Hitching with techies who design souls for computers, starving in Austria and taking handouts from promiscuous Bulgarian sannyasins, Tom continues his long journey.
I eventually got my rides into Germany and slept through each of them. I often get picked up by people who need someone to talk to so that they don’t doze off at the wheel, or else just to break up the monotony of pursuing the ugly concrete motorway. It doesn’t generally go down too well when the stray wanderer they’ve picked up passes out within minutes in the front seat, snoring loudly. But sometimes there are just no two ways about it. The rocking lull of each car’s motion pulled my eyelids inexorably together. On the road you need every bit of shut-eye that comes your way.
I got stuck again at a petrol station inside Germany and ended up approaching a tall, bald guy in my best German as he rummaged in the boot of his car. He responded in perfect English. He didn’t believe me when I told him my destination was India but he relented and let me in, allowing me the satisfaction of proof when I flashed the Iranian and Pakistani visa pages of my passport at him.
“Wow, man – you’ve got a long journey ahead of you!” Too true.
This turned out to be one of the best rides of my hitchhiking career so far. He was a large and lanky guy called Jan and he drove his Mercedes at a silent 200 kmph down the no-speed-limit German autobahn. The transformation of setting is one of the reasons I love this mode of travel. Five minutes earlier I was choking on the fumes and frustration of petrol pumps going nowhere fast. Now I was riding down the highway in style, a new friend to talk to at the wheel. Feeling groovy.
I learnt that Jan was something of a hi-tech prophet of the first order; a designer of future state of the art computers, he was working on contracts with very wealthy German businesses and Austrian banks and it was clear that some serious money was involved.
Once he sensed that i was also a little eccentric he began to outline his whole project, growing in enthusiasm and eloquence as he went on; Jan was becoming the architect of computers that would possess souls – giving independent life to the byte-biting hardware recently formed into one being with the generation of the internet. This visionary who sat beside me with one hand on the wheel and both eyes trailing off into a grandiose distance, foresaw a near future when computers would be endowed with belief systems and values. He stood at the threshold of a revolutionary New Age that smacked of scary Bladerunner scenarios.
It was not all easy street for his notions, however, as he had to do daily battle with the dinosaur minds of the directors and ‘experts’ of the companies who hired him but were as yet too cautious to let him take the full reins of progress between his gnashing teeth. He ran himself blue in the face attempting to persuade these fat cats that computers would soon become something astronomically more than fancy calculators keeping score on the stock markets and providing space invader games for their kids.
Not only this but Jan was keenly aware of the potential dangers of computers gaining partial or full autonomy and considered that the whole process would have to be handled with the utmost care and aforethought. He considered that there were many malevolent influences who sought to contaminate or dominate this amazing potential for power in the forthcoming computer epoch. In this sense, he saw himself as a figure of light engaged in a struggle for good against evil. Already he and his like-minded associates were taking steps to forestall the dastardly, Lex Lutherish designs of the more sinister players in this particular game.
I began to spin off this warped conversational tack with relish and speculated on how the megalithic oppression of the multinational companies might be left behind as toppling giants with their minds stuck in the past, anarchic computer programmers rewriting the System from within. Soon at the top of the innovation and logistics departments of multi-billion dollar firms would be weird and warped techno-prophet minds right at the heart of the beast.
“Now you might laugh, Tom but I envision the whole drive towards advanced computer technology as mankind’s instinctive and unconscious flight from the hazards of the physical world – where we as humans are threatened by climatic, ecological and social chaos. So we’re perhaps retreating towards the internal kingdoms of cyberspace.
“And there will be infinite realms of wonder, magic and beauty-places where we can write the laws of physics ourselves and where the only limits to the nature of existence will be our imaginations. Once we learn how to fully connect the neural pathways of the human brain to silicon routes in. cyber-valleys, we can actually fully invest our consciousness into the machine.”
Right! Then we could truly liberate ourselves from the chains of individuality, merging minds with internet telepathy, possible once all cerebral constructs become compatible.
“So what do you think of the weirdos you met on the German autobahn, Tom?” Jan asked me with a wry smile, bringing my wandering mind back down to Earth for a minute. I laughed as I realised that as usual, I had been swept away with the force of another person’s passion and dreams. Reality on holiday. But really, what would Buddha have said at the prospect of such a vision? Perhaps this was an example of the other realms of heaven and hell that the Tibetan Buddhists are always talking about – and surely we’re meant to achieve enlightenment in this physical world, no?
