“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
—“The Road Not Taken” (1916) by Robert Frost
Why do we travel? Personally, I could say that I travel to experience new cultures, meet new people and discover new places. But, would anyone believe such a banal and standard response? I believe that most of us travel to attempt to try and find Frost’s “Road Not Taken” or in a more contemporary sense, try and solve the internal dilemma of feeling incomplete. Travel, whether domestic or international, allows us to take a chance on life and experience something that could permanently alter our existence. Travel, therefore, isn’t about the external or outside world at all, but about ameliorating our minds because it is cathartic and healing. We all travel for different reasons, but it seems like our intentions and motivations are part of the journey.
In Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, veteran Canadian travel writer Rory MacLean tackles the formidable task of recreating the Intrepids’ journeys of self-discovery in the 1960s and 1970s. The Intrepids were the original student-travelers who voyaged from the US and Europe through Central and South Asia and the Middle East. Their journeys took them from Turkey to Nepal with stops in every country in between. These were the Hippie travel pioneers who paved the way for the independent traveler craze of today.
Before there were Internet cafes, travel guides, CNN, and State Department alerts, there were idealistic women and men undergoing journeys of introspection. MacLean idolizes the Intrepids and their influences—a heady mix of Kerouac, Kesey, Hesse, dope, hash, Dylan, the Beatles, and Orientalism. Like the eponymous Drifters in James Michener’s book by the same name, the Intrepids came from every social background and followed the travelogues of their peers to discover a part of the world they knew little about.
MacLean does an admirable job of following the Intrepids’ original pathway with a few unexpected side-excursions. He starts in Istanbul and continues through towns like Erzincan and Dogubeyazit (affectionally called “Doggy Biscuits”) in Turkey before moving on to places like Tehran and Isfahan (Iran); Kabul and Bamiyan (Afghanistan); Jalalabad and Peshawar (Pakistan); Amritsar and Varanasi (India); and Pokhara and Kathmandu (Nepal)—to name a few.
But, what if travel isn’t about recreating someone else’s journey, but creating your own journey to discover a part of you that was previously dormant? This is the central premise behind Eric Dregni’s touching new book, In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream. The author is an assistant professor at Concordia University and a recipient of a 2004 Fulbright Fellowship to study in Trondheim, Norway.
What makes Dregni’s book so enjoyable is that there is so little of him in it. Yes, the book came out due to his Fulbright to Norway. And yes, he and his wife had their first child there and named him Eilef after the author’s great-grandfather who left Norway for America. But, In Cod We Trust, is an homage to Norway—its people, customs, cultures, and ways of life.
I find it hard to believe that this book won’t single-handedly increase tourism to Norway because of Dregni’s funny descriptions of the odd and unique. Where else in the world can one find a town called Hell, a German U-Boat-turned-bowling alley, and Vinmonopolet, government-run wine and liquor stores? What about hiking in colorful sweaters at Bymarka Park, taking a cruise to the Lofoten Islands, checking out the Knitting Hall of Fame in Selbu or taking part in Syttende Mai (Constitution Day) in the town of Tonsberg?
This is in almost direct contrast to MacLean, whose revisiting of the Intrepids’ journey became less about the countries he visited and more about himself. How else do we explain MacLean’s exaggerated self-portrait—“Large, down-turned green eyes. Pale cheeks burnt by the day’s journey. Translucent skin, silver beneath eyelids ... A hungry travel writer with pen poised, trying to replace cliché with something more human and variable.”
This is perhaps the biggest problem with Magic Bus—the author’s ostentatious language from beginning to end. On the very first page, MacLean describes Afghanistan with “hot wind ripples across the blood red earth ... Airy waves wash over the scorched stones.” This gives way to statements like, “Above him, behind enclosed concrete balconies, shrouded eyes watch, women’s lives unfold, and the songs of caged birds lift to the tall blue sky.”
MacLean’s unfortunate style reminded me of a Charles Bukowski quote about reading William Faulkner: “I remember as a young man reading Faulkner down at the beach ... And I was reading As I Lay Dying. I liked it, I liked the style and yet the style bothered me too as if the style were doing too much of the writing.” This is definitely a problem with MacLean’s writing in Magic Bus—it tends to overwhelm the reader and portray this journey from Turkey to Nepal in such rich language as to lend the whole trip unrealistic.
Dregni, on the other hand, doesn’t waste words and doesn’t portray Norway as perfect. Rather, his entire book is a tremendous short of realism to the travel writing genre. There is no question that Dregni and his wife Katy grow to appreciate all that 21st century Norway has to offer them, especially as non-citizens. There is the “maternity benefit” [see public assistance] they received from the government just for having a baby in Norway. And then the warmth and hospitality they experienced across the country from distant relatives, friends, and complete strangers.
But, Dregni is also brutally honest about sources of confusion that might hamper tourists and other visitors. They include the difficulties in getting a home telephone (and a telephone directory); learning Norwegian and then struggling to figure out which language to actually speak (bokmal, Nynorsk, Trondheim dialect, etc.); dietary concerns and strange foods (like moose); and the insane cold and ice. But, Dregni’s style is so unobtrusive and candid that even Norwegians probably chuckled after reading his accounts and didn’t get angry.
