© 2019 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
In June of 1979, my wife, Jenny, and I departed Adelaide, Australia, to live and work in the US for a year. Five and a half weeks later, after touring around Asia and Europe, we landed in Washington DC. This month marks the 40th anniversary of our arrival in the US.
The Urge to Travel
Early in 1976, I moved from the field of chemistry to that of computer programming. I also got married. Over time, Jenny and I started talking about traveling abroad. I was living in Adelaide and working for a state government department. It was a classic public-service environment; sort of like waiting for someone to retire or die to be promoted. I was way too entrepreneurial, and knew it was just a matter of time before I went into business for myself.
The obvious places to move were Melbourne and Sydney where many multinational companies had offices. However, it occurred to us that if we relocated interstate, we'd have to start from scratch with respect to finding our way around, making friends, and so forth. In that case, we'd likely want to stay put there for some years before heading off to travel. An alternative was to travel overseas first for an extended period and then when we returned to Australia, our ties to Adelaide would be much weaker, and we could live in Melbourne or Sydney instead.
Sometime during 1978, I noticed an advertisement in the Pacific Computer Weekly, which, oddly enough, was published every two weeks. It invited people in Australia and New Zealand with solid computer programming skills to consider taking a job in another country. [At that time, there were many high-paying jobs for people with experience on IBM mainframe computers, in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, I had no such experience. My specialty was with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-11 minicomputers and, fortunately, that skill was in high demand in other places.] By then, I had been in the field more than two years and had obtained a wide range of experiences, and I was interested. So, I wrote a letter to Harvey, the recruiter who'd placed the ad, outlining my skills and requesting information.
Harvey responded enthusiastically. However, at the time, I was in the middle of a major renovation of the house we'd bought when we were married, and I still had a lot of work to do. As such, I indicated my interest, but said it would take considerable time before I would be ready. Over the next year, the house was completed, and we put it on the market. After we sold the house and our cars, we put some things in storage, and got rid of the rest. Then we lived with friends for some weeks. Jenny took a year's leave of absence from the South Australian Department of Education, and I gave a month's notice to quit my job at the State Highways Department.
After a lot of planning, we had our airline tickets. It would take us two weeks to get from Adelaide, Australia, to Washington DC, USA, and along the way, we'd have stopovers in New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. However, that did not happen. On 1979-05-25, American Airlines Flight 191 crashed moments after takeoff from Chicago, killing all passengers and crew. What made this significant for us was that the plane was a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, the type we'd be flying across the Pacific with Air New Zealand. As a result, all DC-10s around the world were grounded, indefinitely. It took us some time to realize the impact on us, and by the time we did, the alternate flights across the Pacific were taken. We were back almost to Square 1!
On a subsequent visit to our travel agency, I was looking at a large globe when it occurred to me that we could get to Washington DC by going in the opposite direction, via Asia and Europe. Yes, it was further, but we could take our time and stop off in a lot more places along the way. Very quickly, we put together a whole new—and far more exotic—itinerary, as follows: Adelaide to Sydney, Australia; Hong Kong; Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bangkok, Thailand; Bombay, India; Athens, Greece; Rome, Italy; Geneva, Switzerland; Paris, France; London, United Kingdom; New York and Washington DC, United States.
We bought one-way, Sydney-to-London, unlimited stopover tickets valid for a year. So long as we kept going in the general direction of London we could add side trips, whose cost would simply be added to the base fare (about AU$1,000 at that time). If you look on a globe at the cities I listed above, they are pretty much in a straight line. The only place out of the way that we added was Hong Kong, for a 15% surcharge. To give us maximum flexibility, each leg of the ticket was issued to the most frequent carrier for that leg. When we were close to being ready to leave one country, we could go to the carrier for our next leg to see when they could accommodate us. If they couldn't, we'd asked them to sign-over that leg's voucher to another carrier who could.
Putting our lives into two suitcases was quite a challenge and required ruthlessness. So, when the travel plans changed drastically only weeks before departure, and the change in route limited us to only one case, halving our "treasures" turned out to be quite easy. Who needs two sets of socks and underwear anyway!
