Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Taking the Bus from Stockholm to New Delhi

Swedes on the way to India. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974. 
There I was, waiting for the bus that was to take me on a 7,000-mile ride from Stockholm to New Delhi. It was September 3rd, 1974 and I was three months shy of 21. With me was my friend Elisabeth and 39 other young travelers, half of which were women. Around us were parents and friends who were there to see us off on our three-and-a-half month adventure. Eventually, Bill and Bull – two blue weathered Scania buses – arrived and parked on the railway overpass by the northern entrance of Stockholm’s Central Station.

We said our goodbyes, picked up our luggage and stepped onto our bus. There were seats in the front, but those in the back had been replaced with particle boards topped with thin foam mattresses. Elisabeth and I chose a bed on the left side of Bill and made ourselves as comfortable as possible in what was to become our home for the next six weeks.

I brought a large, light-blue and ultra-light Fjällräven backpack that had my red sleeping bag strapped to the bottom of the frame. I had strategically packed the bare minimum of clothes and personal items, a couple of books, notebooks, a thermos flask, a water bottle of metal, malaria pills and charcoal tablets for diarrhea. A burlap bag from an army surplus store held my two cameras, a Rollei 35 and a Nikon F with a flash and two lenses, 35 and 200 mm. The side pockets of my backpack were stuffed with 55 rolls of film – 30 Kodak Tri-X, 10 Kodak Plus-X and 15 Kodachrome II for slides. My passport and $400 U.S. dollars in the form of American Express traveler’s cheques rested in a thin nylon pouch under my shirt along with $100 dollars in cash.

That was it.

I didn’t own a credit card, and we had no mobile phones in those days – not to mention no email, no World Wide Web, no Wi-Fi, no Skype and no Facebook. MP3s were not around yet, nor were portable Walkman cassette players, so we had to make do with the radio in the bus – that is if the signal allowed it.

Back then, the world was analog.

Our 1974 journey to and in India.
The first morning on the road. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974. 
Somewhere in Eastern Turkey. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974.
Forty years have passed since I stepped onto that bus, and as I look back, I ask myself: What was I thinking?

The truth is that I didn't think. I was young and naïve and so were we all. I had heard of a guy who took people to India for a very good price. Let's go, we said.


Now that I’m a parent of two sons, ages 23 and 20 I also reflect on my parents' role in this adventure. What were they thinking? I can’t recall any words of caution or doubt. The only plausible explanation I can come up with today is that they thought it was a good idea for us to see the world, and that they probably took comfort in the fact that the journey to and from New Delhi was an arranged tour, and not just us hitchhiking to Asia.

This was not my first trip. I learned to walk in France on my family’s first car trip to Bretagne and southern France when I was less than a year old. Along with my parents and older brother, we road in a Citroën B11 that pulled a small red and yellow caravan. That was 1954. Four years later my family, which now also included a younger brother, set out on a camping trip through Europe in a Volkswagen Beetle, which somehow or another fit two adults, three young children, a tent – and a sandbag under the hood to prevent the car from blowing off the autobahn if the winds got too strong. And in 1967, they took us on a seven-week journey in an Opel hatchback pulling a new caravan that my father had traded a painting for. We drove through Germany to Paris and then across the Alps on Route Napoleon to the city of Menton on the French Riviera.


In the spring of 1948, my parents boarded a small freighter for a two week sea voyage from Sweden’s west coast to Paris, via Rouen. It was only two and a half years after the end of World War II, and Europe still lay smoldering. My father wrote in his diary about the eerie view of rusty and blown-up wrecks in the River Seine as they approached Rouen. After a month studying and exploring the art scene in Paris, they continued by train to Switzerland and then Italy.

My grandparents had pulled up their roots several times to start over in new places. My maternal grandmother, whose husband had abandoned her and their eight children, encouraged two of her seven surviving children to move to America in 1946. My mom told me that grandma didn't want her only son to be enlisted in case there was another war. And then there were the million Swedes who left for America in the late 19th and early 20th century. They may have been afraid, but they didn't let fear stop them. What were they thinking? Maybe they didn't think much about it at all, like me when I was 20. They just did it.


Taking a bus from Europe to India was one of those things you could do in the mid-seventies.


