Hand to Mouth to India book cover
Hand to Mouth to India book cover

A Breathtakingly good travelogue

[Excerpt from Hand to Mouth to India]

I walked out one midsummer’s morning to hitchhike to India with no money at all. I had with me my clarinet, a sleeping bag, a ticket for the boat to France and a couple of loaves of date bread so as to be sure of not starving to death within the first day or two. I paused beneath a giant billboard poster of Tony Blair smooching the street with his smarmy, sinister smile and then walked on to exchange grey cities for palm tree beaches, politicians for snake charmers. A stranger in my hometown, I walked down to the coastal road with little but my freedom on my back.

Already a memory were the touching farewells of heartfelt friends and bosom buddies I never knew I had, who had sprung out into my path around town to suffocate me in tight emotional embraces. Not many thought I’d get very far, or even survive and with tearful reluctance they crossed me off their Christmas card lists.But all camaraderie dies when you hit the road alone and prepare for the vessels of Fate to bear down upon you in screeching metal boxes on wheels. Standing as an exposed and anonymous figure with an aching thumb, it’s an old journeying adage that there’s a fine line between hitchhiking and waiting by the side of the road like an idiot.

My first lift pulled up within minutes and I jumped in without a glance back.

“I’m going to India!” I told the driver smugly, as I strapped on my seat-belt.

“Well, I can take you as far as the university.” he told me doubtfully.

A couple of rides later, I was sitting on the pebbles of Hastings Beach, munching my date bread and wishing i could afford some chips. The sea was smothered in a miserable gloom and refused to yield any hint of what might lie ahead. But during the previous winter in Goa, I had sat at the feet of various hobo gurus and learnt that if you have eaten this day then you are successful. Period. Providence had already provided well for me in a penniless tour of springtime Europe. But fear has the habit of mushrooming back up at even the thought of rain and so I flicked open the pages of Kahil Gibran’s “The Prophet”, to seek some confirmation. I read:

Is not the fear of being thirsty when your well is full, the very thirst that is unquenchable? And what is fear of need but need itself?

Things were going to be fine. More or less. I threw a stone at the moody waves and turned to stomp back to the road, large and weighty doors of the past slamming shut behind me.

Towards the end of daylight, I arrived at Dover, having survived some fairly uninspiring conversations. I found at the dregs of Britain’s roadways, a skaggle of hitchhikers attempting to leave this tiny island and rejoin the greater potential of the Continent. We were all experts at travelling light but their long faces told me that no one was getting any luck. I caught the boat and made my bed on the tiled floor of Calais port, pretty much at the feet of the other people waiting on the plastic seats. I was quite content though-sleeping inside is always a bonus in this mode of travel, even when it is punctuated with loudspeaker announcements every ten minutes for the departing ferries.

Some hours later, I dragged myself out of the feverish horrors of half-sleep and heaved my bleary body out into the chilly morning to make an early start and avoid competition. Outside, I discovered that the same notion had occurred to all the other hitchhikers. We threw etiquette out of the window and all tried to flag down truck drivers with no sense of order or queuing-the equivalent of cutting each other up when driving. Hitchhiking is hardly a communal activity. Unless an exceptionally beautiful girl is present no group larger than two is going to get any lifts. So the sight of another hitchhiker is rarely a welcome sight.

There seemed to be no real chance of moving out with so many people waiting, so I chose to walk a few miles in search of a better spot, leaving behind a die-hard French couple who told me:
“We’ll sleep here if we have to-we don’t care!” They were off to India in the autumn and we speculated that we might meet again in more serene surroundings than this murky slip road. Wishing them luck, I sweated my way up the road and caught a chance lift with an Englishman, winging his way out of town after a croissant and a cafe.

Relieved not to be forced into my inadequate French, I set to navigating our way out of the confusion of roundabouts, whilst sizing up my benefactor of the hour out of the corner of my eye. He was a fat and bearded Geordie, called Jeff. He wore the image of an itinerant cowboy who swaggered into the saloons of every town with his guitar on his back; a rolling stone entertainer, paving his way through the towns of Europe. He had been a professional busker for the best part of ten years and within minutes, we were exchanging stories and anecdotes of playing music on the street-his far more rich and prolific than mine and so I let him do most of the talking, whilst I concentrated on a map of North-West France.

“Some days luck is with you and other days it’s not-simple as that.” He told me, “I was playing in a duo on the trams in Switzerland last year and me and my partner, Mike, we were playing an amazing set-all of our solos were bang on time, we were making up hilarious verses and we improvised a completely new finale. Then Mike went around the tram to collect money in his hat. And I watched him as he set off all confident like and slowly, he became more and more depressed until he came back with the lowest face you ever saw-no one gave us a single coin.” Jeff stroked his beard in remembrance. “But then a week or two later, we were playing together again on the trams and we were both really hungover, I forgot the chords to the song we were playing and two of Mike’s strings snapped-and before we could even attempt to finish, people were coming over and stuffing our hat full with all they had in their wallets.”

