This trip—the great thing I’ve discovered about taking a trip of this kind is the curious insights you get—that you don’t get if you stay longer in a place. I’ve discovered as a traveler—and this is about the third time I’ve been around the world in one way or another. But this one—it’s the first time I’ve actually gone around the world in one week—just steady, just circumnavigated the globe—zap! right around the globe, that’s all, and I discover that something that I’d been told a long time ago by an old veteran traveler. He said, “If you really want to do something on a country—if you want to take great pictures, draw good things, do it the first twenty-eight hours or so when you arrive in a country, because after that you will begin to lose the sharpness of your eye.”
And each one of these places as you go—the more you go east as you begin this great world trip, the more you begin to see that a lot of the things which you had always thought were clichés, just ain’t. In fact, somebody described a cliché as something which is so true that people get tired of saying it. That is really true!
So I’m sitting in this plane and I’m flying along, and we land in Beirut. Incidentally, I was there back in the late 1950s when Eisenhower sent marines into Lebanon. Well, I was involved in that. I was on the carrier Essex, the Sixth Fleet. So I was there when all the UN soldiers were there, and there was firing going on up in the hills.
It’s quite an airport. It lies right on the sea, and over two decades later when I land there, absolutely nothing has changed in the airport. This is what hit me about it. All the other airports in the world are continually under construction. Even in New York, they’ve been making LaGuardia ever since I’ve been here. There’s always a big sign:
WILL YOU PLEASE EXCUSE US
FOR OUR ROTTEN AIRPORT,
BUT WE’RE WORKING ON IT.
I think that’s a standard airport sign. Except in Lebanon. They admit they’ve got a rotten airport—they just leave it there. It’s the same building when I was there including the same shifty-looking guys standing around outside selling dirty pictures.
It is a beautiful, ancient, strange-looking, exotic-looking place. Whenever I think of this part of the world, there’s a color to it. It’s sort of a red-yellowish color. The world is just a reddish-yellowish sun-drenched color, and there’s a smell in the air. It’s the smell, I guess, of baking rocks and ancient baking sand, and of camels.
And we take off on the way further east, and something has happened which I will tell later on, but it just hit me—Kipling was right. That’s all I gotta say! You don’t want to admit it but he was right.
[OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;…]
This is Tehran which is in Iran, and which not too many people talk about. It’s a city of three million people—it’s a huge city and in many ways one of the most modern cities I’ve ever seen in the Middle East. It’s rimmed by mountains. I’m in a hotel that is right on the edge of the mountains, mountains that just suddenly jut up, standing up like a great backdrop to the city, and you look off to the other side of the mountains and this big city is just lying there. The mountains are snow-covered, really high and the city itself is high.
You always think of the Middle East as hot—no—Tehran is cold. It’s a chilly, cold place, and the wind blows over the snow and down off those mountains. You can feel it all the time.So we left Lebanon and we are on our way to one of the cities that I had never visited—flown over it a couple of times but this is the first time I was actually there and I was going to stay there for a while and I’m glad I did.
But the bazaar, which is the center—right in the heart of this city, the bazaar in Tehran, is just like a gigantic mole heap, it weaves in and out. You can go maybe fifty miles—never see the sun—it’s all covered over. In and out of these ancient buildings and there are thousands of guys sitting there drinking tea, peering out of the darkness and they’ll sell you everything from kerosene lamps to stuffed cobras. It’s going on steadily, and all the women walking around, some still in purdah. You just know you ain’t in the Bronx.
I don’t travel the way most people do. I don’t have travel clothes or anything. I instantly meld into the background and guys were taking me for one of the sellers. I’m just walking along looking cool, with my glass of tea in my hand, looking like I’m on top of it. That’s the only way! You gotta blend in.
One of the things you should do is take an hour or two off and actually do the thing that the tourists do. In other worlds, actually go on a tour. Get in this bus and you go around and you see all this stuff immediately, see all the things which are in all the books. Once you’ve done that you’ve paid your dues. Then you can go sit in a bar, see, and look real mysterious.
There is nothing that gives the flavor of a country more than to go sit in a bar. Just go in and sit. So I go into this bar and sit down and the guy comes over, “Vha do you weesh?”
And I say, “I’ll have a beer.”
He gives me this native beer. Of course beer all over the world, every place you go, every country, has its own beer, and it’s a very wise man who drinks the local beer. Don’t sit down and immediately start hollering for a Schlitz or something. You drink their beer. It’s heavy beer, it’s rich and heady and it’s about the color of Karo Syrup. It’s got a head on it you could chip with an ice pick.
This is a very exotic bar—has beads hanging down—typical of what you think of the Middle East. Beads, and it’s got golden urns and stuff. And right away I get to know the bartender. We’re real good friends right there immediately. He can see I am a man of the world after my fourth beer, and I can see then, he is a man of the world too. We’re eating these cashew nuts and he’s drinking a beer with me.
We’re in there by ourselves and all of a sudden, in through the beaded curtains comes this whole crowd of little, fat people and large fat ladies, and they’re all chittering like birds. The whole crowd of them has these instamatic cameras. I say, “What the hell is this?” They gather around me and they’re taking my picture—me and the bartender, and I imagine when they get back to Milan or wherever they come from, they have a picture of a typical Iranian native drinking beer in the middle of the afternoon—me!
With that they all go scooting out of there. They don’t even have a beer or anything. They all go out and the bartender, a mysterious, Levantine native, sort of grins. He says it so well, it’s almost like W. C. Fields would say it: “Eh, Italian people!”
I say, “Yep, that’s right. They taka my picture.”
He says, “Mine too. They come in every day, take my picture. I don’t know what for. Can I freshen your beer?”
I say, “Yep.”
The trip around the world—a fantastic experience. I don’t know how to say it. It’s such a kaleidoscopic thing in my mind, but I’ll just give you a brief skimming now. I left Tehran on the way to absolutely my favorite city in all of the Orient—if not one of my favorite cities in the world. I really enjoy this city. I was really looking forward to getting there. And I warned people on the plane. “Be sure of one thing—it’s gonna be hot. Really hot and not only that, you’re gonna dig it, you’re gonna really love it.”
And, sure enough, about two hours later, we’re coming in over the green, fantastic landscape and you can see it all rolling out there before you. We have flown out over some of the wildest country in the world to get there and we’re coming down, and we have had to take a special route, because there’s war going on all around this country now. And believe me, if this poor country gets involved in this war, it’s going to be really sad. It’s Thailand, and the city is Bangkok.
And I really enjoy Bangkok. I like the people and the whole feel of the city. And five minutes after the plane rolls to a stop and I am going through that wild, fantastic, uproarious, totally disorganized airport that is in Bangkok and I get in the car on my way into the city, there was a funny feeling—I’m back here again. I spent some great times one time before on one trip around the world in Bangkok. But going through the streets—it is a curious, familiar feeling—it all comes back again. Just the people, the look of the people. And, incidentally, the people of Bangkok—the Thai people—have to be the most beautiful people on the face of the globe. They are incredibly pretty. Beautiful people. I mean physically beautiful people. And they’ve got a soul to match. I want to tell you, they are something else!
Going along in the car, I arrive at this magnificent hotel, with the palm trees and, oh, God, is it hot! Ninety-five degrees. I step down. I put on my pukka sahib shorts, I get out my pith helmet, and I get that look around the eyes of a Somerset Maugham character who’s spent too much time on the other side of Rangoon, where the sun comes up like thunder out of Burma across the way. Oh, God, what stories to tell, friends! Yup!