In Around the World on a Motorcycle, Zoltán Sulkowsky documents a daring voyage made by two Hungarian globe-trotters starting in 1928, one of the first successful and surprisingly little-known circumnavigation attempts on motorbike. Zoltán Sulkowsky and his friend Gyula Bartha, two motorized Magellans, spent years discovering for themselves, and for future readers, our world during the deceptive lull between the two World Wars. To celebrate their accomplishments we are sharing excerpts of their story with our readers over the next few weeks.
But how did we ever get from Budapest to Sicily? How had the idea of the unconventional journey come to us in the first place? In the life of Hungarian youth 1927 was one of those fateful years. Although only twenty-five years old, I had started down several paths in life, which had all proven to be dead ends. I had tried my luck at the military academy, officer cadet school, and the Ludovika Academy. Later, deciding to steer back to civilian life, I had become a student at the Technological University, where I supported myself by working as a student counselor. Afterwards, I sought work opportunities in the country, where quiet life in farm and field reawakened my interest in travel. My friend and I had saved up for years in order to realize our dream, but it wasn’t until 1927 that we finally said good-bye to Hungary.
We had left for Italy carrying enormous suitcases, unsure of what exactly we were seeking in that southern land. The possibilities of further study, university degrees, working in factories, improving our language skills, and the sheer joy of trying our luck and satisfying wanderlust drew us on, and we weren’t expecting to return to Hungary any time soon. Flipping through my journal from those Italian years, I fail to find one specific driving force behind the decision to leave our country. The following words begin my journal of ten years ago: “I wish to record every movement of our foreign travels, in order that I may have written records of the bitter and the joyous days to come. If ever my journal is read, I wish the reader to learn from it what it means to leave your homeland on a whim, going against the good advice of all and your own better judgment”. My goal was simple, to ride possibilities as they came along, harnessing my youthful desire to see and to learn.
“I cannot know how long my journey will be. I might not fill even half of this notebook, or my journal entries may span the length of years.” We boarded the train on a grim, overcast day. Although our numerous suitcases weighed us down, we took the streetcar to the railway station, wondering what we would ride on our way back. (Little did we know that we would return by motorcycle.) The heat of my excitement was exchanged for cool sobriety when my friend pointed at the porter struggling with our bags and quietly remarked, “Take a good look; that’ll be you soon enough.” Only after we had actually boarded the train did we realize it was Friday the thirteenth. We rode through Vienna and Venice and arrived at our first destination, Milan, where we spent four depressing weeks, filled with sad memories and one bitter disappointment hard upon another. We had learnt that college tuition was much higher than in Hungary, that we weren’t legally permitted to work in Italy, and even if we had been, there were no jobs to be had. We ran into numerous Hungarians who were all complaining and miserable. After a tour of the city, we went from company to company and visited one factory after another, all in vain.
We actually spent the lion’s share of our time at the Hungarian Club, which was the fancy name for old Mr. Rosenfeld’s little pub. We were glad to see other Hungarians and realized they had not fared much better than we. In fact, we seemed to have an advantage over them, because we still had our savings from home, savings that we weren’t so anxious to spend, however, as we hoped to stay abroad for at least a year. And something could very well turn up in that time. How we pitied the others, who often had nothing but thin soup to fill their stomachs! Hungarian guests at the Club could earn a meal by rolling up their sleeves afterwards and washing dishes.
People at the Club came and went; a single afternoon at Mr. Rosenfeld’s pub was filled with more novelty and possibilities than weeks in the company of the Italians. It was a brave new world for us consisting of n’er-do-wells, parasites with an aversion to all forms of work, new arrivals in Italy, a few college students, and travelers who remained strangers even after their departure.
Somehow, all Hungarian emigrants found out about the pub and went there just to chat in their native tongue, to sample some traditional dishes, brag about their accomplishments, whatever they may be, in front of other Hungarians or remain on the constant lookout for good advice and patronage. Our mood got progressively darker as the weeks passed. We hadn’t quite reached the depths of despair; we knew, even before coming to Italy that it would be no walk in the park at first. The trouble was that we never made it to the proverbial park, and we were not alone. We had compatriots who had been there for years, still with no prospects in sight. To make matters worse, we were running out of money, so we seriously began to consider leaving Milan. But where to go next? And how?
I must mention here that the Club was also the favorite meeting place of a curious, bohemian caste of young men who took nothing in life seriously, a special breed of globetrotters. They wandered from country to country, city to city, or simply the streets of Milan and made their money by selling their own photographs and samples of their correspondence. They often made a fair living, got all sorts of discounts at a variety of places and got most of their funds from restaurant and coffee house guests. Many of the globetrotters were Hungarian youths. Some had been traveling for five or six years, but had hardly three or four countries behind them. They wore elaborate clothing, somewhat reminiscent of Boy Scout uniforms, short pants and tropical hats. Furthermore, multitudes of them boasted that they were traveling around the world on foot; however, they were mostly too lazy to walk to the street corner and back. They complained of competition in their “profession,” however, they all managed to make a living one way or another, and altogether rather pleasantly. There were few parks in Milan, with even fewer benches. In fact, there were two benches to a park at most, but, through a stroke of genius, this proved to be enough.
Each bench was constructed of two planks with a space of about 8-10 cm in between, which resulted in sore behinds for those foolish enough to brave sitting down, and even the hardiest did not remain for more than half an hour. And yet our plan to travel around the world on a motorbike was born on just such a bench. My friend and I had never brought it up in conversation, but the idea of such a journey had crossed each of our minds on numerous occasions. Then one evening, while sitting on a back-breaking bench in Milan, I popped the question to my friend. “What do you think of traveling around the world?”
