So Many Roads ~ "THIS OLD MAN"

"The moving finger writes,
And, having writ, moves on.
Nor all thy piety nor wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it."

Omar Khayyam, 1050 - 1122, Persian Poet and Mathematician, The Rubiayat

Life is not a dress-rehearsal; this is it, all we've got, the real thing, at every moment, and if we miss it, it never comes again; we never get a second shot at the present, and nothing is ever repeated.

Summer of ’69 passed, and I decided to go to India again. By mid-autumn, I got ready to leave before it became too cold and snow fell in eastern Turkey and other places along the way. In November, I set off, hitch-hiking to London and getting from there to Dover. The details of how I got to Istanbul evade me now, but there I saw a note in The Pudding Shop ~ one of the hippie-haunts ~ offering places in a van going through to Tehe-ran for $20 each. Looking up the driver ~ an English guy ~ I paid my money up-front; he already had other passengers, and when we’d all got visas for Iran (easy to get in those days), we started off. But it was a doomed trip, and whether or not he intended to dump us all along the way, I cannot say; however, this is what eventually happened. It was slow going, and a couple of days out of Istanbul, something went wrong with the van, so, suggest-ing we all stay in a hotel while he got it fixed; we made our way into the nearby town, and that’s the last we saw of him. Fortu-nately, we’d taken most of our things from the van with us, but I’d left my favorite flute inside ~ the one I’d played in the Taj Ma-hal earlier in the year; I was really sorry to lose it.

When the guy didn’t turn up again, a Dutch girl named Pauli and I went back to the place where the van had ‘broken down’, but needless to say, it wasn’t there; he’d done a runner on us. On our way back to the town, a truck came barreling along the road heading straight for us, as if to run us down; maybe the driver was just having a bit of fun and trying to scare us, but I wouldn’t bet on that; many Turks weren’t very friendly towards travelers in those days, maybe because others before us had created a bad impression, or maybe they felt the influx of large numbers of hippies, being so different, were a threat to their culture and re-ligion, and we were getting some of the backlash. What to do? We had to think fast. Bending down, I made as if to pick up a stone, and drew back my arm to throw it at his windscreen; he swerved back into his lane and rushed past us.

Anyway, we resumed our journey by bus, staying together. Apart from Pauli, there was a Dutch guy, a German, and four Canadians. We crossed the Iranian border, got through Tehe-ran, and headed out on the southern route leading to Pakistan; we would not pass through Afghanistan this time because of the cold. I had never traveled with so many people before, and was soon to regret it. Passing through the small towns of the Iranian desert, I became aware of the suspicion of people towards us, as if afraid we might make trouble, or that some of us might cause a distraction while others stole things from shops or stalls. Well, one of us did make trouble, although not of that kind.

Leaving Iran, we entered Pakistan by an isolated border-checkpoint of just a few scattered buildings in the middle of the desert stretching flat in all directions as far as we could see. The bus we had come in stopped there and didn’t go any further, and the next bus wouldn’t leave for some hours, so after our pass-ports had been stamped, we had to hang around waiting. Then, surrounded by a small crowd of curious locals, one of the Cana-dians announced his passport was missing; he searched his pockets and bags, but it wasn’t there. He went back to the Im-migration post, but it wasn’t there. It would have been a big problem had it really been lost, as we were in it together and couldn’t leave him, so I took things in hand. Going back to the check-post, I took hold of a border-guard ~ a towering giant of a guy with a henna’d beard and an ancient rifle ~ and dragged him to where the others were standing; amazingly, he complied, and I told him to stand there while I frisked the locals, one by one, and they allowed me to do so, too surprised to resist, perhaps, or maybe just wanting to go along with the show, having nothing else to do. But there was still no passport. Then that the damn-fool Canadian ‘discovered’ he hadn’t lost it at all; it had been in one of his back pockets all the time! I could have knocked him down, and we were lucky not to have all been knocked down, as we were certainly outnumbered, and the tribesmen of Baluchis-tan are fierce and unpredictable, with an ingrained sense of per-sonal honor. Luckily, none of their women ~ about whom they are zealously protective ~ were present, as that could have com-plicated things considerably. Anyway, the situation remained calm, and we moved off to a nearby mud-hut tea-shop and sat on the floor. A few minutes later, some of the tribesmen we had affronted came over, looking none too happy (they must have discussed what had just taken place), and one of them came to me ~ as the obvious leader ~ and challenged me to stand up and fight; I couldn’t understand his words, but his gestures were clear enough Now, I can’t fight to save my life, but the situation was quite dangerous, and I had to do something, or we’d have been lost, so I called his bluff and stood up. And when I stood up and faced him, he sat down, the situation defused. Phew!