I sensed, however, that these doubts were probably symptomatic of a mind that would be left behind in the next era and that my future children would have no difficulty in assimilating the cyber dimension at all. Would I really come to lose the love and support of my offspring to a cortical shunt plug in the side of their heads? It couldn’t be, could it? If someone went back 100 years and told the people of that time that in the future you could talk to a special kind of box called a computer – he’d have been sent away to the loony bin or burnt at the stake. Jan confirmed my reasoning by reminding me that before the future is born, it is conceived in the minds of the dreamers who float above the reality of their times and plot a course to the islands of the impossible.
Back in the three dimensional world, it turned out that Jan would be driving to Vienna the next day and as the sky began to grow dark, he offered to give me a bed for the night at his house in Stuttgart. It was what I’d been hoping for – he could hardly have left me to the mercy of the elements after a conversation like that, could he? So we went back to his oasis of strangeness in the midst of German suburbia. I rustled up some vegetarian fare from his cupboards, enjoying the trust and the marijuana of this unusual and likeable guy.
We headed off in the early morning, making ridiculously good time in his rather superior vehicle and not talking so much, content to follow our own respective thoughts to the background of fast-diminishing countryside and the psychedelic sounds of the Asian Underground; chants, tablas and sitars of ancient Indian ragas blending with the samples, drum patterns and effects of synthesizers invented within the last decade or so.
We arrived in Vienna in the mid-afternoon. I left Jan with my copy of Kahil Gibran’s
The Prophet. He gave me the Asian Underground tape, 60 schillings and of course, his email address.
So I found myself wandering the streets of Vienna, again. It’s a very cool and detached town, whose populace give new meaning to the word ‘bourgeois’. They drift through long, cold winters and pleasant summers, posing and pouting but never really leaving second gear.
The nature of the people finds it’s reflection in the Viennese architecture that draw huge amounts of tourism in the summers. Enormous cathedrals and stately buildings dominate the scene and the style is characterised by sharp, angular relief-work. It mirrors the scornful expressions of the women of the city as they make their way below past the opulent cake shops.
I hopped on what must be the smallest underground train system in the world and as such is a monument to the languid take-it-as-it-comes attitude of the Viennese. As is the case in much of Europe it’s no problem to ride without a ticket. There are no machines or officials to routinely check that you’ve paid as you enter – you just have to deal with the occasional hazard of the obnoxious ticket police who shunt around the network all day, (dressed as hippies or businessmen) making sudden, aggressive raids on the carriages.
This arrangement suited my friends who lived here. Okay, it was no fun but they simply took it as their due that every now and then they would be caught and shouted out by these fascistic minor officials with walkie talkies who then fined them lots of schillings. It worked out cheaper in the long run than buying a ticket every day and why walk when you can ride? Easy for me, of course, as I just needed to flubber around in confused and apologetic English and they’d eventually get frustrated and leave me alone, perhaps with my false address written down in their notebooks.
I stepped out into the Jewish quarter of town by the sullen canal and passed various kosher food stores, between which strode Hassidic Jewish men in black suits, caps and long beards, with earnest and purposeful expressions, doubtlessly wrestling with some Biblical contradiction that was teasing their minds. Police could be seen hanging around to offer the synagogues a constant protective presence against the legacy of persecution that has seemed to follow them wherever and whenever for the last five thousand years.
I climbed the steps of the apartment building, ignoring the elevator and rang the bell of the friends I was hoping to stay with. They were pretty surprised to see me – a little freaked would be closer to the truth. The first question they asked me with nervous and fearful eyes was:
“How long are you going to stay?”
Having met two of them first in Goa, I’d already taken up their ill-considered invitation to come and visit in the May of that year and had managed to pretty successfully outstay my welcome – to which there is something of an art.
They were four girls living in the flat and they all possessed minds of sharp and destructive honesty that reduced any insincerity to dust. O beware, innocent and vulnerable wayfarer! These were women to reckon with and woe become anyone caught in vain or narcissistic speech – four more earnest and acute souls you could not hope to find and they hunted down with a vengeance any signs of pandering to the ego. The result was that they gave themselves (and everyone else) as hard a time as their strength could bare.