We were a mix of university students, nurses, workers, teachers, and young people in search of self, or simply curious about the world. We were not hippies, even though a few of us talked about smoking pot while sitting on a roof somewhere in Nepal. The trip was just a trip, an opportunity that had presented itself to us and one that we took, but we were also part of a growing stream of European and American overland travelers heading for Afghanistan, India and Nepal. The Canadian travel writer Rory MacLean wrote in his "Magic Bus – On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India" (2006) that 90,000 visitors arrived in Afghanistan every year by the mid-seventies. Most of them would continue on to India and Nepal.

The name Hippie Trail evokes images of the fabled Silk Road, which had attracted adventurers, spies and explorers in the early 20th century, but was actually neither a road nor mainly about silk. It was the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen who in 1877 came up with the German name “Seidenstraße” as he explored a possible path for a railway between Germany and China. There was however, never a road stretching from Istanbul to China or India, but a series of trade routes over land or over water, where merchants, diplomats, explorers, bandits, warriors and pilgrims had travelled for two, maybe three thousand years. Marco Polo knew of no Silk Road, and neither did the Nestorian monk and diplomat Rabban Bar Sauma who also travelled in the 13th century, but in the opposite direction, from Beijing (then called Khanbalik) to Jerusalem, Baghdad, Sicily, Rome, Paris, Bordeaux and Genoa before settling in Baghdad.

The land routes from Europe to Asia lost their importance when the Ming Dynasty closed the doors on foreign trade and with the European discoveries of new sea routes to Asia in the 16th century. However, geopolitics and the growing interest in oil and natural gas made the area hot again in the 19th century, although not so much for trade as for imperial rivalries like the British and Russian “Great Game” over Persia and Afghanistan.

When the British adventurer and writer Robert Byron traveled through Persia and Afghanistan in 1933-34, he found the “Silk Road” in a sorry state (“The Road to Oxiana,” 1937) with vanishing roads and collapsed bridges. Jan Myrdal, the Swedish writer, painted a similar picture a quarter century later in “Kulturers korsväg: en bok om Afghanistan” (1960) and then in “Gates to Asia – A Diary from a Long Journey” (1972), two books based on a series of journeys he did with his wife Gun Kessle in a Citroën 2CV.

Many in the first postwar wave of overland travelers to India were inspired by the Existentialists, Beat poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, but this was only a trickle compared to the second wave, which started in the late 1960s and peaked around the time we drove East through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. This wave was broader and more diverse, consisting of young people who had come of age in the wake of the social and cultural uproars of the 1960s and early 1970s, the age of rock & roll, sexual liberation, the Vietnam War, May 68 in France and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. And everything was televised.

Underneath it all – at least in Western Europe and North America – was a search for something else, a rebellion against the parental generation’s nervous conformism and materialism. Many young people had joined political and anti-war movements, while others turned inwards, exploring drugs, new religions and meditation. The Beatles discovered transcendental meditation in 1966-67 and visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in February, 1968. Before long, India was swarming with youth from Europe and America.

I doubt that any of us riding Bill and Bull had heard of the Beat generation, although we were familiar with the hippie movement. For me, India was a social and political challenge rather than an existential problem. It is true that I too had walked around in Jesus sandals in ninth grade, considering myself a “Mod,” a Swedish term for long-haired young men who liked rock music. But I never saw myself as a hippie, a term that I associated with an apolitical lifestyle of drugs and navel gazing. I was politically active on the left and saw India as a poor country with extreme social and economic contrasts; a country that had been plundered by the British colonialists and now was held back by Western imperialism, religions and the caste system.


We were lucky to take the trip when we did, because the Hippie Trail would soon be shut down, or at least very dangerous following a pro-Soviet coup in Kabul in April 1978 and the 1979 fundamentalist Islamic revolution in Iran. When we traveled through Afghanistan, things were relatively calm under Mohammad Daoud, who in July, 1973 had toppled his cousin and brother-in-law Mohammad Zahir Shah, who had been king of Afghanistan since 1933.