Finally, the bus ready to go, we got in with locals of all ages; it was crowded, and there were a number of people on the roof, too. We started off, rumbling along the desert-track towards far-away Quetta, with a huge cloud of dust in our wake. There were several settlements where wells had been dug that didn’t dry up, and where more people climbed on the bus, but we were over-taken by night before we’d gone very far. To break the monot-ony, I began to sing, much to the amusement of the natives, and when I began the children’s song, “This Old Man,” it had an amazing effect, and soon, almost everyone on the bus ~ and those on the roof, too! ~ joined in, although they didn’t know the words, of course; all they could catch was “This Old Man,” and there they were ~ even the women in their burqas ~ waving or clapping their hands and singing “This Old Man. This Old Man. This Old Man,” over and over again! The bus reverberated as we rolled along, and the driver wasn’t very happy with our per-formance, and kept yelling at us to shut up, but we continued, in-termittently, until dawn, and soon afterwards, we got to Quetta. And all I remember about what we did there, was getting onto a donkey-drawn cart, but there were too many of us for the poor little beast, and it was lifted off the ground by the shafts, and the driver had to sit on it to bring it down.

We must have split up in Quetta, because the next thing I recall is hitch-hiking with the Dutch people ~ Pauli and Hans ~ far away on the road to Lahore. We were picked up by a young seemingly-friendly guy who said he would take us all the way to Lahore, maybe 100 miles away; we thought we were lucky, but after an hour or so, he stopped to pick up two friends, one of whom sat in the front with the driver and the other in the back with us, next to Pauli. Before long, however, she told me this guy was rubbing up against her, so we arranged for her to sit between Hans and me. By this time it was dark, and we were on a long and lonely road, and noticed that the driver and the other guy were animatedly discussing something, and handling some kind of club; I became scared, thinking that they were planning to knock Hans and me on the head, and do what they wished with Pauli (traveling in Muslim countries with girls was quite risky). I whispered my fears to the others, saying that we had to get out, and they agreed; so I asked the driver to stop, but he re-fused, confirming my suspicions. I urged him, saying we needed to pee, and finally, he slowed down. By this time, I’d found the crank-handle under the front seat, and got hold of it, and when we stopped and the front passenger opened his door to let us out, I grabbed the club, too, and pushed the others out ahead of me. Just then ~ oh, what a nice sight! ~ the lights of a truck ap-peared on the road behind us, so, tossing the crank-handle and club into the car, I said to the driver and his mates, “Go, now go!” and lucky for us, they went without any protests or attempts on us. We flagged the truck down, got in, and were taken to La-hore, where we spent the rest of that night in the segregated station waiting-rooms, one for men and the other for women.

The next morning, we got our ‘crossing-permits’ and were soon over the border in India. But Pauli was sick with something or other, and I forgot to say that the poor kid was a junkie, although I’d never actually seen her shooting up. By the time we got to Ferozpore, she was so ill that we had to get her hospitalized, but the conditions in Indian hospitals were so bad ~ hopefully, they’ve improved a little by now ~ that you were more likely to catch something than be cured there! Hans and I stayed in the station waiting-room for a couple of days until Pauli was well-enough to travel again, and we then made our way down to Goa together, passing through Delhi and Bombay. We met the Ca-nadians on the steamer to Panaji, and all decided to rent a big cottage on Calangute Beach and share the costs, which we pro-ceeded to do. Later, we were joined by a German, a Dane and a French guy, and were alright for some time.

The local fishermen chanted something while they hauled in their nets, and it sounded like ‘Hé mali dumsa.’ There wasn’t much tune to it, but I gave it one and turned it into something of a mantra, repeated over and over again, and we would chant ourselves high on it.

