While working in Australia in the early 60’s, I met folks who intrigued me with their stories of traveling over land through India and Southeast Asia. Instead of returning to USA as planned, I decided to travel to Europe overland through Asia. Lack of funds meant hitchhiking a lot, and this felt weird considering I’d never once hitchhiked before.
To prepare, I read a book on tropical diseases. Though gruesome, it didn’t deter me. Instead, I packed a few boxes full of meds for every emergency I’d read about. After all, I was probably going to trek through jungles in Southeast Asia, full of snakes, tigers, bugs, and bacteria of every sort.
I sold my motorcycle and bought a ticket on a ship to Singapore. Friends from Perth drove me down to the port at Fremantle and gave me a mighty fine drunken send-off. They boarded the ship with me and together we celebrated bon voyage until the “all visitors get off the ship” whistle blew. Among those seeing me off was my girlfriend, Costello. Now what are the odds of an Abbott (me) meeting a girl named Costello? I don’t suppose our relationship hinged on much else for I can’t even recall her first name. Sorry, Ms. Costello.
Reaching Singapore was a big relief. I was bored out of my youthful impatient mind, even though it was a typical pleasure cruise ship. Why? Certainly, a cruise designed to be pleasurable for most people also meant reducing any chance of adventure… for me anyway. I was chomping on the bit for adventure.
I arrived in Singapore, got a room at a cheap hotel, and went out that night to see the town with folks I’d met on the ship. It was great… until I wanted to sleep. I had no idea where the hotel was, and I don’t recall how I found it — dumb luck I imagine. That taught me never to be lax again about knowing where I was! I soon found out that many folks don’t know exactly where they are. Therefore, whenever I needed directions, I’d usually ask enough people to garner a majority opinion I could most likely trust.
When I left Singapore for Malaya and mainland Asia, I remember thinking, “Where the hell is the jungle?” Malaya’s beautiful paved roads and hitchhiking Mercedes-Benz cars were not what I expected. That may have been the first time I realized how imagination and reality can easily be worlds apart.
At one point, hitchhiking my way up the Western coast of Malaya, a Chinese man in a big Mercedes stopped. We talked and the conversation went to religion. He told me he, like many Chinese folks, often follow multiple religions. For him it was Buddhism, Confucius, Taoism, and Christianity! He said it was just a good business strategy. I thought how different his way was from the Western norm; I liked it.
Oh, and those boxes of tropical disease meds… I threw them out in Bangkok along with 90% of the stuff I was lugging around (see earlier photo). I also cut off my Levis—the pant style I’d worn all my life—to shorts. Levis are lousy in humid tropical weather.
I did the deed while staying at a Sikh temple in Kota Bharu on the east coast of Malaya. My frayed Levis bothered the headman of the temple to no end. He offered to hem these for me, being the gentle generous soul he was. As I recall, he even pleaded with me a little to let him. Now, I tend to be one of those people when being nagged resist even more, so I doubt I agreed. Besides, I may have liked the frayed look.
By the way, one of the tenets of Sikhism is to share what you have. This meant that a traveler would be welcome to stay at any Sikh temple and receive as many bowls of dal with chapati as their stomach could hold. Alas, some Western travelers, taking advantage of Sikh generosity and generally acting boorish, eventually ruined this for everyone else.
And what about the jungle I expected to find? I found it while taking the train back from Kota Bharu. To be sure, a train ride through the tropical jungle is the perfect way to have one’s cake and eat it too. You can get really up close to the jungle, yet you can remain safe and comfortable in your window side seat.
I remember looking down at a river flowing through that jungle scene and thinking what fun it would be to float down in a rubber raft. Now all I needed to do was find another soul with a similar idea of fun. That was not to be. However, later on, up in the jungles of Laos… but that’s a tale for another day.
(See: The Further One Goes [Biographical Notes, p.xii ] for background on this Times of Yore series of posts.)