Life's a wonderful trip

A new book documents life on the `Asia Trail', where travellers head for enlightenment, parties and drugs. Andrew Tuck meets its young authors

Thirty years ago people would have described her path across Asia as part of the hippie trail. Today, spending a year going around the world is so commonplace, and the people who decide to "drop out" so diverse, no one bothers to name their well-worn routes. Indeed, when Vicki Couchman returned home to the south coast in December 1995, after over a year making her way from India (still base camp for any traveller hoping to find themselves as well as a good time) to Sumatra, her friends found it so unremarkable that they couldn't think of anything to ask. "They were only interested in telling me who had shagged whom while I was away," says Vicki, 26.

There seemed to be only two choices: flee again as soon as she had got together some cash, or return to her old life and store her memories under "for personal use only". But then Vicki found a third option which she hopes will both ensure that the experiences of the modern-day hippie-trailer are better understood, and that she can earn enough money to continue travelling.

After a few weeks back in Britain, Vicki sent a postcard to Dan Hiscocks, 25, whom she had met in Goa over New Year 1995, and had travelled with to Hampi, a Hindu spiritual village in the central Indian state of Karnataka. Dan, who was only in India for six weeks (his company had given him an extended holiday in lieu of a pay rise), had then returned home to England where he too found explaining his passion for travel almost impossible. He was so dispirited by life back home, that he gave up his job and headed for South America where he spent three months in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.

Last December Dan drove to Portsmouth from his home in Shropshire to meet Vicki. They got into "a bit of a state together" in a local pub and, in the alcoholic euphoria, Dan started to hatch a plan. He knew he wanted to work for himself and both of them hoped to "do something" based on their belief that "you can be who you want, with whoever you want, when you want" if you take time out to travel. This would have remained a beer- induced dream if it wasn't for Dan's fledgeling business acumen (and supportive family) and Vicki's diary (which, while intoxicated, she allowed Dan to read) and photographs of her trip.

Before departing for Asia, Vicki had been working as a staff photographer for the Brighton Argos, covering local news stories, sports events, and the club and music scene, but she had become disillusioned with "chasing people outside court and knocking on people's doors." As soon as she arrived in India, however, and was released from the chore of taking pictures to accompany stories she often had no interest in, she rediscovered her love of photography: even if it did involve lugging two Canon T90s which, with the rest of her photographic equipment, weighed in at a mighty nine kilos.

When Dan saw the pictures during his stay in Portsmouth, he knew that the "something" they should do was get a book published, a book that would explain to everyone what independent travel is really about. "I hadn't even done all of this route, but the pictures captured for me the essence of it all," explains Dan. He waited for a week before putting the idea to Vicki. Luckily she agreed.

Vicki and Dan (both insist they have never had any romantic connection) moved into his parents' house where they began editing both the diary and the pictures. Although they wanted to give an honest portrayal of their backpack lives, there were difficult decisions about what they should include. Drugs being the biggest.

There were the shots taken in northern India's Kullu Valley of villagers harvesting marijuana; the pictures from Varanasi that Vicki had taken while spaced out on "bhang lassi", a yoghurt drink that's laced with cannabis resin; and the numerous shots of stoned travellers with joint in hand and bemused grin on face. Vicki and Dan decided to put them all in eventually worrying only what their parents would say. "I've told mine that I tried opium when I was in Thailand," admits Dan, while Vicki confesses that the druggy backdrop to her travels will only become clear to her parents when the book is published this week.

It took six months, all the time living with Dan's family, to prepare the picture-led book and, at the same time, they had to find a publisher. Several expressed interest but all insisted that their busy schedules would mean that it would be two years at least before they could get it into bookshops. Dan and Vicki decided to go it alone - with encouragement from Dan's father, a chartered accountant - and attempt to raise the pounds 30,000 of venture capital needed to set up their own publishing firm. Dan put together a business plan and within months secured all the money and founded a company with the name Travellerseye.

Vicki and Dan then struck a deal with the small but adventurously minded publishers Kensington West Productions, which agreed to print and distribute the book in return for a 15 per cent holding in Travellerseye.

Sitting in the Dome cafe in Islington the pair, in London for the day to get their hands on the first copies of A Trail of Visions. Route 1: India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Sumatra, Home, which have been flown in from the printers in Hong Kong, can't believe it's only 10 months since they met up for that inspiring beer.

Turning the pages, Vicki says that travelling for such a long time "makes you feel all the conditioning you've been pushed into. It makes you more confident about who you really are and you get on with the other travellers you meet because you all have something in common." Dan, despite having travelled for shorter periods, has perhaps experienced an even greater sense of release because of his very traditional English upbringing: "It lets you escape your background and all peer pressure. I was happy before I went, and I'm happy now that I'm back, but by enduring the hardships you en-counter you start appreciating all the things you take for granted. Maybe that's why when we returned and were half-way through doing this book, and had no money at all, we just didn't give up."

The priority now is to make back their investors' capital and send Vicki and her camera off to compile A Trail of Vissions. Route 2, which will take her through China and Tibet. Vicki hopes to be away for three months starting this month. Dan, meanwhile, will be responsible for turning Travellerseye into a successful business, although it will be some time before they can rival the most famous traveller-run publishers, Lonely Planet. It's a serious responsibility - and an ironic one given that Dan says his travels were about escaping - that he says he's happy to shoulder. Indeed, sitting here in his Ralph Lauren shirt next to Vicki in her rock-chick top, he already looks like the business side of the relationship. Yet despite their differences, they have an understanding of each other that could have only occurred away from their normal stamping grounds.

