good and within 20 minutes we had our first lift in an old bus that trundled along at a breakneck speed of 20 kph. I don't know where the driver was headed, but wherever it was it was going to take him a long time to get there. After half-an-hour and less than ten kilometres later we decided to get off. We thanked the driver and watched the bus slowly disappear in a cloud of its own exhaust fumes, then started hitching again. The next ride was a complete contrast. The driver drove as if he was being chased. He passed things on the right and the left, overtook on bends and generally did all sorts of things to try to scare the living daylights out of us - and he was succeeding. He eventually turned off just after a police check post and we got out, thankful to still be in one piece. The police took the opportunity to check our passports. One of them spoke a bit of English and took the opportunity to get some free conversation practice with us. He eventually fixed us up with a ride in a Shell petrol tanker to a town called Khok Chik. We tried to get a free map from the tanker driver, but he didn't have any with him, his own map was in a worse state than ours.
and even the taxi passengers in Thailand have a heart:
The next lift was in a taxi to Konkaen. The passenger had seen us hitching and asked the driver to stop for us.
In Laos one of those observations unique to roadside waits:
There was also the armoured tank like crawling insect that started to make its way across the road. It looked like a large beetle and was about an inch and a half long. We both watched it with interest as it zig-zagged its way towards us. When it was half way over, a car came past and one of the wheels went right over it. We thought that would be the end of it and after the car had gone we expected to see squashed beetle on the road, but it was still walking along as though nothing had happened. When it got near to us we both tried stamping on it just to see if it really was as tough as it appeared, but it completely ignored us and just carried on unperturbed by us both to stamping and jumping on it and eventually it disappeared into the undergrowth.
and in Cambodia (Kampuchea) we see narcisism we’d expect in a p[erverese fairy tale:
The first stop was the Prince Norodom Sihanouk museum. We had thought that it was going to be an ordinary museum that the Prince had given his name to, but we were wrong. The museum was in fact all about the Crown Prince. Every exhibit in the museum was about him and his life. All his cast off clothes were on display, letters he had received from other heads of state, even his old school reports. At that time the people of Cambodia loved Noredom Sihanouk just as much as he loved himself and everybody used to wear a badge with his picture on it. He used to broadcast on the radio every day for hours on end and even formed a film company so he could make movies in which he was the star. He had recently organised the Phnom Penh "international" film festival in which most of the entries were Sihanouk's own films.
Back in Thailand I laughed out loud again at Abrams’ comic adventures:
On the way back to the hotel the strap came away on my new sandals, so I diverted back to the shoe shop while Louis went back on his own. At the shoe shop the assistant looked at the sandals and took them into the back. When he returned he had repaired them for me. I wasn't happy but as he didn't speak any English and I couldn't make myself understood, I decided to give them a try. But the repair didn't last more than 50 yards when the strap came apart again. I took them back to the shop again, but the assistant just shrugged. A customer who spoke English explained that they shop were not prepared to do anything about it, but I refused to leave until they did, so the manager called the police. The policeman who arrived didn't speak any English either and after a short time he left again without taking any action. The manager took me around the corner to a shop where somebody spoke English and they explained that in Thai law, the shopkeeper was not required to offer any form of guarantee. If the shoes fell apart it was just hard luck. Despite this explanation, I then went back to the shop to try to insist on a refund. I did a lot of shouting and kicked out at a shelf full of shoes. My good sandal then flew off my foot and sailed over the display knocking a box of shoes down from a top shelf. We then watched horrified as a domino effect started. The falling box knocked something else, which in turn knocked something else. Within seconds the whole display had collapsed in a heap and there were shoes everywhere. A lot of the boxes had opened spilling out their contents, so all the pairs were mixed up. At that point I decided it would be prudent to leave, fast. I dropped the broken sandal and ran out of the shop barefoot. A woman ran out of the office and stood in my way but I was able to push past her and she followed me into the street screaming hysterically after me as I ran away. I didn't stop running until I reached the TSG and for the next hour I watched the door anxiously in case I had been identified and the police came to get me.