We departed Adelaide (ADL) for Sydney (SYD) where we had a layover before boarding a 7.5-hour Cathay Pacific flight. [At that time, one could visit the cockpit in-flight, and we both did that and chatted with the pilots as we flew over parts of the vast Outback of Australia.]
We had open tickets, no specific plan with respect to the number of days in each country, and only the first two nights of accommodation booked. Hey, we were 25 and invincible; what could possibly go wrong!
Hong Kong (4 nights)
After my only ever flight in a Boeing 707, we landed at the old Kai Tak Airport, which involved flying "close" to high-rise buildings, an interesting experience. Our deal with the airline included two nights at an up-scale, Western hotel, complete with Colonial-style uniformed staff. Interestingly, our room was on the top floor, but the elevator (AU: lift) only went up to the floor below, so we had to walk up a flight of stairs! For the other two nights, we were on our own, and we located a cheap, Chinese-run place. Although there might have been a front desk, each floor had an attendant who sat on a rickety chair at an old wooden desk, and it was his job to "watch" that floor. Each time we came back to our room, he'd welcome us and then open the adjacent fire-hose cabinet in which there was a row of hooks with keys for each room. And we'd hand him our key each time we went out. [After I bought a new leather briefcase, I gave my old one to that man, who was very grateful.] The contrast between the two places was huge, and I remember the doorman at the first hotel looking strangely at us when he put us in a taxi to go to the second place and asked us where he should direct the driver.
As that was our first experience outside Australia, and we'd never even been to a Chinatown before, it was all quite a novelty. We had a good look around Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and a bit of the New Territories, where we got quite close to the Chinese border. Near that border, we asked a couple of women in peasant outfits if we could take a picture of them. After we gave them several $HK, they allowed us to "take away their souls" by taking their picture. [Back then, Hong Kong was still British territory.]
One day, we walked through the afternoon-tea room of the fabled Peninsula Hotel (which had a fleet of Rolls Royces to ferry around its VIP customers). Let's just say that it was "over the top", but in a veddy dignified British way! In our travels around the island, we met a diplomat from Malta who was having a vacation after business meetings in Asia. He'd bought quite a few used books and wanted to send them home without paying too much. So, he went to the concierge desk at the Peninsula and asked if they could arrange to send his books home for him. They replied, "Of course, Sir, and it will be at no charge to you. What is your room number?" He told them, and they took care of it. However, what he didn't tell them was that his room was not at that hotel! He also told us that rather than pay his hotel to do his laundry, he found it much cheaper to throw away his underwear and socks and buy new ones at the Chinese People's Republic store nearby.
When I departed Australia, I had longish hair and a beard. However, Singapore had a reputation about refusing to let in men who had long hair and beards, as such people were linked to hippies, and hippies meant drugs, which were a major "No No" there. As such, I shaved off my beard before leaving Hong Kong. However, I don't recall if I got my hair cut shorter. I do remember the challenge of shaving because I had to buy a hand razor. Up until that time, I'd only ever used an electric one.
Singapore (4 nights)
We flew Singapore Airlines, and landed at the then new airport, which had been built on reclaimed land. We stayed downtown in a non-descript hotel on Beach Road. Interestingly, the road was no longer on the beach, as more land had been reclaimed around it!
It was early evening, and we planned to go out late to the famous "Boogie Street" where cross-dressers, transsexuals, and others paraded around in their finery. As we were a little tired, we decided to sleep for a few hours and to set the alarm for some time after midnight. We slept, our alarm went off, we dressed, but once we got downstairs, we found a huge metal grate across the entrance of the hotel, and it was locked! And although we could hear someone snoring back in the office area, we couldn't get anyone to come and let us out. Fortunately, we also had no need to make an emergency evacuation that night.
