Travel Books

Jeffrey Tayler's Glory in a Camel's Eye: A Perilous Trek Through the Greatest African Desert (Houghton Mifflin) tells how he became intrigued by the romance of Islam's rich cultural past in general, and by the Bedouin and the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula in particular. In 1987 he "sailed from Algeciras in southern Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, from where [he] intended to make [his] way east across the entire Arab world." Because of a bad case of food poisoning in Morocco, however, he never reached his destination, Baghdad. Instead, Tayler returned to the U.S. and joined the Peace Corps, which promptly sent him back to Morocco. There he heard tales of the Draa Valley, which begins about 240 kilometres southeast of Marrakesh and connects with the Sahara. "From the 9th through the 15th century," he writes, "the Draa served as one of the main caravan routes between Europe and Timbuktu. The desert-wise Bedouin, or Ruhhal (from the Arabic rahala, 'to wander from place to place') in the Arabic dialects of North Africa, were the master navigators of this 1,100-mile channel across the sea of sand." As this excerpt suggests, Tayler is generous in passing along to readers his knowledge of Arabic and also at weaving in historical context. Tayler made his journey across the desert in the late 1990s. What's most memorable about his detailed and nuanced account is how thoroughly the poor Bedouin had abandoned so many of their traditional ways for an uncomfortable foothold in the contemporary world.
Prague's transition In the early 1990s, young North Americans flocked to Prague for the authentic Bohemian lifestyle-the chance to live on the cheap in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Since then, however, rampant westernization has replaced most of the romance. Brooklyn novelist Myla Goldberg lived in Prague in 1993 and returned there 10 years later to research Time's Magpie: A Walk in Prague (Crown Journeys). "So many of Europe's cities have been bombed and burnt and torn down and rebuilt again that their physical history survives in stray fragments or not at all, but Prague is time's magpie, hoarding beautiful, eclectic bits from each successive era," she writes, explaining the book's title. Anyone who has stood in Prague's Old Town Square with its breathtaking amalgamation of architectural styles straddling several centuries will agree. Unfortunately, they will also have been buffeted by the hordes of tourists that now fill the square. Time's Magpie shines a light on Prague's more private personality, showcasing some of the city's lesser-known details, from the Museum of Communism (started, ironically, by an American) to the enormous plinth in Letna Park overlooking the city centre that was built to support a 30-metre statue of Joseph Stalin in 1955, two years after his death. Because Stalin fell out of favour quickly, the statue was demolished in 1962, but now the "Stalin plinth is skater nirvana". Goldberg's expat eye is the perfect lens for this portrait of Prague, and her novelist's pen does an exceptional job of presenting it. The one thing missing is her personal connection with the city. She relates no anecdotes from 1993, and does not compare now and then in any comprehensive way. Still, those who know Prague will learn a lot here, and those who have not yet had the pleasure will find the prospect of travelling there even more enticing.
Many are touting Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (Knopf Canada, $39.95) as a potential classic. Mehta spent his early childhood in Bombay but left at 14 for the U.S., where he's now a much-decorated journalist and writer of short fiction. Returning 21 years later (to "Mumbai"--he sees the name change as a purely political ploy and so refuses to play along), he finds himself in the place he's no longer of. This at times slightly surreal situation calls to mind V. S. Naipaul's writing about going "back" to India, the land of his forefathers where he'd never lived, and finding himself horrified. Mehta, a very different sort of writer from Naipaul, is at least as much fascinated as he is aghast in this city of 18 million people where in some places the population reaches one million per square mile. His ethnicity allows him to move freely amid the perpetual chaos and to get to know as a mature adult what he couldn't have even guessed at as a child or adolescent. What's most interesting about the book is its construction. Other than trying to make some sense of his impressions and explorations, Mehta forsakes an obvious narrative line for three long sections, all loosely defined. One is about some of the forms that the quest for power in Bombay takes. The second concerns criminal life, broadly speaking, illustrated in an often impressionistic manner. The last takes up people who've come from other areas and whom the anthropomorphized city eats up as food. But all that suggests Maximum City exists within a rigid framework, when its beauty is that it's held together mostly by the skill of Mehta's prose. Consider this paragraph near the end, when Mehta is getting set to move away from Bombay for the second time: "I am sick of meeting murderers. For some years now, I have been actively seeking them out, in Varanasi, Punjab, Assam, and Bombay, to ask them this one question: 'What does it feel like to take a human life?' This unbroken catalog of murder is beginning to wear on me. So when my uncle phones me one day and tells me about a family in the diamond market that is about to renounce the world--take diksha--I put aside everything else and go to meet them....They are becoming monks in a religion which for 2,500 years has been built on the extreme abjuration of violence. They are preparing to enter an order that has a different conception of life and its value, where they will stay indoors all four months of the rainy season because if they inadvertently step into a puddle of water they will be taking life--not only killing minute water organisms but also killing the unity of the water. From men who sleep tranquilly after taking a human life, I want to go to a family that thinks it sinful to end the life of a puddle of water."