In Malaysia something I never learned while there:
We then watched a pineapple seller preparing a pineapple, and after buying a slice each, he allowed me to cut one up while he gave me instructions on how to cut out the pits and make the nice pattern that is customary. If I didn't learn anything else from my travels, the one thing I am still able to do to this day is slice pineapples, and now whenever we have a pineapple at home, I am always the one that has to slice it up.
and the kind of ritual I’ve only seen on Ripley’s Believe it or Not:
There were men who were obviously in a trance. They all had at least one short spear stuck through the side of their faces. The spears pierced the side of their mouth, would pass through the tongue and out of the other side of their face. Some even had another smaller spear run vertically through their protruding lips and tongue. Their bodies were decorated and they carried what appeared to be a sort of shrine which was usually attached to their neck, shoulders and upper torso by more spikes that had been driven into the skin. Despite all the mutilation, there was no sign of any blood at all. The participants were all in a trance and seemed to be doing some sort of dance as they headed for the steps ready to climb the 272 steps to the top. They all seemed exhausted at this point, but most of them made it to the top. The odd few that collapsed were put on stretchers and carried up to the cave. Once in the cave they made their way to the back where the priests would remove all the spears. As we climbed the steps we would see some of the participants coming back down carrying all their spears and their costumes. Despite having had so many things stuck into and through them, none of them seemed to have any marks on them afterwards.
Singapore presented an interesting obstacle to thumbers:
As we presented our passports, the first thing he said was "you are hitch-hikers?" We were not too sure if this was a statement or a question, but his tone of voice left us in no doubt that he didn't like the looks of us. Statement or question, whichever, it was nonetheless difficult to deny and we had to answer yes. We were then asked to get out of the vehicle and bring our bags into the office where were given a thorough grilling by the immigration officer while at the same time a customs officer went through our luggage. Where had we come from and where were we going, occupation, age, parents names, etc. It was painfully obvious that they were trying very hard to find a reason not to let us in. It soon became obvious that hitch-hiking was not approved of in Singapore because passing cars would sound their horns at us and drivers as well as passengers would shake their arms in disapproval. So when a bus eventually came along we decided to get on.
A very decent stab at hydro-hitching in Singapore:
Bright and early next morning we called for Doug and Yvonne and the four of us went down to Clifford Pier to hire a sampan. We negotiated a price of S$5 between us for a morning. The boatman rowed us around the harbour and we called at every Indonesian registered ship that was anchored there. There was the odd one that wouldn't let us come on board, but most of them invited us aboard, sat us down and gave us a drink (usually coffee). The captains were always polite, but they always referred us to their agents in Singapore, and gave us either the address or the phone number, which we noted down for later. By the time we came ashore again, we had a long list of agents to visit or phone. We split the list between us. Louis and I took one half, while Doug and Yvonne took the rest, then we set off to visit them all. A lot of them were in the shop houses in Boat Quay and Clark Quay, and we went from agent to agent only to be told the same thing by each one of them, that they were not able to take any passengers. By mid afternoon when we met up with Doug & Yvonne we were feeling quite low. The expensive plane journey was looking more and more likely. The tourist office allowed us to use their phone to call those we didn't have addresses for, but by this time we had got to expect the negative answer, which was just the same from each one.
and they offload a most stunningly useless piece of equipment:
We had carried a blackboard with us all the way up to now, but since leaving Europe the only time we had used it was to block up a hole in the window in Kabul, so we decided to abandon it in the room.
It’s hard to fathom just how unusual his diet was, consider these strange values on the way to Brunei (on the ferry):
The food served was awful. There was a menu on the wall saying exactly what we would be receiving for each meal and the whole thing looked awful. We were getting the same food as the first class passengers and they agreed with us that it was not at all appetising. Fortunately we had anticipated this and had brought some bread, peanut butter and jam on board with us, enough for the four of us to last out the voyage. It wasn't much but it was a lot better than what we were being given.
