The other day I was wandering the rows of flower-laden tables at Mulhall’s trying to decide between the Spilanthes Oleracea and the Cuphea Llavea; something a little different for the backyard patio containers. Mulhall’s was established in 1957 by Irish immigrants John and Maureen Mulhall. Some say it is Omaha’s favourite full-service garden centre and that it has the largest selection of plants and flowers in town. John’s love of plants is shared year-round with Omaha gardeners. I picked up four-inch pots of different annual after different annual, pushing them between my Spilanthes and Cuphea in my trolley; nothing seemed to compliment the eyeball plant and bat face plant. It was an unreasonably hot and humid day. I started to wander aimlessly, snatching at any flowering green plant. My trolley was bouncing off the tables of potted greenery; I was surrounded by a sea of greenery and vibrant colour, and I thought I saw people wearing flowers in their hair. I felt light-headed and confused. I knew I had to clear my mind; rest my head on my crossed arms and take deep breaths. And so I looked around for a park bench.
Mulhall’s has several landscaping examples scattered throughout the hardscaped surrounds. I found a park bench and after a short time pushed back, stretched out my legs and relaxed: And I was soon musing on my walkabouts when I was searching for inspiration and idealism in the ordinary. I closed my eyes and faded images of faraway places and people paraded before me. I saw reflections of myself as an ethereal legend wandering an unexplored world. I wonder if Tony Wheeler thought of himself as an ethereal legend when he was sitting on park benches in London in the early seventies. He was sitting on park benches when he was studying for an MBA at the London Business School; and he met Maureen, his future wife, sitting on a park bench. After Tony graduated the brand new husband and wife team set off on an overland journey through Europe and Asia to Australia. In late 1973 they started Lonely Planet Publications to publish Across Asia on the Cheap. And so was published the bible for backpackers and travellers. I wandered Europe and the Middle East along the ill-defined hippie trail a couple of years before the Lonely Planet. The hippie trail was the word of mouth and trial and error.
Tony and Maureen defined the trail and made hangouts like the Pudding Shop in Istanbul and Chicken Street in Kabul must stop at places. Back then It was a journey without ATM machines to spit out local currencies, SIM cards for international roaming, personal GPS devices, Skype for video chat, and Google Translate; you had a World Health Organization yellow card, passport, and a collection of either American Express or Barclay’s Bank traveller’s cheques. The World Health Organization yellow card was a passport of vaccinations. Different countries had different travel immunization requirements before you could enter them, and it was also a good practice to not only get the required vaccinations but all of the additional significant safeguards; our yellow card usually contained stamps showing the date and dose of vaccinations for smallpox, tuberculous, yellow fever, cholera typhoid, tetanus and, hepatitis.
The Ford Angelia van was parked close to the Plaka in a tract that was the parking garage for the magic buses, Volkswagen kombi’s, old Royal Mail vans, and all the other unroadworthy minivans that were wandering the hippie trail. And it was time to find a bank to cash traveller’s cheques, apply for a visa at the Turkish embassy, and stop in at a hospital to have vaccinations updated before driving the Ford Angelia across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Cashing traveller’s cheques meant finding a bank; the more substantial looking the bank the better because they probably had a foreign currency tellers window. I had Barclays English Sterling traveller’s cheques; most I would have got before leaving Australia and I would have used any money I had saved from working in London to buy additional cheques. You signed each cheque in front of the teller at the bank where you purchased them and then at the foreign bank where you were exchanging them for the local currency you would sign again in front of the teller. It was a problem guessing how much money you would need in a specific country: you could end up with a considerable amount of currency that you carried into your next country.
I think my logic at the Athens bank when guessing how many English Pound traveller’s cheques to exchange for Greek drachmas was; Greek was close to the edge of connecting Europe to the Middle East and Asia so drac’s had to be good and I could exchange them in any small town bank or on the street black market; besides I always had a small hidden stash of American Dollars. If I had studied world economics instead of chemistry at Footscray Technical College I would have been more in tune with the theories of the Swiss moneymen; the gnomes of Zurich would never have set forth with such a large cache of drachmas. I was to learn that drachmas were not an attractive currency in Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan; in the early seventies, any foreign currency in Afghanistan was celebrated. There was a large hospital on one of the main streets of Athens; it presented an imposing streetscape. I don’t remember receiving the vaccination updates but our yellow cards were date stamped, the dosages noted, and signed by a health specialist. And I also can’t recall the Turkey visa in the passport undertaking.
