We drove south through torrential rain to the border crossing where the grey-uniformed, officious German customs decided to do a thorough search. After all, we were a busload of freaks coming from Amsterdam, we were sure to be carrying a selection of mind-altering substances. All the bags were offloaded and the contents thoroughly scrutinised. Medicines and multivitamins were taken away to be analysed. Hash pipes and chillums were confiscated. Passports were collected and studied and a number of unfortunates were marched away by armed guards and forced to submit to a full body search. After a couple of hours one tiny piece of hash was discovered which precipitated a heated discussion on whether this was sufficient reason to refuse the bus entry into the country. Then a feisty, middle-aged German woman, who’d run out of patience, demanded that the pipes were returned and that they let us all go. And, strangely enough, they did. We drove on into the night with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young playing on the bus cassette player… ‘It’s been a long time comin’, it’s goin’ to be a long time gone.. Neil, the driver broke out his, (well-secreted behind the dashboard) stash of speed and we headed towards Munich.
I woke up as we passed the Olympic Village, 8:30am, 17 October, Munich. Here, a little over a year before, the Palestinian Black September group had held hostage members of the Israeli Olympic team which resulted in the deaths of eleven of them. We stopped nearby and exited the bus in order to stretch our legs and find a bank so that we could change our Guilders for Deutschmarks. This done we treated ourselves to lemon tea in an empty, sparkling glass and chrome café before stocking up on essential travel foodstuffs in a nearby supermarket. The weather had brightened up, it was a sharp, sunny morning, and our spirits were high. It was so good to feel that we were finally on the move. There was a short detour as Neil took his, (newly acquired) vehicle to show off to some friends and then we were away into the Bavarian Alps. As we climbed higher into the mountains the clouds closed in and it began to rain again, but the beauty of the scenery was undiminished and, even wreathed with thick swirls of grey mist, the mountains were a spectacular sight.
We crossed into Austria just outside Salzburg at around three o’clock with no problems; we didn’t even have to show our passports. After dark we stopped in a picturesque alpine village where, while most of the passengers piled into a restaurant, we used up our few remaining Deutschmarks supplementing our travel supplies with dark chocolate and yoghurt. Although invisible to the eye, you could feel the presence of the surrounding mountains, somewhere out there, beyond the darkness.
At 10.00pm we arrived at the Yugoslavian border and had our passports stamped while we changed Dollars for Dinars and were off once more. Sometime in the night we passed through Ljublijana and Zagreb and dawn found us travelling on the main truck route east across a seemingly endless plain. This was no longer the Europe we knew. We appeared to have entered another world, there were a few cars and trucks on the road, but they were outnumbered by the horse drawn carts. In the fields we saw no tractors, only men ploughing with oxen and horses or working the land with rudimentary hand-tools. There were a few small farms consisting of tiny, ramshackle stone or wooden houses but no villages or towns.
The bus drew up outside a transport café or roadside restaurant and we all piled out. It was a relief to be able to stretch my restless, cramped legs. I’d been in agony for the previous few miles. My calf muscles were driving me crazy. I was so glad that we were only travelling as far as Istanbul. The idea of spending four weeks on a bus like this, going all the way to India, was like a nightmare to me.
This rest stop exposed me to the reality of just how disgusting a toilet can be and a taste of things to come. No amount of exposure to free-festival trench latrines could have prepared me for such a gut-wrenching stink. I desperately tried not to breathe or look as I emptied my bladder. Then I was actually charged to wash my hands and face at the grimy sink, which I had to share with two other guys. The restaurant was shabby and smelt of petrol or perhaps it was the coffee, which looked like recycled diesel oil. We chose tea with a slice of lemon, which we sipped while watching Neil repairing a water leak under the bus.