We avoided the exorbitant peage toll highways and hunted for the ‘A’ roads that ran almost parallel in elegant straight lines that rose and dipped over graceful hills through the countryside. The road intersected every small town on the route and every half an hour another village appeared on the horizon. Each settlement was heralded by a lonely white church, each with its own particular character and beauty.

With haystacked meadows and grazing sheep, I couldn’t have wished for a more picturesque route. Back on the road again I felt like i was on the first chapter of a book that promised to be a very good read.

Unhappily enough, Jeff turned out to be a Born-again Christian, though thankfully not of the evangelical ‘now listen up’ variety. He limited his sermon to a brief warning about the risks of Eastern wisdom:

“You see, many of the Eastern religions talk about making the mind empty-but that’s actually very dangerous!” And he’d pause to make sure i’d understood, “Because when the mind is empty, evil spirits can come in and start to take control!” Jeff was a good guy though and we settled down into a trusting repartee where neither of us needed to say too much.

We drove all day and came to rest in a small town with a pleasant, drifting river that carried bubbles and pieces of straw along no faster than need be. Jeff went off into town on the pretext of changing money, whilst I sat on the soft grass and played provincial blues on my harmonica. He came strolling back an hour and a half later with a happy, drunken swagger and we spoke wistfully about the strangeness of existence; two misfits sitting with their legs dangling over the riverbank, staring into the folds of twilight that closed the day about us.

My German army sleeping bag and waterproof poncho proved effective against the cold, dew and damp that are ever present in Northern Europe, even at the height of summer, whilst Jeff also struggled for comfort in the back of his van. Cold and wet nights are what i fear the most on the road. On the advice of my acupuncturist i carried a piece of ginger in my pocket as a rememdy against dampness, an ‘evil chi’, the Chinese say. Then again, he also reckoned that diarhoea could be cured by filling the belly button with salt and waving a lit cigarette closely over it.

The next morning, we got ourselves together to pull out of town only to break down after two miles. Cursing, Jeff went off in search of a telephone but it began to rain before he’d gone a hundred metres. I sat patiently in the car, wondering if that was his karma for not sharing his beer session with me the night before. I looked to the drops of rain rolling down the windscreen for an answer. What the fuck am I doing here? I asked myself, as I do twenty times a day on the road. I just reclined the seat a bit and let the patter of falling water call the shots; strangely pleasant to be in some stranger’s car near a little red dot on the map.

With the help of some local mechanics, we got moving again and by mid-afternoon came rolling into Luxembourg City, where Jeff proposed that we raise some funds with his music in the public squares. He was looking for a gold-mine where he could work for a week or two and then use the earnings to chill on a beach in Portugal. And man,was this the right place! We struggled to find what name to call the people of Luxembourg-the Luxemese? The Luxish? The answer became rapidly clear-the Luxurious. For everywhere we looked were lush BMW’s and Mercedes cruising around in the nonchalant manner of the very rich. This tiny country measuring about 60 miles long by 50 miles wide lies as a select watering hole for the wealthy hippos of Europe. Jeff licked his lips in anticipation.

In addition, Luxembourg receives massive amounts of tourism from holidaying Europeans and Americans, whose guidebooks show them how to survive on $300 a day. they’re specifically recommended to take advantage of the authentic local cuisine of tacos and re-fried beans in the traditional grandeur of the main square where a large brass orchestra played Abba tunes twice a day.

There was no shortage of street performers, either, as fire jugglers, New York break dancers, concert flute players and didgeridoo dudes, all competed to empty the bulging purses of the visitors who clearly had more than they knew what to do with.

Jeff swaggered down to the Square in his cowboy hat and leather boots and began to set up his backing equipment and electric guitar. This was to be the first time that I saw busking being really profitable; I had busted my ass howling 1930’s Mississippi Blues on the streets of France and Austria, desperately trying to make some impression on an indifferent public. But then few artists are apprecited in their lifetimes… At least that was my conclusion on the days when I didn’t earn enough to even buy a cup of coffee, let alone a pint of whiskey.

Playing music on the street is great when things are going well. You can feel yourself bringing life and vitality to the city; a colourful bard of the urban scene, you can laugh and joke with the locals in true minstrel style. But on a bad day the street becomes the most heartless place in the world; the police move you on with unnecessary aggression, passers-by seem almost offended that you dare to break the monotony and when the few coins in your hat (as ‘bait’ to lure further additions) sit as lonely as only metal money can be.

