('On-line' text of)
- A HITCH-HIKER'S TALE'
An account of hitch-hiking from England to Europe,
North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan & India in 1970
by Paul Mason
© Paul Mason 2006, 2015
A GOOD OMEN
Emerging from my mother’s flat, I climb the red-bricked steps with what little dignity and grace I can muster. Fine droplets of drizzle lightly fall on my upturned face, cool and refreshing. Wrenching another last anguished goodbye, I make my way as purposefully across the driveway as my weakened legs will allow. The gorgeous scent of the rose bushes catches me as I take one last wistful look at the house in which I have lived these last eighteen years.
Yolanda and I walk along the pavement, and as we do I wonder if this will this be the last time I will ever see my home, the last time I will ever walk down this road? Nearing the bus stop, my girlfriend looks at me searchingly.
‘We could go by Underground or by British Railways, the big trains,’ I volunteer.
‘What’s the easiest?’ she asks.
I look over my shoulder, still not a bus in sight.
‘The Underground’s further, and the walk to the other railway station we could manage without taking the bus.’
Yolanda looks somewhat confused since she is not very au fait with the transport system.
My words came back to me, as they sometimes do and at once I realise how confusing my answer sounds. I am struck too by the absurdity of the situation. Embarking on a journey to foreign parts, this is not the time to engage in a discussion about travel in London.
‘Oh come on, let’s just start walking,’ I suggest, and continue in the direction of Putney Station.
‘Why can’t you explain?’ Yolanda asks, catching me up and walking beside me.
‘Don’t worry the station isn’t very far. We can easily walk it.’
Passing past the row of local shops I recall that as a child, during Christmas holidays one year I had worked at Godfrey’s the greengrocers, unpacking crates of fruit, and the next Christmas had worked at the florists with old Mr Dando, he of the relaxed and friendly country manner. Amazingly, I never once saw him grumpy or angry.
Onwards we trudge toward the train station, the drizzle slowly turning into rain, summer rain, as it is already late July! It seems so absurd to be wandering off like this in such a downpour?
I am really tempted to turn back but just then my brother’s words echo in my ears. We walk on.
‘Only a few minutes more and we’ll be there,’ I comment to my girlfriend encouragingly.
She stares at me disbelievingly but keeps her silence.
We walk close to the cinema, which once used be called the Globe Cinema - I remember the day of it’s re-opening when our family went there together to see a comic railway film entitled Titfield Thunderbolt. It has long changed ownership and name, now it is the Cinecenta and shows offbeat films with titles like Les Biches and Charlie Bubbles.
‘I saw Wonderwall at that cinema. George Harrison did the music. Brilliant it was!’ I enthuse.
‘Are we almost at the station?’ Yolanda asks impatiently, ‘I’m getting soaked.’
‘Yup! The station’s right here,’ and we were soon under cover in the dry.
After purchasing two singles to Victoria I show them to the West Indian ticket collector, who recognising me nods agreeably. We make it down the stairs to the platform just as the train is just pulling in which is timely. We slump down relieved to be sitting down. The train soon picks up speed and rattles along at a fair pace.
‘This is the route I used to go to school,’ I tell Yolanda.
‘Oh really?’ she answers with no evident interest.
‘Yes, I went this way every day. Henderson went there too, it was quite a good school you know.’
‘Really?’ she asks, apparently warming to the subject.
I notice the train is now slowing to a stop.
‘Quick we’re at Clapham Junction, we have to change here.’
‘Oh I’ve been to Clapham before, when I went to see someone in Peckham.’
‘Peckham? That’s on the 37 bus route,’ I say in reflex response.
We descend the stairs and make our way along the damp smelling gloomy subway.
‘Our train might come in on Platform 12 and it might come on 14. Fast trains on 12, locals on 14.’
Yolanda looks at me a touch bewildered.
‘Quick, run! It’s on 14,’ I shout.
We make it up the stairs and clamber onto the train with only moments to spare.
We sit ourselves down and regain our breath. Looking about I realize I find I wish to avoid the eyes of my fellow passengers, so I take to gazing out of the window instead.
Clapham Junction Station, the biggest rail junction in the world! How many times I had sat on the ends of the platforms as a keen young train spotter? Thr’penny notebook and blue Scripto biro pen in my hands, Branston pickle sandwiches and bottled drink at the bottom of my duffel bag?