We took several bus tours around parts of the island and over into southern Malaysia. One highlight was a delightful ride in a trishaw, a cart pulled by a wiry man on a bicycle. As he pointed out interesting places and things, he added emphasis by appending "No bullshit!" to each of his statements. He asked if we were on our honeymoon, and we replied that we'd been married three years. Then he asked how many children we had. When my wife replied, "None", he looked me up and down several times and then said to my wife, "He no good!" We told him we'd heard that a good place to eat was the Satay Club, and could he drop us there. Now the name had conjured up in our minds a fancy place possibly with a dress code, but when he dropped us at a public park, we learned it was an open-air place filled with grandfather-and-grandson pairs running BBQs. For a small amount of money, we feasted on satays with hot peanut sauce, salad, and drinks. It was quite a fancy picnic. We rode the cable car across to Sentosa Island, site of the British surrender during WWII. However, halfway across, the cable stopped moving, and we hung suspended over the sea for quite some time until it started up again! We also took a bus tour around the island during which we saw many orchids. We visited Tiger Balm Gardens.
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur and Beyond (7 nights)
We flew Malaysian Airlines, and started in the capital, then visited Malacca to the south, and Penang Island to the north. Movies were very cheap, and in Penang we saw one each day. For the premier of Superman, the shows were all sold out, so we bought tickets from a scalper. Even then the cost, at least by our standards, was very cheap. One interesting thing was that most people in attendance did not speak English; instead, they were reading one of the three sets of subtitles that covered the bottom half of the screen, while talking to each other. That made it hard for those few of us native-English speakers to hear the audio.
It was our first experience being in a Muslim culture. So when the public-address system at the local mosque fired up at 5 am with the first call to prayers, we had no idea what was waking us up in the "middle of the night".
One night, we ate at an open-air restaurant, and enjoyed the food. When we left and walked around the side, we saw an old woman squatting on the curb washing dishes in some greasy, cold water with a rag. She was working for our restaurant, so as to what was on the plates we'd eaten from, we could only imagine!
I recall a tour outside the capital that took us to a huge cave. We also walked around various markets trying to figure out what all the things were.
Thailand: Bangkok and Beyond (7 nights)
The flight north from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok followed along a mountain range, and we'd just been served a meal with hot drinks when we hit some sort of air pocket. Well, we lost some altitude in double-quick time, and the food and drinks went up in the air, but no one was hurt. I don't even recall the oxygen masks dropping down. [Each time I watch the animated safety video on a plane, it shows how calm everyone is when the masks drop down. I'm thinking that is highly unlikely for most people in a real emergency.] When we landed, as martial law was in force, the airport was full of very short soldiers with very large automatic weapons. It was a little unnerving for a young lad from the bush, but I didn't feel at all unsafe. Outside the airport, there was no evidence of any security concerns.
A highlight of our visit was a boat tour around Bangkok's extensive canal system. At one market, a baby elephant put its trunk into everyone's pockets and bags looking for snacks! With all those canals, there are many bridges, and under many of them were shanties. The "owners" paid no rent, they stole their electricity from the public wires nearby, and they threw their trash out the windows into the canal. Kids jumped from the houses and swam in the canals. When we came across an ice works, I wondered how pure the ice was that was made from that water!
At Pattaya Beach (a popular place for R&R for Allied soldiers during the Vietnam War), I tried my hand at parasailing. I was much taller than the average tourist, so when the power boat took off to pull me in the air in the parachute, my long legs dragged across the beach and through the water until I got airborne. I'd not received any real instruction how to use the equipment, so when it came time to land, I really was "winging" it! It turned out that the parachute had controls on one side only, and as the boat pulled me closer to the beach, I had to pull on a handle to direct the chute in that direction. Now James Bond would have taken off on the beach dressed in a tuxedo, and landed back on the beach, without effort. However, I landed in about three feet of water, and had to pull the chute out onto the beach, which is probably why there was no Bond-girl waiting for me!
We spent an interesting day visiting Kanchanaburi, site of the infamous WWII prison camps and the Bridge over the River Kwai. We rode a public bus there and then hired a man with a pickup truck to drive us around to the tourist spots. He spoke no English and had a young son with him in the cab, as we rode on the back. At several roadside stalls, he stopped to buy us fresh fruit and sticks of sugar cane on which to chew. When we got back to the city it was dark and we had no idea how to get back to our hotel, and all the information posted nearby was only in Thai! After quite some time, we met a student who spoke some English, and he gave us directions.
