|Geoff and Jules - Chapter 1|
He was a small man with sharp, pale blue eyes and a thick bushy beard that dominated his slight body. Seated at a low table in a corner, he was busily writing in what appeared to be a large exercise book.
I sat smoking my pipe and glanced across at him from time to time, but he was intent on what he was doing and paid no attention to his surroundings or to the people who came in and out of the room. His eyes were compelling. Very alert, maybe a little wild, they gave him an air of nonchalant confidence. Indeed, he seemed as much indifferent to the social niceties as he was absorbed in his writing. And he mumbled as he wrote. Not loudly, but as if he were in private communion with himself. A self-sufficient man.
It was Christmas Eve, and we were in the communal sitting-room of the Salvation Army Hostel in Sudder St., Calcutta, just a few yards off the main city road Chowringhee. I had arrived at this Christian stronghold looking for a taste of Christmas, a festival which did not figure prominently in the Hindu calendar.
There were others there like myself, a rather scruffy and haphazard collection of wanderers from all parts of the world; and we all found the Salvation Army Hostel a very welcome refuge with its Christmas tree, decorations and fussy English missionaries. Although mostly godless and rather shabby, these wanderers got along remarkably well with the missionaries. There is something about such gatherings; everybody is a stranger and everybody is passing through, yet there develops a certain camaraderie. Preposterous travellers' tales flourish and there is a constant exchange of useful information. Free doss-houses, black-market currency dealers, and borders that do not worry much about currency declarations; temples that welcome travellers, suppliers of bogus student cards, and a hundred other items of vital interest to travellers with little money and big itineraries.
But in all this hubbub of conversation, my attention kept coming back to this self-sufficient writer. He might have stepped straight from the gold-fields of nineteenth-century Australia and was dressed in a grubby blue jacket, old and food-stained, with a pair of shapeless gabardine trousers, shiny with age. With his thick beard and a great profusion of brown wavy hair he could have been any age between twenty and forty-five. He looked up and squinted across the room for a moment, then scribbled away again, hunched, with one arm thrown protectively around his book. He looked intent, and it was easy to imagine him peering carefully into the sluicing pan at his diggings, sharp eyes alert for the faintest gleam of gold.
Was he Australian? He certainly looked like the archetypal digger of years gone by. When he next looked up I caught his eye and called a greeting, "Hallo."
He jumped up, eyes gleaming, and rushed over. "G'day! How yer going?" It was a penetrating Australian voice right enough, and he preceded his words with a cough - a sort of compulsive clearing of the throat. "I'm Geoff Watt," he said. "Where're you from?"
"New Zealand," I replied.
"Oh. yeah," he said, and it sounded a disappointment. "I thought when you came in you must have been a Swede." He went on at once, "I met two New Zealanders yesterday in the market. One was called Clive. They were a funny pair of buggers, always asking each other about cups of tea. Very polite, you know, but a bit peculiar. Where are you going?" His conversation tumbled out in a rush and he hardly paused enough to hear me say that I was waiting to take a plane to England. "Jeez! I'm going to England too!" It was a commonplace, but he made it sound like a revelation. "I've been on the road since August; going like a beauty too, until those Burmese bastards fouled me up." And he continued with a lengthy tale about leaving Japan some months earlier travelling twelfth class on a French ship bound for Singapore, and then hitchhiking through Malaya as far as Bangkok. He had gone to Burma then and hitchhiked up the road to Mandalay - in honour of the song, he claimed, and to see if dawn came up like thunder. It didn't, he said, it just came struggling up pale and wishywashy.
He stood there declaiming, one hand upraised, finger pointing upwards, rather in the style of Moses revealing the Ten Commandments. His tale was told with an extraordinary variety of gestures, and occasionally he would make a little run or a leap to illustrate a point.
He had been arrested in Burma for trying to make an illegal land crossing into India, and was taken into custody by a policeman on a bicycle waving a large revolver. He illustrated this incident by careering across the room on tiptoe, legs apart, eyes gleaming, waving his arms and shouting out.
The missionaries looked on with astonishment; I was delighted. It was an unselfconscious performance, and the other wanderers watched with approval, recognising it at once as a most superior style.
He told me he was booked to stay for Christmas dinner the following day and was then going to hitchhike to Darjeeling, the mountain hill-station perched on a high slope of the Himalayan foothills.
