I met a young woman the other day who has a lovely travel blog called This American Girl. As we talked about blogging in general, for a fleeting instant, I thought, “I wish I’d started a blog the first time I travelled!” Oh yeah, there was no such thing as the internet in 1971. Well, there is now, so I can finally write about my overland trip to India in 1971-72.
The impetus to travel came from a burning desire to go to India and find a guru. I had been teaching hatha yoga at a retreat in Northern California for two summers, but, after the American swami in charge of the retreat tried to feel up my semi-girlfriend Lorelei, I felt a little disenchanted for some reason. I still believed in yoga, though, and thought I would waltz into India and meet a guru who would show me the path to enlightenment.
When the retreat closed in September, I sponged $1,000 off my mother to supplement my meagre savings and bought a plane ticket to Paris. From there, I would proceed overland to India. There wasn’t much money to spare, so I raced through France and Italy, sleeping on the train rather than wasting money on accommodation. From Brindisi on the tip of Italy, I took the ferry to Izmir in Turkey. It was the most exotic city I’d ever visited. Except for a few surfing trips to Mexico, I’d never been out of the United States before and the places I went to in Mexico didn’t really count as exotic locations for a Southern California surfer.
I loved the bazaar in Izmir and remember stuffing myself on figs, dates and pistachios as I wandered around looking for samples for a shop Lorelei and I wanted to open in Hermosa Beach. She was going to travel with me, but chickened out at the last minute, so the plan was for me to buy samples along the way and then we would return together to buy stock for the shop. Dumb, I know, but we were 22 year old hippies with our heads in the diamond sky with Lucy. By the time I reached New Delhi, my backpack weighed a ton. I was relieved of it somewhere between Allahabad and Calcutta (Kolkata), but we’ll save that story for later.
From Izmir, I travelled on a succession of buses to Ankara. No matter how early I got to a bus, I was always given the worst seat — the one over the wheel well that forced me to sit with my knees up. That and a general air of hostility made me feel a little uneasy and wonder if it was just me or Americans as a whole the Turkish people didn’t like.
It came to a head in an Ankara bus station. I was sitting quietly alone minding my own business when a group of soldiers walked up and started harassing me, going so far as to poke me with the muzzles of their rifles. I don’t remember how long this went on, but I do remember how I got out of my predicament. A man wearing an officers’ uniform told them to back off and then sat down and explained to me that he had been to the United States and understood hippy culture, but these were simple soldiers who were offended by my long hair and bushy beard.
“Go to a barber shop. Have your beard shaved and hair cut and you won’t have any more problems,” he advised me. I did as he suggested. The barber didn’t cut my throat with his straight razor and beamed with approval when he showed me my nearly shaved head in the mirror after he finished.
Sure enough, I had no problems after that and got great seats on the buses I took to the Iran border. I did, however, start to get snubbed by some of my hippy “brothers and sisters” I met on my travels. Apparently, universal love and brotherhood didn’t always extend to those brothers with short hair.
Not long after we crossed the Iranian border, I got my first taste of what life was like in Biblical times. It happened when our bus broke down in the middle of the desert. No one was terribly concerned about it, so I correctly assumed everything was under control and either the bus would be repaired or replaced soon. We might be there awhile, though, so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to step into the vast, empty desert I’d been longing to explore from the confines of the bus.
I don’t know how far I walked, but it was far enough to be out of sight and earshot of the bus. As soon as that happened, I was in another world. I’d never experienced such silence and time simply disappeared. Overwhelmed by the vast desert, the silence and the sense of exquisite timelessness, I sat cross-legged in the sand, closed my eyes and absorbed as much of the awe-inspiring atmosphere as I could.
After sitting and meditating like this for I don’t know how long, I heard the faint tinkling of bells in the distance. The sweet sound grew steadily louder until I saw a man and his small herd of goats approach. If he was surprised to see me, he didn’t show it, but he did look at me quizzically, as if wanting to know how I’d gotten there. I pointed out to the road and he understood.
The whole experience lasted maybe an hour at most, but it’s indelibly printed in my mind.
I took a course in Middle Eastern history in college and considered myself an expert on (then) modern Iranian history because I got an A+ on a term paper I wrote about the Shah of Iran. I don’t remember the details, but the gist of it was that Reza Shah Pahlavi was a beloved leader who had transformed Iran from a backward country into a modern democracy. When I got to Isfahan, I was thrilled to see that Iran was very much as I envisioned it.
The people were super friendly and I had no trouble at all meeting Iranian men about my age in the outdoor cafes that seemed to be everywhere in the city. Proud of my awesome knowledge of their country, I shared what I knew about their “democracy” with them. Although they listened politely and even continued to smile, it was obvious they didn’t share my enthusiasm for the Shah. Finally, one man told me in confidence that he understood why I would feel that way, but that everything wasn’t as Americans believed it to be in Iran. He also asked me to please keep what little he had revealed to myself. It wouldn’t be good for him if I repeated what he told me to the wrong person.
Go to Part Two