Backpacking in Asia
On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
As the two-year Peace Corps assignment in Pakistan was coming to an end, the Peace Corps Representative in Lahore began setting up the details for a return flight to the USA for a restless Footloose Forester. Somewhere along the way, however, the restless one learned that it was permissible to accept his termination in Pakistan and be on his own. With a modest severance check for some forgotten amount and an airline travel voucher valid for at least a year, the options for striking out from Lahore seemed pretty doable. He wanted to go east and eventually complete the circle of the globe. The biggest adventure of his life was about to begin.
On the road....again! with a backpack
This dream-induced chronicle is more about the other travelers he met on the way, and less about the Footloose Forester who mostly wants to play the role of observer and narrator. As usual, the characters he met came along unexpectedly and went away without notice, but they were real at the time. And some of the events were quite memorable. Take, for example, the short episode with Sven, a Swede who had his own Volkswagen bug in India. Sven and the Footloose Forester met at the YMCA in Bombay. We shared a large room with another traveler from Great Britain. We all stayed there because the rent was cheap but also because such places are meeting grounds for backpackers and hitchhikers who have similar interests when it comes to seeing the world on a skinny budget. It turns out that the Brit was despondent because he was going broke and reluctantly agreed to turn in his passport in return for repatriation to the UK. Brits always had that option, so it was a backup plan when they set out as backpackers. After the Brit left to surrender his passport at the British Consulate, Sven and the Footloose Forester turned their attention to the next move. Sven wanted to know if Footloose was interested in joining him in driving across India. Yes, was the answer, and we set off the next day.
Sven didn’t talk too much, but that didn’t matter except to explain what eventually happened. We spent the next night at an Indian Railways guest house, one of the options known by backpackers as the type of place for cheap, clean lodging. It cost us 10 rupees, the equivalent of a single dollar. By agreement, Footloose paid for the first night, and Sven would pay the second night, and so on; until we reached our destination. At the end of the second travel day, and lacking the YMCA of a major city like Bombay, we settled for the Forest Department rest house in a small city with a name so long it cannot be pronounced. Oh, the Footloose Forester forgot to mention: that in addition to taking turns paying the rent; we agreed to take turns sleeping in the bed, in case there was only one bed.
One bed in a government rest house was the normal expectation. Footloose had slept on the floor the first night, so it was his turn to sleep in the bed at the Forest Department rest house. With his tiny VW bug parked outside, Sven made himself comfortable on the floor. At about 1:00 AM, Footloose was awakened when a huge rat crawled up his side a bit him on the left ear. He jumped up to barely catch the sight of the fleeing rat in the pale light coming into the window from outside. “Sven, Sven, he said “a rat just bit me on the ear.” Sven said nothing and just rolled over and went back to sleep. About an hour later, and after Footloose had again dozed off, he felt the rat-bite him on his big toe. Again, he jumped up, and with alarm in his voice, Footloose said, “Sven, that rat just bit me on the big toe.” Once again, Sven said not a word. He simply got up, bundled his clothes into a ball and went outside to sleep in the back of his VW. The Footloose Forester then bundled up his own sheets and pillow and spent the rest of the night sleeping on top of the table.
Separating out the backpackers from the straight travelers who chose to see the world on a shoestring was not always obvious. Both groups could be found staying at the YMCA in big cities, or in youth hostels, or in government-run rest houses; or finally and obviously, in cheap hotels that might conjure up images of flophouses. Adventurous travelers came in all sizes, nationalities, and of both sexes. They also came in a surprising range of ages. Usually, when you ran into one they didn’t talk of going home, they talked of moving on. Some were clean-cut and sounded intelligent; others looked and acted suspiciously. You sized one another up before you decided whether or not to link up.
