Thursday, December 19, 2013


ONCE UPON A TIME....  Part 2

For those just tuning in, this is a recounting through the cobwebs of memory of my first trip through part of the world back when Europe looked more like this:

At the time when stuff like this was still around

Everything in here is true as far as my wacked out mind can remember.  I've told and retold parts of these stories often and hopefully they haven't grown in the retelling.  If they have, well, I hope you find it entertaining.

After getting my painful inoculations and enough gear to live out in the woods perpetually I was ready to depart with one friend and one acquaintance.

The friend was Roy.  He was of half Egyptian and half other (no idea) descent.  I'd met him while attending some philosophy classes in the college on base.  He was a smart guy and spoke three languages I knew of - Arabic, English and German.  If he spoke more, he never mentioned it.  We did a lot of table top gaming together and hung out.

I remember he had messy black hair, round glasses and was very excited and passionate about everything.  He often wildly gesticulated and leaned forward when he talked, a feature I later came to associate with Egyptians.

There is a small scar on the back of my right hand from one of his celebrations of Ramadan.  During those days, I knew little of the holiday.  What I did know is that during the day time, Roy would become progressively more insane from lack of food and water.  When dusk neared, he would prepare a large meal so that when the clock showed him the sun had gone down, he could gorge himself.  I'd made the mistake of trying to filch a piece of food before gorging time, hence the scar.  He was quick.  Roy was the leader of the group.  He'd traveled at some point in the past and did all of the route planning.  In fact, I don't remember ever making any sort of decision - just paying my share for tickets, food and so on.

Hunter I knew less well other than when he wanted to he could be very funny.  He was also a gamer (table top RPG's) but not as serious as Roy.  Hunter had shoulder length hair and a long face and made a lot of women sigh when they saw him.   Other than doing some gaming with him, I really didn't know him that well.  When you travel with someone you don't know well, you could get someone amazing to travel with (like Pete H. who I traveled with for a month when I first started my current voyage) or someone like Hunter who you'd later plot to kill.

It was with these two people we would set off into what was pretty much 'the unknown'.  Remember that the wall had just come down and there were not a lot of reports as to what was happening over there nor even what existed.  This was at the time before guide books.  Well before the internet existed in any kind of useful form.  There were no smart phones for people to bury themselves into and ignore what was going on around them.  If you were bored, your two choices were either talking to someone else or reading a paper back book you'd lugged with you.

There are a lot of stupid lazy young people.  I was one of them.  It can even be argued that I've grown into a stupid lazy adult.  Because I was stupid and lazy at the time, thoughts of writing down things so they could be preserved didn't even enter my mind.  As a result, my memories are more like snapshots.  These days, I encourage any young people I come across to write things down.  Whether they choose to make them available to others or not is up to them.  You don't write them down for now but to savor or review later in life perhaps after decades.  The excuse that often comes up is they'd rather live in the moment than detract from it, pausing to write things down.  Short sighted.  The moment can be experienced more than once!

The lack of notes is distressing.

Our starting point was Munich.  Rather than taking a train or something, it was to be mostly hitchhiking.

Even today, hitchhiking in Europe is not uncommon.  Young people do it to get around.  Contrast with America where even in the 1980's it was not only seen as dangerous but often illegal.

Of the rides the three of us with our over packed packs received in Germany, only two do I recall.

One was a nun in a subcompact.  She obviously wanted to be charitable and dare I say Christian and give us a ride.  We somehow managed to stuff ourselves and packs into the go kart sized car without lube.  Nuns are unlikely to carry such.  It was also the shortest ride we received.  I think she just took us down a hill and that was her destination.

The second which stands out was a pretty eighteen year old girl driving a large van.  Imagine that if you will.  A pretty girl driving a large empty van happy to stop for three disreputable looking backpackers on the side of the road.  There are so many ways in which this could go wrong.  Some may point out that it is also an interesting beginning for a porno movie.  In our case, we put our best German speaker up in the passenger seat (Roy) to chat with her while Hunter and I fell asleep in the back.

This was in the days before every German learned English.  In those days if you didn't try to at least slaughter their language they wouldn't reveal schooling at Harvard and their English was better than yours.

The other memory I have involves a bit of illegal camping in West Germany.  We may have still been in Bavaria at the time and lugging our anvil packs.  We decided to hide out in a bit of forest and do some illegal camping.  Were there legal places to camp?  Probably.  Did we have a clue where they were?  Who knows.  We just decided to camp in the woods.

Since I'd spent years in the military, my job was to make sure we weren't found.  Camouflage is all about breaking up the straight lines and blending in to natural surroundings.  Years of sitting behind various desks (with an occasional moonlight chase thrown in for spice) qualified me to do some camouflage work on the tents.  I did the best I could but later training shows we'd have probably been more hidden and less comfortable in debris shelters.

We may have been there for a couple days before the gig was up.  While we were walking down the road sans packs carrying groceries to our hidden camp the forester drove by and scowled at us.  The scowl may have been from snapping his head around to glare at us.  We knew he'd be seeking us.  After delving once again into the forest and adding a few more touches to the camouflage a small yellow helicopter flew around looking for us.  Even at the fairly low altitude it flew we were pretty confident he couldn't find us.

He did.

To this day, I've no idea how it happened.  The day after the helicopter search he just appeared in the woods a large muscular barrel chested guy wearing a feathered cap and leiderhosen.  The leiderhosen are why I'm thinking this must have taken place in Bavaria.  Northern Germans would rather be caught without pants than in leiderhosen.

