Watching the excellent TV show, The Serpent, about the hippy trail serial killer, Charles Sobhraj, took me way back to that era of flower power.
I was living in Denmark while Sobhraj was doing his dastardly deeds. All the while dreaming of hitting the hippy trail to India, travelling by combination of trains and the ‘Magic Bus’. So reading about his murderous spree was a swift kick in the balls to all that, California Dreaming Golden Age of Travel’ bollox.
I eventually did run into a character that reminded me of Sobhraj while travelling through Yugoslavia. We had travelled first to Munich, where I was nearly bankrupted by the girlfriend’s constant trips to the toilet, as it cost a Deutsche Mark, for every tinkle; a not inconsiderable amount at the time. We journeyed on by train to Belgrade, and using our Bible, The Hitch Hikers Guide to Europe. We headed for a four-star hotel we had paid the full whack for. I was shocked to find it was in the book as a cheapo backpacker stopover.
Next morning we were in Sarajevo, an amazing friendly town with wonderful people that would be slicing each other’s throats a few years down the road. Who knew?
Everybody and their mother had a copy of The Hitch Hikers Guide, so we all stayed at the same hostel. We went on by bus next day to Dubrovnik, and there I had my first run in with that socialist run economy. Dubrovnik was, and still is, a mystical place that was used in Game of Thrones. Seeing a few dragons flying around there would have not fazed me back then, but trying to order a meal in the socialist canteen was causing a bother.
I wanted some meat, so I ordered what looked like the meat bit, then I had some soup for starters, and what I believed was a rice desert. As it turned out, these were all main meals.
The cost was pennies to what we were used to in Denmark, but the nasty looks we were getting from the local comrades, showed we had overstepped some socialistic red line.
We had a tent, so we were looking for a campsite and asked around. In a local café, I remember getting a fantastic black coffee, with lumps of frozen cream. This is when our version of Sobhraj turned up at our table. Yes, he knew of a fantastic campsite, and he spoke to the café owners like he knew them. He was small and wiry with crazy wild hair. And spoke at a million miles an hour. He said he was Italian, and could communicate with the locals and had a summer cottage just outside the town.
If we liked, we could stay with him at no cost.
We of course said no we were camping but he insisted and said he didn’t need any money as he had plenty, whipping out his bank book to show how much money he had. Warning lights should have been going off, but we were young immortals on holiday, so we said of course we would stay with him, until we found a campsite.
I’d never heard of Herzegovina or the effects of the earthquake that hit it in 1979, but as we walked up to Sobhraj’s summer cottage we could see the damage it had done. The cottage turned out to be a two-roomed wooden hut. The neighbours seem to know him, but I was still suspicious. But then, he invited us out for a meal in what he said was a fantastic restaurant.
In this he was correct. Great meal, plenty of wine, and everything was going swimmingly, until the bill arrived. And he made it quite clear we had to pay.
Coming from a country where if you invite someone out for a meal, you generally pay. This was a bit odd for us. But we paid up.
Which brings me back to the original Sobhraj. Most of the backpackers he was murdering for their money didn’t consider themselves as loaded with cash. The cash they had, was to last a year or two, but to Sobhraj it was an enormous wad of dosh, especially in Nepal or India. Where the mighty dollar went a very long way.
So for us, it was to get away from this guy as soon as possible. So I said we’re leaving the next day. This did not go down to well as he could see us as his meal ticket for a few more weeks. We avoided drinking or eating anything he offered. Then he got nasty, and said, if we didn’t pay him for the accommodation he’d call the cops. Now, we’re talking about a country back then, run by the ruthless dictator Tito, and as we didn’t speak the lingo, we would be at the mercy of our Italian Sobhraj. I fancied giving him a few thumps and making a run for it, but the girlfriend decided to pay up and get out of Dodge, which is, what we did. There was no way to warn others of this leech, so I’m assuming he continued on with his modern social vampire style of sucking the lifeblood out of unwary travellers.
Some of our friends told a similar story of a charlatan they ran into on their camping trip to Portugal in the coastal town of Sagres, which is also the most south-westerly point of Europe.
One day this guy turned up, and was spreading the love around, buying rounds of beer in the backpacker’s favourite bar. Our mob declined the offer of free beer, as they didn’t like the look of him. He eventually hooked up with some Swedish girls and disappeared back to their tent.
Next morning he was gone. Along with all their money. The girls, distraught, packed up and went back to Sweden. Going to the cops was never an option. It’s just the way it is with backpackers, none of them are ready, to be in the next chapter of a John Grisham foreign courtroom novel.