Simon Winchester's book about Calcutta is actually titled Simon Winchester's Calcutta ($20.95), such is Winchester's reputation as a travel writer and historian of the bizarre. This is an anthology of excerpts, part of a new Lonely Planet series set up to compete with the popular Travelers' Tales one (to which Winchester also contributes). The pieces chosen are mostly by names you would expect to see: Rudyard Kipling, Paul Theroux, V. S. Naipaul, Rabindranath Tagore, and Winchester's onetime mentor, Jan Morris, surely the least substantial of today's famous travel writers. Winchester also includes a section from Days and Nights in Calcutta by the husband-and-wife team of former Canadians Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee. But the most richly textured and informative piece is Winchester's own introductory essay, for he writes, reports, remembers, and thinks rings round most of the others. Other new travel books that try to capture the essence of individual cities include Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita by Carlo Levi (John Wiley & Sons, $31.99) and Rio de Janeiro: Carnival Under Fire by Ruy Castro (Bloomsbury, $24.95). Levi, now dead, was a beloved Italian author, artist, and politician, considered a national treasure of sorts, like a combination of, say, Jean Cocteau and André Malraux in France. As might be expected from such a polymath, Fleeting Rome, translated by Tony Shugaar, is as much memoir and criticism as descriptive travel writing, being concerned with Rome from the end of the Second World War to the mid-1960s. But it also achieves the kind of impressionistic truth about a place that comes only from the correct combination of intimacy and distance, attraction and distaste. If Rome has an equivalent in the Americas, it's got to be Rio, another place where people live in the moment but a city whose most storied ingredients--flamboyant crime, good times, easy money, worldly pleasures, and the splendours of the past--are at once both traditions and agents of constant change. Castro is a local journalist, media figure, and all-round Rio booster. But his book, translated by John Gledson, is more serious than the author's bio would lead one to expect. Pete Hamill, a journalist I've almost always read with pleasure, holds the distinction of having been the editor of two of New York City's three daily newspapers (the two that aren't the New York Times). His career, in fact, has had a splendid 19th-century-style miscellaneousness about it, what with screenplays, a couple of biographies (Diego Rivera and Frank Sinatra!), 10 not especially memorable novels, a collection of short stories set in Tokyo--in short, all manner of things and all the more remarkable for someone suffering from alcoholism, the subject of 1993's A Drinking Life, which was his most recent book until Downtown: My Manhattan (Penguin Canada, $34.95). Downtown is in the recognizable tradition of all those Baghdad-on-the-Hudson books about New York and its multiplicity (one might almost say superfluity) of facets, the sort associated with moonlighting columnists, New Yorker staff writers, and the very young Gay Talese. That being said, Hamill understands the subgenre and works well in it. This isn't literature, exactly, not even in the sense of creative nonfiction, but neither is it reheated reporting. It's what an acquaintance of mine calls the Higher Journalism.
On first sight, the 400-page The Canada Chronicles (Summit Studios, $50) seemed like one of the last things I would want to lug around if I were ever to hitchhike across this country. Matt Jackson finished his business degree, spent a year as a ski bum, and somewhere between Lake Louise and Bay Street, he fell off the corporate career bus and landed on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway with his thumb in the air. The Canada Chronicles was the result; it documents in journal-like entries his three-and-a-half-year, 30,000-kilometre hitchhiking adventure from the Queen Charlottes to St. John's, Newfoundland, via Tuktoyaktuk and Yellowknife. Pierre Trudeau once advised young Canadians to hit the road and see their country. Jackson not only took his advice, he took a pen, a camera, and a cardboard sign that read Travelling Journalist: Be in My Story. It worked. Other than a three-day stretch on the Liard Highway, the author scored some sweet rides and met a lot of the characters Canadian backroads and asphalt breed: eccentric, solitary types who pick up hitchhikers and ply them with stories. The full-colour photos of the Yukon strummed my homesick strings, and the shots of the Prairies left me with an itch in my gas-pedal foot, but I could have done without Jackson's paperback philosophizing: "My few recent hitchhiking forays had convinced me that the open road was not such a dangerous place. There was kindness, generosity and compassion everywhere...if you practiced seeing the goodness in people, the road would accommodate those views as well, and reward openly that which was perceived." Which might well be true, especially if you are white, over six feet tall, weigh more than 200 pounds, and aren't a woman. I'm going to stick to travelling by car, so I can pack more books.