Before Inter-Rail, kids hitch-hiked across Europe. I myself hitchhiked 300 miles to visit a girl I had met in March, 1972 on a homeward-bound ferry from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and in the summer of 1973, I hitchhiked from the city of Kalmar on Sweden’s Southeast coast to Copenhagen, Denmark, which was the starting point for a month-long solo journey across Europe by train. My dad gave me a ride to a drop-off point on the European Highway E4, where I subsequently stuck out my thumb.

That trip in 1973 was a journey without a purpose and I set out alone as my friends all bailed on me. Like tens of thousands of other kids, I took advantage of the new InterRail Pass, which made the European railway system accessible to so many young people. All I had with me was my passport, my $70 Inter-Rail ticket, traveler’s cheques, my backpack and my Nikon. The trip would take me to Rome and Venice, and then back north and west along France’s South coast to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast, where I took a ferry to Île de Ré, and then spent a week hitchhiking to seven small towns on the island hoping to meet the girl I had met on the boat from Leningrad. She had dumped me over the phone while I was in the army, but kept teasing me and before I set out on the journey, she suggested that I meet her on Île de Ré. She never showed, but that was as well. I befriended an entire chamber orchestra after they gave me a lift and they invited me to join them for a family dinner. From La Rochelle, I headed to Paris and then Calais, where I took a ferry to Dover and spent a week looping around England and Scotland before heading back to Sweden. I traveled with the wantonness of youth, letting the road show me the way.

Originally, I had planned for a second InterRail trip that summer, but didn't have enough money to go through with it, so I took a job as a laborer at Standard Radio, an American-owned manufacturer, dipping electronic circuit boards in a series of acid baths. The pay was good, but the monotonous job hurt my back and so I quit after a couple of months and decided to study. My friend from high school, Radja, suggested that we go to Uppsala University, because he thought it was nicer than Stockholm University, which was housed in six famously ice-blue office-like buildings. I signed up for Political Science and managed to get a dorm room at Rackarbergsgatan 44, just five minutes’ walk from the university. My friend Radja, whose dad by the way was from India, ended up signing up at Stockholm University.

It was during the new student introduction that I spotted Elisabeth. We were shown around the University and Skytteanum, the 18th Century building with oak beams in the ceiling that was home to the political science department. She had a pretty face, long dark brown hair – and most importantly, she returned my looks. It didn’t take long before we were an item, although she never really acknowledged it. By April we had decided to take a bus to India.


The tickets were cheap – 2,300 Swedish kronor (about $400) per person – and the fact that we would sleep on the bus saved us the cost of staying at hotels, but we still had to prepare for the journey, purchase film and other supplies, have enough money for food, plus local travel and accommodations after being dropped-off in in India. And that was money that we didn’t have, so we visited the local government employment office in Uppsala and checked out their lists. There were a number of jobs in the hospital sector but they paid badly and we only had the summer to save, but then we discovered a job at Farmek, a coop meat processor. They had a large slaughter house and offered better pay than the hospitals, so we visited the factory and were hired after each of us had been put through a two-hour long interview. For the next three months we earned a piece work rate of about 17 kronor ($3.00) per hour. It was hard work, but we persisted and earned the money we needed.


Me in 1974.
There is at least one more reason why we ventured out on such an adventure. I can’t remember being afraid of many things as I grew up in Sweden. I felt safe, and that was true for most of the world. The only place that was kind of scary was America, which seemed to be a very violent place where people and presidents got shot in the street. Once I moved to America, most of that fear dissipated, but on some level I still feel safer in Europe. Sweden was a small, relatively homogeneous society during the 1960s and 1970s, and Swedes tended to be “open” to exploring the world. The relatively egalitarian Swedish society also made it less important for parents to control who their children played with or dated. When I compare my experience from almost three decades in the United States with that of my old friends, I have noticed that they let their children venture out on their own much earlier without worrying too much, compared to American parents. Teenage sons and daughters take off on long journeys to Australia, California, Brazil and Spain as if it were nothing. Is it because they live in a small and fairly safe place or that their parents belong to my generation, which came of age after 1968, an era where our parents had lost track of whatever sense of time they had been able to rebuild after WWII?

I’m not sure.