On those dire occasions, you feel like laying down in the gutter and allowing the tarmac to swallow you up for all that anyone would care. Performing is a creation that must be resurrected every time you start anew. The maestro act of yesterday means little in the bleak and hungover face of the new morning. Jeff shared this feeling as he admitted to me that:

“Sometimes I push myself too far-playing every day without enough breaks. Then all the fun goes out of it and I become kinda drained and depressed. And I have to say to myself ‘Hey, Jeff! Take it easy, will you?’” It was for this reason that I’d grown tired of busking and was now giving it a rest.

Jeff had his routine pretty well worked out, sounding quite professional with his electric guitar and formulaic backing tapes. These laid down the percussion and bass lines for the five or six songs from which he never varied. His sparrow-like Geordie voice vanished when he sang, to be replaced by the cliched American twang that can be heard in most modern music. His vocals were clear and bold though and the overall sound could be heard from fifty feet away, extending our target audience.

The arrangement was that he played opposite the cafe terraces to win the favour of the well-dressed businessmen and families who dined on pasta and wine. Between songs he kept up his spirits with the well-practised comments of ‘Thank you for that wonderful round of indifference’ or ‘No dancing on the tables!’

My job was to do the ‘bottle’, a name deriving, Jeff claimed, from the original Punch n’ Judy shows. A pretty girl used to hit up the crowds after the act, collecting the money in a glass bottle that contained a fly-the trick being that if she took her thumb off the top for too long, the fly would escape and then the puppeteers would know that she’d been trying to siphon the money for herself.
After about three or four songs, Jeff would give me the nod and I’d go into full hustle mode. I walked from table to table, shaking the hat to give the coins an expectant jingle and accosted the punters in the middle of their meals, persuading them to dip their soup-stained fingers in their wallets, as I cried out:

Un peu d’argent pour les musiciens, s’il vous plait! Ein bischen geld, bitte, mein herr? Spare a bit of cash for the music, mate, so that we can eat?” Depending on what tongue was appropriate in this conflux of linguistic drifts.

With a bit of coaching from Jeff, I soon learned the various tricks to bring in more money: no one could be hurried into bringing out their purses. It was far more effective to introduce the idea to them slowly by mulling about in a relaxed saunter, to give everyone the idea that they were supposed to contribute. The first point of attack was always the table that gave most applause. From there I’d plan the rest of my route to gain the maximum possible attention. As long as I was loud and funny, polite and insincere, the hat I carried gained in weight rapidly and I couldn’t pretend we were so poor any more. We moved from terrace to terrace, Jeff playing the same set each time to the new cafe crew and, by the end of the evening, we’d got about $100 together.

As I was pretty inexperienced at plying the ‘bottle’, Jeff proposed that I take 25% of the take. I reckoned I was doing more than okay at the job but didn’t press the point as, after all, I was hardly trying to swell my pension funds. So I took an easy-come easy-go attitude about it and just got into the fun of new experience. That’s why I came on the road in the first place.

At the last cafe of our evening’s tour, a bunch of Brazilian businessmen implored us to share a drink with them. Beer always tastes good after hard work and it was only after the first sip that we looked up and realised that we were sitting with a group of sallow-faced, shifty-looking men. With the sly vibes of reptilian schoolboys, they wisecracked and competed for status amongst themselves.

“These men are all very rich men!” Our translator told us in a reverent tone. Looking from each screwed-up face to the next and, studying each pair of troubled eyes behind a worried mist of alcohol, it was clear that these were also very unhappy men. Maybe they weren’t praying hard enough to the Greenback Dollar God who promises to bring everlasting delight to his most successful devotees.

Below where we’d parked the van was a deep valley where a public park lay. I trotted down to find a shady place to sleep away from the main path and the harsh glare of the streetlights. Under the scrutiny of the many CCTV cameras that dotted the park, I tried to look like a casual late-night stroller, arm-in-arm with my sweetheart-sleeping-bag. But was there really anyone watching on the other end who gave a damn? No one came along to evict me but I spent an uncomfortable night being frequently awoken by the drunken antics of late-night clubbers, on the path some 20 metres away.

The morning didn’t start off too well. A persistent itch alerted me to the sadly undeniable fact that I was now host to invisible park fleas-‘What to do?’ as they say in India with a fatalistic waggle of the head. Then I managed to get into a full yelling row with the Dutch woman who ran the public toilets. She took exception to me washing my armpits in the sink and I only just about managed to clean up in a petty struggle of power, – the old hag kept turning off the water for a minute or so to demonstrate her authority, whilst I bent under the taps trying to salvage enough of the leftover drips.

