Backpacking in 1978

Obviously, one day someone found out that you could use the word ‘backpacking’ as a verb. The backpacker, however, is not a recent addition to the myriads of different kinds of folks who populate the earth.

As far as I know, ‘backpacking’ as a verb was not yet invented in the late 1970′s. People who spent up to a year as a backpacker- I won’t say they were non-existent, but they were few and far between. However, there were backpackers galore, especially during the summer holidays. All you had to do to see them was to mount any international train in Europe.

You would see backpackers, being stuck in the narrow corridors with their voluminous rucksacks. (Of course, we used the British English word ‘rucksack’, not the American ‘backpack’). Rucksacks made out of a sturdy type of bright orange nylon fabric, which were fastened to a firm frame made out of aluminium tube. Tents (lightweight seven-kilo ones), sleeping bags, pots, pans and canteens were dangerously dangling from or fastened to the rucksack with a piece of string- or anything, in fact. Backpackers in Europe were known as ‘interrailers’, after the Interrail Card, which entitled you to a month’s travel throughout Europe. (It is still available, and a great idea to use if you want to see Europe.)

I was one of these Interrail-backpackers. Together with my girlfriend we travelled. To Switzerland. From there on to Greece: a 48-hour ride through former Yugoslavia. The international express train halted not only in the larger cities. Every now and then the train would stop in the middle of nowhere. Our Swedish fellow-travellers looked out and said something like ‘maisveld’, which is also Dutch for cornfield… All you would see was an endless cornfield, a tiny wooden shelter with the name of the village, and an old man with an old suitcase leaving the train…

The thing to do, anywhere in fact, is to shun the well-trodden paths. I’ll admit, we did see the Acropolis and the other sights of Athens, but one day (while staying in Patras) we decided to board a bus. Any bus. We stayed on the bus until the last stop. A tiny village, I don’t remember the name. Tourists never came there; we were gaped at as if we came from outer space. We decided to buy ourselves a drink. An elderly man (possibly the village schoolmaster or even the mayor to judge by his looks) offered to translate for us. Orange juice- ‘portokalada’. One of the words in Greek I’ll always remember.

From Greece to Italy, from Naples (do go and see Pompeii) to Rome… When backpacking you may find yourself in an unpleasant situation every now and then. In Naples we almost ran out of ready money so we decided to cash a cheque as soon as we arrived in Rome. (Mind you, these handy cash points were non-existent then). We boarded the Naples-Rome train and found out too late (when the train had departed) that this was a kind of business class train. Our Interrail cards were not valid. We had to pay a fine (not a very large amount, some 25 guilders) but we couldn’t pay up… The conductor started to go red in the face and threatened to take us to the police. Never an alluring prospect when you’re abroad, even if it’s only about something stupid like not being able to pay a measly fine… A friendly Italian businessman on the train helped us out. ‘No good going to the police’. He paid our fine for us. If you should ever read this, friendly Italian businessman, after all these years: thank you ever so much.

I could fill many pages about our backpacking adventures. But to cut a long story short: me and my girlfriend travelled a lot, we were married; we have three children. Apparently our boys are chips off the old blocks. I didn’t come across this marvellous website by accident, you see. WorldBackpackers.net is a great initiative of someone who, no doubt, has seen a lot more of the world than we have. We’re proud of him. He’s our son.