The scenery remained the same until we came to Belgrade the then capital of Yugoslavia and current capital of Serbia . My impression of the city was of an unplanned hotchpotch of ugly, concrete, high-rise apartment blocks separated by wasteland. Surrounding them, on the outskirts, the buildings became mud-walled or wooden shacks, as if the rural past had crept in to meet the tenement present. By the time we had stopped for oil a few kilometers outside Belgrade the weather had become hot and humid and the fields were full of ripening sweetcorn and sunflowers. Suddenly it felt like summer. The roofs of the houses were red with drying chillies and the fields were full of flat-capped men with weather-beaten, craggy faces and women in brightly coloured headscarves and aprons. Early in the afternoon we pulled into another truck stop where smiling middle-aged women were selling tomatoes, apples, grapes and walnuts from wooden stalls. Nearby, a noisy cluster of men were playing the ‘pea under the egg-cup’ scam and losing their money. We bought a kilo of delicious purple grapes and two apples and enjoyed the sunshine. For the rest of the day we motored through increasingly hilly country, briefly stopping in Skopje, the ancient capital of Macedonia (and, I later discovered, the birthplace of Mother Theresa of Calcutta).
At midnight, accompanied by the insistent beat of Hawkwind… ‘Well hurry on sundown see what tomorrow brings‘… we reached the heavily guarded Yugoslav/Greek border. Here we were faced with a major problem, or rather… Neil was faced with a major problem. One of the passengers, a Malaysian guy, didn’t have a visa to enter Greece. The immigration officials could have issued one there and then but decided to be uncooperative. He was told that he must return to the nearest large town in Yugoslavia and obtain the visa before they would allow him into the country. This would mean him having to permanently leave the bus, as our timetable didn’t allow for any long stops. To make it impossible for us to smuggle him back on board and simply drive away, the Greeks had temporarily confiscated his passport until we left.
Neil cooked up a plan. After a whispered consultation he made as if to leave the guy behind. Driving the bus half a kilometre into Greece, we stopped at a gas station and turned off all the lights. We all sat there, silent. Waiting. Dogs barked in the distance. Meanwhile the stranded Malaysian began to walk back into Yugoslavia. When he was out of sight of the border post he doubled back, crawled through the undergrowth out of sight of the guards and, after what seemed like an eternity, appeared out of the darkness. Neil wasted no time, hurrying the illegal immigrant on board he started the engine and hit the road again.
Dawn found us in Greek Macedonia, passing through rugged mountains interspersed with mist-filled river valleys. There were shepherds tending small flocks of sheep and goats on the hillsides. In the villages, men with proud moustaches sipped coffee outside shabby cafes while chickens pecked in the dust around their feet and donkeys wore that resigned, downcast look that they have the world over.
Arriving in the fishing town of Kavalla, we took off in the opposite direction to all the other passengers and found, near the sleepy harbour, an empty, flyblown, plastic-tablecloth cafe with the BBC World Service news in English coming out of a deafeningly loud, crackly radio. But the friendliness of the owner and the uninterrupted view of the shimmering, turquoise Aegean more than made up for the shabbiness of the café and we breakfasted on hot cheese pastries and over-sweet tea. Next to the café was a fruit shop where we bought enormous, red apples and a little further along, a bakery with hot, crusty loaves, straight from the oven. We washed in the warm sea on a multicoloured pebble beach and returned to the bus. It was getting better all the time.
Heading due east through a beautiful and verse landscape we eventually arrived at the Greek/Turkish border crossing at Ipsala where we had to hide the Malaysian guy under a seat at the back of the bus until we’d cleared Greek emigration. But there were hassles once more on the Turkish side; unbelievably the guy didn’t have a visa for Turkey either. This took a little time to sort out but I suspect that our co-driver, Chuck, used a little financial persuasion on one or more of the border officials and before too long we were heading towards Istanbul. The road was full of military vehicles and the young, ruddy-cheeked conscripts waved, smiled and gave the peace sign as we overtook. Feeling butterflies of excitement we rolled into the congestion, pollution and car-horn-cacophony of old Istanbul in the early evening and came to a halt in the Byzantine Hippodrome in Sultanahmet where we said goodbye to the people we had briefly known on the 1400 mile trip across Europe. From now on we would be on our own.