By David Roelen
The subway train unexpectedly slowed, crawling into the dimly lit station.
East German soldiers with threatening Kalashnikov AK-47 assault
rifles stood alert on the shadowy platform. We looked at each other.
Where were we?
Then, inexplicably, our errant train accelerated, cleared the
platform holding the feared guards, and re-entered the black tunnel
that took us away from East Berlin.
This first day in Berlin was unsettling. We later learned, as our
fellow passengers already well knew, the old subway's course slid
under the infamous dividing wall into East Berlin before safely looping west.
May 1, 1968, found us crossing Checkpoint Charlie, entering the
gloomy Deutsche Demokratische Republik to witness the somber
communist May Day parade. Tourists entering the DDR were required to
exchange $5 into East German currency and either spend it or return
it. No refunds.
We had come to Europe the long way. Departing the South Bay after our
October wedding, clicking along in our 1963 VW bus, headed south on
asphalt and dirt roads towards the Isthmus of Panama. The wandering
drive through Mexico and Central America tested the bus, but carried
us safely and we arrived a month later. The Canal Zone had been my
military home for three years before college. This was a Thanksgiving
stopover after a five-year absence.
Boarding a ship to Barcelona, we spent 16 days at sea. Europe is cold
We carried only backpacks and at times had all our clothes on to fend
off the weather.
Our late December arrival persuaded us to move quickly to the warmer
southerly climes of North Africa, distantly visible from Gibraltar's rock.
Hitchhiking east across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia was
enlightening. Men riding donkeys wore striped jalabas a la "The
Marrakech Express." We stayed in the narrow-alleyed old medinas of
Fez and Casablanca, where the smell of pot and hashish wafted through
the '60s air. Exotic Algiers enchanted and fascinated us with women
dressed entirely in white with only one eye exposed.
Thumb travel was familiar. In earlier days, I had hitchhiked solo
across the United States. In North Africa, cars were not as
plentiful, so at times crossing remote borders required walking or
riding on horse-drawn carts.
High in the coastal mountains of Algeria we slept with another couple
under one sleeping bag when rides failed us.
Following Italy's length north from Sicily and then southeast through
the former Yugoslavia, available money ran thin. "Europe on $5 a Day"
was a popular traveler's book. We managed to live on about $2.50. I
sold blood in Greece in order for us to eat.
At one point Carol donated her secreted $20 to tide us over. Forty
years later, "her money" is still an issue.
Istanbul's ancient Blue Mosque with its six minarets was splendidly
beautiful and the east and west mix at the Bosporus intriguing. In
Istanbul's bazaar, an unsolicited haggler offered to buy my bride
(unsuccessfully). Turkey's spectacular Topkapi Palace Museum held an
amazing collection of Ottoman Empire artifacts as well as the
86-carat Spoonmaker's Diamond.
Hitching toward Bulgaria crossed poor, featureless land with
isolated, distant villages. Border guards allowed us entry even
though my hair was a little long; others had been turned away. In the
drab capital of Sophia, we walked on the city's bright yellow bricks as in Oz.
Spring was still cool while wandering through Austria and
Switzerland. On a warm Innsbruck day, we visited the Sound of Music's
gated abbey. Later, wet with our thumbs out, a Dutch family kindly
handed hot drinks from a cellar window to the two cold travelers. A
nice driver dropped us off, stuffed money into our lunch bag and,
over his shoulder, said, "Buy yourself a warm jacket."
Backpackers frequently met as paths crisscrossed the Continent.
Everyone raised foamy mugs at the famous Munich Hofbrauhaus. A
challenge was to exit the Hofbrauhaus without paying for a clay
stein; one rests in our house.
Students from Czechoslovakia traveled freely celebrating the "Prague
Spring." Our Sorbonne student quarter windows gave fiery views of
Paris' citywide 1968 riots. Exiting, we walked past heaps of trash
toward the Calais ferry to cross the English Channel.
Left thumb hitchhiking was awkward, but successful through England,
Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Crossing into Northern Ireland, saddened
border guards informed us of Bobby Kennedy's death. North of Loch
Ness, Scottish castles provided rest while we marveled at the boggy
countryside with its shaggy cattle mired knee deep.
The student ship Auralia awaited us in Southampton. The Auralia
didn't pitch and yaw as other vessels; it would rock and roll,
The RMS Queen Elizabeth passed us in each direction crossing the
Atlantic to a New York greeting by the Statue of Liberty.
Our exciting and memorable nine-month hitchhiking honeymoon lasted
longer than some marriages.
Dave Roelen is a 40-year Torrance resident, former teacher and
retired environmental officer.