1974. It was the year when ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest, an event that most people remember much better than a more important, but less flashy event, which occurred at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, namely the first scanning of a barcode. In May, India detonated its first nuclear weapon, the "Smiling Buddha." The military junta in Greece (which had grabbed power 1967 in a coup d’état and was backed by the United States despite its systematic use of torture) staged a coup on Cyprus in July, which triggered a Turkish invasion of the island; causing a fiasco for the generals that quickly ended the dictatorship. In the United States, President Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment for Watergate. The Vietnam War was still raging and we had no idea that it would soon be over. Meanwhile China was preoccupied with an intense ideological struggle between two 2,000 year old schools of thought, the Confucian and the Legalist, a campaign that actually was a cover for a power struggle initiated by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and her three radical partners in the "Gang of Four."


It is now August, 2014 and I am trying to channel my younger self; a task that requires a fair amount of intellectual, emotional and factual digging – an archaeology of a mind that was once me. This is hard work as I simply don’t remember as much as I would like to remember. I can’t rewind the movie and watch it again. There are certain things and events that I do remember, as they have latched on to some mental structure, or were dramatic or exceptional enough to reinforce enough synaptic connections. But most things you do and see seem to be stored in places where the next wave, or the one after that, washes them away. This is why I had to rely on documents and artifacts like historians and archaeologists do.


My digging began with a search for three large maps, one of Europe, one of the Middle East, and one of India. I had marked the bus route on them with a marker, but I only found the map of Europe. Next I re-read the two black notebooks where I had taken notes from books and magazines, and kept a diary, but like many diaries they were filled in inverse proportion to how much was happening and how good I felt. Add to that a couple of my letters home that my mom had saved and gave to me after my father's death in 1983.

My main tool for remembering would be the photos I had taken during the trip, but I would have to scan them into my computer, so I invested in a new flatbed scanner that had advanced software and could scan prints, negatives and slides. It was still a laborious process since my color positives were mounted between two pieces of thin glass, but this new machine made it a bit easier. I had once read in a photography magazine that glass frames protected the pictures from dust and scratches. I can tell you this is true. What it didn't say however, was that the glass itself would collect dust and oil over the decades, forcing me to take each frame apart, remove the positive one by one, and mount them again in frames without glass.

Next it was time to do a rough sort and enumerate the digitized pictures. Every photo had then to be reviewed and retouched, dust removed, scratches fixed, shadows lightened, highlights darkened, and colors corrected. One of the hardest tasks was to organize the digitized photos. I had marked the color slides with small stick-on numbers, but this didn't tell me where the pictures were taken. This was less of a problem for the first part of the journey as it was easy to tell whether a photo was from Dubrovnik, Istanbul, or Herat, but that was not the case with the slides from India.

There were frustrating instances where I couldn't figure out where I had taken a certain picture. For example, I had a series of photos of a caravan passing in front of an old fortress. I knew that I had shot the photos between Kabul and Kandahar, but I couldn't locate the fort. I visited my local library and bookstores searching for picture books, or at least a guidebook, but they didn't have any. I searched the web for images from Afghanistan, and used Google Earth to hover over the road while looking in all directions, but as amazing as it was to retrace my trip virtually, I could not find the fort. I posted pictures on Facebook, hoping that my friends who had been to Afghanistan more recently would recognize it, but they said that they had taken planes as these roads were not safe.

I also tried the Facebook page "The Afghanistan I Know," where a man suggested the fort in Ghazni, and posted a photo he had taken in the 1960s. But my photos didn't match Google's satellite images of that fort. However, a few weeks later I got a message from a Swedish friend who lives across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. “It is Qalat in the Zabul Province,” he wrote. He knew because his American wife's son had been stationed there, and had immediately recognized the fort from the photos.


My first memory of the trip, which I only recovered thanks to my photos, was from the first morning on the road. The buses were parked along a highway in Denmark and we used water from the water tanks to brush our teeth and wash our faces. We must have bought some breakfast before we continued into Germany. The German autobahn was certainly efficient, but left few traces in my mind. My next memory, also triggered by a photo, is from inside a large beer hall, probably in Munich, and the next is from the Austrian town Villach, where I fought valiantly in broken German complaining about an undercooked chicken dish that Elisabeth had been served. 