After lunch we walked out along Chowringhee Road and he told me about himself. He was a keen athlete, specialising in the marathon, and a burning desire to run in some of the world's big races had started him travelling. Never quite good enough to be selected for the Olympics, he had realised that the only way he would get to compete internationally was to make his own way round the world to the places where these events took place. And so he had 'fronted up', as he termed it, for the Boston Marathon in the United States, then received an invitation to Korea to run in the Seoul International, and then some item later presented himself for the Japanese Marathon.
"I never got better than tenth in any of them, but they seemed happy enough to have me there, I think the beard got them in ... they were really intrigued by it in Korea and Japan. The papers used to write me up as the bearded Aussie, and the spectators always gave me a pretty good go ... I used to play up to them and they liked that."
His money was running low now, so he needed to get to London, where he could work and build up his funds again to enable him to run in some of the English and Continental marathons. But he saw no reason to hurry.
"You can go a hell of a long way on a few dollars. I reckon I'll be another four or five months on the road yet." He told me about his training in Australia where he used to run in the sandhills at a place called Portsea Beach with an assortment of athletes ruled by an eccentric old despot called Cedric Gelotti. This volatile old fellow had apparently overturned all the orthodox methods of training and considerably upset the athletic establishment of Melbourne by producing an occasional champion. At the previous Olympic Games he was often to be seen, a suntanned, white-haired old man surrounded by athletes, holding forth at length about training methods.
"They all wanted to hear what he had to say," said Geoff, "and after a couple of hours of talking and demonstrating he hadn't even scratched the surface, so they arranged for him to give a lecture to the athletes in one of the little theatres nearby. Well, old Cedric turns up and the place is filled - mostly blokes, but quite a few sheilas too - and first up he strips right off down to a G-string. 'Now,' says Cedric, 'I'm in the ready position for fight, flight or copulation!' That sort of held their attention for a start. It was a beaut lecture!"
We had walked across the Maidan by now and stood near the George V statue, gazing over the Hooghly River. The grey and murky water drifted sluggishly past. Calcutta was playing a melancholy counterpoint to the Australian's exuberance. As we walked there was a constant confrontation with human misery and degradation. The relentless accusation of sightless women standing mutely with silent babies, hands outstretched; grovelling figures whining and clutching; the malformed and crippled grotesquely displaying their deformities. You pay a prince in shame to walk these streets. I shuddered inside and we walked on.
Geoff was talking about hitchhiking round Australia. "Look, I went round Australia for a training run. Sort of a warm-up for hitchhiking round the world. But it's a bloody sight harder to get round Australia than it is to go round the world. Hell, this is a piece of cake." He had an infectious enthusiasm for life on the road and bounced along relating tales and anecdotes.
Inwardly I lamented my timid approach to travel and the rather fainthearted way in which I journeyed about. In three days I was booked to fly to London and I was just beginning to realise how much the great silver flying cocoon cut me off from the rest of the world. Suddenly it was obvious that the essence of travel lay in the adventures and encounters along the way and to avoid these was to avoid gaining any understanding of other people and other cultures.
"One of the great things about hiking round on the cheap is each day is a complete experience. Sometimes it's tremendous and sometimes it's bloody awful. Mostly it's pretty good though." If he was trying to persuade me to his way of travel, he was doing very well. "But I'll tell you one thing ... you know you're alive every single day. When you get up in the morning you don't know where you'll be that night, you don't know if you'll get anything decent to eat, and you don't know if you'll have a bed to sleep in." we has walked some distance along the river. There was a maze of jetties and small craft by the bank, and we could see the Howrah Bridge looming up in the distance. Geoff gave a short laugh. "Anyway, I reckon there's only two things in this life that are important; if you can eat well, and sleep dry, it's enough."
We went on in silence. I was finding it increasingly mode difficult to walk unconcerned past the grim spectacle of the hungry and homeless poor that everywhere confronted us. Tiny children with wise, sad eyes and shrunken bodies; women offering themselves for the price of another day's food; pitiable wretches without legs manoeuvring themselves along like huge grotesque crabs; and ceaseless plaintive cries of 'Baksheesh!' from the clamouring importuning crowd.