We parked the Angelia in the shadow of the Blue Mosque in Instanbul; and it seemed we were surrounded by Volkswagen kombi’s, old Royal Mail vans, and a collection of other unroadworthy minivans that were wandering the hippie trail. The ritual was becoming the same; find a bank to cash traveller’s cheques, apply for a visa at the embassy, and check that vaccinations are current and updated for the next country. Jeff and I had overlooked one vaccination in Athens and so had to find a health specialist in Istanbul. The streets and footpaths of Istanbul were crowded and chaotic with cars and people; most of the cars were classic 1950’s American made and we decided it would be easier to use an Istanbul taksi dolmus instead of he Angelia.
The driver found us a health specialist at a house somewhere in Istanbul. It was a small room with a medicine cabinet on the wall above the sink. The health specialist took a syringe out of the table draw and turned toward the wall-mounted cabinet, asking us to bare the arm we wanted for the vaccination. He filled the syringe with a liquid from a vial in the cabinet. As soon as Jeff had raised his hand saying he would be first the health specialist plunged the needle into Jeff’s arm and released the serum. Before another word was said the specialist spun around and plunged the needle into my arm and emptied the remaining serum in the syringe into my arm. The health specialist date stamped, recorded the dosages, and signed our yellow cards. I offered him drachmas for his services.
Jeff and I took local passenger vans from the Turkish border to Tehran and word of mouth had us staying in a backpackers hotel which I think was close to the railway station; although the railway in those days ended in eastern Turkey. There was a modern Tehran hidden somewhere under the chaotic growth executed under the Shah’s regime. The side streets that we explored without GPS devices were narrow labyrinths of storefronts and people. And you could feel the heavy censorship as the presence of the secret police was felt everywhere.
One night in a restaurant tea shop a group of Iranians started an English conversation with us. They asked if we would go walking with them so we could continue to talk. Outside and walking they told us they didn’t want any trouble in the restaurant because they didn’t know if we were being watched and listened to. The conversation became more than a hint of politics; they talked about censorship, resentment, repression and freedom and asked us to carry the message beyond the borders of Iran. I would wonder what part these men took in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. There was strong resentment against Americans because of the support provided by the United States to the Shah dynasty. And most Americans travelling the hippie trail in the early seventies found the going was easier if they just said they were Canadian or Australian; Anytime they had to show a passport the questioning became protracted, service lackadaisical, and civility halfhearted.
And so we used local passenger van buses to cross the border into Afghanistan and onto the Afghan capital of Kabul. The hippie trail surveyors had mapped out an area in Kabul known as Chicken Street and the Peace Hotel or Sigi’s were the places to stay. Afghanistan was famous for hand-crafted textiles, leather goods, and carpets and the streets close to Chicken street were lined with merchants; and most of the shops in Chicken Street sold an array of handicrafts, carpets and clothes.
Dickering was expected and the negotiation process was just part of the way it was. The dickering could take an hour or more, and it was always accompanied by small glasses of sweet Afghan tea. Anyone who paid the first asking price for anything was considered an idiot. You could spend a lot of time bickering with the merchants, and smoking, and drinking tea, and they didn’t care if you bought anything or not. And most merchants also had a stock of local Afghan hash. Exchanging money on the black market gave you a far more attractive rate than the official ones. Besides converting travellers’ cheques in Kabul banks took forever and the transactions were documented in your passport. It was a creative skill to balance the undeclared Greek drachmas and US dollars exchanged on the black market with the officially exchanged Barclays traveller’s cheques; the official exchanges always showed enough money for food, travel, and accommodation. Kabul was a city that detoured around the official bureaucracy.
Jeff and I parted ways in Kabul. Jeff stayed an extra few days before he started the overland trek back to London. And I took a local bus through the Khyber Pass and into Pakistan.
I’ve started a shopping list of essentials for my next overseas travel.
Voltage converters and plug adapters
Poncho or travel umbrella