In spite of this mantra, however, it wasn’t long before dishar-mony set in, and with some others, I left and moved to the next beach around the headland, Anjuna, where we made two tee-pees, using colorful second-hand sarees bought for the purpose, draped over bamboo-pole frameworks; they were good enough to protect us from the night-mists from the sea, and were visible for miles. Michel, the French guy, became our cook, as he had no money, and was happy to do this, having some culinary skill; there was little cooking to do anyway, as we couldn’t afford to buy more than very basic supplies. And during the weeks we were there, several other people joined us, one of whom ~ a Greek girl calling herself Ma Khanti ~ had been a Buddhist nun at Budh Gaya for some time, but had quit to come to Goa for some fun. And who should come along one day but Erwin, who I’d last seen in Vienna in ’67! We were both surprised to see each other again, and he also stayed with us; but he hadn’t been very careful during his travels, and was down with hepati-tis; it was still not too bad, but got worse as time passed.

Not far down the beach, Eight-Fingered Eddie was in residence in a large house he’d rented. He was elderly and kind of like a ‘beat uncle’ to the people who coalesced around him, and had been doing this for years, and anyone who wished could stay with him. Those who had money and wanted to contribute to a food-fund did; those who had no money or didn’t want could par-take of the food that was prepared for the evening meal anyway.

Passing our camp one day, Eddie stopped by and invited us to move into his house. We thanked him, but stayed where we were; however, we did start to join them for the evening-meal, which of course became a dope-smoking party, with people sit-ting around ~ on the floor, of course ~ playing various instru-ments, singing songs and chanting mantras, etc. Eddie himself seldom smoked, but now and then, he would accept a circulat-ing joint or chillum, and with an invocatory gesture such as sad-hus use in their ritualistic smoking, would inhale deeply and then exhale, filling the whole room with smoke. All eyes had by then fastened on him, some knowing what would follow. Then, re-maining in his seat, and with eyes closed, he would begin a hand-dance in time to the music, fascinating to watch, as he ap-peared to be in trance, and far away.

Later, we would disperse, and those staying elsewhere, like ourselves, would wend their way home through the palms by the light of the moon (if there was one); the sky was so clear and the moon so bright at times that I have even sat outside and written a letter by its light!

I never learned much about Eddie ~ he was a mysterious kind of guy, and I didn’t ask nor was I told ~ except that he was from the US, and might have been in the military, which is when he’d somehow lost two fingers, and was invalided out with a pension, enabling him to travel and live as he did. He moved between Goa, Benares (where he’d rent a house-boat on the river), and Kathmandu, and in each place, people would gather around, some in a guru-chela relationship. He lived very simply, and the only possession he had, apart from a few clothes, was a radio, on which he liked to listen to the news. Once, someone stole this radio, but someone else recovered it for him; he was highly respected, and many people were deeply loyal to him and would do anything for him; I could see why. He was quiet and humble, with nothing phony about him, as with so many others, and wasn’t into playing mind-games with people. I never saw him again after that time in Goa, but a few years back, I heard he was still doing his thing there.

My pleasant but useless existence there was interrupted by a letter from home, saying that Frank had grown tired of the fre-quent strikes at the car-plant where he worked, and he and Sheila had decided to migrate to Australia under what was called ‘the Assisted-Passage Scheme’, whereby, having passed medical examinations and interviews, people paid only £10 each for their fare by ship ~ taking with them whatever luggage and furniture they liked ~ to the Land Down-Under, which needed la-bor, and was willing to pay dearly for it. They’d gone to see mum and dad to tell them of their decision ~ we didn’t have house-phones then, let alone mobiles! ~ and mum, who had become the boss years before, immediately said: “We’ll go with you,” never stopping to ask if they would mind. I think Sheila and Frank would have preferred to have gone without them, but they didn’t say, and so mum wrote to me, saying “You’d better come home quick and sort out your stuff; we’re going to Australia!”

Well, I had only $70 with me for the long trip back from Goa, and no way could I raise more in India, so I prepared to set out, but meanwhile, Erwin had deteriorated and was very weak, so first, I had to get him into a hospital in Panaji. I didn’t want to leave him ~ and with hindsight wish I hadn’t ~ but he assured me he would be alright, and it turned out that he was, fortunately.

I was soon in Delhi again, getting my permit to cross the border into Pakistan, where I retraced my footsteps back to Quetta, and through the desert, without singing any silly songs this time. And here, I discovered the benefits of traveling alone in such places; people know you can’t make trouble on your own, and do not suspect you; I noticed, too, that if you walk without fear among them, you will be safe, whereas if they sense fear in you, it can go against you. As it was, I experienced only kindness and hos-pitality as I slowly crossed the desert from oasis to oasis, until I got to the border-post where we’d had the passport-trouble some months before. I was a little worried here, knowing that I’d be recognized and thinking that revenge might be exacted upon me, but nothing of the sort happened, and indeed, I experienced only friendliness.

