Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On the buses (T-12 The Middle East – 1965)

(This is the twelfth in my series on travels in the ‘60s, for my grandchildren to read when they’re old enough to appreciate it.)

Travelling “poor” isn’t always fun. Once you’re committed to hitch-hiking, you have to wait in rain, hail or snow, and take whatever vehicles come along. If you’re on a back road and there are no vehicles, tough. I once (on my own) had to bed down in a ditch beside a road in northern Finland in drizzling rain. My first ride next morning was in a slow old tractor. Ah well, I was glad of the shelter.

Sometimes, you can get lucky. Linda once stormed out of a hostel in Greece before dawn after a big fight with her travelling companion, and hitched a ride with an unshaven middle-aged truck-driver who promised her breakfast with his wife at his home just down this side-track. And, an innocent breakfast with his wife is what she got, plus a ride back to the highway afterwards. (As it happened, she met up with me that evening, so her luck was really in that day, obviously...)

We tell people we hitched around the Middle East for three months, but it wasn’t all hitching. There were some boats – the cattle-boat to Kuwait, and ferries from Lebanon to Egypt and back via Cyprus. There were trains from Alexandria to Cairo and return, and there was the Mercedes I drove into Tehran. And there were buses, whenever trucks weren’t available.

Our budget could cope with local buses designed for poor peasants, but not with long-distance intercity coaches – at least not at the prices offered at the ticket-offices. By accident, we discovered a way around that financial barrier. We told the ticket-office in Shiraz (southern Iran) that we couldn’t afford their coach, and walked a mile to the edge of town to try our luck hitching. The only vehicle that stopped for us, eventually, was the same coach we’d turned down at the depot. The conductor invited us to buy a ride.

With one foot on the step to show willing (but only one foot, in case the driver took off suddenly with us on board and in no position to haggle), I settled for about a third of the proper fare. No ticket, of course, and the price had to meet with the approval of the paying passengers as well as the two rogues who pocketed the money. The ethical question boiled down to “Is it fair to all concerned?” All those present, at least.

We’d have gotten no respect if we’d paid the conductor's asking price. As it was, our deal was greeted with murmurs of approval, and we proved our worth by joining in the enthusiastic cries of Inch’allah! (“Praise the Lord!” more or less) as we sped around every tight corner in the middle of the road.

The only time we had to pay full price on an intercity coach in the Middle East was from Baghdad to Amman, across 500 miles of desert. There were no local buses on that route, and no trucks willing to take passengers. The coach was going on to Syria, so those of us headed for Amman were bundled into a fleet of taxis for the last thirty miles. More Mercedes, not nearly as new as our first one, a couple of months earlier.

Neither of us ever got motion sickness, that I can recall. Just as well, because bus drivers all over the world make no concessions to passengers who get sick. Many years later, we had a bus trip in Bali that stands out in my memory. It was stinking hot – really stifling – and Linda sat up on the front step while I grabbed a window-seat just in case. I was fine, as it happened, but the man next to me had to reach across from time to time to throw regurgitated rice from his hand out the window. Most of it got there safely, though not all.