2008 Contest Shortlist

The Road to Kathmandu, Encounter Overland

Stuck in a truck with a clueless adventure outfit.

Then there was the time… Experienced travelers often attempt to one-up each other with their “my trip was more hellish than yours” stories. It’s a fun sort of competition, isn’t it? After all, any one of us can tell about an enjoyable journey, a delightful vacation, a relaxing sojourn. A few sentences into the tale and you can see your listener’s eyes starting to glaze over with boredom. But a really awful travel story – now that’s entertainment.

So here’s my worst travel story. It was the autumn of 1976 – yes, our nation’s bicentennial year – and I had embarked on one of those semi-hippie, sort-of-around-the-world overland adventures which were so popular in those days. Encounter Overland was the name of the travel company. It’s long defunct for reasons that will become obvious.

There were 18 under-thirties from various countries who’d paid good money to sit on two long, hard benches fit into the back of an English Bedford truck. Canvas flaps could be rolled down on both sides and the back. We found out later that sitting at the back was the BAD place to be because dirt and later mud would fly up from the tires and spatter the unhappy travelers. Then again, when we had the runs – which was often about halfway through the journey – it was very handy to have the back seat. So we took turns sitting there.

The first indication that this might be a challenging expedition came in Europe – Salzburg to be exact. One of the truck’s tires blew out and had to be replaced. It was a holiday and we would have to wait two days to get a new tire. Not a big deal – but it was a harbinger of things to come.

So, onward to lovely, sunny Greece – with its white beaches, that yummy honey-pastry called baklava, ouzo, the original line dancing, ancient history… But where did our driver, an Englishman named Stu, take us? To the island of Levkas, home of bee hives by the hundreds. We spent most of our time up to our necks in the ocean because we kept being attacked by bees. That made it hard to eat, I can tell you. The ouzo was good, though, and so was the baklava; after all, the honey was fresh.

It was at about this point into the trip that we discovered Stu had a prosthetic leg. This would have been fine except for the fact that he’d had the prosthesis replaced right before the journey and it didn’t fit him very well. So he was in a certain amount of pain which he tried to quench by drinking – a lot. Irish whiskey, which he’d brought along in quantity; ouzo; local beer; really, whatever he could lay his hands on. Also, he’d brought along his girlfriend and they fought – a lot. We were

all a little worried but tried to shrug it off.

He had, after all, assured us that he knew every inch of our adventurous route.

Which leads me to our foray into Turkey. Stu got us lost at one point and we ended up in some little village where the folks didn’t like westerners much and threw stones at us. Big ones. Istanbul was very interesting, though, once Stu was able to locate it.

The next exciting part of the trip that I remember came when we drove from Afghanistan to Pakistan through the beautiful Hindu Kush mountains. Stu drove really, really fast down the very windy road, which of course had no barriers; it was a straight shot down the steep mountainsides. He told us rather gleefully (the next day) that he’d driven so fast because just a day or two earlier guerillas had been shooting at travelers on that very road. I guess he thought he could drive faster than bullets.

Then we got lost in Iran – in the Great Salt Desert. Then the old Bedford truck broke down – in the Great Salt Desert. So I saw a whole lot more of the Great Salt Desert than I really would have liked. We were there four or five days, I believe. I particularly remember this part because I went seven or eight days without bathing, which was the longest I’d ever gone. Some of the hardier women in our group hitchhiked rides – we had broken down on a major artery and a lot of oil tankers passed us by – to a nearby village. There our womenfolk entertained the locals by washing their hair at the public water pump. I imagine people there are still talking about it.

Eventually good ol’ Stu – who had also told at the beginning of the trip what a marvelous mechanic he was – somehow put the engine back together with gum or rubber bands or something and we were on our way.

I have a particularly vivid memory of a time we camped somewhere in Iran – in the middle of literally nowhere because we were lost again – and I had to get up in the middle of the night to pee. After I tiptoed out of the tent and found a place to squat I looked up to discover a herd of camels surrounding our tents. I guess they were either wild camels, if there was such a thing, or domesticated ones who were just grazing. But let me tell you, in the middle of the night in the wilds of Iran, it was disconcerting to be peeing amongst a bunch of very large camels. I got back into my tent pretty quickly.

By the time we reached India – after Stu got lost numerous times and the Bedford broke down a couple more times – we intrepid travelers were ready to mutiny. Really. The group actually got together and wrote a draft telegram to Encounter Overland headquarters in London. I can’t remember now why we didn’t send it. I think several of us felt sorry for Stu, who was drinking more heavily than ever. He and the girlfriend weren’t speaking, either. That was an improvement over the top-of-their lungs fights they’d been having.

In Varanasi, my husband (long-ago ex-husband, that is) and I decided we couldn’t take it any longer. The Bedford was supposed to make the climb from Varanasi to Kathmandu, Nepal and we were pretty darned sure it would end up stranding its passengers halfway up. So we paid extra to fly to Nepal. In retrospect it probably wasn’t any safer – or even less safe – to fly in that ratty, elderly plane than it would have been to stay with Encounter. Still, when we met up with some of our friends in Kathmandu we learned that, naturally, the truck had indeed broken down on its way to Nepal.

But you know what? I wouldn’t have traded that trip for anything. For one thing, I’ve got some great travel horror stories.

Kathleen Mulroy