It hit me somewhere over northern Spain. I was crammed into my EasyJet middle seat when my neighbor elbowed me off the armrest once too often.
Whatever happened to empty seats, leg room, gourmet food and courteous fellow passengers?
I left them back in 1972, that’s what.
A moment of nostalgia shoved my irritation aside.
I was reclining comfortably in my Tourist Class seat on a PanAm Douglas DC8. Two stewardesses – that’s what they were called in those days – hovered around me with delicious food, drinks and metal cutlery. The aircraft was half empty, possibly one reason PanAm is no longer around.
A smiling pilot emerged from the cockpit and chatted with passengers. After I confessed my fascination with flying (both my father and brother were pilots at one stage) he invited me up front – you know, like they used to do before… before the fear.
This particular trip to North Africa wasn’t difficult or exotic, but it had taken months to plan. After growing up mostly in Europe I was back in Canada, readying myself for university but in need of one final fling. My wanderlust had been excited by James Michener’s classic adventure tale, The Drifters, which would influence an entire generation of backpackers.
First came the research. I wrote to tourist boards for pamphlets and checked out local literature and history books from the library. I read newspapers and was shocked at how quickly the world was shifting. Nixon was off to China to meet Mao, and five men were caught trying to bug the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building (some things don’t change). In a few months the murder by terrorists of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics would usher in an era of fear and loathing around many things Middle Eastern. In quick succession the world would witness the Andean air crash – depicted in the movie Alive – and watch in shock as 129 huge B-52s bombed Hanoi, precipitating an end to the Vietnam War.
I was oblivious to any gathering storms and North Africa, with its turbaned bedouins, mysterious casbahs, delectable foods and the call of the muezzin drew me in. I have some family roots in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey so this incursion into Islam and the Orient was, in a way, a cultural ‘homecoming’.
In time my floor would be littered with wildly colorful brochures of turquoise doors, Phoenecian ruins and the Sahara Desert, far more welcoming then than now. This wasn’t my first time in North Africa – I had escaped there as a teenager when I was living in Spain – but this was my first fully-fledged trip to another continent on my own, flights, freedom and all.
That was when I took on the habit of reserving my arrival night, so I would have written to my chosen guest house, possibly including a self-addressed envelope and an International Postal Reply coupon, redeemable at the post office anywhere in the world in exchange for a local stamp. How else would my reservation be confirmed?
The visa process was always painful. Each required interminable forms, a check for payment, and another envelope. And then the scary part – sending off my treasured passport in the mail, trusting it would be returned to me. It always was.
Next stop would be the travel agency, a busy streetfront shop with half a dozen women – always women – banging away at pre-electric typewriters and fending off telephone calls. I would sit across a live, breathing human being who pored over a fat book stamped with the letters OAG across it – Official Airline Guide, the bible. She would flick each page expertly, scanning the columns for the best flight.
After a lengthy round of phone calls she would smile, her face relaxing with relief. A few minutes later a ticker tape would clatter in the back room, reams of yellow ribbon riddled with holes confirming that I, indeed, would have a seat on that flight.
I would pay – again by check – and she would fill out my ticket by hand, carefully printing one letter at a time, often having to scratch one out given the impossible unfamiliarity of my name. She would press heavily with her pen, enough to go through the ticket’s several carbon copies, then tear one out for herself and hand me the rest.
On the long-awaited travel day, I would dress carefully – bell-bottom jeans with a sharp crease down the front, psychedelic everything else – and arrive at the airport in good time to choose my seat. I don’t remember much security but it must have existed. What I do remember is the seating chart covered with sticky labels over which I’d agonize. Aisle? Window? My final choice would be pasted on my ticket and hang there, like a tiny piece of stuck tissue you can’t shake off. In those days I would have chosen a seat in the smoking section.
On the flight – half-empty if you recall – a movie would be playing on a tiny screen at the front, incomprehensible over the roaring engines. No matter. There was plenty of excitement as my ‘direct’ flight refueled in Gander, Santa Maria in the Azores and Lisbon before its last stop in Madrid. It was considered ‘direct’ because although we got off at each stop, we would reboard the same plane.
From Spain I’d make my way to North Africa by ferry. Soon I’d be sipping sweet mint tea at a tea house in Ceuta, one of Spain’s African possessions.
I would find the post office and call home collect to let my family know I had arrived safely but after that call, they’d have to rely on postcards to keep track of me. Sometimes, they would be without news for weeks as a postcard got lost or took the long way home.
Traveling solo in 1972 meant really being on your own. No smartphones, no Facebook, no Skype.
A Tweet was something birds did
When I wanted to meet up with friends I didn’t Tweet or PM them – I wrote to them care of Poste Restante (General Post Office) where travelers regularly checked to see if any mail was waiting for them. American Express offices played much the same role, holding mail, providing travel information, and acting as a port of call for backpackers. You didn’t even need their card, just their travelers’ checks.
Travel took a lot longer, both because it was harder to get from one place to another but also because there was so much more to discover – we hadn’t seen it already online so we didn’t ‘skip’ anything poorly reviewed on Trip Advisor. It also involved a bit more lingering. Who knew when the next bus would come along? There was no app to check. We relied on word-of-mouth from other travelers. And since I didn’t really know what lay ahead, I was happy to linger.
Travel was certainly more cumbersome, without any of the gear that today simplifies life. Electronics. Packing cubes! Lightweight backpacks. Quick-dry fabrics. Wheels.
And like many 19-year-olds in those hippie days, I probably didn’t help things by traveling with my guitar. Music then, as now, was a unifying force for young people who would meet, befriend one another fleetingly, and drift together for a bit to the sounds of Cat Stevens and Jim Croce and Carly Simon.
Suddenly the pilot came on the loudspeaker.
“Please fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen. We are about to begin our descent into Madrid.”
I looked around. No, we were not in 1972. And someone else’s elbow was still on my armrest.