It’s all Uncle Mac’s fault. And it started on 1st February 1971. “Well, that’s it. I’m off”, he said to my father in a casual, laid-back way that suggested he was just popping out for a pint of ‘bourbon’.
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He then climbed into his Land Rover, checked that he had his sandwiches and a thermos of tea and set off for India. He reached Heart, Afghanistan, where he traded the vehicle for a horse and headed east. And he was never heard of again.
A rumored sighting of him on the Great Wall of China in the early eighties by an old RAF chum, gave a ray of hope – but then again, he thought he saw him accompanied by Richard Nixon, Shirley Maclaine and Keith Richards. Well, it’s that kind of wall.
My father lost a brother and I lost a hero and I wasn’t even born yet. His journey continued to fascinate me as I grew up. Just getting to India alone, exposed and overland in 1971 would have been an achievement. No video bars or guesthouses. His reasons for going were even more intriguing. There weren’t any. He just went. Now that is travel.
I was born within shouting distance of Hadrian’s Wall – that last bit of serious landscaping on the edge of the Roman Empire. What the Roman scouts thought when they saw their first Scot was similar to going to a Black Sabbath concert. They threw up and ran like hell. Hairy, tough, covered in woad, carrying serious weapons, wearing skirts and muttering, “I’ll ‘av yoo Jimmy”, was quite enough.
“Seal the borders”, was the order from Rome. And they did. To us, Scotland was cold, misty and, well, weird. To them, England was frippery, poncey lords and warm beer. But it didn’t stop them from slipping over the wall, nicking all the women and smoking all the dope. If you argued, you got a face full of axe and a head-butt. Whether the wall was to keep them out or to keep them in is debatable and irrelevant. They escaped anyway.
Scots are to be found from Archangel to Antarctica and do you know why the British Empire got so big? It was a nation desperately looking or a decent meal. By the way, have you tried haggis?
My uncle escaped and twenty five years later, I picked myself up off a Greek island and followed his trail. A rickety ship from Istanbul to Trabzon; public bus from Erzerum to irag; and train, bus and camel across Iran. The first white person I spoke to after four months in Isfahan. He was a Scot, who said over a plate of sheep’s eye-balls, “we used to eat people”.
I got shot on a bus in Heart, I got lost in Pakistan and when I finally made it to Macleod Gunj (which is not a Scottish garage band from Seattle) in Northern India, I asked to see Dalai Lama.
“He’s in Dublin”, I was informed by a beaming monk.
Damn. I thought I deserved instant enlightenment for just reaching the place.
Doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore? The answer then and now, is no. Where the hell is everyone? Escaping. Nomading.
The two young lads I met on the plane from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok last year are the new nomads. Both 24. One of them was wearing baggy shorts and purple wrap-around Raybans and was eating some disgusting local insects out of a bag.
“Greeet mon!” He said, crunching away. His mate has spiky, multi-colored hair which look as though a bird of paradise had landed on his head and someone had smashed it with a mallet. They were from Glasgow.
Their tales was of comparing Hard Rock Cafes and Pizza Huts and bungy jumps and video bars in the different countries they’d traveled to. They longed to visit places where they weren’t expected and mourned the fact that the whole planet appeared to be one vast, soulless shopping mall. They thought I was a ‘lucky bastard’ for having been able to visit places before American culture did. And so they thought.
I resent being called lucky.
They assumed their children would have vacation in the land of virtual reality rather than cross the Gobi desert single-handed, or wrestle with pygmies and win.
But opportunities still exist. After all, it’s now possible to drive from The Great Wall to Hadrian’s Wall without getting out of the car. You could be greeted with, “ we used to de-bone Chinamen, Jimmy!” THWACK!
I mean, who’d want to miss that?
All that's in my mind, is those words we never say but always hear falling between the cracks.