One of the more interesting characters that Footloose Forester remembers clearly was a Polish refugee who, after World War II, emigrated to Australia. He was also a smuggler, by his own admission. We met at one of those low-budget hotels in the south of India as we waited for the ferry to take us to Ceylon. He did not hesitate in telling the Footloose Forester that he usually made two trips a year: Australia to India with some form of contraband, and where he exchanged it or bought cut diamonds; India to Ceylon with the diamonds, and then to exchange them in Ceylon for emeralds. He said he did that because diamonds were cheap in India but expensive in Ceylon; on the other hand, emeralds were cheap in Ceylon but expensive in Bangkok, his next stop. After he exchanged the emeralds in Bangkok for gold, he went on to Hong Kong where gold was expensive. He claimed that he made about a 25% profit on each exchange and lived on the mark-up. Surprisingly, he then took out a small manila envelope and showed Footloose Forester the diamonds bound for Ceylon. A small pile of cut diamonds sparkling in the sunlight is one of the more vivid memories of our first encounter. He said they were worth about $10,000.
We parted ways in Ceylon but each of us had Bangkok as a destination, so we thought that we might be crossing paths again. Travel routes were somewhat limited by a handful of airlines flying to only a few major cities, and on schedules that did not always allow for daily departures. Thus, the second encounter with the Pole was in Rangoon, Burma as we disembarked from the flight out of Calcutta.
He was preoccupied with a couple of good-looking gals who were returning home after their years of posting with their respective embassies in Nepal. The American gal was taking the long way home, via Hong Kong; and the Australian gal was flying directly home after a short detour to Bangkok. The Footloose Forester learned those details as we all sat around a communal dinner table in Rangoon. Air India made such arrangements as hotel accommodations and group meals on the ground at intermediate stops, because the Burmese authorities did not allow travelers to stay more than 24 hours, and we had to remain in-transit status. Even the low-budget backpackers had to transit Burma by air, but had their hotel room and meals paid for by the airline. So, although we nodded to each other across the huge dining room table, the Footloose Forester and the Pole did not speak to one another until we reached Bangkok.
It was in Bangkok that the Footloose Forester learned what happened to the Pole in Ceylon. But that was only after a couple of days and after the Chinese drug merchants, the Pole’s new employers, left the lunch table at the Thai Song Greet Hotel. The Pole, perhaps by way of explaining why he was temporarily shilling drugs for Bangkok pharmacists (he was broke), unabashedly admitted that he got caught at Ceylonese customs on his way back to India. He had successfully exchanged the diamonds for emeralds, but because they also asked to see his currency declaration form (he did not have one), and then asked how much money he exchanged, he was in a jam. He told them he didn’t change any money. So, they searched him and found the emeralds in his knotted handkerchief. Finally, they asked…. and the Footloose Forester just didn’t make this stuff up…. how much he thought the emeralds were worth. He said about $20,000. “If you don’t want to go to jail,” they said, “you can pay a fine and be on your way. The fine is going to be $20,000.”
Writing seminal chronicles without an outline, without a clear chronology, and in the “stream of consciousness” mode has always been a problem. It has been hard enough putting the stories together, given the fact that they come from memory and not from a diary. This admission is a reminder about why the Footloose Forester could never, in his own mind, sort out the various stories about traveling in India and points east. He traveled west to east in India two or three times, but only once by land; and west to east by rail only once. The problem is he cannot sort out which of the stories are about the backpackers, and which ones included his friends and fellow Peace Corps Volunteers Jerry Jensen and John Harper. Backpackers, Part III, therefore, is one last attempt to get the memories straight.
First, there are the glimmers of recollection with Jerry and John in New Delhi; then in Amritsar to visit the ancient Golden Temple, the spiritual home of the Sikh religion; and of standing at the Gateway to India port landing in Bombay, with the spectacular Taj President hotel within sight. That was where, among other hotels, Islamic terrorists mounted a bloody attack in November 2008 and killed 168 people, then held the military and police at bay for several days. And, of course, there was the precious memory of seeing the Taj Mahal in the moonlight. We were also lucky enough to have a full moon. Reading the Arabic inscriptions on the outer walls of the Taj, in the pale moonlight, made for one of those mental photos that get stored away forever.