The train on which Yolanda and I are travelling now takes the long viaduct through bleak Battersea and over a bridge across the River Thames. Many years before I came by a very old ticket relating to this very bridge, a 3rd Class ticket of the L.C.&D.R., the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, from a station named Grosvenor Road that used to stand here. Very old ticket indeed, from about 1890.
Leaving behind us the Grosvenor Road Bridge, the train now rattles into the vast terminus of Victoria, where we alight and make our way towards the ticket barrier. The collector snatches our tickets.
‘Officious sod,’ I think to myself, ‘I won’t be sorry to miss your kind!’
I am minded of the guy at the Employment Exchange who had only recently told me: ‘Right! Next week when you come in, I want to see you looking smart. We’re going to find you a job!’
‘I won’t be in next week, I’m off to India,’ I had explained simply.
‘Well .. just you come in smart that’s all,’ he had stuttered, trying to sound as self-assured as he didn’t look.
Before looking for the ticket office at Victoria Station I check with Yolanda concerning our route to France.
‘We book to Dover, then get a ticket for the boat at the other end,’ she informs me.
We proceed towards the other side of the station. I don’t think I have never travelled from this side before; this is where the ‘specials’ depart from, The Golden Arrow and The Orient Express. We buy two singles.
‘Shall we change some money?’ I ask. ‘We’ve got time, about twenty minutes according to the timetable. How many francs do we get for the pound?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Yolanda replies vaguely.
‘Well you ought to, after all you’ve been there before. I haven’t.’
Yolanda becomes embarrassed; she looks beautiful when she gets embarrassed.
Standing by the departure board is a group of purposeful youngsters waiting with baggage, suitcases, holdalls, backpacks strewn about their feet and nearby them, a clump of bicycles. We negotiate a passage past them and approach the train. The carriages appear to be crammed full, faces furtively look back at me as we search for a couple of vacant seats.
‘It’s packed full,’ I exclaim in alarm as we peer into first one carriage then another, but we keep looking and about half way up the long line of coaches we find some vacant seats. Climbing aboard we place our belongings on the netted string luggage rack above the seats and sit ourselves down.
As we wait for the train to leave I study the French currency notes and coins that we have obtained from the bank. Very attractive notes they are, much more attractive than British equivalents. It makes me wonder what the Bank of England was thinking of when recently they had abolished the Ten Shilling note, replacing it with some silly looking coin. The first old coin to go was the farthing, then last year it was the ha’penny and around Christmas the dear old half-crown piece. It even looks as though they will eventually even drop the sixpence and shilling. Actually, I still haven’t forgiven them for withdrawing all those lovely early Victorian pennies, the ‘bun’ pennies on which Queen Victoria appears wearing her hair in a bun. They are very scarce these days, and it isn’t only me that finds these changes unwelcome.
Nowadays it seems to all about change, judging by the thee coins and notes France is changing too, to ‘Nouveau’ francs, I figure the grey coins, seemingly made of aluminium, must be the old francs.
‘I wonder who this chick with the funny hairdo is, on the banknotes?’ The carriage gives a jerk.
‘We’re off!’ I exclaim.
‘Y-e-e-e-s!’ says Yolanda, as if to her self.
So, after weeks of indecision, prevarication and listless waiting, spent in futile soul-searching, we are finally on the move! I settle down to enjoy the view from the window, wiping the back of my hand across the window to remove the mist of condensation, my rings scratching against the glass which makes my teeth grate.
Peering through the window I see it is raining hard again, so the Kent countryside, the ‘Garden of England’, is virtually impossible to discern. I’m tempted to say something to Yolanda, but the sound of the rattling of the wheels along the track, alongwith with the swaying motion of the train dissuades me from striking up further conversation with her just yet.
We have been on the train quite a time, and when passengers begin getting up from their seats and reaching for their luggage I figure we must be getting close to the terminus. By the distinctive taste and smell of the air, I know we are near to the sea. Quite why people rush to the seaside in their droves to ‘get a lung full of ozone’ I don’t know. Personally, I don’t like the smell, it reminds me of chemistry lessons.
Alongwith the other passengers we alight from the train and go purchase our ferry tickets then walk on down to the quay. Being a boat train I had thought that our train would also be transported across the Channel. I guess I take things too literally.
