GUEST BLOG: The 1960s hippie trail
20th May 2013 - Joanna Rossiter
Joanna Rossiter is the author of The Sea Change, a haunting and moving novel about a mother and a daughter, caught between a tsunami and a war. The day after her wedding, Alice awakes to a tsunami bearing down on the Kanyakumari beachfront house where she is staying with her husband nowhere to be seen. She is estranged from her mother, who lives in a Wiltshire village, still haunted by the shadow of the man she loved. Both must now face up to uncomfortable truths.
The book is set 1971 and sees Alice travelling the route from Istanbul to India that caught the imagination of an idealistic generation. Here Joanna explains how twenty-somethings were able to travel freely throughout countries now off-limits to most in West, such as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, in an innocent precursor to the now commonplace gap year.
Six years ago, I followed in the footsteps of thousands of other UK school leavers and University graduates by taking a Gap Year. I embarked on what many have come to view as a fairly hackneyed experience: six months of volunteering at a charity project in India with some travelling thrown in for good measure. In doing so, I gained an experience which is almost seen a rite of passage for today's middle classes - a way of establishing independence and loosening ties with home.
In fact, society as a whole has become so familiar with the idea of travel for travel's sake that it is difficult to transport ourselves back to an era when this concept entered the public consciousness for the first time. We only need to cast an eye back fifty or sixty years to remember a time when holidays abroad were almost unheard of amongst the majority of Britons. The first commercial flight took off in 1952 and tickets did not become affordable until well into the 1960s. The fact that my mother had her first experience of air travel when she was in her thirties will seem retrograde to younger generations whose childhoods have been steeped in a culture of package holidays.
Despite appearances, today's young people are not the first to have caught the travel bug. In the late 1960s, hundreds of twenty-somethings began to embark on what became known as 'The Hippie Trail' - an overland driving route that stretched all the way from Istanbul to India. It covered territory that today's backpackers can only dream of seeing - from the ruins of Perspepolis in Iran to the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.
The Hippie Trail was, in some respects, an early precursor to the gap year. It enabled young people to sidestep expensive commercial flights and see the world on a shoestring. Travellers would congregate at a small café in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood nicknamed The Pudding Shop where there was a notice board for trail organizers to advertise spaces in their vehicles. Many of these self-appointed tour guides were themselves seasoned hippie trail participants who had got hold of old VW camper vans or minibuses with a view to charging other travellers for seats on the bus. There was no guarantee of the vehicle surviving all the way to India or that visas would be granted to passengers at each border. A travelling couple, who undertook the trail themselves in the 70s and who I interviewed whilst researching my novel, recalled the pain-staking waits at the Iranian and Pakistani borders and the various break downs that their bus endured along the route. With long stretches of uninhabited desert to cross, they often slept in tents next to the van and survived off cans of warm tinned spam brought by the bus driver from Europe and stored in the back of the vehicle.
Whilst unglamorous to the extreme, the trail covered parts of the world that modern-day travellers could not even conceive of visiting. Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan are, to varying degrees, off the cards for politically wary tourists. India, however, has remained a backpacker's staple and the fact that so many Westerners flock to Goa today is largely down to the way in which The Hippie Trail raised its profile amongst Western travellers during the 1970s. The influence of the Hippie Trail on the modern day travel industry is embodied in the fact that it was the inspiration for the first Lonely Planet travel guide in 1973. Founders of Lonely Planet Tony and Maureen Wheeler travelled the trail themselves in 1972 and wrote a guidebook based on their experiences. In doing so, they started to shape the itineraries of an entire generation of travellers.
Setting off on my gap year to India six years ago, I became interested in the evolution of travel amongst young people in the West: not only is travelling heralded as a means of 'finding yourself', there are also preconceived ideas about the way in which it should be conducted. Wearing the same T shirt for weeks on end, plastering your body with henna and hanging out with the locals are as vital to the cultural capital of the modern-day backpacker as the sites seen en route.
The Hippie Trail has unwittingly fostered an ideology that many seek to replicate and re-invoke in their own gap years. Parts of India, for instance, are well equipped for comfortable, even luxury tourism and yet many well-off Wesern twenty-somethings will choose to stay in run-down hostels rather than hotels in their search for authenticity. In doing so, perhaps they are looking to recreate more rustic notions of travel inherited from The Hippie Trail era. Today's trips abroad are fuelled not so much by a desire to see the world as it is but to encounter a preconceived, instagrammed version of it that will fulfil and propagate aesthetic myths that can be immediately broadcasted to friends back at home.
Born out of my research into The Hippie Trail and my own gap year experiences is my novel The Sea Change. At the heart of the book is an examination of the relationship between people and places; it explores the gulf that can exist between the reality of a place and the imaginative space that this place occupies in the mind. Through bringing The Hippie Trail to life in my novel, I wanted to interrogate our desire to define ourselves through the otherness of the places we visit and shine a light on the inexorability of home. Travel, after all, always requires a return.
Warm tinned spam . . . . . . ?? . . . . . i never came across that , the desert journey parts always had some village along the way where you could get something to eat, even if it was only bread and fruit, and the regular local buses would have rest places where there was usually a restaurant and a diesel pump . . . anyone relying on spam had not settled properly into the journey.
paul 03/06/2014 - 03/06/2014
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