This chronicle, however, is a last-ditch attempt to finish the story about some of the colorful backpackers who Footloose Forester encountered in his travels. In Part II, the Polish smuggler came on the scene. That was at Rameshwaram, India where the ferry to Ceylon attracted other backpackers. One of the other travelers was a Brit who was traveling with his British friend. We didn’t hook up, but Footloose Forester nevertheless remembers an incident as we gathered in the customs shed prior to embarking. The customs inspector asked, quite brusquely, what the Brit had in his (military) duffel bag. The young, wiseguy Brit replied, “In the bottom of this bag, I have two bars of gold.” Without cracking a smile, the customs inspector then said, “Please take everything out of the bag.” Amid grumbling under his breath, the Brit complied—everything went onto the inspection bench. When he was finished, the customs inspector said, again without cracking a smile, “I don’t see any gold bars. Now you can put it all back. And next time, don’t be such a wiseguy.” That not so brief encounter belongs in the “you can’t make this stuff up” department of memories. At the time, the Footloose Forester admired the customs inspector for his professionalism and especially how he chose to make his point.
The Pole was a colorful character, alright, but Footloose Forester doesn’t remember his name and didn’t really care to know, or want to get too close to him. Although we may have caught glimpses of each other at customs in Ceylon, or in the waiting line for the airplane in Calcutta, or at the communal dinner table in Rangoon; the Footloose Forester was burning with curiosity about why the Pole was having lunch with two Chinese merchants in Bangkok. For whatever reason that the Pole talked freely about his shady activities, he did not shy away from people. He invited the Footloose Forester to join him as a drug pitchman for the Chinese. He explained that all you had to do was accompany the drug merchants up-country and speak to prospective buyers in your native language, make some hand gestures like pointing to their products; and then let the Chinese merchants do the translating into Thai. He said that the Chinese actually paid him well. The drug trade was presumably legit, but the difference was that (he claimed) the up-country buyers would readily negotiate with a foreigner whom they believed was honest and more credible than the local Thai Chinese. The Footloose Forester declined to join in that venture; he thought that the whole thing was shady.
There were other genuine characters that came and went through the doors of the Thai Song Greet Hotel in Bangkok. The name of the hotel, itself, was one that the Footloose Forester heard in more than one place in India because it was touted as a real backpacker’s kind of place. Good, cheap food, cheap rent, clean rooms, and lots of companionships (local or the backpacking kind) any time of day or night. You might say that the Thai Song Greet was a magnet for low-budget travelers with common interests. It was not uncommon to see two or three small groups of travelers sitting in the restaurant at lunch, and again at dinner. The camaraderie was not unexpected; everyone had travel stories to tell, and each backpacker was willing to share tips on where to go on the cheap, what to eat and what not to eat.
The first time that Footloose Forester saw the front entrance to the Thai Song Greet Hotel, there was a bicycle chained to a lamppost directly in front of the door. It belonged to a Swiss traveler who was making his second trip around the world—by bicycle. When you saw him, a burly guy in his 50s, you could easily believe that claim. He was a loner but readily fit the stereotype of a traveler, not a tourist. Another traveler whom Footloose encountered at the Thai Song Greet was a Frenchman who was heading for Hanoi. He was an engineer and a revolutionary who was going to offer his services in fighting the Americans by helping the North Vietnamese build bridges along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or so he claimed. The Footloose Forester did not doubt his word, so passionately did the Frenchman explain his plans.
About the author
I am in awe of your extensive travels and your adventurous spirit! Thandk you for your stories. Please keep them coming.
Thank you for giving me encouragement to continue, Patricia. Reader interest cannot be taken for granted; and I learned long,long ago that perhaps 99% of readers are lurkers, and very few respond. So, for your trouble, I'm ready to post another story about hitch-hiking in Asia.