At the sign marked ‘UK PASSPORT HOLDERS’ I hold out my passport and tickets. An official wearing peaked cap and naval style jacket casts his eyes over me and then at my passport.
As a ‘foreign national’ Yolanda must go through a different gate, but she soon rejoins me and together we make our way up the gangway of the vessel. I stand for a moment watching the carloads of holidaymakers inching their way into the hold.
We make our way to the ferry’s little shop, so many years I have waited to get something ‘duty free’. As we stand waiting for it to open I note with interest the fine jewelled droplets of drizzle sparkling in my girlfriend’s hair.
The boat is soon off, cutting its way through the sea. I do hope the crossing will not be too choppy.
The Duty Free Shop door is being unlocked, so we move closer and shuffle inside. Displayed are perfumes, spirits and a selection of electrical gadgets. Spotting the cigarettes, I pick up a carton of Benson and Hedges. I ask myself when had I stopped smoking Gold Leaf cigarettes? And when did I dispense with good old humble roll-ups. Why these King Size numbers I ask? Is it peer pressure? Am I concerned with my image?
Back on deck clutching our bags and our duty-frees we search about the many wooden benches fixed around the deck for a vacant seat, but they were all the taken.
‘Yolanda how long does it take to get across?’
‘I can’t remember. Two or three hours maybe?’
‘It’s a bit of a drag isn’t it?’ I respond.
We watch some teenagers cavorting about trying to impress their girlfriends. I note that Yolanda seems to find their antics particularly unwelcome.
‘Pitiful aren’t they?’ she comments, ‘Why can’t they act their age?’
‘I wish they’d cool it,’ she adds haughtily. But, with the roar of the waves this comment is lost on them. I wonder why they don’t go elsewhere and annoy someone else?
One of them stares at us, a belligerent look of scorn written across his face. I suppose he disapproves of our Hippy appearance.
Yolanda is wearing her glossy black fur coat, black chiffon blouse, purple velvet trousers and open-toed wooden-soled Scholl sandals. When I discovered that she had chosen to wear the fur coat I thought to dig out mine, a tattered brown one, a relic from the times when they were fashionable back in 1968. I clearly remember seeing Stevie Winwood wearing one on Top of the Pops in the height of summer performing ‘I’m a Man’, sweating profusely and grinning as if he was really ‘out of it’. I like the fur; it somehow makes me feel closer to nature. I’m also wearing a purple polo-neck sweatshirt and jeans (a pair a girl friend altered for me, sewing in extra denim to make them flare like sailors trousers). For the trip I bought myself some new shoes; sandy coloured desert boots.
Maybe the young couples got tired of their childish games or maybe we freaked them out, anyway. Clearly they failed to get the reaction they sought adn have moved elsewhere.
‘Good!’ Yolanda remarks, making her way to a vacated seat.
After a while I get up and wander across the deck, which is now dangerously slippery with water. I on the white painted tubular railings and stare ahead, gradually noticing the coast of France coming into view. As a happy little boy on his holidays, whilst standing on the Dorsetshire cliffs near Weymouth, I had long strained to see the French coastline. Now, sighting France for the first time I marvel at the resemblance of the chalk cliff coastline of our South Coast,.
‘Now, if you could just push them together we’d be joined to France!’ I think to myself.
Fortunately, it is not too long before the ship docks and we disembark. I note without any surprise at all that there is no reception committee waiting for us, just the French customs officials at the ‘Douane’ sign. Our passports are soon checked and returned, after which I eye with curiosity what has been stamped in them.
Trudging through dockyard here, with its cranes and railway trucks, we now walk past Calais railway station, bristling with activity. Several trains are waiting there, waiting to whisk our fellow travellers off to their holiday paradises. Gazing at the hubbub of activity I try decoding the name of the organisation from its initials SNCF, Societe Nationale Chemin de Fer - National Society of the Iron Horse - a nice idea…. but I quickly realise my mistake; Iron Path not Iron Horse!
We make our way out of the vast station yard with the hope of finding the main road to Paris, with the intention of getting a lift in that direction.
It is apparent that that the majority of the traffic here comprises of families travelling in cars with caravans in tow. And we soon find that not only are they unwilling to offer us a lift but, for the most part, they are unable, packed as they are with children and luggage.