The tourist literature said not to drink water from taps, but rather from the bottles in the hotel room. We dutifully followed this advice, but one day when we came back to the hotel, we saw a staff member filling those bottles from a tap! C'est la vie!
India: Bombay (now Mumbai) (1 night)
Due to its location with respect to the world's time zones, long-distance flights arrived and departed here in the very early hours of the morning. I well remember having to go through numerous "layers" of staff, each of which seemed to have no purpose but to pass me along to the next person. (Perhaps it was a way to keep people employed!) A large and rather imposing security guard eyed a nice ballpoint pen I had in my possession, and he seemed to suggest it would be good if I made a gift of it to him. I hesitated, and after a very long pause, he offered to swap it with a third-rate pen he had. In the interests of getting into the country, I agreed.
We had the romantic idea of getting a rail pass and spending some weeks traveling the countryside. However, when we went to the train station, we waited ages for attention and then were told that a ticket as complicated as that might take a week to organize! Then there were beggars and overcrowding everywhere and it was all rather off-putting. As such, we gave up and spent the rest of the day trying to find a flight out. We were ticketed next for Athens, Greece, but as we couldn't get a flight there with any carrier for a week or so, we opted to bypass that city and go to Rome, Italy, instead. [Forty years later, we still haven't been to Greece!]
Jenny remembers there being huge cockroaches in the sink in our hotel room, and the extensive slums built from cardboard and corrugated iron. Going to and from the airport, our taxi drivers drove with parking lights only and flashed on their main lights from time to time. The airport was very busy at 1 am, and we got the impression everyone was in a hurry to leave the country; we certainly were!
The stopover that wasn't, as mentioned above!
Italy: Rome (3 nights)
We landed at Leonardo da Vinci International, and by the time we reached the end of our runway on landing, we were "way out in the vineyards", and took some 20 minutes to taxi to the terminal. It was our first time in Europe, and we had a most arrogant customs inspector. I had purchased a new briefcase in Hong Kong, and it had straps that allowed it to be expanded several inches, and the inspector figured it had some sort of false bottom. So rather roughly, he tipped out the contents on a table and searched the case for a secret compartment. When he found none, he threw up his hands in disgust and walked away. We didn't know where he was going, but after waiting a while and his not returning, we simply packed up and left.
We quickly realized that we no longer had the protection against tourists being ripped-off like we'd had in Asia, where we'd been welcomed/respected visitors. In Italy, we were on our own.
We found a hotel, and breakfast was included in the rate, but when we checked out, there was a different price for food each day, despite there being a buffet. We were told that a waiter was watching what we took and recording that; what a system! (It was a good thing that we'd been sneaking extra food out of the dining room when the staff wasn't looking.)
We visited the obligatory places, and at the Vatican City museums, on the floor were painted lines in different colors that one should follow for a 1-, 2-, 3-hour, etc., walking tour, as one wanted. Well, to get our money's-worth, we followed the 8-hour path, and we were out in an hour or so! You know, once you've seen Pope Pius I, II, and III's robes, do you really need to see those of Pope Pius IV and V? We also paid a visit to the Colosseum (where many stray cats were living) and the Fountain of Trevi.
To get to the airport, we rode a taxi to a bus station, and the taxi driver kept telling me we'd never make it to the airport on time and that he should drive us there instead, which, of course, would be an expensive trip. I repeatedly declined. To make sure he wasn't ripping us off, I tried to follow our route on a map, but wasn't able to. So, when the driver said he'd take a short cut, I feared the worst. In fact, he did take us straight to the bus station.
Switzerland: Geneva (3 nights)
The main thing I remember was that it was (and still is) an expensive city. As we walked around, we stumbled on a museum of armory. I especially remember it having a big collection of crossbows and pikes. We saw the very tall water jet, Jet d'Eau, and the impressive flower clock. We also visited the Reformation Wall, which commemorates John Calvin and his colleagues' efforts in getting going the Protestant Reformation going in that part of the world.
Jenny remembers that one night we ate a very expensive steak dinner.
