Book Review: The Magic Bus by Rory Maclean

Whether it’s because we like to commemorate anniversaries of events or a perception, right or wrong, that it was a time of promise, we have a seemingly never-ending fascination with the 1960s. With Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India, Rory MacLean seeks to explore a somewhat unique element of ’60s culture. To a certain extent, though, Magic Bus serves almost as a metaphor for the era.

The book seeks to retrace the tracks of the hippie travelers who headed east to find enlightenment. Thus, MacLean travels from Turkey through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to “the End of the Road,” Nepal. The hippies headed to Kathmandu and India in search of enlightenment (and dope). Even if they found dope, the vast majority didn’t find self-realization and returned to become what younger generations now call “the worst generation.” And while the hippie trail was viewed then to be a source for Eastern wisdom and a different level of consciousness, the current state of the countries MacLean visits don’t necessarily reflect that the ’60s were of great benefit.

The trail spawned a tourism industry in Turkey, where now even fishing villages are “skimmed by a sheen of tourism.” Iran’s revolution brought an end to it being an accessible transit point. Afghanistan has become a country where, at the gate of a refuge camp just outside the historic city of Herat, a “cobbler sells single shoes for one-legged mine victims.” The Kabul Museum in Pakistan, once home to the finest collection of antiquities in Central Asia, has a sign outside the main door asking, “Is your weapon unloaded?”. India’s focus seems to be on making money, not Krishna consciousness. Nepal is both an “apartheid state of spectacular inequality” and one which a few decades of tourism turned “into a vulnerable Himalayan theme park.”

Granted, none of this can be laid exclusively or squarely at the feet of the hippie travelers. But it is also proof that regardless of how anyone views the 1960s, you can’t go back. Despite MacLean’s keen eye for detail, that seems a fundamental problem with his goal. Try as he might, he doesn’t’ really illuminate the driving force behind or the experiences of these travelers. Instead, it is as if MacLean, born in 1964, is trying to grab hold of a experience that he holds in awe but slightly preceded him. This is reflected in the fact that he calls these journeyers of the 1960s “the Intrepids,” evidently because they were intrepid travelers. Granted, they may have been trailblazers to some extent but if they were world-changing, it is difficult to see it today. And while those who lived through the time recall it with fondness and pleasure, one of the most honest statements may be that of a now well-to-do Indian bookseller, who tells MacLean, “I lived for the moment — so forgive me if I don’t remember much else.”

All things considered, Magic Bus is perhaps stronger as a travel book than cultural history. That is not surprising given that MacLean is a well-recognized travel writer. His observations of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, stand out in comparison to his discussions with those who remember the hippie trail as it was. Additionally, he explores how the hippie trail led to the birth of the modern travel guide. The first book from the company now know as Lonely Planet was about an overland journey in the early 1970s through the same countries and it first focused on guide-books for those following the hippie trail. At the same time, MacLean is not hesitant to examine how the development of this industry changed the types of travelers on the road and the impact of those changes.

MacLean’s search for enlightenment about the hippie trail may reinforce one universal truth — you can’t recapture the past. Or, to paraphrase a Joan Baez song, the sixties are over so set them free.

Self-discovery is a myth because there is nothing to find.

Tourism consultant in Dehli, India,
quoted in Rory Maclean, Magic Bus

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