Hours pass and there not one vehicle stops for us. It becomes fairly obvious that the longer we wait here the further demoralised we become. It is getting late, and the light is starting to fade, so without further ado we decide to make camp in an adjacent field, and there unfurl the sleeping bags with a view to bedding down for the night.
I don’t know how long it has been daylight - I wipe the sleep out of my eyes, gradually stir and take in the new morning. Clearly, we have slept soundly beneath the open sky for I am now wide awake feeling refreshed and renewed.
I look about me and notice with surprise the dark shape of young kitten lying fast asleep between our sleeping bags, seemingly, snug, warm and secure. Yolanda wakes and this tiny furry creature becomes the focus of our rapt attention. I am gratified he has joined us like this, I see it as a good omen. We linger awhile playing and cuddling him, then breakfast on some bread and fruit, the remains of our packed food. But we fret that we cannot feed the kitten nor can we offer him even any milk.
We get our sleeping bags rolled, the rucksack fastened, then bid a fond farewell to our little friend and leave the field.
After the disappointing wait the day before, that instead of standing waiting for a lift, we will walk further along the road, at least until we get out of Calais, figuring we stand more chance of getting a lift that way. As we walk, to our surprise, our newly adopted kitten catches up with us. As in all likelihood he belongs to one of the many caravans or bungalows dotted around about, we tell him to go on home, stopping and pointing from time-to-time. But no much we persist in discouraging him from following us, he nevertheless trails after us, following us for at least another two miles. We get increasingly concerned for his well-being, so in desperation we hatch a plan to dissuade him staying with us. We decide to ignore him, just occasionally casting a surrepticious glance. Alas, the plan does not succeed. So, as we try to come to terms with the idea that fate has ordained him as our travelling companion, we discuss the problem of feeding him and how we were going to smuggle him through passport controls.
But when I next look around he has vanished. I feel an immediate sense of loss now he is gone for we have grown attached to him so quickly, but I realise that it is for the best.
After walking for several miles, we develop quite a thirst and with no shops in sight where we might buy a bottle of drink, we decide to knock at the next house we come upon. A man comes to the door and hearing our request for a glass of water he slams the door shut in our faces.
‘Some people!’ Yolanda exclaims in surprise.
As we continue along the road I take careful notice the locals, all of them men, many with berets, moustaches and broad striped sweatshirts, some on bicycles, and all with long French loaves protruding from their persons, they somehow epitomise my expectations of the French.
‘Are we ever going to get a lift?’ I lament, ‘At this rate we’ll take years to get anywhere at all.’
Just as I finish my sentence a lorry pulls into a lay-by further up the road. Yolanda tells me the French for lorry is camion.
The lorry driver is answering the call of nature, and when he returns to his vehicle seems very surprised to find us waiting for him.
Yolanda does the talking, she seems to be able to speak French well.
‘On va aller aux Indes,’ she says.
‘What does that mean?’ I whisper.
‘Oh, that we’re going to India,’ she replies airily.
But her words seem to panic the poor man, and even when we’d be happy to be able to get to Paris, he still seems nervous about giving us a lift. But we badger him and at last he agrees to take us with him. Jubilant we climb into the cab of the camion; we have our first lift!
This is my first experience of motoring on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, whilst folks in Britain drive on the left side of the road, in France they drive on the right! It feels like our journey has now started, properly.
As we motor along, I am surprised to find that the French countryside is remarkably similar to the British landscape and their buildings not markedly different either. My attention drifts, I note the different makes of cars, I try to read the advertising hoardings that line the road. Though written in French the posters communicate clearly through their images; popular products being advertised are unfamiliar brands of coffee and soft cheeses. The latter utilises pictures of long-horned cows, which surprises me, for whilst I have seen a variety of types of cows, I have never actually seen one with horns, so there is perhaps chance that we might yet encounter a unicorn, such as is depicted on the British passport, on our travels.
Very little conversation falls between the three of us and after about 10 kilometres (alas it seems I must forget about miles now we are in France) the driver indicates he is turning off the main road.
‘Merci beaucoup, Monsieur.’ I thank him -it feels good to put to use a little of the schoolboy French I learned.
It is, by now, mid-morning, and seeing a café a few yards away from where we are dropped, we decide to order coffee and croissants. Though I set about mine enthusiastically, I would prefer tea and toast, by choice.
