Published: May 14th 2011May 14th 2011
December 1989. Leeds bus station.
Brian calls over his shoulder as he waddles towards the Skipton-bound bus that he’ll be driving. “Manager wants to see you int’ office”. Shit. I slide off the three bar railings that prevent overeager kids running directly from the Cowengate steps onto the bus forecourt, fold the Telegraph and gather my broom. That’s me finally going to get a bollocking for skiving. Mount the stairs, pass the staff canteen and rap on Jack’s door. He actually looks pleased to see me, a rare smile definitely emanating from beneath the permanent fixture of his peaked Yorkshire transport cap.
“Know why I want to see you?” he demands.
Evidently I don’t.
“Several old ladies been ringing me about you, and now they’ve gone to the local press”.
Damn, this is worse than I thought.
“It seems the bus station has never been so clean, that some young lad is forever jumping on any stray wrapper that blows in, or on any discarded butt that has just been trodden out. The Leeds Gazette want to run an article on you.”
The man from the paper and his notepad duly arrived several days later. We sat on one of my apparently now famously clean benches with my litter-free domain in front of us. “So,” he concluded as he produced a camera, “you have just graduated from the Uni and this job is to finance a gap year…” Obviously his human interest story, in what must have been a very quiet week for local news, was developing nicely. I’d glossed over the enormous debts accumulated whilst at said university (such things were a rarity back in the days of paid fees and full grants) and how, in my apathy for a career, I’d taken this job until something better materialised. Instead I posed leaning on my broom gazing into the distance; the photo later to be entitled ‘dreaming of far away places’.
It was true though that my girlfriend Abi had, thanks to some great aunt Nora, just come into some money and over a Burton’s-fuelled sesh at The Chemic we’d decided that we’d make natural travellers. The other lads in the house were sceptical to say the least at our, mainly my, ability to organise much more than a piss-up and bluntly chorused “Billy” (as in ….. Bullshit).
The next day we’d booked around-the-world tickets: London, Los Angeles, Suva, Sydney, Hong Kong, Bangkok, New Delhi and home. We’d leave on the fifth of March.
There hadn’t been that much to plan. We’d got our Lonely Planet books for the first few countries – America surely didn’t merit one. We’d had some jabs, rejected others (don’t intend to stroke any rabid dogs), got malaria pills, water purification pills, sun cream in a mighty factor 8, sheet sleeping bags for YHAs, needles and cotton (on-the-road repairs), needles and syringes (just in case rabid dogs don’t ask to be stroked), an international driving licence for Abi (I’d not gotten around to learning) and our visas (some of which would actually still be valid when we arrived in the countries). We’d read about travelling light and had, to our eyes, been ruthless in our packing selecting just our favourite five pairs of shorts, several pairs of jeans, our Barbour jackets that were still almost rain retardant, the odd jumper, a few long- and a few short-sleeved T-shirts, something smart… Of course there were also the bare essentials in entertainment: novels, walkmen and accompanying cassettes, but hardly anything it seemed for a year away. My mother had even thoughtfully provided a travel iron and hairdryer set that weighed but a few pounds. Nevertheless, our rucksacks did seem big: eighty litre Karymores packed to bursting. Each pack had been cunningly modified with metal rings (care of, but unbeknown to, Yorkshire transport) riveted through the material enabling it to be padlocked shut and each paired zip, closing pockets and compartments, were to be similarly padlocked (that’s six padlocks each, not including the spares to go with our hefty galvanised chains – baggage security had not been overlooked). Then strapped below were the world’s cheapest sleeping bags; unfortunately cheap also equates to enormous.
Money was in travellers cheques, a few loose dollars, and a Visa card each for unforeseen emergencies (hopefully very few as my bills would be heading straight to my unsuspecting parents), all safely tucked away with our passports and tickets in snazzy nylon money belts to be worn beneath our trousers (pickpockets: I’d like to see them try). On the subject of money: this was to be one super-budget trip, inspired largely by my total lack of funds and the look on Abi’s parents’ faces when she informed them that she was funding everything. We will, however, work. Australia is to be the place to boost our finances, even though I’d not dared apply for a work visa fearing that this might result in closer scrutiny and that a prior minor indiscretion with Leeds’ finest might jeopardise obtaining one at all.
5th March 1990. London/Los Angeles.
So, we’re set. Said our final goodbyes to my parents who’d been putting us up for the final few days, took the underground to Heathrow and proudly displayed our bulging pile of stapled air tickets to the B.A check-in. Whopped our sacks onto the conveyer belt, each under thirty kilos and exchanged sapient nods. Phaa, and we thought the packs seemed heavy. Ambled through to boarding where the ‘little bag’ (daypack in our new backpackers parlance) was x-rayed and our needles and syringes swiftly confiscated. The security staff here seemed to care little for the potential hazards to our health at the hands of India’s medical system.
Safely on-board our first ever long haul flight we soon discovered that international air travel has certain benefits over charters… Shared thirteen mini bottles of wine with our Swiss neighbour and stashed a few more in the little bag for the tough times ahead.
Touched down safely in L.A. at 5 p.m. local time: so far so good. American customs, however, are not quick and it wasn’t until 6.30 p.m. that we finally reached the exits. Finding somewhere to stay couldn’t be that hard and sure enough before us stood a hotel board. Thinking budget I scanned the pictures of various motels. Caesers Motor Hotel looked seedy and cheap. Abi looked dubious. I rang them and informed Abi that a bus would come to collect us. She immediately cheered-up. Obviously it couldn’t be that bad then. Indeed the battered old van came to pick up various people, us aside, all Chinese and from all over L.A. Arrived somewhere – no one on board the van spoke English – and the partially blinking sign greeting us announced CAES MO R H EL. Wasn’t too sure about the broken windows adorned with chicken wire, whilst the hole in the reception roof and subsequent floors, where you might have expected a staircase, added further doubts. A quick glance out into the night at the assembled local youths soon put paid to any plans of an alternative venue for tonight though. Asked for the lift and received a puzzled expression. Pointed upwards and was rewarded with directions to the elevator. The elevator did elevate and in our room the bed was cleanish; so we dined on saltine snacks and mini bottles of Bordeaux lifted from the plane and then slept, fitfully, but vaguely comforted by the fact that it would take a person of considerable strength to gain access to the room with our monstrous packs wedged behind the door.