10 Mar, 2010 | Posted by: photosource


When I was 26, and living in Maryland, USA, I made a wanderlust trip through Europe, Africa, USA, Mexico and Central America that lasted over 35 months, almost three years. That was in 1957-60. When I returned home I began writing a memoir during 1960 and ’61. When I finished, I put it away in a closet and forgot it. I really didn’t forget it. I just didn’t think I should publish it because there were so many episodes and descriptions in there that would prove awkward to people like my relatives and my friends along the way. So I left it all alone. It’s now 2010, almost 40 years later and my family and me are living on a farm in western Wisconsin. I’ll dust off the manuscript and publish it here for the first time. –RE

After the first leg of my voyage through Europe and Africa, I sold my photos and story to the Saturday Evening Post, a popular magazine in 1958. This taught me that maybe I was cut out for a career in photojournalism.

Sahara on motor scooter

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French Sudan

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Rohn climbs to his loft at bedtime

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My Story


Rohn Engh

I opened my eyes just before dawn to a thumping feeling between my ears and in the dim light I tried to recount just how I landed in a hayloft in a Dutch barn with horses shuffling down below and pigeons in the ceiling cooing and fluttering from rafter to rafter, flapping their wings and dropping white splatterings, the kind you like to avoid on the sidewalk when you’re taking a stroll in a big city park. One hit me on the ear and I think that’s what woke me up. Shit! I grumbled as I searched for the bandanna that I must’ve lost in the melee from the night before.
And then there was my mouth. Stale beer taste. And my head. The sound of kettledrums were beating in there. I tried to go to sleep. And I did.
When I woke the next time the kettledrums were gone. I could hear someone below with the horses swashing water buckets and feeding them grain.
Rudi was already up, folding his sleeping bag. “You sleep O.K., Engh?” He asked.
I grumbled, “Yeah.”
“Hey you guys! You gonna sleep forever?” The bartender shouted up to us in what the Dutch people call ‘platt deutsch.’ It’s sorta like German with some other dialects mixed in there like Danish and Flemish and even some Creole or whatever that language is that they speak in the back bayous of Louisiana. Anyway, back in Wuerzburg it was the same thing about languages; you really didn’t have straight German to speak if you wanted to talk with the people. Some had a Bavarian accent, especially out in the country, and others in the city had an accent they called hochdeutsch, or somesuch, the kind you heard radio announcers speaking.
It was pretty much the same as when I was growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, out in the country; we all spoke with a different accent than the city people that came down from Baltimore and Washington. I had to be careful when I would talk with ‘city people’ over there in Ocean City when I had my summer job at the hotel during school summer vacation time. I tried to sound like the voices I heard on the radio otherwise they would think of me as a “hick” as city people called us from the Eastern Shore. I guess it was the same with the black people who worked in the kitchen with me when they talked amongst each other but when the boss lady came back with us they would snap up into real English even that I could understand.
Anyway all this got me prepared for my journey. I didn’t mind it. In fact I kinda liked it, learning new foreign words all the time and as I look back on it now, the people I was speaking with appreciated that I was interested enough if their language to try to learn it which meant they knew I appreciated them and their country as well.
“How did you ever get from Hamburg to Calcutta on only ten dollars?” I asked Rudi as I was rolling up my sleeping bag. He was staring at me. Sizing me up, I thought. Here was someone who had accomplished something that I was setting out to do. Could I do it? I already knew my limitations. What did he possess that I didn’t?
“To Calcutta?,” he said, reaching for his guitar and holding it up in the air, “This fellow here. That’s what got me everywhere.”


He tossed it back on the straw. It was covered with scratches and souvenir stickers of countries and cities he’d been through and a few signatures of people he had met. It lay there, as if it were a pet animal, like a dog that tagged along with you wherever you went, as long as you had a morsel of food to toss it now and then.
“By playing on street corners?” I asked. “With a tin cup, asking for money?”
“Hell, no” he said, looking at me as if I were a child.
“How then?” I asked, hoping he had some magic secret.

“Hey! You guys coming down? The bartender shouted up to us.
“Be right there.” We both shouted back.

“Well, happy to see you both had a good sleep,” the bartender brinned at us as we entered the back door of the tavern. He introduced himself as Hermann Van Dohlen.
“You own this tavern,?” Rudi asked.
“It’s all mine,” he said proudly. And then introduced us to his wife, who was in the kitchen preparing breakfast.
“C’mon out here in the back and wash up,” she said, as she poured us each a hot basin of water. “Why are you limping young man?” she looked at me with concern.
“He was playing Tarzan last night in the barn, laughed Rudi.
“It’s all right,” I said, “I only turned my ankle.”
“Boys! Have some breakfast with us,” Herr Van Dohlen shouted from the tavern.
“Thanks, we answered in unison.
“Thank you, for that fine entertainment last night.” He returned.

After breakfast with the Van Dohlens, Rudi and I walked out to the stone steps leading up to the tavern. Horse-drawn wagons paraded by, people on foot, boys on bicycles, men with push carts passed.

And Rudi’s secret magic for traveling all the way to India on ten dollars?

As it turns out there was no magic secret. His answer was as old as the ages. Like the circus of ancient days, people love to be entertained and a good way to entertain them was with some kind of musical instrument.
I remembered from last night, he had a beautiful baritone voice. It didn’t always stay in tune, much like his guitar, but he proved that didn’t matter so long as you could offer them “theater.”

He hadn’t thought this all out, I could tell, but what I could tell is that he discovered as a youngster back when he was working in the coal mines, he could strum a chord on his guitar it would get attention and it would change the atmosphere. If he added his singing voice it would raise the level of “theater”.
Soon he was on his way out of the coalmines to travel into the world he had seen only in the movies. He would get to the edge of town on his bicycle and keep going. I sensed he had the same feeling I had, that nothing could hold him back.
I suppose that his friends and family told him too, that he was running away from a promising future and he’d probably fall prey to the evils of the world. I knew he was a lot like me in that we both were stubborn about changing the way our lives were going and wanted to see what else was out there before we settled down.

As I look back, it turned out that when we each started out, neither of us sat down and figured out an action plan or something like that. We didn’t realize there was some kind of magnet out there that was drawing each of us from our standard existence. It turned out that we were doing something right, -something normal, actually.

We both knew that people love to be entertained and escape from their boring normal ordinary existence. It takes their mind off things. Even if it was a good life. Sometimes they don’t even know they’re tired and weary and need to clear out their mind a little bit. They look to find ay to make all those things disappear. Music can do this. Everyone is transported. It’s nice to be able to help people in that way.

The average tourist doesn’t experience this. When music is your language, even religious and cultural differences disappear. You wouldn’t think you could reduce all the ills of the world to this. But on a one-to-one basis you really can. You really, definitely can. I was beginning to realize all this stuff, but you really can. Rudi already knew it.
I asked him, “But how did you get through nine months of travel on ten dollars?”
No one had ever asked him such a question. He thought for a while.
“For one thing,” he said, “When you travel like this, almost like gypsies, you get to be friends with people pretty quick and pretty soon they want to know more about you and what you’re doing in their town and where you’ve been and where you’re going and what you’ve seen. And they want to know about you and your family, -basic things like that. He put his shoes up on one of the wrought iron benches
“Once I’ve told them the places I’ve driven my bicycle, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, places like that, they feel as they know me better.

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