I gaze about, and eye with interest the advertisements for soft drinks and cigarettes on the walls of the café. Indeed, there was a time when I had wanted to go into graphics as a profession.
As we sit here, relaxing over this our second breakfast today, I think of my mother back home. I do hope she isn’t worrying. I can picture her sitting there at the table, with a cup of coffee and some biscuits, a concerned look on her face. She was so apprehensive about our leaving, so saddened. As I remember we are one hour forward now I realise that maybe she will have already finished her morning coffee.
The locals seem to view us as objects of curiosity, so we return them the compliment. Actually, I am really eager to adjust to being in France and wish to fit in with our new surroundings, and I realise I I have many new things to adjust to; the language, the money, the food and God knows what else. In an attempt to strike up a chat with the staff at the café, we mention that we are going to India. It is just as it was with the lorry driver, these people suddenly became full of concern but I can’t figure why! It seems like time to leave.
Strapping on the rucksack and sleeping bags we go to pay for our snacks. Converting backwards and forwards, French centimes to pence, pence to centimes I try to familiarise myself with the worth of this new money.
A hurried ‘Bonjour’ and we are off.
As we walk along the main road we enjoy the warmth of the sun as it emerges from the screen of clouds. At the sound of any approaching vehicle we unfailingly attempt to thumb a ride. At lenghth a car pulls up, an estate car displaying British registration plates. It seems there is little space in the car, there is a large object filling it up and projecting from the back of the vehicle. But according to the driver there is sufficient space to sit inside, so we bundle in, relieved to get the chance to be on the move again.
The driver turns out to be a genteel man, who goes by the name of Henry. He explains to us that he is on his way to Paris, to deliver a harpsichord there. When Henry hears of our plans to travel to India he gets really quite excited. We become very absorbed in conversation with our driver, he is good company. I am gladdened by his enthusiasm as it helps revive our confidence, about the validity of wanting to try and get to India, that we have met with someone who can see a value in travel and adventure.
The lift passes enjoyably and I notice from the roadsigns that we are well on our way. At length we reach the outskirts of Paris, and Henry carefully and deliberately negotiates the radial roads. Whilst he homes in on his destination, I catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Henry has his mind targetted on finding a certain café where he plans to meet a certain young lady!
The café is speedily located and after ushering us to a table on the wide pavement, Henry treats us each to a coffee and a scrumptious slice of savoury food, cheese, tomato and herbs. According to Henry this is something called pizza, not something I have encountered before. Henry, Yolanda and myself relax and chat amiably.
Close to our café stands an archway such as those stands which stand in Central London, at Marble Arch and at Hyde Park Corner. So close is this Arc de…. I feel as though we are sitting in a picture postcard.
The young woman Henry has arranged to meet joins us, and after exchanging small talk for a few minutes, Yolanda and I take our leave, wishing them both well.
We take to strolling along quiet boulevards looking half-interestedly into the ostentatious shop fronts. One store is proffering heaps of dark chocolate and another displays rich gateaux, whilst others are clothing, long gowns and accessories.
Since Yolanda has already been to Paris before, I resignedly accept her wish not to explore the city and instead so we look to find a way to reach the outskirts of the city. Had the situation been different, had we not been embarked on a serious quest of discovery, I would have been drawn to the nightlife of ‘Gay Paree’, might have visited the Moulin Rouge to get a taste of the bright lights glamour, maybe even see some cancan dancers.
According to Yolanda, the best way to travel across Paris is by the Metro train so we therefore look for the nearest station. The plan is to catch a train and cross Paris and then find a good point to hitchhike from such as a major crossroads or the start of a motorway. Once clear of Paris we can move onward to the coast, maybe, but I already realize that it doesn’t matter where we end up going. One sure thing I know for sure now is that just being on the road, we are already far more relaxed.
We descend a long flight of steps into the French version of the London Underground system. We buy tickets and board a train which is fairly tightly packed with passengers. We settle down on slatted wooden benches in close proximity to the many French people. It is impossible to ignore the strong coctail of odours which pervade the rickety carriage; the acrid smoke of Gauloise and Gitanes cigarettes, the strong smell of garlic, added to which the smell of body odour. But it really isn’t long before we are acclimatized.
Arriving at our station, we alight and make our way through the station to a busy street with cars and buses are moving at what appears to be a dangerous pace. There we chat to some young people who look as though they might be able to tell us of a good hitching spot. As it happens, they do know of a good place to hitchhike from and offer to take us there, though they warn us it is a long way away.
