How I came home to Malaysia from Britain over land

  • Europe
  • Saturday, 20 Oct 2018

The writer with grape-picking gypsies who were travelling around doing seasonal work. Photos: Koo Wee Hon

After finishing my studies in England in 1987, I decided to return to Malaysia the “hard” way – by land. It was a way for me to see part of the world, and had hoped that I would be fortunate enough to get some part-time jobs and meet some good people in doing so.

Things got off to a good start. I got a lift from Anthony, a Briton who was off to marry his dream girl in Bari, Italy. We exchanged stories of love and life, as well as addresses and I got off at Beaune in France, at midnight.

Bruce, another Briton, was already asleep on a park bench in Beaune, so I slept on the next one. Morning found us both becoming immediate buddies and out looking for work, picking grapes. Two weeks of closely living and working together followed; I had a small tent but he had none. We exchanged addresses after our work was over – I visited him three years ago in his newly relocated big farm home in Germany.

Then, I hitch-hiked down the south of France seeking more fruit picking work but had no luck. So I decided to head to Gstaad in Switzerland where I met Hadi, a Malaysian student who put me up for a couple of days.

Later, I went to a youth hostel somewhere in the mountains and met up with a Dutch named Joop, and Australians named Suzanne and Mary, there. After a few chilly days, Joop suggested we head down to sunny Spain in his old classic Citroen. The car had no trouble getting there and back again after some warm days by the beach.

The writer working as a porter for grape picking during his trip.

We went our separate ways in Barcelona and I opted to go to Greece by train, through (then) Yugoslavia, stopping at Belgrade and Sarajevo. On one of the overnight trains, something happened and I was knocked out. When I awoke, I found myself all alone on the train, which had stopped and was parked at the train yard. My camera was stolen but thankfully, the thieves missed my neck purse with my money and passport. I think I must have been drugged or sprayed with something – I never found out. It was very scary, but at the same time, I was really lucky.

Since I missed the olive-picking season in Greece, I didn’t get any work so I wandered around some of the country’s lesser-known islands. At a youth hostel, I met an Armenian-American and we exchanged stories. I told him about my ordeal on the train and he generously gave me his spare camera.

After Greece, I went to Bari to visit Anthony before heading up north to Austria to look for work in ski resorts as winter was approaching. At Innsbruck, I asked a girl for directions to the highway as I wanted to hitch hike. The girl’s name was Andrea, and we chatted for a while, even exchanging addresses.

Unfortunately, it was too early for skiing so I went to Amsterdam instead hoping to check in with Joop but he was away. I stayed a couple of days at a youth hostel and found out that another youth hostel in Belgium was looking for help. In return, they would provide food and lodging.

So off I went to Namur, working there for a whole month and having a great time meeting with some interesting people. We celebrated a fantastic Christmas and New Year together there.

In January 1988, I hitch-hiked back to Austria in search of snow but found something that was much more wonderful and beautiful. I had called Andrea in Innsbruck earlier if I could stop by her place and she agreed. So, from Namur I went through Germany and after a week I found myself just outside Salzburg, where I stayed for two days with a guy who had given me a lift at the highway, and his family.

From Salzburg, I got a lift or two from other kind folks and somehow ended up in a mountain resort. Then, a lovely couple stopped to pick me up and after seeing Andrea’s address, they said it was near their home.

Upon arriving in Thaur where Andrea lived, we searched for her house for about half an hour but couldn’t find it. We were frustrated but then they saw two girls near a fountain and asked for directions. One of them replied “yes”, peeped inside the car to look at me and said, “we are expecting you!”.

I was taken aback by this but she explained that she was Andrea’s flatmate and knew I was coming.

And that is pretty much the story of how I met my wife of 30 years, Ilse, while travelling across Europe.

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