Dear Father and Mother,
Athens Youth Hostel #2, Monday May 21, 1973
Constantinople no longer has the charm I'd hoped to find, though its romantic past shows through if one is prepared to make the effort to seek it out - little old narrow lanes and buildings unchanged since the days of the glorious Ottoman Empire.
I wandered through the Grand Bazaar, after struggling past the tourist buses, and was disgusted with all the American tourists and with the Germans who are their European counterparts. [The Japanese are the Americans of Asia.] It suddenly struck me very forcibly that I was now in a completely new area of operations - the almost traditional Western holiday spot in the "East", with luxury liners in the Bosphorus disgorging excited tourists who think this is their real chance to sample genuine Oriental life and goods.
Actually the Grand bazaar is something of a cross between a real bazaar and a western supermarket (the prices were staggering), all of which shows that Kipling was wrong about East and West never meeting. They meet in Istanbul. It's just a pity there's so much of the West and so many Westerners there. There are a lot of freaks, too, and more well-dressed young people like myself than I have seen anywhere else. I even had a young Westerner dressed in a shawl and with shaven head come up and ask me for money - to buy more drugs, I suppose.
I only bothered to inspect one mosque, and I must say the interior was better than anything I had seen before in the Muslim world. On Thursday I was taken possession of by a Turkish barber who works in Germany and who insisted on plying me with tea, coffee and wine laced with Coca-Cola (it needed it).
On Friday I bought myself a couple of very cheap puzzle rings to keep myself amused before catching a bus which was to take me to the Greek border. The rogues didn't bother to explain that it stopped about 30 Km short and I had to resort to a minibus and hitchhiking. My reaction was both endothermic and exothermic.
The bus that picked me up just short of the border (driven by an Englishman) took a Dutchman and me on to Alexandroupolis. On board (it's such a tiny globe) were the ex-Crazy Bus driver and friend, with a very complicated tale to tell, the details of which would not interest you. In short, she abandoned the bus in Afghanistan (gave it away) and the passengers went on to Athens in the truck from Herat. She herself went back to India to help the Danish-Swiss bus driver who had ended up in jail for "abducting" an Indian girl - I understand she was trying to elope with him but was under 18. Anyhow, Jackie had to pay $200 (which she borrowed) as baksheesh in order to be able to get him out on bail. That's the way business is done in those parts. Really, the problems that woman gets involved in give me the horrors; she also has court proceedings against her in Switzerland over the mysterious death of a former companion (she says it was suicide and he framed her, but I could not follow all the details in her rapid French).
My first meal in Greece was chicken etc. with retsina (Greek wine) which was palatable but expensive. The Dutchman and I had to pay $1 each (!) for a hotel room which was astonishingly clean , though there was no shower. The Hollander must have been reading J. Clement Stone on "Positive Mental Attitude" in his ashram in India: everything was "so nice, wow!" Next morning we walked down to the harbour and watched the patient toil being expended on the fishing nets, filled our lungs with the fresh sea air and our bellies with cheese pastry and herbal tea, and our souls with the blissful peace of the scene.
We then proceeded to shatter the peace in our hearts by getting out on the road, walking several km to the edge of town and waiting all day without getting a lift. What annoyed me was that I knew I could have had a lift if I didn't have the moony Dutchman with me. Obviously I have quite a lot to learn about the science of "autostop" - in this instance it would have paid to be ruthlessly independent. However the day was not without its compensations - I took my first ever swim in the Mediterranean, which was very pleasant and soothing. We also consoled ourselves by eating lots of Greek delicacies. I have no need to extol to you the delights of Greek pâtisserie – I seem to recall you were doing the same only a short time ago.
We took the train at 2300 that night (train travel is expensive in this country too), arriving at Thessaloniki at about 0800 next morning. I left Henk consuming pastry and milk for breakfast ("so nice, wow!") and wandered around the town. These Mediterranean waterfronts all seem to have something similar about them - the small tide and relatively peaceful waters perhaps influenced them in building these broad waterfront pavements. Amongst the other things I viewed was the Vlatadon monastery on top of a cliff where Paul once preached.
Salonika is a reasonably attractive city (as cities of ½ million go) but I don't like cities. Next time I come I hope I'll have my own transport so I can get easily to out-of-the-way places like Filippi and little country villages. I also need my own yacht so I can explore the islands at leisure.
Since I couldn't be bothered hitching, I took a train the same afternoon (Sunday) to Athine and took a bus to the Youth Hostel at around 2230. Places stay open late here, though their closure for siesta from 1300 to 1700 is often frustrating.
I clambered over ancient ruins and 500,000 other tourists to get an eyeful of the famed Acropolis, which I needn't bother describing to you. I spent most of the morning there and in the surrounding area which you know so well. I also walked for many Km around the city in my usual fashion, but it's not really what I'd like to see in Greece. Your idea of a camper-van would be excellent here. I found the Byzantine church in the middle of town very picturesque and the interior of the Greek Orthodox cathedral very beautiful. I can appreciate why people like a bit of glitter and ostentation, pomp and circumstance, icons and candles. Reason doesn't matter any more and feeling takes over. In the temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok I could understand it and no doubt the same applies to Western cathedrals.
The world is shrinking all the time. Outside American Express today (where all the rising generation congregates) I stumbled over Jackie the driver selling tickets for the Englishman's bus going to Salzburg tomorrow (0800), and tickets for the "Crazy Truck" going to Kathmandu. The former (at $10) was of more interest to me at this stage, and since it is not being organised by her, I have resolved to go along, expecting to reach Austria by way of Yugoslavia in something of a hurry - probably Thursday. Perhaps I'll have time to get into the mountains before going to Frankfurt for the next Wednesday.
The cheapest ferry from Patras to Brindisi costs drs 440 ($US1 = drs 30).