28 September 2007

Innocents Abroad

Magic Bus
By Rory MacLean
Pages: 286
£ 11.99

In the 60s and the 70s, America’s Baby Boomers, born in the post-war economic boom, began to rebel against the bourgeois complacency that had set in. Campuses were wracked by sit-ins, bra-burning pickets and antiwar demonstrations that have had consequences far beyond their place and time.

The Beats formed the vanguard of this rebellion. Best experienced in the alternatingly -- or even simultaneously -- nutty and dense poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ken Kesey’s edgy, anti-establishment classic One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest, and Jack Kerouac’s charmingly neurotic On The Road that conveys a generation’s heady sense of new-found liberation, the Beats made the pursuit of self-knowledge to counter ‘spiritual emptiness’, hip.

Thus began another shopping spree to enrich the soul in the spiritual supermarkets of the East. Armed with plenty of luggage, charming naivety, and LSD, the first crop of dropouts set out via Istanbul, travelling overland through neighbouring Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, finally settling down, sometimes literally, in Nepal. Their default modes of transportation were decrepit buses with broken springs and iffy brakes, condemned vehicles meant to be flogged for a profit in Pakistan. “The secret for a successful trip was to get the passengers smoking chillum dope pipes before breakfast.” Not to mention the seats at back of the bus, joined together into a “love bunk.” The bus operator would take his vehicle around the European cities, stop at places frequented by the hippies, and shout, “Anyone for India?”

“Where’s you guys going?” the passengers would be asked by other hopeful hippies along the way. “Nirvana”, the passengers would reply. Dog-eared copies of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha became their Lonely Planet, and kept alive their spiritual hunger through their tortuous jaunt. A generation was initiated into a life less ordinary with the seed mantra: ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out.’

MacLean, a Canadian travel writer, retraces this journey from Turkey to Nepal in a wispy account that even takes the trouble to think of big themes: What was the legacy of the hippies? Did they, by “vaunting their personal freedom”, start the Iranian revolution? The Khomeini-led Islamists grabbed power from the pro-West Shah to create one of the most rabid anti-West, anti-liberal regimes on earth. Did freedom forge its own shackles?

Fortuitously, in Istanbul, MacLean meets Penny, “an original flower girl”, once a sprite, now limping with a replaced hip, who takes him around the city on a there-are-places-I-remember tour. With indelible signs everywhere of the change that “the Intrepids” wrought in the face and pace of many an anonymous town and village, the reader shares MacLean’s excitement that he is on to something.

Even in the black-hole of Iran, where time and history have lost their meaning, MacLean finds trenchant connections between the hippies and the country that blocked the hippie trail when it became a repressive theocracy in 1979. Here he meets tangy Laleh, who runs a private English language institute in Tehran; wears the veil “out of loyalty” to her parents, her society, her traditions; and holds protest sit-ins regularly with a duct-tape gag over her mouth at the university gates.

Later, at a party hosted by her brother to announce their imminent migration to France, women guests, Laleh included, slip off their chadors to reveal “skimpy miniskirts and teetering heels.” When the Janus-faced Laleh, the symbol of two Irans, admonishes the hippies and their counterculture for “the dislocation and the fragmentation” they have caused to the western societies, it imparts MacLean’s quest substance.

But only fleetingly. Magic Bus sputters as soon as it leaves the Iranian border. His grand project forgotten, MacLean seems content covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal like any other foreign correspondent. If these places have changed, for better or worse, it is without a leg up from the Magic Bus passengers. MacLean settles for commonplace observations on, for example, the contrast between the modern and the eternal India, unable to appreciate the fact that India, like the big Leviathan, swallows everything -- even stoned hippies.

Sadly, in the end Magic Bus turns out to be a spaced out trip livened up with a sprinkling of apocryphal tales about a generation's yen for freedom, individuality, and doing one’s own thing. The flower-power generation's double-edged legacy, of self-seeking instant gratification and self-empowerment, remains as elusive as it is all-prevelant. Perhaps, MacLean was too distracted to notice it mocking him from the billboards of the Nescafes and the Benettons, who sell their wares to the world using its now chic aspirations.

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