“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, only I didn’t dare bring it up,” exclaimed my friend Gyula.
Everything went smoothly from then on. Our plans became clearer, and the prospect of the journey loomed large and sure. We realized that with a little skillful planning, we could raise significant funds at the hands of a variety of sponsors. We threw ourselves into feverish planning and the foggy Milan dawn found us still sitting on that awful Milan park bench!
The next day, our planning took a serious turn, and the trip began to seem more and more likely. We decided on the motorbike as our mode of transportation, and we thank our lucky stars to this day that we did. The motorbike seemed like the best choice from the start. We considered both the bike and automobile as possibilities, but while the former promised to be slow and uncomfortable, the latter gas-guzzler was going to be too expensive. But it wasn’t until after the trip that we realized just how fortunate our choice had been. In choosing the bike, we would have had to leave a significant amount of supplies behind, and we would not be able to carry all the food and water we desperately needed on the long stretches of our journey far from civilization.
But the automobile would simply not have gotten us everywhere we needed to go. You couldn’t take a car apart and carry it across a river, the way we did our motorcycle on numerous occasions. And then, the sheer sport value of circumnavigating the globe on a motorbike was far more enticing than simply driving.
Arguments for and against the success of our venture followed in close succession, but somehow, arguments in favor seemed to dominate. We still had enough money to buy a great bike and food and supplies for the first six months of the trip. We planned to be in far-off Asia by the end of those six months, at which point we could begin to make a profit off the materials we had assembled thus far. We planned to sell our photographs, contact various journals and periodicals, and give lectures. Also, once we had a significant number of miles behind us, we could count on the support of the motorcycle factory and various gas and oil companies, as well as the backing of biker clubs and associations.
The next week found us sitting in one of the cabins of the direttissimo train, saying farewell to Milan and to all of Italy—at least, for a while. It wasn’t hard for us to leave Milan. We had become painfully aware that we had no prospects there, and the smartest thing for us to do at the time was to start the journey we had been so carefully planning. Our first task was to purchase the right motorcycle.We had visited all the bike shops in Milan, but disappointment followed disappointment. We needed a serious bike for a trip around the world, a brand of bike known the world over, so that no matter where we broke down, we would be able to find replacement parts at local shops. Italian bikes simply did not qualify, and so, although they were cheapest, we were forced to look elsewhere for the perfect solution. American motorcycles seemed the way to go, as they were the most popular and the toughest. Also, to our sorrow, the most expensive. After considering a variety of brands, we agreed that the best choice would be a Harley-Davidson or an Indian.
The high import tax in Italy, however, made it unreasonable for us to buy our bike locally, and after hearing from a number of independent sources that prices were much better in France, we made up our minds to travel to Paris.
And motorbike or no motorbike, Paris was an attractive destination. Who said we had to start our bike odyssey in Italy, anyway? Couldn’t we choose Paris as our starting point instead, Paris, where motorcycles were cheaper to boot?
And so, on to Paris!
It took us a few days to get our bearings at our new location, but we purchased our bike very soon after becoming acquainted with the City of Lights. Little did we know that we would meet the third member of our company in those few short days. We ran into a nice Hungarian girl in front of the poste restante counter at the main Paris post office. The accidental encounter was followed by a pleasant chat, the chat followed by dinner, the dinner by a rendezvous the very next day, and the rendezvous by the mutual decision to travel together. “Why not?” she asked, and we agreed, “Why not?”
Mimmy, our new friend, was a painter in training from Budapest. She’d left Hungary on a scholarship, afterwards, she was supported by her talent alone. Mimmy had lived in all the major cities of France and Italy, and had visited a number of other European countries and had even made it as far as North Africa. She was a talented artist and had always managed to sell enough paintings to support herself and her inordinate wanderlust. Mimmy was familiar with foreign customs and had a knack for languages. What’s more, she was young, modern, and a boyish sportswoman, not one to be deterred by the possible difficulties of our projected journey. If she was to join us, however, a sidecar was an absolute must. In the end we agreed that a sidecar would do a lot to balance our bike on the lousiest roads, and of course, we could use the extra space for packing significantly more supplies. We chose a Harley-Davidson in the end, and were I to make the journey all over again, I would choose a Harley again with the greatest confidence.
It’s funny, but I must admit that the sidecar hasn’t been paid for to this day. When purchasing the bike, we were drawn to a much more spacious sidecar than came with it, but the sidecar we knew we needed was severely used. We made a deal with the company in the end; they gave us the old sidecar nearly for free, for 50 francs in all, with the condition that we would one day exchange the bike itself for the newest model on the market. Come to think about it, we don’t actually owe the company anything, because we never got that new Harley. Nevertheless, we own and use the old sidecar to this day.
Weeks passed with planning and preparations. My first task was definitely learning how to drive a motorcycle. After a few practice sessions, however, I obtained my license with ease. What the driving school officials didn’t know was that those practice sessions had involved my close encounter with a wall and a woman cyclist’s arched flight into the puddles dotting the road, but after seeing my graceful figure eight, they made out my license without further ado. With the license in hand, I was able to apply for the necessary official documents for international travelers issued by the Automobile Club. And we were off!
We had only what we thought were the most important supplies on board, but who could blame us; we had no experience as world travelers. Who would have thought, for example, that a spade would prove to be much more necessary than a telescope, or that the revolver and small radio would in no way make up for the lack of pots and pans and a strong axe? At the same time, we sported splendid goggles and did not forget to pack the sponges and deerskin necessary for keeping the glorious shiny bike at its shiniest. After all was said and done, no power on this earth could have held us back from our voyage.
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