The major festival of Eid was upon us, and I was stuck for a while, as there were no buses running in either direction. But where was I to stay? There were no hotels or inns. It was then that a wandering Muslim holy-man ~ a fakir ~ came forward and took me under his wing. He was from what was then East Paki-stan, and had walked right across northern India and Pakistan, his aim being to reach Mecca; he was about halfway. He carried only a clay bowl into which whatever anyone wanted to offer him ~ and not only food ~ had to be put (and he never asked for any-thing because he didn’t and wouldn’t speak), and wore dark glasses which he never removed, so I didn’t see his eyes. If anyone spoke to him, he would write his response on some pa-per in either Urdu or English. He was quite an educated man, al-though he told me little about himself except what I’ve narrated above, and was staying with a poor family in a one-roomed mud-hut in a small compound ~ one of several in that border settlement. They had taken him in out of the goodness of their hearts, and he treated it as his home. What this family did for a living I couldn’t tell, as they had no obvious means of livelihood, and could hardly have been farmers in that environment, al-though they did have several goats and a few scrawny chickens. Anyway, my new friend took me to stay with him at this house, and I was welcomed without question, and given a charpoy (a wooden bed-frame interlaced with rope) on which to sleep in the yard. Well, I appreciated this, but didn’t sleep much that night as the next day was the festival for which every family was ex-pected to slaughter either a goat, a buffalo or a camel, according to their means, to commemorate Abraham’s sacrifice, and I’d heard that, according to desert hospitality, any guest who might be staying with them would be given the choicest part, which was considered to be an eye-ball. Well, I wasn’t yet vegetarian, but lay there dreading the approaching dawn, wondering how I would ever manage to eat an eye-ball, and knowing that to re-fuse might cause offence. Anyway, day broke, and a goat was decapitated, butchered and cooked, and some time later, a large tray piled with pulau and chunks of mutton was brought out, and I was invited to sit and eat. I looked at the mound but could see neither of the eyes, so thought they might be somewhere under the rice. Finally, I was served, not an eye-ball, but a kidney, and that was bad enough, but I managed to swallow it without gag-ging, and my kind host was not offended.

Eid over, buses started to run again, but before I left, my silent friend presented me with a book he’d come by, probably from some other traveler passing through; it was “Narcissus and Goldmund,” the first of Herman Hesse’s books I was to read (“Siddhartha,” his best, in my opinion, was several years ahead of me), and he signed it and drew a simple picture inside of a leaf, which might have symbolized Earth, and a diagonal line leading upwards from it to what looked like a star or the sun with rays around it; I took it to be an inspirational message.

The border-post soon receded behind, and I never passed that way again. Going through the desert that night, the bus stopped at a lonely outpost and something strange happened: many guys got off and started punching and kicking each other in what seemed to be a surrealistic dance. I sat there looking at this go-ing on and thinking I must be dreaming, but I wasn’t, nor was I stoned, and after a while, they all got back in and we resumed our journey. I didn’t learn what it was all about.

We reached Isfahan some hours later and I found a hotel. In the morning, I went out to explore this ancient city renowned for its culture, and enjoyed visiting some of the beautiful mosques with their domes tiled with faience of turquoise, blue and green. I crossed a centuries-old bridge over the river, with the Rolling Stones’ No Satisfaction going through my head, for some rea-son; strange how things like this stick in your mind, isn’t it? It meant that I was feeling fine and carefree. I then boarded a bus to Abadan, and there, got passage on a dhow to Kuwait, arriving early next morning, to the consternation of the Kuwaiti Immigra-tion officials; I had no visa, thinking I could get one upon entry. They umh’d and ahh’d and made me wait a long time, then en-dorsed my passport; I was free to go