France: Paris (3 nights)
I remember well the quaint hotel at which we stayed—l'Opéra Comique—next to the famous theater of the same name. The elevator was so small, that we each had to go up to our room separately. [In old cities, modern conveniences were retrofitted centuries after the buildings were constructed.] The hotel had two kinds of rooms: those with a bathroom, and those without, and we had the latter. Strangely, for those without, there were no shared bathrooms down the hall! Instead, each morning one wanted to take a shower, one went to the front desk to get a key to a room with bathroom that had been vacated, to use that. This worked well the first time, but the next one found me with a chambermaid who spoke no English. After a game of charades, she finally understood I wanted "la douche"!
We went up the Eiffel Tower, got a kulcha-fix at the Louvre, and strolled around the Pompidou Center. Quite coincidentally, we were there on July 14, Bastille Day, so we got to see the city and the French in party-mode, complete with very loud car horns and fireworks.
As we had no schedule, it wasn't until we got to Paris that we had a reasonable idea of when we'd be able to pick up our visas in London, so we contacted Harvey to let him know we would be arriving in the US "any week now".
England: London (5 nights)
When we landed at Heathrow Airport, we visited the tourist office and asked for cheap accommodation. The woman at the counter looked down her nose and said, "Then it will have to be in South Kensington". It was quite a nice place, actually. At least it wasn't Earls Bloody Court!
The next day, I fronted up at the US Embassy to get my 1-year work visa with the very naïve attitude that I would be "in and out" in double-quick time. And, measured in geologic time, I was! After a considerable wait in line, we got to the end of a corridor, which opened out into a huge room populated by many hundreds of people waiting in lines that snaked back and forth across. We discovered that our little line was now at the very end of another very long line. Hours later, our paperwork was accepted, and we were told to come back in four days, which was about three days longer than we'd expected. [That was my very first time getting a visa in person; 40 years, 60-odd countries, and two million air miles later, I'm much wiser.]
To fill in time, we did the usual touristy stuff: Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Number 10 Downing Street (back when that street was open to the public), Parliament House, and the Big Ben clock tower.
As our airline ticket only got us as far as London, we had to buy a one-way ticket from there to the US. The cheapest alternative by far was with Sir Freddy Laker's Skytrain, a daily service between London's Gatwick and New York's JFK airports. Interestingly, the planes used were DC-10s, but by the time we reached London, the model his airline flew was allowed back in service. Passengers were encouraged to bring along their own food. [To this day, that's the only time I've used Gatwick.]
US: New York City
We landed at JFK International, and once we got through immigration and picked up our luggage, we took a taxi to La Guardia Airport, not too far away. There, we caught the Eastern Shuttle down to DC.
US: Washington DC
Strictly speaking, we landed in the state of Virginia, at Washington National Airport, which is across the river from DC. Harvey was there to meet us, and he drove us to the (quite new) Marriott Hotel in Bethesda, in the neighboring state of Maryland.
The main thing I remember about the hotel was the next evening, when we went to the dining room for supper. We ordered a salad and a main course, and the salad was soon served. Like all sophisticated people we "knew" that one eats one's salad with the main meal, so we waited, and we waited, and then we waited some more. Finally, we asked the waiter when our main course would be served. To which he replied, "As soon as you finish your salad, Sir." And so, a lesson was learned!
After a week in the Washington DC area having job interviews and getting back into work mode, I accepted a 1-year contract in Chicago, and we took the train there. [Interestingly, at the start of my discussions with Harvey about coming to the US, I said, "East or West coast; definitely not the Midwest!", yet there I was agreeing to go to the Midwest. C'est la vie.] And that's where I started my conquest of the United States. But that's a whole other story! [See my October 2018 essay, "Living in Chicago".]
As you might imagine, at age 25, going abroad for the first time and with the intention of traveling and working for up to five years, really was a big deal, but required a certain amount of naïveté. All I can say in my defense is that "it seemed like a good idea at the time".
In summary, in 38 days, we flew 22,000 miles (39,600 kms), on 10 airlines, and saw bits of nine countries. And after 40 years, we're still here in the US!