A Trail of Visions is much more, however, than two new hippies getting us to fork out for their lifestyle of non-stop backpacking travel. Vicki Couchman's photographs do tell with clarity what it's like to follow a trail across Asia: both the places you see and the type of people you will meet. The book achieves this skilfully mixing colour and black and white images. And surprisingly Vicki's diary entries don't make you squirm. But for Vicki and Dan the best news is that at last they have something to trump their friends' tales of shagging.

! `A Trail of Visions. Route 1: India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Sumatra, Home' is published tomorrow by Kensington West Productions and Travellerseye at pounds 14.99. Stockists include Books Etc, Dillons, Virgin Megastores and Waterstones. Copies can also be ordered direct on 01434 609933.

On the road: `as the sun started to rise above the dance party, a cloud of dust covered the mass of bodies,' (top); watching the sun set (above, left) was a ritual for Vicki in Goa, who adds that, `for many, the day started here. Meeting at a cafe was the start of a long night ahead'; at first Vicki travelled with her boyfriend, but they split up and she continued on her own, sometimes envious of people who had a partner to share their experiences (above, centre); in the city of Varanasi, stoned on `bhang lassi', Vicki took pictures (above, right) of street scenes while `enjoying the sensations'

Field of dreams: `there's more to Goa than parties' insists Vicki who, during her year of travelling, spent long periods living with local people (above, left); in India backpackers can get around on ancient Vespas and Enfields (centre)

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE

There are many ways to travel an Asian route similar to Vicki's. Campus Travel (0171 730 8111) can arrange a ticket to fly London to Delhi, Delhi to Colombo, Colombo to Bangkok, Bangkok to Kathmandu, and back from Delhi to London for around pounds 857. For an additional pounds 100 surface transport from Bangkok through Malaysia and then to Sumatra can be arranged. A return flight from London to Delhi costs around pounds 340 and Delhi to Goa from pounds 194.

STA (0171 361 6262) offers a flight which includes London to Delhi, Delhi to Singapore, Singapore to Bangkok and return to London for pounds 644 (maximum stay one year) or pounds 587 (maximum stay three months). An alternative STA airfare, including London to Bombay, Bombay to Bangkok and then from Singapore to Delhi and finally Delhi to London, costs from pounds 639. Overland travel is necessary from Bangkok to Singapore and can be arranged within the country for approximately pounds 50. A flight from Delhi to Nepal starts at pounds 90 one-way. A London to Bombay return flight through STA starts at pounds 437, and a Bombay to Goa return starts at pounds 70. Another good travel agent to try for round-the-world tickets is Trailfinders (0171 938 3366).

VISAS AND TOURIST INFORMATION

Rules vary for the countries on the route, some do not require visas for short stays while for others you must obtain a visa before you leave the UK. Your travel agent may be able to organise visas.

Visa and travel particulars can be obtained from the various commissions and tourist information lines: Sri Lanka High Commission, 0171 262 1841 (no visa required for stays of up to 30 days, if you want to stay longer, an extended visa can be issued on arrival at the airport in Colombo); Royal Thai Embassy, 0171 259 5005, 1-3 Grosvenor Crescent, London SW1X 7EP, visa information, 0891 600150, tourist information, 0171 499 7679 (stays of under 30 days require only a passport valid for six months and an outward-bound ticket; Indonesian Embassy, 0171 499 7661, 38A Adam's Row, London W1X 9AD (British passport holders need at least six months remaining on their passport and a return ticket. Visitors may stay for a maximum of two months); High Commission of India, 0171 836 8484, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA, visa information, 0891 444544 (visa is required to visit India, applications by post take four to six weeks, or from the office in person, available the following business day); High Commission for the Republic of Singapore, 0171 235 8315, 9 Wilton Crescent, London SW1X 8RW, visa section 0171 235 5441 (British pass-port holders may stay in Singapore without a visa for up to 90 days providing they have six months remaining on their passport, a return ticket and means of subsistence, however, after 30 days visitors must go to the immigration office in Singapore to be issued an additional 60-day visa); Royal Nepalese Embassy, 0171 229 1594, 12A Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QP (visa is necessary and must be obtained by applying in person at the office, Monday to Friday, 10am to 2pm. The visa can be issued the following day); Malaysian High Commission, 0171 235 8033 (no visa required).

ALTERNATIVE NEW HIPPIE TRAILS

For the traveller interested in visiting other Asian countries, Jennifer Cox of Lonely Planet guide books suggests that both the Philippines and Vietnam are hip places to go. In the Philippines, salsa dancing is huge and Jennifer says it's "considered absolutely the thing to do." In Vietnam, where a sophisticated culture is emerging, Hanoi is bustling with all sorts of French, Italian and, of course, Vietnamese restaurants.

Outside Asia, other popular world routes include travelling across the US, Australia, or hopping between the islands east of Australia around Fiji. In Australia, the backpacker can travel "one day through baking deserts, next in forests with bush fire

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