Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Wrong Way Home by Peter Moore

My reading seems to have taken on a travel writing theme at the moment - I think I am hiding from Mark Z Danielewski's Only Revolutions.

Peter Moore is an Australian copywriter who, after doing his OE in London, decided to return home to Sydney without flying. This was in 1994, before there was much (any?) talk of global warming and no talk at all of carbon footprints. In his opening chapter, he poses the question of why he did it - apparently this is asked of him quite a lot, but for once he has answers. The first is simply to see if it can be done, in the face of being told it will be impossible. After all, he has to come through what was Yugoslavia (in 1994, when matters were still rather tumultuous), get across the border from Nepal into China (a border which, when I was there in 1999, was one which you could never tell from one day to the next would be open) and back through Laos (still almost completely closed to tourists) and then across from Indonesia to Australia. To add a further element of perversity, he also decides to pop into Afghanistan.

His other reason is the "pure, unadulterated hippy envy" he has: in 1967, it was possible to take off on a "long, laidback odyssey", but the world has tightened up so much that such things are no longer possible. Or are they? He sets the tone (friendly, a touch comic, slightly deprecatory of others with only the occasional didactic passage) with his opening words:
My journey back to Sydney began at London's Victoria Coach Station in the company of people with Billy Ray Cyrus haircuts. I hadn't planned it that way. I hadn't even imagined it could possibly be that way. But circumstances - well, OK, a severe lack of funds - meant that I would be catching a bus stright through from London to Prague. These very same circumstances meant that the coach would be an Eastern European one.
His bus doesn't get that far: they're still about two suburbs away from their departure and the driver has rammed the car in front of them and done a runner. Luckily the conductress appears willing to learn on the job. His voyage takes him through:
  • Prague, where his expectations of being met by hordes of little old ladies offering rooms for virtually no money are not met; instead he has to stay in a grotty hole out in the suburbs. He has a whole week of dodging American Street performers and Italian street performers, but finds car dealers selling howitzers, tanks and fighter jets;
  • Budapest, which he likes because of a grubby authenticity to the place. He stays at the More Than Ways hostel because of the publicity shots of cute leggy blonds. Instead he finds
    The place looked like a front for every vice imaginable and a few I'm sure had never even been thought of. Sleazy guys with dark heavy features sat in the foyer drinking and playing cards, occasionally turning from their game to feel up the odd slapper ambling by. Travellers stumbled by drunk or stoned or both, drawn like moths to the sqeals and the 'thump, thump, thump' coming from the bar at the bottom of the stairs below.
  • Croatia (mainly because of the lovely Emese: "she had long hair, long legs and the sort of accent that mesmerises men and convinces them to invade neighbouring countries) - the country was actually at war while he was there, but he makes Zagreb sound like a very cool place to visit and manages to have a great time in Dubrovnik;
  • Bosnia - this turned to be third "really foolish" thing he had done in his life: "the bullet hole in the window next to my seat was perhaps the first indication that I had made a mistake". he finds himself in Mostar, which is almost totally demolished, and with his bus not leaving till the next day. Worse, he finds himself put up with a trio of drug dealers he just happened to meet on the street;
  • Albania (which has turned the mausoleum of its former dictator, Hoxha, into a giant (and expensive) disco
  • Sofia;
  • Istanbul;
  • Iran - he is the third person I have read of recently who has gone to Iran with all sorts of pre-conceptions, only to find themselves completely seduced by the place: Moore thinks that Esfahan is one of his favourite places in the world, although I suspect this had something to do with the amount of time he spent in a chaykhune
    a place where men go to escape the heat and to drink tea or suck on a hubble-bubble pipe. The bricked walls were decorated with pictures beaten out of brass and copper, exactly like the ones you see in Greek or Turkish restaurants back home, and had hookah pipes (and other weird attachments and accessories that aid the art of hubble-bubble) hanging from the roof. A canary sat in a gilded cage, singing, beside an old man who took the money and gave out change from a roll of filthy notes he kept in a pouch under his fat belly. It was like stepping back a thousand years and into The Arabian Nights.
  • Pakistan, where buying a gun is as routine as buying a carpet in Istanbul;
  • Afghanistan, ostensibly off limits but he is able to charm the immigration officials into putting him touch with the local warlords to ensure his safe-conduct (here, his travels got just a little too aggressively adventurous for my tastes);
  • India (Amritsar, Delhi and Varanasi - curiously, I went through northern India myself, but avoided all these places by cutting through Nepal);
  • Kathmandu - apart from London, this is the first place he's writing about that I have actually been to, although by the time I was there the Freak Street that he recalls from previous visits was long gone. He runs into the same problem I did - the food is addictive!
  • China, which he finds to be particularly hard work, although he does travel an enormous distance through it: Lhasa - Chengdu - Kunming
  • Laos - before the border from China to Laos was opened, but he tells a long tale about being afraid to fly and he's in! He loves Luang Prabang for much the same reason I did - it is so quiet (and was probably a lot quieter when he was there than when I was) and backwards that he spots a Holden Belmont (made in Australia in the 1960's). His account of the boat trip to Luang Prabang makes me so glad I didn't go for it. The boat
    was long and slender, with a chunky engine that took up most of the boat, leaving room for only four passengers. We weren't allowed to board until we had donned a life jacket and crash helmet, and I soon knew why. After letting the boat drift out to the middle of the river, the engine burbling like a senior citizen eating custard, our driver gunned the boat with such ferocity that my head snapped back and hit the guy sitting behind me. It felt like we'd been sucked into a Nintendo 54 game called Mutant Mekong River Racers, and our driver was determined to get the highest score.
  • Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia - the plan being to get some sort of boat across to Darwin and thus home.
I think the one annoying thing about him is that, while his opening chapter makes it clear he's not averse to spending a fair a mount of time getting drunk with his compatriots, when he's out on the road he does tend to look down on his fellow travellers a bit for essentially doing the same thing (and living in ways that are probably not that far removed from the hippies he professes to be emulating). That grizzle aside, he is for the most part a companionable sort of fellow, using a chatty style for us readers and for those he encounters in his travels, which works to his advantage a surprising number of times when encountering officialdom: they seem to like inviting him home for lunch. The result is that he accumulates lots of stories which make for a very entertaining read. Particularly charming were his references to phoning his mum, particularly the several times he thinks it best not to phone because he's about to go to or is in some especially dangerous territory.

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