But for all their tough exterior their debates often centred around the eternal issue of whether there was any such thing as true love, sides being chosen on the basis of recent experience. We’d eventually muddled together some kind of living pattern and, after the initial annoyance and incomprehension, they found my sideline presence amusing:
“You just sit around all day doing nothing.” they cried. Which was not true. I wrote at least one song every few days and I rarely missed my morning session of yoga. I considered myself an island of peace amidst the helter-skelter emotional melodrama of their day to day lives.
They had effectively watched me starve in the two weeks that I’d stayed with them. I had sat around almost empty-handed in a fiercely competitive and possessive kitchen where they wrote their names on their bottles of soya sauce and jars of honey, lest their supplies be usurped by one of the others. To be fair, they had shown me some ways of making money, including the racket of picking up 5 schillings per empty bottle left behind at the local alternative nightclub – but I had rejected this as sleazy. So, with occasional lapses of charity, they ate huge meals before me while I attempted to survive on three bowls of porridge and a kiwi every day.
But then after a hungry week of chewing oats, I spied a poster on the tunnels of the underground advertising that the dance and rhythm performance extraordinaire, Stomp, would be playing the next day. With a smile like the Cheshire Cat, I remembered that the sound engineer of the show was a friend of mine from Brighton.
“Tom! What are you doing in Vienna?” My friend, Mike, asked me in amazement.
“Starving, mainly.” I informed him.
I came down the next night, watched the stunning show from a choice seat and was afterwards taken along to the opening night party – where were gathered all the top socialites, personages and paparazzi of Vienna, showing off their new clothes and making small talk. I headed straight for the buffet where on a pristine scarlet red cloth, covering the tables that ran across three sides of the room, was laid a spread of at least a hundred dishes. I piled my plate with the smoked salmon, the olives, the mango, the chocolate gateaux and the French cheese. Upon returning to the free bar to claim gratis beer and wine, Mike took a photograph of me leaning against the counter, with my absurdly-filled plate in one hand and a glass of Bordeaux in the other – the spoken caption was:
“Tom joins the bourgeoisie.”
After boozing with the crew of Stomp, whose capacity for making rhythms out of anything from newspapers to lighters, was matched only by their ability to consume incredible amounts of alcohol and other such stuff. I stumbled back home, leaving their little bubble of London streetwise on-the-case accents behind me. On the way, I had fancied a little more excitement in my inebriated state and stumbled into an open-air nightclub. Seeking a good place to piss, I walked through to the darker parts of the beer gardens. I saw a choice looking spot by a tree, just across a black shiny path. Two moments later, I discovered that it was not a black shiny path.
“Hmm, “ I thought, “Someone’s walking in the pond. It’s me.”
That was May and a lot of water had passed under the bridge since then, without me falling into it. Now August heat soaked all of Europe and left sultry evenings in the wake of the sweaty days. I walked down by the canal where the sunset lay on the silent drift and crossed the town to visit Meriana: a Bulgarian lady who had just secured Austrian citizenship with her marriage that day. She’s a bubbly, bouncy girl with flames licking about her. We had first met on a Goan dance floor where our mutually exuberant kinetics found affinity and she had recognised me on my last visit to Vienna by virtue of my twirling arms in the darkness of the Flex nightclub.
She was a true Punetic – a regular character of the Osho Ashram in Pune in West India. She was a perfect fit for the archetypal model of wild and creative promiscuity in incessant and hot pursuit of sensual realms of passion. Her eyes twinkled with feline mischief and her rampant demeanour meant that she had trouble to even sit at the dinner table for more than five minutes before something else would snatch her attention.
She spent half the evening on the telephone listening with guilty unease to the sobbings of a guy who’d fallen in love with her and was now realising that she was an eternal free agent of the night. We’ve never gotten involved and I seriously doubt if I could keep up with her 100 kmph pace – but we had a strange and touching supper together and at the end of it, she booned me 500 schillings to ‘spread good vibes with.’
The following morning, before I left for Hungary, I walked up to her apartment and left a note outside her front door. It read:
‘Meriana, you are beautiful.’
more coming soon