Food is a particularly interesting theme throughout In Cod We Trust. Besides waffles, whale, gammelmost (“old cheese”), rakfisk (“rotten fish”), reindeer heart, the aforementioned moose, and every type of rommergrot or porridge imaginable, the star of Norway would have to be cod, right? Well, not quite.
Although Norwegians eat a lot of fish, not much is fresh and as a result, Dregni has a heck of a time trying to buy fresh cod to eat. In one grocery story, two older men try and distract his quest by explaining that there are too many types of cod to choose from, including “torsk, kolmule, sei, brosme, kolje, lysing, lange ... smoked torsk, salt torsk, dried torsk, fish balls or fresh torsk.” Besides getting hungry, I couldn’t help but think of Mykelti Williamson’s turn as Bubba in Forrest Gump and his obsession with crustaceans—shrimp kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, shrimp burger, etc.
Food is noticeably absent from MacLean’s adventures. There is the occasional mention of hummus or chicken mughali, but nothing too detailed. In fact, Magic Bus is altogether a more serious affair than In Cod We Trust, which is a remarkable irony because the Hippies and Intrepids were not really serious people—perhaps about travel, but not about life. As MacLean himself writes, “With a (forged) student card in hand, the typical Dharma bum set off to search for a guru, God and a long, slow tantric fuck.”
But, is MacLean’s disillusionment with the current state of the world out of place? Not really, when one realizes that although the effects of the Intrepids can still be seen in the countries they traveled through and on the people they came into contact with, the original journey, en masse, would be practically impossible now. First, there are the countries themselves that have each suffered cataclysmic acts since the 1960s making all of them, in some ways, less tourist-friendly.
These acts have ranged from the rise of the PKK and Taliban in Turkey and Afghanistan respectively to the Islamic Revolution in Iran to European introduction of heroin and cocaine into Nepal like the Western introduction of syphilis and small pox to the New World. As MacLean’s Pakistani driver Iqbal says, “By the grace of God, you are a dreamer, sir. I am obliged to inform you that Pakistan is no Kingdom Come ... It is a heavenly nightmare.”
But, there has also been an attitudinal shift in the minds of the people, as to whether the Hippies were indeed “good” for these countries in the long run. MacLean’s initial lofty optimism comes crashing down to Earth after three incidents. First, he witnesses a bitter exchange on a Delhi-bound train between Jonathan, an Intrepid who decided to permanently stay in India after his travels, and Arun, a representative of India’s newly wealthy, who snorts every time Jonathan talks about the glories of travel to the Subcontinent in the 1960s and 1970s. Says Arun, “I suppose we should be grateful to you for perpetuating the myth of self-discovery.”
MacLean’s second challenging incident occurs when he meets Roddy Finnegan, an old-time Irish Hippie and musician, who settled in Kathmandu after years of travel. Roddy deems his travels as not only pioneering, but vastly different from the “New Hippies” and travelers. As he puts it, “We were dropped off. We trusted in fate. We were blowing in the wind. Now, a big jumbo jet dumps you at the corner.” This was perfectly outlined recently by Christian Lander in Stuff White People Like #120: “Taking a Year Off.”
This statement and frame of mind about how the new adventurers to Asia and the Middle East are not challenged like the “original” travelers is firmly reinforced, in quite a moribund way, during one of MacLean’s final encounters. After spending some quality time in North India, he travels to the former Portuguese colony of Goa, on India’s West Coast. There he meets Geoff Crowther, “the first independent travel guide writer” and one of the founders of Lonely Planet.
Unfortunately, MacLean is disturbed to find the once omniscient Crowther a sad, alcoholic, weary man and representative of the death of the Intrepids’ dreams. According to him, the East now sought enlightenment from the West, albeit commercial and material over the spiritual. “They won’t defer to other cultures. They don’t want to be transformed. They want adventures without risk. Forty years ago, we put on kaftans and headed east ... Now the East is coming back at us dressed in DKNY,” he laments.
Throughout both books, each author is also forced to tackle and comment on social issues. Although Dregni does mention curious Norwegian phenomena like the Janteloven, the public-funded welfare system and the question of whether Christopher Columbus was Norwegian, he carefully and considerately distances himself from passing social commentary.
MacLean, however, falls into this trap and in a big way. This can be the only explanation for the pervasive, yet subtle, anti-Muslim sentiment that runs through much of the book. MacLean goes from openly criticizing Islam for being incompatible with the West to denigrating hijab or “head scarves” (which he uses less-than-flattering language to describe like “curtain,” “voluminous,” and “cumbersome”) to bemoaning the lack of public displays of affection in Muslim countries as signs of lack of modernity.
In the end, if our motivations for traveling are done for different reasons, these mindsets can have enormous consequences on our individual journeys. Eric Dregni appears to have discovered his place in the world and the appropriate balance between his Norwegian and American roots. And though Rory MacLean may not have undertaken the original Intrepid journey, paraphrasing Frost again, MacLean did take the road less travelled by, and “that has made all the difference.”
In Cod We Trust