. As soon as I checked into a hotel, I went to the blood-bank to sell blood ~ as this was why I’d come to Kuwait ~ and pocketed the $28 they paid for a pint (the most you could get anywhere), and just outside, met a Sikh, and struck up a conversation. He told me that instead of paying for a hotel, I could stay and eat free in the Sikh gurudwara, not far away. Early next day, there-fore, I went to the temple, where I was served the customary dahl and chapatties, and shown where to sleep. I spent that night quite comfortably, having long grown used to sleeping on the floor, and the next morning, after breakfast, headed out of Kuwait city, with no reason to stay longer. I soon got a ride to the border and crossed into Iraq, getting a visa upon entry, and there, standing on a highway outside Basra, trying to hitch a ride to Baghdad, a mob of people gathering around, pointing at me and saying, “Are you American? Are you Jewish?” I wasn’t wor-ried, however, even though they were not friendly, and was tak-ing the whole thing kind of lightly, when two Italians (who were working in a nearby oil-refinery) happened to pass by, and see-ing what was going on, stopped and said to me, “You can’t do this here; it’s too dangerous. Come on; we’ll take you to the bus-station,” which they did, and put me on a bus to Baghdad. And that was in 1970! Thanks, guys!

After this experience I stayed in Baghdad only long enough to get a visa for Iran, then headed out to the border and on to Te-heran to catch the bus through to Istanbul. There, I found a res-taurant that had recently been set up and run by a friendly man named Yener, especially for travelers. His prices were very low, and if anyone had no money, he served them free; he soon be-came well-known, like Uncle Mustache in Old Jerusalem had been. I spent only two days in Istanbul before hitching out to Greece, and on the way, joined up with a German guy who was also going to Thessalonika. Hitch-hiking in Greece wasn’t easy, and we had to be content with what rides we could get. Between rides, we walked, and at one point came to a roadside shrine wherein, along with the image of Maria, there was a whiskey-bottle. My companion, thinking he’d got lucky, grabbed it and took a long slug. “Uggh!” he exclaimed, as he spat out the kero-sene! You can’t always judge what’s in a bottle by its label!

In Thessalonika, I sold blood again ~ only ten days after doing so in Kuwait ~ as you could get the next-best rate of $12 a pint there, and in those days that was worth much more than it is now. I felt no ill-effects from blood-loss, but did feel bolstered by the addition to my finances.

While there, I met an English guy who was also on his way home, and we decided to travel together. We got rides easily enough, and one that was going all the way to Vienna, and by the time we got to Belgrade, it had begun to snow and was very cold, as the heater in the car wasn’t working. It was much worse when we reached Vienna and were dropped in the night; the snow was quite deep, but we managed to get a ride in the direc-tion we wished to go, and then found ourselves stranded beside the highway. There was almost no traffic by that time, and it was freezing as we stood there waiting. Fortunately, there was a ser-vice-station nearby, and the attendant must have seen us stand-ing there in the snow, and when he closed up for the night left the toilet open and the lights on. We availed ourselves of his kindness and spread what bedding we had ~ he a sleeping-bag and me a blanket ~ on the floor and went to sleep; the place was well heated, otherwise we might not have survived the night!

The next morning, we were able to get rides alright and had no problem passing through Germany and Belgium where we caught a ferry to Dover. I had still enough money left to get a train to and from London to Crewe, and exactly the amount needed for a bus from there to my home 10 miles away, and while walking from the bus-stop, I found a penny on the road, so I arrived home not absolutely penny-less!

At home, I found mum and dad busy with their preparations to migrate to Oz; they’d already sold or otherwise disposed of lots of things, but still had lots to get rid of. They wouldn’t leave for several months yet, however, and George had arranged to go on ahead of them, though I don’t remember if he paid full-fare for his berth or also went on the assisted-passage scheme.

Anyway, I got my old job at the cheese-factory, although they knew I wouldn’t stay long. I saved what I could, and slowly dis-posed of the things I didn’t need or want, selling some for what-ever I could, and giving other stuff away. I would not be going with my parents, but told them I would travel overland as far as India again, and then fly on from there to join them in Oz. After just 3 months, therefore, I cleared out of England for what ~ apart from a number of visits back in later years ~ would be for good, and didn’t look back. I never saw my brother Bob after that ~ we’d never been friends anyway ~ and later, when he and his awful wife and kids treated our parents very badly, I severed all contact with them.

< Previous  -   Next>

Home  -   Against The Stream  -   As It Is  -   Because I Care  -   Behind The Mask  -   Boleh Tahan -   Just A Thought -   Let Me See  -   Lotus Petals  -   Not This, Not That  -   Parting Shots  -   Ripples Following Ripples  -   So Many Roads  -   This, Too, Will Pass  -   Wait A Minute!  -   Your Questions, My Answers  -   Download  -   Funeral  -   Links  -   Contact