As we all walk the young French girls offer us some of their fizzy lemonade, which to my surprise actually tastes of real lemon! Lemonade here is far better than the muck they sell back in Britain. Unaccountably, I some find coins on the pavement, and I purchase another bottle of lemonade at the next magazin (shop). After which we walk some more, and I find yet more coins, so we have more fizzy pop, and then more coins and yet more quenching nectar!
The sleeping bags and the rucksack are beginning to cut into our shoulders; I quietly ache for release from the discomfort.
We arrive at a major road junction only to discover that our new found friends are to planning to break company, and of the girls only Josette is to stay with us, for she plans to stand alongside us on the autoroute and hitch-hike.
Josette’s companions make their farewells. ‘Bonjour to you too’ I shout.
Josette tells us she lives in Lyon (a far distant city) and when she realises we might be persuaded to go by that route she presses us to travel with her and to stay at her home. Since we have nothing more than vague notions of an itinerary we easily agree with her plan. I doubt the three of us hitching together will be able to get a lift, but I guess there is a chance.
Other hitchhikers are already sited ahead, thumbs aloft casting their fate to the wind. We are in line, in a sort of queue, and gradually move up as other hikers get lifts. But since we wait at some distance from each other, drivers can choose who they pick up. It is sport to shout after cars unwilling to give a lift and sometimes we even gesture our disapproval, just to keep amused. In order to keep up my spirits I sing to myself:-
‘The first time I travelled out in the rain and snow, I didn’t have no fare, oh I didn’t have no place to go-o-o- o, I’m on, on the road again…’ A reasonable rendition of Canned Heat’s hot hit.
Gradually the queue lessens until we find ourselves at the head, and soon it is our turn to run to the waiting vehicle. It is an articulated lorry, truck - another ‘camion’ - and with difficulty we hoist ourselves up the set of metal steps to the cab, which is set at quite a height, and then we hurl in our baggage and climb in ourselves, the girls first and then myself.
Now we are on the move, and the girls make conversation with our driver. My lack of fluency in French forces me to keep my own company, so I settle down to listen to the onboard radio, to the French pop songs being broadcast. I am eager to drink in the meaning of the foreign words and immerse myself in the feel of the unfamiliar styles. The driver, a powerfully built swarthy dark skinned man, contents himself with singing along to the songs and shooting the occasional comment across the cabin to the girls. We continue in this way for quite a time, until I notice the sunlight gently dimming. As evening approaches the tarmac whizzes by blurring beneath us.
I am aching to empty my bladder (most probably all that lemonade).
The need to have a piss just gets more pressing, but I think better than to ask our driver to stop. It can only be a matter of time before he needs to stop sometime, but he just keeps driving on.
Eventually, after what seems like about another half-hour later, we pull off the main road road and the driver leaps out. We have stopped at a roadside café – this is my opportunity to find a loo, I waste no time climbing out of the cab, and looking about. I soon find what I’m looking for, and open the door marked ‘Hommes’.
Nothing has prepared me for this, the continental version of a toilet set into the tiled floor and covered in filth, the floor awash with a layer of ominous looking liquid. Worse, I am confronted by the most revolting stench of unspeakably foul odours. And as the door closes itself behind me, I find myself all but wretching. Hurriedly I open it again, gaining only a slight relief.
My eyes burn fiercely; I actually become panicked that I might be losing my eyesight! If I were able to keep the door wide open I might be able to have a pee, but instead, I have to search for somewhere else to go. But as I re-emerge I catch sight of our driver returning to his lorry, so I feel obliged to make my way back too.
The driver has bought himself a bottle of Tizer drink, some snacks and a supply of cigarettes, Gauloises, but yellow in colour and considerably stronger than the usual. The smell of the extra strong French tobacoo does nothing at all to relieve the immense discomfort I am experiencing, I begin to feel that my bladder might explode. I really pray he will stop but we drive non-stop for about two hours when quite suddenly the camion again grinds to a halt. The driver explains that we should get off here if we are going to Lyon. The girls offer their thanks for the lift, and I too shout a hurried ‘Merci’ before jumping down to disappear into some roadside bushes - belatedly emptying my bladder – Oh what a relief, what a great merciful relief!
