So where were we… Ah yes, Greece. Summer of ’96. Two policemen were pulling me off a train in Thessaloniki for riding without a ticket…
The night before I had slept a grand total of fifteen minutes on the floor of the main train station in Skopje, Macedonia. I unsuccessfully tried to buy a ticket for the Athens-bound train which was leaving first thing in the morning from the woman at the kiosk before unrolling my sleeping bag. I didn’t have enough denari, and there was no way to exchange a traveller’s check that late at night. She said not to worry, I could buy a ticket on the train. At least, I think that’s what she said. She didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Macedonian.
I was travelling with Raj. His mother was Jewish, from New Jersey. His father was Hindu, from Punjab, India. Raj referred to himself as a “Hinjew”. We had met in Berlin one morning a couple of weeks earlier. I had fallen asleep in the stairwell of a building which housed a youth hostel up on the 3rd or 4th floor while waiting for a staffer to inform me whether or not they had any beds available for the night. I was awakened by a clicking sound and some poorly stifled giggles. I opened my eyes and there was Raj. He was holding a camera and he was in stitches.
“Sorry, dude. I couldn’t resist. I’ve never seen so much drool in my entire life!” I looked down at my shirt. I was a complete mess.
After we both secured a bunk in a big, filthy 18-bed dormitory for that evening, we went out in search of coffee. It turned out we had both spent the previous night sleeping rough. I had curled up in a doorway on a quiet residential street and used my rucksack as a pillow. Raj had attempted to sleep in a park, but there were too many drunk people out and about. He didn’t feel safe so he spent most of the night wandering around aimlessly, waiting for the sun to come up.
Raj and I travelled together for about a month. We quickly established a simple routine: sleep out under the stars for two or three nights, then “splurge” on a cheap double room and get reacquainted with hot water and a proper night’s sleep. If you want to see the world and you don’t have much cash, you have to cut some corners. (I know, I know, that’s easy for me to say. I’m a big, hairy white guy with a U.S. passport. People don’t tend to mess with me. And the problem of “How to Travel the World on a Shoestring Budget” is the ultimate first world problem, right behind “The Government Won’t Let Me Sell My Picasso to a Buyer in a Foreign Country Because It’s Considered a National Treasure.”)
That night in the Skopje train station was our second night sleeping rough in the routine and we we’re a bit out of sorts. It was necessary to pay to use the restrooms in the station. It was a ridiculous amount, something like ten or fifteen cents. Raj absolutely refused. I pulled a handful of funny-looking coins out of my pocket and offered to pay for his trip to the bathroom.
“No! It’s the principle of the thing. A person shouldn’t have to pay to use a toilet.”
Too much vagabonding was starting to make Raj a bit loopy. Unfortunately for him, nature called with a vengeance around 3 a.m. He had to poop. He dug a roll of toilet paper out of his rucksack and slipped out into the night in search of a free toilet. He found one pretty quickly. (He didn’t have much of a choice. It was an emergency.) He squatted behind a rusted out car in a nearby empty lot.
Anyway… The sun came up and the train to Athens-via-Thessaloniki pulled into the station. The ticket kiosk was still closed. We hopped on, found an empty compartment, and promptly fell asleep. Some time later we were awakened by the ticket collector giving us a not-so-subtle kick in the shins. The train was rolling along at a pretty good pace. Raj handed over his EuroRail pass. The guy scribbled something on it, punched a couple of holes, and handed it back to him. I didn’t have one of these magical problem solving passes and I tried to explain to the guy that I needed to buy a ticket. I pulled out a traveller’s check, some US dollars, and my few remaining Macedonian coins, much to the ticket collector’s dismay.
“I need to buy a ticket.”
He completely lost his cool and started shouting at me in Greek. Raj thought this was the funniest thing on earth.
“The woman in Skopje told me –”
“Skopje!?” The mention of the Macedonian capital seemed to make him even angrier (Are we in Greece already? How long have we been asleep?) so I just stopped talking.
He eventually left our compartment and we fell back asleep, but when he returned he brought reinforcements. Now there were three angry train employees shaking me awake.
I handed them my passport and tried to explain my situation again. One of the ticket collector’s companions actually spit on the floor to show his contempt for me. They disappeared after a few minutes, this time with my passport. Raj was still immensely delighted by the whole ordeal.
Shortly before the train pulled into the station at Thessaloniki the three goons returned.
I reached for my rucksack.
They escorted me off the train under the wary eyes of the other passengers and handed me over to two police officers waiting on the platform. Raj, watching from the window of our compartment, looked a bit worried for the first time since I’d met him.
The officers firmly placed a hand on each arm (Where was I going to run? My rucksack was on the train…) and escorted me into the station where I was told to exchange a traveller’s check for drachmas and purchase a ticket to Athens. Then they escorted me back to the train. When I presented my ticket to the shin-kicking ticket collector he extended a sweaty hand, gave me a big, sarcastic grin, and said, “Welcome to my country!”
All this happened twenty years ago almost to the day. At the time I was a bit angry and humiliated by the incident. Looking back on it now, I completely understand why the train employees acted the way they did. First of all, I didn’t speak a word of their language. Secondly, I offered to pay them with foreign currency. (Imagine if a European walked into a train station in the U.S. and tried to buy a ticket with euros!) And thirdly, looking at photos of myself from that summer… Jesus… I looked like a vagrant, a tramp, a vagabond, a total deadbeat. That was a ten week trip and I wasn’t travelling with a razor. One day in a roach motel in Budapest a Canadian guy was walking towards the communal bathroom carrying an electric razor.
Somebody asked, “How much for a haircut?”
“I don’t know. How about… a bottle of beer?”
Five or six of us lined up immediately. He shaved my head and six week’s worth of beard in three minutes flat. It was worth every cent.
But back to Greece: Unfortunately, our little adventure was only just beginning. An hour later the train came to a screeching halt in the middle of the countryside. The passengers were up on their feet, poking their heads out the windows, and frantically shouting what I can only assume was the Greek version of What the hell is going on?!
After a few minutes a train employee came tearing down the aisle of our car with his hands covered in oil. Then, another employee, face smeared with grease, ran through. A passenger grabbed him and demanded to know what was going on. The problem, which was translated to us by another passenger who spoke a bit of English, was that the engine had somehow slipped off the tracks and we were all lucky to be alive.
Ages passed. It was excruciatingly hot and the rickety old train, while immensely charming (to me, at least) in all its glorious Old World shabbiness, had no air conditioning or fan of any kind. Everybody was drenched in sweat. Finally, the engine was unhitched and another one was attached to the arse end of the train. We were taken back to the last small village we had passed by and placed on buses. We were driven to a town further down the line, beyond where the original engine was sitting on the tracks, out of commission. We were then placed on another much smaller train where many of us, Raj and myself included, had to sit on the floor or stand in the aisle until we arrived (roughly six hours late) to Athens.
It was after midnight when we finally stumbled, hungry and disoriented, off the train in the Greek capital. We bought some fruit and water at the station and wandered off in search of a peaceful spot to unroll our sleeping bags for the evening.
To be continued? Probably not.