Everything settled back down for a couple of weeks, and the camp site had its usual turnover of backpackers. Then, Mr, let me buy you a beer and be your best pal reappears.
He was rattled when he saw that the Irish and English boys were still around. Once again, he went into his routine of buying dinner and drinks for the new naive backpackers. No amount of warning would change the course of the night. So once again, they watched him charm the knickers off some French girls, and as night followed day, he was gone, with all their valuables. The boys headed back to Denmark. But that leech was still plying his trade up and down the coast. I suppose bugs have got to eat as well.
My big brother was supposed to go on a cycling trip to the south of France with some buddies, biking through England, and then across France to the debauched lifestyle that was supposed to be rampant on the French Riviera. Allegedly, the scantily clad French madames were waiting with open arms for the sweaty underpaid teenage biker boys from Dublin. The logistics of the actual trip were never discussed. Something else put a stopper to the journey of a lunchtime.
His name was Dennis Wheatley, and he sold shit loads of books about the occult. I was reading, To the Devil a Daughter and left it by my bedside one night. Next morning it had disappeared.
My Mom denied to her death bed, all knowledge of having removed it, but I knew it went into the fire to save my soul. But the brother had read it cover to cover, which is what caused a heated debate with the cycle club in the pub.
As there were more than a few chateaus in these books, with witches’ covenants, kidnapping unwary travellers to be sacrificed at their fiendish devil worshipping rituals. So the first thing on the agenda was how to avoid getting kidnapped by these French black magic practitioners.
The argument went on for hours and more than a few pints. Finally, getting to the part of how to escape from a French chateau if one was unlucky enough to be kidnapped by these daughters of the Devil. The bike trip was cancelled as the escape plan was never resolved to everybody’s satisfaction.
Not all the Sobhrajs are after your money or to steal your everlasting soul. We once travelled by train down through Europe on a family holiday to Hungary: nine adults, two small kids and one 14 year-old girl. Of the two wee ones, Max was about 3 years old and his brother 11 months. We were well stocked with German beer, as we enjoyed our train trip and the passing scenery. Our destination was Siofok, on the shores of Lake Balaton; the largest lake in central Europe.
We stopped in Vienna, to change trains that would take us to Budapest. We had some time to look around the train station, and as luck would have it, The Orient Express was in town.
So I took Max by the hand and went to take a look. Old world elegance is a much abused estate agent term for rundown buildings, but in this case it fit the bill. With its beautifully renovated coaches, it looked the part of an elegant lady from the past. I noticed on the information board it was time to get back to catch our train to Budapest.
We met up, and all the bags were sorted, as we headed en masse for our train. Soon, were getting pushed and jostled by other panicky passengers, charging towards their platforms. Some of our group were having a hard time with the bags in the bustling crowd I had Max by the hand, and was trying to carry a large bag. Then Max was being held by one of our group, and suddenly I had two heavy bags to carry.
In the pushing and shoving, I lost sight of Max. Then I caught sight of a small blond head bobbing deep among the adult crowd. Then it was gone again. I roared through the crowd,
“Do you have Max.”
The answer came back down the line, “Yes.”
At least that is what I thought they said. Gathering at our carriage we counted up our group. No Max. I remember an icy feeling hitting my stomach.
I started to do the usual blame game, but caught myself. No excuses. I was his Dad. I had fucked up big time. I looked around the hundreds of milling people, and thought, what were the chances, of finding a little man, amongst all this mayhem.
I charged back into the maelstrom and tried to just, not fucking panic, something I failed at miserably. I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t reason. Then I found myself back in front of The Orient Express. I started retracing our steps. He was a smart little guy and I just placed a big bet on him going back to the places he remembered. We had gone outside, so I could show him Vienna; the city of spies.
Today, visitors can do the, Harry Lime in the Third Man Sewer Tour. It was not something I was concerned about back then. I raced outside and to my amazement saw Max holding this guy’s hand. I shouted to Max and he leaped up into my arms, making being a Dad great again. I believe I said thanks to the guy, and then ran back to the train that was getting ready to pull away on its trip to Budapest.
We had a great holiday that year. The weather was so hot, we all ended up drinking Coca Cola as it was the only cold drink in town. Only years afterwards, did it cross my mind that it may have been a planned steal. I also have never forgotten that feeling of immense loss, and then that massive adrenaline rush when I realised I wasn’t going to go down in history as the Dad who lost his kid in Vienna.
Cover image courtesy of Josef Grunig via Flickr