We make the most of this chance to exercise our cramped legs and wander up and down the side of the road. I notice my eyes still weep from the acrid attack at the café, but mercifully the fresh air is beginning to soothe them. My companions’ skins appear orange, bathed as they are in a strange glow coming from the street lamps. As evening draws on we become quite chilled and hungry. We rummage through our bags in search of tit-bits of food. Up and down the wide pavement we walk, trying as best we can to keep ourselves warm. Wandering further up the road we stop and at a service station, emblazoned with signs promoting Chevron brand, where we obtain a bottle of fizzy orange.
Josette and I chat easily, but I notice Yolanda keeps her own company, I let her be. For hours we stand about hoping for another lift - Josette calls hitchhiking ‘autostop’. Waiting about is becoming really tedious and for the first time since leaving London, I feel a strong desire to be home.
The all-night trip becomes increasingly tiring but eventually we get a lift, and are whisked swiftly to the outskirts of Lyon. The morning sun is particularly hot today and it takes its toll on us as we struggle on towards Josette’s home. At last we arrive at the apartment Josette shares with her mother. The sparsely furnished front room and tiled floor, contrasts greatly to the homeliness of my mother’s flat in London where books and curiosities line the shelves in happy disorder and one can recline in an easy chair or lounge on the comfy sofa. Here, function with a slight sense of formality, rules.
Standing in the doorway appears an older version of Josette - this is obviously Josette’s mother. She wears no make-up on her suntanned round face and is dressed casually in neutral colours, her long blond hair tied back. On our way here, Josette had mentioned that she and her mother sometimes go hitchhiking together, and that recently they had gone to Spain. It sounded like they enjoyed an unusually close relationship.
I guess that to Josette’s mother we must look a sight to behold, clothes crushed and misshapen, hair matted, our feet and shoes covered with dust bedraggled and weary. We are definitely not dressed for a garden party at the Buckingham Palace or a day at Ascot!
After moving our baggage to the bedroom, I return to the sitting room and finding the television on, I idle through the channels, chancing first on a news report, then a game show. It all feels and sounds so unfamiliar, the French language though certainly attractive, right now begins to annoy me.
Josette’s mother reappears, and has thoughtfully brought us some coffee, bread, soft cheese and gateaux. Gratefully we demolish the meal, leaving no more than a few cake crumbs and coffee dregs. Next on the agenda is the wash and brush-up and the bathroom now comes into it’s own as one by one we bathe ourselves and return to the sitting room a little more presentable.
The day passes uneventfully, and when evening comes we dine with Josette and her mother, who brings us consommé (soup), bread and tinned fruit. Our hosts don’t seem surprised when we indicate we wish to get to bed, so we wish them ‘Bon nuit’ and retire to our room. But I find I can’t face going to sleep as if I have become somewhat overexposed, added to which I feel rather cooped up. I am also unhappy no longer having the sky above me, I miss the wind on my face.
Instead of lying down to sleep I open my copy of The Bible hoping that by reading it my feelings will lighten. Flicking over the thin brittle pages I scan the chapter headings; Kings, Corinthians, Thessalonians, Acts…. I find myself dipping, pickign passages at random but all I read seems to be about doom and gloom, I then flick the pages over some more and read some more passages, but find this only deepens my already gloomy mood. Hot teardrops form, and I close my eyes in an attempt to control my emotions. Having pulled myself together, as best I can, I try to gain Yolanda’s attention.
‘Could we be on the move early tomorrow? I just want to get on with our journey.’ I plead.
Usually she seems to have a fairly phlegmatic temperament, but now, perhaps because she too is tired, she doesn’t want to listen to me. She seems to glower at me, suddenly impatient and disapproving, then of a sudden she lightens up and agrees to my proposal.
Next morning, we awake late in the morning, and discover that Josette has slept in too
Over breakfast of black coffee croissants and comme pot (chilled stewed apple), I let our hosts know that we intend to move on. They show no surprise.
Before we leave, we all kiss our hosts cheeks and hug each other before setting off to walk across the suburbs of Lyon. It is past midday before we find a suitable hitching point. Having now discovered France to be not so vastly different from England I reckon it would seem a waste of time and money to linger here long.