A truly amazing overland hike through Borneo, the likes of which I’d not seen in a thumbers tale since Kurt Schumacher’s Panama crossing, left them in the hands of some interesting guides and guardians:
It was only once the traders had gone the immigration officer explained to us that he had only made up the bit about the permit because he didn't want us to go with those particular traders. He went on to explain that they were non-too savoury characters and there was a strong probability that once we were well into the jungle they would have robbed us and left us behind. We were welcome to stay at the border station until they found some more reliable traders that they knew and could trust. Hearing that we all felt a lot happier and thanked them very much and accepted their generous offer to stay with them until a more suitable guide could be found. We slept on the floor at the customs post that night and although some traders did go through early the next morning, the immigration officer still wouldn't let us go with them. As traders only go through in the morning, but lunchtime it became obvious that we would have to spend another night here. Lou and I decided to walk back to the last village about a mile away to buy some food and general supplies for the journey as well as to eat while we stayed at the customs post. We bought a number of cans of mackerel that were quite cheap and later proved to be delicious. I also bought a lacquered paper umbrella for M$1.20.
And thus far I hadn’t encountered anyone besides myself ad my friend Sook Wai who’d traipse through tropical jungles with only an umbrella for shelter:
It rained on and off all day which didn't help things very much but we plodded along, however the lacquered umbrella came in useful to keep me a dry. Louis had packed his umbrella and as we didn't have time to stop and unpack it, he just got wetter and wetter as the day went on.
The Indonesian police proved very helpful, quite a contrast to contemporary U.S. reports:
The driver dropped us at a police station and the police flagged down a car and arranged a lift for us to Tjirebon.
But Abrams confesses no moral qualms indulging in the outrageous hospitality of his impoverished hosts:
This was starting to become embarrassing. People in Tjirebon didn't seem to want to take any money from foreigners at all, what a great place.
In a classic case of being in the right place at the right time, they experience the birth of the Inodnesian Youth Hostel movement:
There wasn't really any such thing as the Indonesian Youth Hostel Association at the time, but Nan had wanted to start one. I am not sure quite what Nan's connection was with the police, but he seemed to be well connected and they allowed him to put his newly designed YHA sign in the window of the police station in the hope that some backpackers would come in to enquire about it. The sign had only just gone up that day and we were his first 'hostellers'. From us he hoped to get as much information as possible about youth hostels. He didn't have a hostel yet, so he was going to use his house and we agreed a rate of 250 rupiah each for bed and breakfast.
While I enjoyed much of Abram’s tale I found this moral and philosophic conuncrum a little trite:
When we had eaten and we came to pay for our meals, Bob's meal came to 65 rupiah. He paid with a 100 rupiah note and told the girl to keep the change. When we pointed out that his tip was more than 50%, his attitude was that it was only worth 30 cents, it was hardly anything at all. All the backpackers were annoyed and pointed out that he was spoiling it for others. If everybody started doing that, the price would soon become 100 rupiah to everybody, including the locals. He was fuelling inflation, but he couldn't see the point. Unfortunately as more and more tourists (as opposed to backpackers) arrived in Bali, this is exactly what did happen. By 1971 prices had increased by about 300%, but even at those higher prices, things were still cheap.
I have strong qualms about the way tourist dollars influence and distort native cultures too, but not because of price rises! Is there not something about the inherent value of indigenous dignity and lifestyle that is more sad to lose that than a cheap meal? Apparently to Abram’s, not. Another interesting poste restante in action, in a way we’d likely not see today anymore:
The next day I was able to go to the post office myself and check the post restante to see if there was any more mail. Post restante in Denpasar post office was very casual and also very much a do-it-yourself affair. There were a number of boxes of mail and at first it seemed that they were in no particular order, however it soon became obvious that they were all in date order according to when they had arrived. The letters were stacked standing up so it was easy to just flick through the boxes. The first time I checked it was necessary to search through the whole lot to see if there was anything for me, in case Bob had missed one. On subsequent visits I could just check the newly arrived post. People who had passed through would leave notes in the mail asking anybody who found a letter for them to either return or forward it and occasionally we would find something and re-address it before dropping it back in the post box. When I left Bali, I too left such a note and some kind person forwarded a letter to Darwin for me. Even when the post office was closed they didn't seem to mind people popping in through the side door to check their mail.
And finally, setting foot on Australia, a moment to reflect upon the the trip with the advantage of 30 years hindsight:
I envy the youth today for the ease of present day travel, yet I pity them because very few of them really experience the joy and frustration of getting down to the basic level of travel that we undertook.
I too pity them (us, for I am one of them), for having become party to such a questionable yet ubiquitous industry, yet am pleased for the opportunity some have found to explore the true meaning of diversity and humanity and take home with them a degree of humility and understanding that only travel can lend …