Top Deck Travel began in the 1970’s; a tour company that revealed a world to budget minded travelers via the confines of a double-decker bus where you would eat, sleep, drink, and enjoy life in what was, for most, their first taste of an unfamiliar reality. It was a wild ride.
Becoming a member of Top Deck Travel’s double-decker road crew in the mid 80’s had only two prerequisites. Number one was curiosity about the world that surrounded you. Today we refer to it often as a “Passion for Travel” but it all boils down to the same thing; you have to be curious.
It’s easy to find yourself in Paris, take the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower, climb the steps of Montmartre, stroll the promenade overlooking the Seine, or feast yourself through a series of crepes prepared by beret wearing street vendors.
It is the curious however who not only want to see and experience but also ask why and how. It is the curious who find beauty and fascination no matter what the weather or set of circumstances. A rainy day does not lessen the magnificence of the Notre Dame Cathedral or the surety of its famous flying buttresses.
Travel is all about broadening the scope of your outlook to a global scale, understanding that cultures, traditions, beliefs, can differ from your own, and realizing the good fortune that is bestowed upon all who have the privilege and luxury to see this for themselves.
Cultural curiosity and compassion should go hand in hand.
The second prerequisite for admission into the ranks of the road crew was willingness. You had to be willing to forego any semblance of a good nights sleep, beer intake had to be on par with the most voracious of guzzlers on board, you had to be first up and last to bed, remain organized, alert, in charge, provide informative and interesting narrative, be a comfort to those newly abroad, and a pleasure to be around.
If you had curiosity and willingness you were in; now it was the training trip.
For the next three weeks we drove as a group around Europe, on board a double-decker, preparing information to answer anticipated questions; I’m in the Louvre but where are the toilets, what’s that obscure statue over there, what time does the Acropolis open or close, why do the Swiss make so much cheese, how did they flood the Coliseum, I lost my passport where is the nearest embassy?…does it have toilets, where are they, what time does it open, etc, etc.
We hardly slept as we studied and cataloged this mind-bending data.
The sites themselves were there to see and be marveled but it was the peripheral information that had top priority on the training trip. Keeping the passengers fed, informed, and happy; organizing everything in advance and by phone; there was no internet. Not to mention no European Union and therefore passport control and stamps at every crossing; some trickier than others.
The Italian border was lecherous and often involved a full bus search so that the guards could spend more time with this unexpected arrival of young women. The German crossing was no-nonsense and curt. Strict rules were applied and the slightest infraction was seen as a deal breaker for entrance.
I had one incident where I had exited Austria and was about to enter Germany. The tail light on the rear left of the bus was working but the surrounding plastic covering had been smashed. Germany refused us entrance.
We went back to Austria. They now saw the rear tail light and refused us entrance.
Stuck in no-mans land between two countries there was little to do but break out the BBQ and start lunch. As the smoke rose, two German border police cars screeched to a halt as if to block our forward momentum, but we were not moving forward. They weren’t happy with us. This was made clear with flailing hand gestures, raised voices, and scowls. When the Austrian police arrived on the scene international negotiations were set in motion.
With hot coals and smoldering embers marking the sight of our now disposed of lunch the state of Austria took us under their wing, escorted us back into the land of Mozart and directly to a garage. Eager to be rid of us they explained our dilemma to the mechanic who advised them he could sort us out and have us on our way shortly. Once they left he shrugged and told us the exact opposite.
He didn’t have the part, never did.
Unless we were willing to wait two days till he could get it, he would not be able to help us. He added with a kind of a whisper, almost cloak and dagger-ish, that we should just try another way out. He may not have had a plastic rear light covering for a double-decker bus but he did have a plan.
We opened the map and searched for the most obscure border crossing available to us. We drove into the night and higher in elevation. To my surprise then, and even more now as I recollect it, the road quickly became blanketed as we found ourselves in the midst of a swirling snow storm. The tiny border was at the peak of a ridge surrounded by white-tipped evergreens. Given the blustery weather, and midnight hour, we received little more than a nod and a wave from the guard as we passed by. We had made it into Germany via a back door and I never felt more like a Von Trapp in my life.
But this little adventure was still in the future.
For now the training trip was coming to an end punctuated by a celebration and mock award ceremony.
All those that remained were now tour guides or drivers. All those who had changed their minds about life on the road, or had their minds changed for them, had already been sent home at various intervals as we wound our way through Europe.
Heading back to England, four of us decided a road trip of our own sounded like a plan.