Editor’s Note: This morning’s post is from Tejicano, who really needs this time spot to be able to participate. The Old Guy is sleeping
it off in!
It was 1993 and I had just finished grad school and was leaving the US for life overseas for an undetermined period of time. Japan was to be the end point of my travels but I was up for anyplace interesting where I could find work. Expecting that when I reached my end destination I would probably be returning to the life of a corporate working dog I knew that if I was ever going to see the world this would be my best chance.
The Soviet empire had just recently collapsed – this great, wide expanse of land on the map which for all of my life to that point had been beyond reach was now available to explore. Countries and cities which had only been referred to in spy movies were now becoming tourist destinations for those adventurous enough to find a way there. To me it was like the world was beckoning and I was itching to answer the call. I had travelled to China five years before and that gave me a taste for backpacking – traveling with only an outline of an itinerary and finding the way en route.
This was back in the dark ages before e-mail and the internet. Credit cards were not useful anywhere outside of the most developed countries and ATM’s were not yet connected across international borders. You carried traveler’s cheques and exchanged them for local currency when required.
Information about travel was gleaned from word-of-mouth, articles and advertisements in travel magazines, or tips from publications like Lonely Planet which was the gold standard for backpackers. International phone calls were expensive and unreliable – quite often you would end up listening to a recording in the local language which wasn’t very useful if you didn’t have some level of fluency in that language.
A friend of mine had very similar wayfaring aspirations so we determined a reasonable plan to make our way from western Europe across the Eurasian continent to the islands of north Asia. Frank would be leaving a couple months ahead of me and visiting friends he knew around the Iberian peninsula before heading to the recently reunited Germany where we would rendezvous. First, I would be driving my pick-up truck from Arizona going east across the US with stops in South Dakota and Kentucky, and then selling it when I reached the east coast.
My vehicle was a 1971 Ford F-150 which I had upgraded with a 351 Windsor V-8, headers and dual, 2” exhausts. It had an oversized radiator and three gas tanks – the main behind the seat and one on either side below the bed ahead of the rear tires. With a four-speed transmission and a stick shift it was a delight cruising the highways in it.
For this kind of solo road trip across the US I felt armament would be mandatory – so in preparation I visited a gun show where, for $150, I procured a Mossberg 12 gauge pump with an 18” barrel and a pistol grip. That would ride in a soft case behind the seat – or under the seat when I had any reason to think it might be useful during that day’s or evening’s agenda.
Figuring that I would not be back in any part of the US for a number of years I paid no attention to speed limits. I figured I would collect as many speeding tickets as possible and put them in my scrapbook for the trip. As I expected not to return before the statute of limitations on the tickets expired I saw it as a “license to speed”. As these things usually go, I wasn’t pulled over once.
I drove from Arizona to my home town, El Paso, to see family and friends there. I spent a few days catching up with friends during which I did a quick trip to Juarez mostly to pick up a case of Mexican beer to share with cousins up north. In this case my selection was Tecate mostly because it was the only beer available in cans and as I had to carry it by hand back across the border so bottles were out. Driving across the border was something few people did anymore. Car theft had become too much of a risk and I could not afford to be losing my truck at the beginning of my trip.
I pulled away from my family home early on a Summer’s morning and made my way to the highway. It took a couple days to reach relatives up in South Dakota. I had not seen many of my cousins in years so I spent the better part of a week staying with one family or another – all on my mother’s side. But the road was beckoning and I had to say my goodbyes, gas up, and find a highway.
I stopped in Minnesota to see some family on my father’s side. Once again, it had been years since I had been up there and so I spent most of a day and an evening visiting.
After the Midwest I had some friends in Kentucky to see and so I drove down through Chicago, heading south. After a short stop near Ft. Knox I headed eastward. When I hit Charlotte, I had been on the road for a couple weeks and was feeling tired. There was plenty of daylight left but I decided that I could miss my scheduled stop for that day and found a motel. After checking in I ran out for some fast food and a six-pack. I holed up in the room and just relaxed watching TV. The short break from driving was just what I needed.
As I drove through Virginia, which I considered the last zone where the presence of my 12 gauge companion might not get me into more trouble than it was worth, I pulled into a small town gun shop and sold my shotgun for $90. I figured the $60 I lost was well worth the peace of mind it had brought me along the way.
