EVERY LIFE, I think, benefits from at least one great adventure, and mine was a year-long, around-the-world trip -- bright red backpack hanging from my shoulders stuffed with books and a change of clothing -- that took me to 35 countries in Europe and Asia. It was 10 years ago this month that I returned, much thinner, almost broke, but enriched in ways I'm onlynow beginning to understand.
I'm no daredevil, and my adventure pales before the exploits of North Pole explorers or the quixotic souls circumnavigating the globe in little more than a rowboat. But there was a certain risk in the overland route I took from Europe across Asia, shunning the well-traveled tourist paths between capitals for local buses and trains of uncertain schedules connecting obscure villages. The safest way isn't always the most rewarding.
An obvious Westerner (red hair, pink complexion), I frequently arrived at a market square after dark, and then amidst silent stares of understandable curiosity, I would begin searching for a place to stay, hunting for a welcoming sign that said "hotel" in whatever language. In Afghanistan, I found room in the humblest of lodgings, where the rate for a cot without bedding was 25 cents a night. Once, when a Kabul hotel was full, I slept in its walled courtyard for 14 cents.
Often as I lay down in a strange room, I would think, "Here I am, and nobody else in my world knows it." Sometimes sleep was a long time coming. One long night in Izmir in Turkey people kept rattling the doorknob of my seedy room, and I stuck a chair beneath to make sure it held. In the morning, I learned the cause of my fright. My room was next to the toilet, and in the darkened hallway some guests had groped for the wrong door.
Actually, beyond occasional stomach trouble, I ran into no misfortune in the entire year, unless you count the time in Florence a gypsy spit in my ear when I declined to let her read my palm. Strange what you remember after 10 years--that momentary incident, while the city's famous museums are now all a blur.
"Didn't you get lonely?" I have been asked frequently. The thought of spending a year alone awed me, too, before I set off. Certainly, there were times, especially at night when I was eating my umpteenth meal alone, I longed for company. But before I lapsed into despondency, I would tell myself (I talked to myself a lot that year): "You are here because you want to be, and it's all going to be over too soon anyway, so enjoy your dinner and don't be a sap." I learned to be comfortable with my own company, which can come in handy.
Still I wasn't always by myself. The uncertainties of foreign travel seem to speed up the formation of friendships, at least temporary ones. In Afghanistan, I joined up for several days with two students from Britain--an architect and an accountant--heading for India on the cheap by bus. Our introduction came when they rescued me from a con game to which they had fallen victim the day before.
I had arrived that morning at the border, a bleak desert outpost with a handful of mud buildings, and spent most of the day getting through the maze of customs. When I asked about an onward bus, I was told repeatedly it wouldn't leave until the next day. But across the road, a ramshackle vehicle with a handful of passengers was warming up, and two men inside were waving me forward.
Two Britishers, they yelled at me to climb aboard. They explained that the locals had deluded them into spending an extra day in order to make them captive customers for a terrible room and awful food. As I moved to step up, several men grabbed at me to hold me back, and the driver tried to shut the door. But my new friends hauled me aboard, and we rode on without further incident to the ancient (now strife-torn) city of Herat.
Earlier, I had the dubious honor of spending the night on the Helsinki-to-Leningrad train with the male half of a honeymooning American couple. For unexplained reasons, Intourist, the Soviet travel agency, put his wife on an airplane and shipped him by rail. With that introduction, I had their company several times at meals and on city tours.
In New Delhi, where I stayed at the inexpensive YMCA hotel, the guests customarily gathered in late afternoon for a soda and lime juice under the cooling lobby fans. There I met three young doctors--two Canadian and one Danish--who represented their countries on a medical aid program to India. After only a couple of discussions, we arranged to fly off together to Kashmir for a week-long pony trek into the high Himalayas. Virtually strangers, we proved agreeable travel companions for this unforgettable adventure within an adventure and then shook hands and went our separate ways. Strangers, comrades and strangers once again.
Travel is founded on the human desire--inherent or acquired--to see new and exotic places. Some of us are hit particularly hard. For a year or so as night editor on the foreign desk of this paper, I had read the datelines from afar: Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Armenia, Lahore, the Khyber Pass, Moscow, Capri, Oslo, Athens, Berlin, Istanbul. I wanted to see them all, but how on a few weeks vacation a year?
It would take months, even a year of constant travel, I figured. Well, why not? Nobody I knew had done it, but that was no reason not to try. My employers agreed to give me a year's leave of absence--admittedly a comfortable cushion when I returned home. A bachelor at the time, I pared my living expenses, sold my car and put every cent of a pay raise into savings. In 12 months, after sometimes excruciating thriftiness, I put away $7,500, or approximately $20 a day (all expenses) for 365 days of travel. I was on my way, or at least as far as the money would take me. With stretching, it was enough.
