Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India by Rory MacClean

Hippie culture, its myths and legends, main players, clothes and music form the backdrop to this travel book with a message. Each of the chapters has a hippie song title and the journey covers the main stop-offs where 'the Intrepids' who ventured from Europe to Asia in the late sixties and most of the seventies made their mark.
MacClean briefly traces the origins of the hippies from the US Beat culture of the late 1950s name-checking Kerouac and Ginsberg, through to its identification with rock music and the anti-war movement in the 60s. Many were drawn to eastern spiritualism thanks to novelist Herman Hess, Kerouac's The Dharma Bums and of course the Beatles flirtation with Transcendental Meditation and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
MacClean writes with a whimsical nostalgia, as a man who came a generation too late to experience at first hand the original hippie trail and the spontaneous, hand-to-mouth existence of those who traversed it. He says they were the first invaders who came “to be colonised” and learn from the countries where they were travelling.
He frequently comments on the carefully laid timetabled trails followed by most modern indepenendent travellers who delude themselves that they will still find an undiscovered beach somewhere.
But the main theme of the book is the societal upheavals that have impacted on the trail in the intervening four decades since the Intrepids first began travelling.
Turkey has become a package holiday mecca, Iran an Islamist Republic, Afghanastan a war zone, Pakistan politically corrupt while India, the former spiritual home of the hippies, is now one of the fastest growing capitalist economies in the world.
MacClean wonders if the arrival of the hippies with their hash and psychedelic drugs, free love, unconventional clothing, or lack of it, and long-haired drop-out attitude acted as catalyst for the changes. He meets a Turkish bar owner who tells him the catering for the hippies made people realise that there was money to be made from the exotic travellers passing by and the millions of package follower who would ultimately follow.
And in Iran, did the experience of the Intrepids cause a stirring in Iran that led to the rejection of the the Western-supported Shah and a turning to Islamic fundamentalism as a barrier against the lose-sex and drug taking manifestation of the Intrepids who for many Iranians were the representation of Western values, even though those on who they were basing that judgment had rejected the societies from where they had come?
Along the way he meets various characters, including Penny a woman in her 70s who has fled the old people's home where she had been stagnating. She turns out to have been at some of the most iconic hippie happenings – with credentials stretching back to the Beats, being one of the first to hand out
flowers in Haight Ashbury in San Francisco (heralding flower power), and was at Woodstock where she led Janis Joplin to the stage.
Other survivors include Roddy Finegan in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu whose “Irishness is worn easily” and who is one of the few to have stayed true to the hippy lifestyle in “genteel poverty”. Another of the originals Geoff Crowther, one of the first writers and researchers of the Lonely Planet, is living in a drunken stupor in Goa, having blown a fortune made from writing travel books.
MacClean keeps a slight distance between himself and those he is writing about, like a ethnologist who has studied an exotic tribe and who envies their lifestyle but knows that he can never actually belong and who has the advantage to time to realise that their days were ultimately numbered.
"The sixties marked a change in consciousness. Ordinary people did extraordinary things. A generation rejected old unfeeling ways, questioned established practices, searched for new values. Then in the seventies the oil crisis and later Regan economics forced them on a financial reality check. Jobs became scarce. Time grew expensive. Borders closed. Hippie chicks swelled into earth mothers and their children needed new shoes. Greenpeace, Apple and MTV went from alternative to mainstream. Revolutionaries reinvented themselves as CEOs. Some kids couldn’t adapt, of course, retreating to log cabins in the Sierras of making a last stand as ecowarriors in mid-Wales. But most of them – like Penny and Roddy – found peace in themselves, even as rainbow bridges were brought down by bombs and rueful self-interest…” P268
Read my travel piece on Goa, the ultimate destination for many who followed the hippie trail , on my website here.


Fionnchú said...

Great aside into Iran and the Intrepids: I was mulling this over in a related insight the other day from a student who wondered how mad the Iranians might have become at the Shah & CIA and British oil's meddling in their self-determination to march for liberation--in the veil. I'd certainly want to read this.

I am also reminded somehow of Tim O'Brien's 1979 Vietnam War novel "Going after Cacciato." As Wikipedia sums it up: "The story traces the events that ensue after Cacciato, a member of Berlin's squad, decides to go AWOL by walking from Vietnam to France, through Asia." You might like it.

Tony Bailie said...

Will look out for that O'Brien novel John. Read If I Die in a Combat Zone decades ago and don't remember much about it apart from title. Not a big fan of travel books general, apart from our friend MM, but I couldn't resist this one. It was published in 2006 so hopefully shouldn't be too hard to track down.