"My God!" I said to Geoff. "I don't think I can stand much more of this." I felt hemmed in, oppressed, beset with a hopeless feeling of total inadequacy.
Geoff looked at me calmly. "Yeah. It's pretty hard to get used to it all right. But what can you do?" He appeared unmoved.
"I feel like running screaming back to Chowringhee," I said.
"Well, it's pretty bad," he went on. "But you can't feed all these people, you know. You can't do anything for them at all. If you give some money to one of them you'll be hounded by crowds swarming at you from all directions." This was true, as I had discovered a few days earlier. "You just feel guilty," he continued. "You've got food in your belly and you feel guilty. But that's not going to help these people. You're not feeling for them when you feel guilty; you're only feeling sorry for yourself. You don't like it because they won't let you walk around in peace. You don't like it because they won't just vanish when you're out and about to see the sights." He walked on, apparently unaffected. "I'm afraid you've just got to accept them for what they are, and yourself for what you are."
Turning, we made our way back to the hostel. It was a welcome haven.
We had our Christmas dinner the next day, with roast turkey, potatoes and plum pudding. It was a splendid meal of good humour, begun with prayers, and all the guests seated at two long tables. Nobody listened much to the prayers except the missionaries, the rest of us being too intent on the steaming food which the bearers held waiting on trollies. Then afterwards there were bonbons with riddles and paper hats, balloons and Christian jollity. Very genteel, but convivial.
Geoff confided to me that he had really only come for the Christmas dinner, being strongly against paying out as much as ten rupees a day for bed and food, but, he said, he was sorely in need of a good meal. And as good as his word, shortly after dinner he said goodbye and disappeared, rucksack on his back into the crowd of humanity thronging Chowringhee Road.
I had been in Darjeeling for a few days the previous week and had strongly recommended the place to him. Even though I had suffered a bad bout of dysentery and had not seen much of the mountains, I caught a glimpse of Kangchenjunga in the dawn light just before I left. The great towering mountain was tinged an indescribable pink and orange, floating on a long bank of white cloud high above the town. Then great masses of cloud had rolled across the face and blotted it from sight, and the morning became white and still once more. It had affected me greatly, as perhaps it does any traveller who visits this hill-town. One is just not prepared for the sheer immensity of these mountains, their incomparable perfection, and it is almost a physical shock to come face to face with them for the first time. Then there are the legends and mysteries that cling to their slopes: Hindu rishis sitting tranquil and motionless in high rocky caves; yetis glimpsed from afar running low across the snow; Sherpas toiling over twenty-thousand-foot passes and into the unknown regions of Tibet; remote monasteries in hidden valleys with stores of secret knowledge in great, dim libraries; This overlays that first impact with an irresistible attraction.
I had told Geoff about this when he first showed me the book he had been writing in so busily. He was a compulsive writer and had already filled six huge diaries with the scribbled events of his journeys. I suggested that he go to the Himalayas and write about them. He regarded this as a serious challenge and set off with enthusiasm.
He was back just after dinner that night, bad-tempered and despondent. "A man might as well give the bloody game away," he muttered angrily. "Hitchhike! It's no go here, that's for sure! Crowds of ignorant bastards just think I'm some kind of idiot Sahib standing on the side of the road waving my arms!" He danced about to demonstrate. "They just stared at me and gave a bit of a grin, then kept on going. They didn't understand what it was about. Silly buggers." He subsided and went off to the kitchen to see if he could get a meal.
I was delighted to see him again, for I had come to the conclusion that flying to England was about as adventurous as having a bath, and was trying to make up my mind to cancel the flight. I told him this and asked him what sort of gear I should need for the road. He gave a sly grin, "I thought you might wake up to yourself. Look, why don't you come along with me. I'm going bloody silly talking to myself anyway."
"But I'll have to cancel this air ticket first," I said, filled with indecision.
"Yeah! That's right! Tell them you're worried about all the crashed and you think you'll walk!"
And so it was settled. Geoff was still anxious to go to Darjeeling, so we decided no to waste any further time trying to hitchhike in this part of India and to take the train next morning and go third class - the cheapest. I would buy a rucksack and other gear in Darjeeling, and the next morning we caught the North-East Frontier Express to Siliguri, the railhead for the Darjeeling-Himalayan Railway.