Surprisingly, a number of associates considered me foolhardy. You will be ruining your career by going off on a whim, they said. (A whim? It took a year of hard saving. And shouldn't a foreign editor see the world?) Or the $7,500 would be more wisely invested in a house. (True, I would be better off financially now, but poorer in experience--and which is more valuable in the long run?) I wasn't a hippie on the trail of cheap drugs (though border officials searched me thoroughly as if I were) or running away to find myself. I simply wanted to see.
My initial itinerary was random, as befits a traveler who has a full year's time ahead and considers it endless. My only goal was to circle the globe, using ground transportation whenever possible. I had read where one could go by train and bus from London to New Delhi, and that was intriguing. (Back then, the war between Pakistan and India temporarily blocked the route--by the time I reached the Indo-Pakistani border only once-a-week crossings were permitted--and now the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and our unhappy relations with Iran make a repeat trip impossible.)
At the outset, I drifted with the seasons: a few weeks of February skiing in Austria until the snows melted, then south in spring to see the treasures of Greece and Italy. The Orient Express, glamorous only in name by then, took me north again, and I continued through the continent to the summer-coolness of Scandinavia.
By now it was August, and my trip was more than half over. I scrapped plans to tour the Middle East and decided on a direct, but unusual route to Asia--by train (and one flight) from Finland south through the Soviet Union (Leningrad, Moscow, Georgia, Armenia) to Iran. It was the costliest and most comfortable leg (at about $50 a day) of my otherwise budget journey. Backpack or not, said the Soviets, I must sign up for first-class lodgings for first-class dollars.
What had been almost a painless lark in Europe with its clean, cheap hostels and pensions, the cheese and fruit markets, the bakeries and sidewalk cafes catering to a thin wallet became a sometimes wearying endurance test in Asia of unfit water, suspect food, grimy rooms and throngs of supplicants seeking "baksheesh" with outstretched hands. Still, simply walking the streets and watching the life around me had a fascination (once I had given myself another talking to) that soon outweighed the discomforts.
I have little facility with foreign languages, but an English-speaker in Europe learns through repetition the German or French words for "train" and "departure" and other essentials. At least you can read prices and room numbers. In Iran, however, the words and numbers became the squiggles of indeciferable Arabic. Out of self-preservation, I memorized the dots and curls for 1 to 10 so I would know what things cost.
Only once did I suffer a bad case of culture shock, and it came as a kind of hint that maybe a year on the road was too much of a good thing. It happened in fabled Bali, Indonesia's lovely island of gentle people and beautiful beaches. I had looked to it as a respite from the tangled streets and crowds of Bombay, Calcutta, Bangkok and Singapore. But on the afternoon of my arrival, no sooner had I stolled out from my thatched cabin for a walk by the sea, then the hawkers swooped down upon me with a dozen things to sell. I wanted tranquility, and they wanted a customer. In the end, I fled to my cabin (they waited outside for hours) and the next day, regrettably, I fled the island.
By now my time was almost up, and the trip became more hurried--quick flights over water to tourist-filled cities where my recollections are less clear: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Kyoto, Tokyo (two weeks in Japan, and I could have spent the whole year there), a stopover in Hawaii and home again, anxious to see family and friends again, yet sad that one of the momentous occasions of my life was ending.
But, in a sense, the trip hasn't ended. The memories linger, and I think always will, and they are invaluable. They put spice into everyday experience. When I get bogged down in the complexities of an IRS form, my thoughts drift back to that week in Goa on the Malabar Coast of India (those names still sing in my ear) when I sat under a palm tree on the beach, drinking fruit juices and reading the life of Gandhi.
Or that night I arrived by lake steamer at what I thought was a rustic mountain hiking lodge in central Norway only to find guests were expected to "dress" for dinner. I plunged to the bottom of my backpack for a wrinkled wool sport jacket last worn months earlier and managed to get seated with an amused family in spiffy tweeds.
Or the immense hospitality of strangers like the man in Sofia, Bulgaria, (we struggled with our few common words of German) who walked blocks out of his way to lead me to the little rooming house where the tourist authorities had assigned me and only accepted a bit of candy in return.
These are the pleasant moments; the ones that leap readily to mind. But one can't pass through Asia without witnessing the enormity of the problems of the people born to the Third World. Travel can be an education as valuable as many hours in a classroom.
A year away didn't cure my wanderlust, which is all right with me. Afterall, I visited only two continents. One thing I reassure my wife, who I met a week after I returned, is that at 46 I am unlikely to undergo the midlife crisis that threatens males of my age. Even if I never went abroad again, I've had my adventure, and it is enough to dispel any thoughts that perhaps I've missed out on something in life.