When I got to the east coast I headed to Maryland where I had family. I spent my last week of living in the US locating a few last minute items, getting information from different embassies, and selling my truck.
There was a company called Airhitch which had advertisements in travel magazines. They offered extremely low-priced transportation to and from Europe. My recollection isn’t clear but I believe I paid $175 for a one-way leg from the US east coast to a city in Europe. The way it worked was you paid them the set fee for a voucher to travel on an aircraft leaving from the US east coast to Europe – the locations were not fixed. When Airhitch got your payment they mailed a letter to you with your voucher and a number to call. You called the phone number, told them your name and your code from the voucher, and they would tell you which origin-destination options were available on which days. For instance, they might have seats on a Newark to London flight on Tuesday, WDC to Vienna on Thursday, and Boston to Frankfort on Friday. You pick the option that works best for you. In my case they had a JFK to Paris flight close to the day I wanted to be going so I opted for that. They gave me the gate number, departure time, airline, and flight number. Of course, on departure day when I arrived at the airport there was no flight scheduled from that gate but there were a half-dozen Airhitch flyers like me and we eventually got the company on the phone and found out where to go. The airline was an African-based company which I had not heard of before but I had a seat on it and that’s all that mattered.
I arrived in Paris on the morning of a perfect Summer day. I wanted to get to Germany as quickly as possible but needed to maximize my funds so I booked an overnight train with a sleeping car – as it was cheaper than riding the train to Berlin during the day and then paying for somewhere to sleep that night. It also gave me a day to see a little of Paris.
I bought a small lunch from a bread shop, found an empty bench on a charming little street, and sat down to enjoy my day. My backpack was an Army surplus ALICE pack and with all my gear it weighed a bit more than 50 lbs. I spent the day nibbling on my lunch, checking my plans and making some notes, and reading a book. As evening came on I packed up and headed back to the train station. On the way I stopped to pick up something to eat on the train. I had no problem finding the platform and boarded my train when it arrived.
The train arrived in Berlin at 07:00 AM. I started looking for a place to stay and began calling three phone numbers Frank gave me. By this point in time Frank had expected to be staying with any one of three friends he had in Germany and I was to call them to find him. It turned out that none of his friends were at home during the daytime – and I wasn’t finding much success contacting anybody. I got a bed at a youth hostel – hotels were way out of my budget – and did some looking around the city.
On the morning of the third day in Berlin I reached Frank at his friend’s house in a small city in southeast Germany. His friends invited me to stay there so I got my backpack, bought a train ticket, and headed south.
After a couple days with his friends, Frank and I were back in Berlin. Frank had a small two-person tent which helped us keep our costs down – although campgrounds in Germany proved to be only a little cheaper than youth hostels. The Summer of 1993 was unseasonably cold – and packing in Arizona in June gave me no concept that I would need a sweater any time soon. I had to find a camping store to buy a fleece jacket and a sleeping pad for insulation from the cold ground.
Crossing the line where the border between east and west Berlin used to be was still obvious – not only were the buildings and construction starkly different in case you didn’t recognize that there was a tripod constructed of three BMP’s (Soviet Fighting Vehicles) painted in bright graffiti stacked upright along the side of the tracks as you entered former East Berlin.
After a few days of seeing the sights we took a train down to Prague were my friend Jack was living – working for a Dutch company. Jack had an apartment and a car and had offered to put us up while we were there. We hung out and were introduced to Jack’s social circle – a group of various expats of many nationalities. Jack, being a proper polyglot, had a wide social circle spanning a few languages but most of his acquaintances spoke English as well.
Jack introduced us to Sonia who was a Russian researcher who had recently returned from 3 years working in Japan. She had a boy, Vadim, who was in grade-school and was fluent in Russian, Czech, and Japanese. She also had a van which she had brought back from Japan which she needed to get to her hometown, Saint Petersburg, where she know it would be worth several times what she had paid to purchase and ship it to Europe. As Frank and I were heading in the same direction she agreed to help arrange our transit visas and procure tickets for the Siberian Railway through Russia and we agreed to drive her and her son to Saint Petersburg. She said she wasn’t a very good driver and needed help from somebody who could handle the long drive.
With our path to the East decided, Frank and I had only to prepare our visas and wait while Sonia got her affairs in order. This gave us a number of days to enjoy Prague.