The next stop after Villach was Ljubljana, which today lies in Slovenia, but this was fifteen years before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia. Josip Broz Tito, who had led the resistance against the Nazi occupation, and then fought off Stalin’s agents and military threats a few years later, was still in charge. I complained in my notebook that it was hard to keep up with politics as I only occasionally could find English language newspapers, but I did learn of a conspiracy against Tito, with Soviet maneuvering in the background hoping to get a more “friendly” government.

Yugoslavia’s economic system was an unorthodox mix of capitalism and socialism. It was a poor country where workers were allowed to seek work in other countries. It was also relatively open to the West and welcomed tourism. I noted in my diary that they sold Coca Cola and pornographic papers in the newspaper kiosks, and that a movie theater in Ljubljana played “Goldfinger.”

Opatija, a small town just north of Rijeka, was our first stop at the Adriatic Sea. It was morning and customers were inspecting crates full of fish that the fishermen had unloaded from their boats. A little later we were back on the buses heading south on a road that was winding its way through a rocky landscape that at times looked completely dead. In the distant, the Dinaric Alps seemed to be floating in a blue haze. The thermometer in the bus read 100° F.


The landscape became more green and lush as we approached Dubrovnik. We entered through the Pile Gate and fell in love with the old city as we explored its narrow alleys. In the evening we happened upon a discotheque located in the ramparts facing the harbor. The place was crowded with young people. Cool guys in tight-fitting clothes were shaking to disco strobe lights in narrow, smoky and dark rooms. The heavily made-up girls were trying hard to fulfill their roles as subservient sex objects. Most couldn't find a place on the dance floor, or dared not go, but instead sat there half-drunk and staring. Just like home, I wrote in my diary.

The buses left the shore just north of Albania, and took us inland to Titograd and Skopje, the latter an ancient city that had been devastated in the 1963 earthquake.  We only made short stops in the area, which is now part of the Republic of Macedonia. As we crossed the border to Greece, we were welcomed by bouzouki music coming in over the bus radio.

Our next stop was Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. We parked next to a street market where a hefty butcher in a white apron slammed his meat cleaver so hard that one could almost feel the thuds in the air when the steel hit the chopping board. Chunks of meat, turkeys and chickens were hanging in front of the small shop. A cacophony of sounds bounced off the walls as the sellers advertised their products and prices. Men of all ages, but only men, sat at a café as an old woman dressed in black hurried by with a loaf of bread in her hand. People were generally friendly and asked where we were from, and where we were going. They smiled when they heard that we were Swedes and not Americans, but their smiles vanished when I told them that we were on the way to Istanbul.  One butcher made a sign with his hand signaling that the Turks would cut off our heads. Istanbul was a dangerous place, they said.

Driving east from Thessaloniki meant another step down the socio-economic ladder. Instead of asphalt, the roads were now covered with gravel. We passed through small villages with covered women, donkey carts and minarets. Here people were looking curiously at our buses which by now had climbed in status and did not look bad at all.

It so happened that I revisited Istanbul in the summer of 2014, but this time I arrived on a luxury cruise ship. We had passed the narrow strait of the Dardanelles and sailed across the Sea of Marmara when we began to notice a vast city landscape on Istanbul’s European and Asian side. It took a long time before we got close enough to see the old Istanbul with its mosques and minarets.

What a stark contrast to the first time I arrived in this city.

Back in 1974, we were sitting in front of the bus, as the road climbed and descended one soft hill after another revealing only a thickening city landscape, and then the sensation when we passed a hill that finally revealed the enormous city laid out in front of us. I still remember the final approach as if we were sucked into a maelstrom of traffic that got more and more intense. I also remember that there were lots and lots of large American cars. As we saw Istanbul from a street level, we didn't quite know where we were, just that we had parked near the Hippodrome a few steps from the Blue Mosque. But when I in 2014 overlooked the city from the ninth deck of our ship, which had docked at Karaköy near the Galata Bridge, I could calmly take in the whole.

Street scene from Istanbul. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974.
Istanbul's old town seen from the ship. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 2014.
Topkapi, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 2014.
Note. The text above is an excerpt from a book that I am writing about my 1974 overland journey to India.  

Here is a link to my photo book 
An Overland Journey from Sweden to India (1974)
that I have published online.

Copyright: Hans Sandberg, August 2014