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Jo'Burg Days: The Bus From Athens

Barbara Durlacher recalls a long and exhausting journey from Athens to London on the Magic Bus - a journey during which she learned an important lesson.

Does it still run, I wonder?

That eccentric bus service, the brainchild of a couple of Greek entrepreneurs, provided transport from London to Athens return for the extraordinary sum of £29. I doubt it still operates, probably replaced by airline cut-price travel. Instead of 27 hours on the road, with no refreshments, no insurance or guarantee of arrival times, one now flies crammed into an airborne sardine can, but in those pre-budget days, it was an interesting alternative if one had the endurance.

Having accomplished the outward leg, and visited Crete, Turkey, Chios, and many of the offshore islands, nearly a month later I was making my way back to Athens to rejoin the Magic Bus on my return to London.

My job as a hotel receptionist in Scotland restricted travel to off-season periods, which always fell during the most unfavourable seasons from January to a week or two before Easter, and then for a shorter time in the autumn. Unfortunately this meant I visited Europe and the Mediterranean countries before many of the public attractions opened, which could be disappointing. It could also be lonely and occasionally exceedingly cold, as in some places there was still snow on the ground, ominous black clouds overhead, and heavy rain.

But, for the dedicated traveller these small discomforts don’t count and without the stultifying crowds and intense summer heat, the recollections of these few years of intermittent roaming remain as some of the most interesting travel experiences ever.

Reverting to the return journey from Athens to London on that stormy late-spring day, here is an incident which took place during those tedious hours when we were, so trustingly and hopefully, proceeding north towards Calais and the Channel steamer.

Having left Greece and Yugoslavia on the first day, long hours had been wasted in attempting to find Klagenfurt, the border crossing into Austria. This was rumoured to be less suspicious of traffic from Greece than other more severely controlled customs posts, with less risk of illegal job-seekers being turned back as prohibited immigrants. Crisscrossing up and down steep mountain roads we had searched for hours for the right road until finally, at about 1am, the brightly lit buildings appeared and finally, we were through. This was achieved with lots of talk, much emphatic translation and, perhaps, not a little hand-greasing, and the fifteen occupants of the gallant little bus finally settled down for a well-earned sleep; the more experienced driver rolled himself into his blankets and ‘retired’ to the bench seat at the back of the bus, and his side-kick took over.

Hours later, waking from an uneasy doze, I noticed a stirring amongst the group. After a few minutes, one of the backseat passengers, whom I had dismissed as a threadbare hippy because of his greasy, shoulder-length hair, his unshaven cheeks, sandaled feet, thin shanks and the distressingly large holes in the seat of his pants, made his way towards the front and began remonstrating with the driver.

Unable to make himself understood to the driver, he appealed to the rest of the passengers, saying urgently “We are going in the wrong direction. We should be proceeding up the auto-route towards France. This way, we will enter Switzerland in an hour or two and have to cover a huge part of the French countryside on minor roads to eventually reach Calais.” Much discussion ensued, the other driver was woken from his slumbers, but the eventual consensus was that it would waste too much time returning along the route already travelled, and that it was better to continue, and keep going after clearing the border into Switzerland and try to make the midnight ferry out of Calais.

Alas for all good intentions! Further heavy rains in France, crowded roads, and terrible congestion as we reached the dockside approaches put paid to our efforts and we missed the midnight ferry.

So, with no alternative, we settled ourselves as best we could to wait out the cold and empty hours until the first ferry departed the next morning at eight. During this interminable wait, I finally managed to engage the hippy in conversation. To my amazement, he turned out to be a second-year Oxford student, returning with his girlfriend from a period in the Sudan teaching English to the villagers.

“I began to feel extremely guilty, foisting my Western beliefs and attitudes on these simple people. They have nothing, and live hand-to-mouth, and yet revere a teacher as one who can give them education and the ability to enter main-stream life if they speak English, and can read and write it as well.”

“When I first arrived, they welcomed me with singing and clapping, fetched their most valuable possession, a rickety old wooden chair, dusted it off, seated me ceremoniously, gave me water to drink and a tattered copy of a months old newspaper. Their respect and reverence, which I surely did not deserve, was acutely embarrassing, and although I did my best to give them as much instruction as I could cram into the daylight hours, I never felt that I was repaying them for what they gave me.”

“And then what happened?” I queried, interested.

“Well, my girlfriend and I had run out of money, and only had enough to get us from the Sudan to Cairo, but not sufficient to get back to England. Arriving in Cairo, I phoned my mother, and she used her credit card to pay for us to fly to Athens. From there we could just afford a one-way ticket on the Magic Bus back to London, and here we are. Trouble is, we’ve been living in hot climates for so long, and gave all our possessions to the wonderful people who had welcomed us with such kindness, and we are really feeling the cold now we are back in northern latitudes.”

Shortly after this the loudspeakers announced the arrival of the early ferry, and in the bustle of embarkation I lost sight of the couple. Many other delays and setbacks awaited me before I finally reached London, including being involved in the “siege” of Balcombe Street … but that is a story for another day!

Perhaps the lesson of the story is – “Don’t judge others by their outward appearance, as things may not be what they seem and many a fascinating person is hidden under a shabby exterior!”

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