As I left, a guy looking like a security guard passed me on the steps. I counted it as a close escape and went off in search of some breakfast with jingling francs in my pocket as a result of the previous night’s endeavours.

I stood in the supermarket, staring bleakly at the prices of fruit per kilo to see what I could afford-and so hapless did I look, that a middle-aged lady stopped and asked me in concerned German:
“Do you have enough money to eat?” And before I could effectively protest she handed me 200 francs (about $10) with the apology that it was not much and departed before I could find the appropriate words in her language to express my gratitude.
Kindness is like water and will find you no matter how low you stand. Even here in the heartland of capitalist Europe, there were angels who took my well-being upon themselves. Travelling hand-to-mouth restored my faith in the essential goodness of human nature. Frequently my hardened cynicism was left agape at the care and warmth that was almost always given to me when I was in real need.

I was getting hungry for the road again but Jeff persuaded me to stay and work for another night so that my journey would be better greased by my share of the evening’s take. We relieved the tourists of their spending money again again and I became heartily sick of hearing the same poppy tunes of which Jeff never seemed to tire:

“And your smile, is just a big disguise, For now, as you realise, There ain’t no way to hide those lying eyes!”

Sleeping in the park was even worse that night, as party-goers stumbled upon my resting-place no less than three times. They were more freaked out than I though and I called out good-day to them in German and French from my reclining position in their path of reckless exuberance.

“Aaaargh! Un habite!” (‘a dweller!’) One of them called out in alarm and distaste, that there could be such people who slept out under bushes and trees.

My mood was greatly improved in the morning by the ridiculous bouncing form of a young American guy. He came scampering and bounding through the park and accosted me:

“Could you take a picture of me please?” Placing the camera in my hand before I could respond. He then darted away to pose by trees and hillocks with both arms splayed open wide. I particularly liked the surety with which he assumed everyone that he approached would be able to speak fluent English-well, these people are educated, aren’t they?

Despite our differences in character, I’d gotten along well with my road-buddy, Jeff-he was a good sort and a seasoned freak in his own right, bravely making his way on the fringes of society. I gave him my European map book, ripping out the pages I’d need and gathered the $50 or so that I’d made from the bottle. Small coins and shrapnel galore, the bane of all buskers, I managed to get them changed up into higher denominations before Jeff gave me a starting lift to a petrol pump on the edge of town.

It’s always useful to get dropped off at gas stations as then you can take hitchhiking onto the offensive, by hitting up the drivers as they stand around with petrol hoses in their hands, nervously watching the display rack up the litres and escalating cost. In this scenario, you get the chance to approach them personally and make a verbal contact that they can’t just ignore – some humanity is injected into the relationship between hitcher and driver, a warmth that is somehow lost when separated by a windscreen and a projectile speed of 8okmph, their rejection exhaust smoke leaving you coughing and black in the face. The personal approach also gives them the chance to see that you’re probably not a crazed axe murderer. Once they realise that you’re not a threat it becomes a lot harder for them to say ‘no’.

In some ways, though, I prefer the romance of standing by the side of the road, inviting the pot-shots of chance to sweep me away from my lonely mooring, my fate out of my hands. Also, the grace of the slowing car tends to produce more charming encounters, as these drivers are those who voluntarily have an affection for the free travelling spirit and make for much better company.

But if you want to get anywhere fast, then it’s best to be as pushy and bold as can be, soliciting every driver you can with cheerful and courteous turn of speech so that they consent before they have time to even think about it. The downside is that when very few drivers are actually going your way, you end up with a lot of polite rejections that really tax your energy and enthusiasm. This was one of those occasions and I became increasingly dejected and desperate. Walking in the mid-day heat amongst the intoxicating petrol fumes, I ended up weaving around like an alcoholic fresh in from the desert.

I was trying in vain to decipher the destinations of the cars by the tell-tale initials on their number plates, when I overheard an approaching couple of businessmen talking in cockney English. I approached them in my salt-of-the-earth accent and asked: “Excuse me, mate-you wouldn’t happen to be going towards Saarbrucken, at all, would you?” With brilled blonde hair, one of them gave a sneering laugh and replied:

“Nah, mate! We’re going to work !”

The implications were pretty clear and I was only consoled by remembering the story an old college tutor of mine had told me: he’d decided to hitchhike back from a conference he’d attended that weekend and had been waiting for a couple of hours in a lay-by when a van stopped. He ran quickly up and a head popped out of the window:

“Do you want a job?” The driver asked him.

“No!” he replied, with all the pride of a professional man, wondering where this was leading.

“Thought so!” came the retort and the driver sped off with a triumphant cackle.

[Read the rest of Hand to Mouth to India]