This red faced bull of a man just materialized from the woods carrying an absurdly large heavy tool - perhaps a tree snipper over one shoulder.  I remember thinking that a swing of that could probably crush my skull.

To our surprise, he was rather cool about our encroachment into his woods.

"I am responsible for these woods."  He told us in German.  Pointing, he said "But I am not responsible for those woods."

Rather than move our campsite we decided to just press on and head into East Germany.


Eventually, we arrived at the imposing East German border.

Although I was trying to play it cool, I'm sure I was very nervous.  Probably was worried they'd start shouting "Du bist ein Spion!" (You are a spy!) and haul me off never to be seen again.   Just like today, it was very easy to be 'disappeared'.  At that time the guys doing it were the infamous East German Stasi.  They combined all of the best (worst) qualities of a ruthless Russian controlled secret police with the same German efficiency and attention to detail you get with the people who designed and crafted Porsche.

Those ass clenching moments at the border have slipped from my memories and my only other memory of East Germany is the 'tourist hotel'.

At that time, there was only one place we were allowed to stay.  The hotel for 'westerners'.  

When we first arrived, dirty and disheveled the disgusted old lady barked at us to leave our shoes near the door.  We were provided with fluffy slippers.  These were to be worn at all times within the shiny wooden floored building.

After the obligatory mountain of paper work, we were required to leave our passports with the front desk.   During those days you always had to leave the passport with the hotel.  I'm not sure what would happen if you were stopped in the streets and asked for your papers by the police - or the secret police.  I presume that although they knew you of course had to leave your passport with the hotel it would be a gravely illegal crime not to carry it on you at all times - punishable by a hefty fine and some time in a squalid prison full of burly men who think you have a pretty mouth.  For whatever reason leaving passports with the hotel is no longer done.  The only times I my current trip I've had to surrender my passport for an extended period of time were for sea voyages.  I presume they keep them not only to get them processed faster but to keep track of who all was lost while at sea.

We swished our way up to the room.  Not a lot of details remain in my mind other than by prearrangement we talked only either of banal things such as how much we liked East Germany or the weather while we all searched for listening devices.

We found five.

That was one of the things I've always liked about the USSR.  Heavy handed and not very competent.  Had these been hidden professionally, we wouldn't have found them without either electronics or ripping up the walls.  Having a 'bug' behind wall paper makes it really hard to find - even with the 1980's tech we had at the time.  Or the 1960's tech the Soviets had bothered to employ within this room.  Still, you can never tell who is listening.  Obviously, we left them all in place and were sure to have a conversation which would be a great read from a transcript.

In the morning, we had one of the finest breakfasts I've had to this day.  It was a stout German breakfast with the addition of fruits, breads and real honey.  That was the first time experiencing honey with the comb.  Which is much different than not only the honey sold in the stores in the USA but Honeycomb.
While in the DDR [Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German), the German Democratic Republic (English)] I was amazed.  Unlike pristine West Germany, Eastern Germany was a mess like river beds filled with trash and old tires.  There didn't seem to be any emission controls on vehicles so the air was so thick you had to hack a hole in it to breath.  Ugly, gray and depressing.  Stores with long lines and nothing on the shelves.

After they reunified, it took hundreds of billions of dollars (maybe has high as 850 billion) to fix up East Germany to get it closer to the level of West Germany though many people say it's not there yet.  (Note, as of 2013 Berlin looks great.)  That gives you some idea of just how fucked up the DDR had become from the end of World War 2 till the early 1990's.  Approximately 41 years of communism to completely trash the place.

When someone tells me about communism I can say I've seen the result.  It looks good on paper but the reality is something even vodka can't fix.

In the next exciting issue we move out of the DDR and onward.


I was talking to the owner of the hostel and told her I was sick of visiting countries of little people.

"Just once, I want to go to a country of huge, fat people that make me look anorexic.  I want to walk into a clothing shop with my head held high and ask for a shirt, size medium!"

She told me Samoa was very expensive.

I told her in America they have support groups for anorexics.  "I've always wanted to go to one and look very depressed and say 'I just feel fat'.  Possibly while eating donuts."

She said "You can cry too.  In Ecuador they have only support groups for alcoholics and drug users."

"What - to get more alcohol and drugs?  Sounds fine."


"When I was a kid I always wanted to grow up and become a train conductor or a gynecologist. I suppose thats because I really like tunnels."  - Tim

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{{2011}} London, GB | Rail N Sail | Amsterdam, Netherlands | Prague, Czech Republic | Budapest, Hungary | Sarajevo, Bosnia | Romania | Chisinau, Moldova | Ukraine: Odessa - Sevastopol | Crossed Black Sea by ship | Georgia: Batumi - Tbilisi - Telavi - Sighnaghi - Chabukiani | Turkey: Kars - Lost City of Ani - Goreme - Istanbul | Jordan: Amman - Wadi Rum | Israel | Egypt: Neweiba - Luxor - Karnak - Cairo | Thailand: Bangkok - Pattaya - Chaing Mai - Chaing Rei | Laos: Luang Prabang - Pakse | Cambodia: Phnom Penh | Vietnam: Vung Tau - Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City

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{{2017}} Portugal: Faro | USA: Virginia - Michigan - Illinois - Colorado | England: Slough - Lancaster | Thailand: Bangkok | Cambodia: Siem Reap

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