Our plan is still to follow my inspiration to travel accross France, cut through Spain, over to Morocco, then turn left along the coast of Africa to Egypt and Israel, then turn right and drift on towards Persia and then make our way to India. Carrying no map, we rely entirely on signposts and on our driver’s advice. As we speed on our way - the travel bug exerts its influence strongly, perhaps more strongly than ever.
Motoring. punctuated by spells of waiting or walking. – is becoming our normal way of life. Now we are fairly close to Spain, we find ourselves travelling through the town of Perpignan and onwards towards Montpelier.
When our next lift arrives I climb in and sit myself on the floor of the van, holding on as best that I can when the vehicle lurches and turns. Yolanda sits in the front and converses with the driver while I give my full-hearted attention to the radio. After listening awhile to French ballads I am pleased to hear a familiar tune; ‘Jennifer Juniper’ by British folk-singer Donovan, popular here, in all probability, for its few lyrics in the French language.
Jennifer Juniper, lives upon the hill
Jennifer Juniper, sitting very still
Is she sleeping? I don’t think so
Is she breathing? Yes, very low
Whatcha doing, Jennifer, my love?
vit sur la colline
Jennifer Juniper assise trés tranquille
Dors t’elle, je ne crois pas
Respire t’elle, oui, mais tout bas
Qu’est-ce tu fais, Jenny mon amour’
Time passes easily but then I notice that the easy going chatting in the front gives way to an abrupt exchange of words. Naturally, I ask my girlfriend if everything is all right - she answers with affirmative nods and so I am happy to return my attention to the radio.
All of a sudden, the van swerves and screeches to a halt, whereupon Yolanda opens the door and immediately clambers out. The driver turns to me and makes it clear that I am to follow her example. Confused, I look at the driver enquiringly. Then he gestures angrily so, though I am confused as to why he has stopped, I scramble out hauling our baggage after me. Before I have time to turn and close the door, I hear the sound of it slammming shut followed by the sound of rapid acceleration as the van tears away.
I seek an explanation from Yolanda as to what has happened! She is unwilling to talk but slowly and hesitantly she tells her story. Apparently, the top button of her blouse had, of it’s own volition had become unfastened and the driver had then become fixated with her breasts, demanding that undo more buttons and reveal her cleavage. When she did not comply the driver then threatened to abandon us by the roadside, a threat he then fulfilled.
Though naturally I sympathise with her I also feel down. It annoys me that she did not share this dilemma with me whilst it was occurring. Now we are stood standing on the hard shoulder in the middle of a busy motorway, with no lay-bys or crossroads to hitch from, and will have to walk many miles if we are to get to a place where anyone will be going slow enough to pick up up.
It is a long, long walk to the end of the motorway, and we exchange but few words as resignedly we trudge along.
It is long after nightfall, and we stand hitching at an intersection of a motorway A tall uniformed indivual, who wears a hat, accosts us and hustles us to an office closeby, where he begins to question us,.and them searches though all our belongings. I notice that he pays particular attention to Yolanda’s black suede shoulderbag and a silver pillbox he now finds. Obviously he suspects us of carrying drugs but on completion of his search he finds nothing incriminating or illegal. Is he disappointed? Who knows?
The gendarme now informs us that it is against the law to be hitching on an autoroute. We listen without responding to him I feel a certain animosity towards him on account of his searching us, so before restoring the contents of our rucksack I poke The Bible under his nose, vaguely thinking this will pang his conscience.
I recoil as th policeman lambasts me with a stream of abuse.
‘Il etait le premier,’ (He was the first) he shouts; presumably meaning that Jesus had been the first undesirable to make his way along the roads of civilised society, to upset the likes of this here gendarme.
I stare at him agape, this being the first open hostility towards Christianity I have ever encountered. Hitherto I have never witnessed anything other than awe and reverence towards Jesus. Well that’s not strictly true, there was the jokey ‘Wanted’ poster I had once seen in London. It was one of those outlaw posters like those from the days of the Wild West, but this one was for Jesus Christ, outlining him as anti-social with left-wing leanings! Perhaps this attitude of the seething gendarme stems from his political prejudice, but anyway, I am grateful for this telescoping of time that makes me see Jesus in a new light, as a dropout hitchhiker, for it serves to remind me of my spiritual quest. Now all feelings of tiredness are gone and I have energy enough to cogitate long and hard on the many connotations of these ideas.
To 'Via Rishikesh' Chapter 3
To 'Via Rishikesh' Index page