Don't consider packing Lonely Planet's The Travel Book ($56.95) on your next trip--it's better suited for a coffee table than a backpack. Subtitled A Journey Through Every Country in the World, this is the perfect Christmas present for world-traveller wannabes. The Travel Book really does showcase every country in the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, along with a few places that aren't countries in their own right. Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, though officially part of China, earn their own listings, along with Antarctica, Greenland, and remote relics of European colonization like France's Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, just south of Newfoundland. Lonely Planet makes some political statements, too: the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are merged into one entity, for example, and Palestine is given full status. Each country is presented in a two-page spread of photos and text, with one large symbolic photograph. Other photos further define the place, along with a column of standardized details, such as Best Time to Visit, Essential Experiences, Getting Under the Skin, Trademarks, and Surprises. This is a comprehensive, informative, and entertaining resource, an atlas whose maps have been replaced by often stunningly beautiful photography. The trademark Lonely Planet wit runs through as well. (Best time to visit Denmark? "May and June or AD 900 if pillaging is your thing.") This gorgeous book should come with a warning, though: readers will undoubtedly be inspired to travel to some exotic locale discovered in its pages.
Roger Took's Running With Reindeer: Encounters in Russian Lapland (McArthur & Co., $18.95) is of interest because few of us have ever read a book on this subject. The same might be said of The Fellowship of Ghosts: A Journey Through the Mountains of Norway, by Paul Watkins (Simon & Schuster Canada, $36). By contrast, we all know bits and pieces about the Riviera but probably don't have the coherent overview found in Riviera: The Rise and Rise of the Cíƒ ´te d'Azur by Jim Ring (McArthur & Co., $39.95), a book whose most vivid parts centre on the years between the two world wars, when high society (which still existed) mingled comfortably with the demimonde (which is timeless).
Since the centenary of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-'99, books continue to appear, recounting the experiences of people trying to re-create the incredible journey made by 100,000 or so stampeders. In River Time: Racing the Ghosts of the Klondike Gold Rush (NeWest Press, $29.95), John Firth, a prominent figure in Whitehorse, made the trip with his nephews, following the path of his own grandfather. What's riveting is the inclusion of three previously unpublished photos of Dawson, two of them of the riverfront lined with riverboats of all sizes, tied up across from enormous warehouses--a spot where only two years earlier there was nothing that could be called a hamlet, much less an industrial city, albeit a short-lived one.
Australians, generally speaking, are some of the world's most prolific travellers. One of the craziest travel adventures hatched from Down Under can be found in Off the Rails (Penguin Australia, $24), in which Tim Cope and Chris Hatherly describe their experiences cycling 10,000 kilometres across Russia, Mongolia, and China. The then--20-year-olds met up in the autumn of 1999 with 12-month Russian visas, a budget of about US$2 per day, and two custom-built "armchairs on wheels" (recumbent bicycles). Hatherly was an avid cyclist who had already crossed Western Europe with his girlfriend that summer, but Cope had never even ridden a recumbent bike before Hatherly assembled them on the platform of the Petrozavodsk train station. Over the next 12 months, the two tested the limits of their friendship, encountered many interesting characters, and saw Russia from the inside out. The authors take turns writing the chapters. Although neither is going to win any awards, they both write with honesty and a willingness to share intimate details. Cope's chapters tend to wax philosophical, while Hatherly's seem utilitarian. The book manages to hold one's attention through to the end even if just to see whether or not their friendship will survive the ordeal. The two were at each other's throats from early on, mainly because Hatherly was pining for his girlfriend back home and thus wanted to move as quickly as possible, while Tim "wanted to experience Russia and not just see it". The main strength of Off the Rails (the title refers to their unsuccessful attempt to adapt the bikes to ride the Trans-Siberian railway) is the glimpse it offers into the remote depths of Russia. The Siberian villages they visit are desperately poor, still reeling from the collapse of Communism. In many cases, the cyclists are the first westerners the villagers have ever met, or probably ever will.
The past few years a number of writers, including theologians as important as Shirley MacLaine, have published books about pilgrimages to such places as Santiago de Compostela in Spain or Canterbury in England. A serious example, not at all MacLaine-like, is Kerry Egan's Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago (Doubleday Canada, $32.95), but it's the exception. Few if any of these writers were themselves actual pilgrims; they were only pilgrimage re-enactors--trekkers really. The genius of Katherine Govier's book Solo: Writers on Pilgrimage (McClelland & Stewart, $24.99) is that she hasn't asked assorted literary figures to affect any degree of devotion or spirituality whatsoever. She simply wants them to write of destinations they've always wanted to get to and have now finally experienced. Although one contributor, American nonfiction writer Mark Kurlansky, does set out for Santiago, he does so only to hear the music at the other end. More typical are Margaret Atwood, who gets to Beechy Island in the Arctic to gaze at the famous Franklin Expedition graves, and the Czech novelist Ivan Klima, who revisits the site of the Nazi concentration camp where he grew up. The latter illustrates the fact that the arduousness of some of these secular pilgrimages is more psychological than physical. Douglas Coupland goes his own bizarre way as usual. As though deliberately misunderstanding or rejecting the point of the exercise, he writes not of a destination or even a journey but of his boyish love of air travel generally. For Govier, a novelist with a range of several fictional octaves, Solo follows naturally on Without a Guide: Contemporary Women's Travel Adventures, an anthology she edited a decade ago. Both books seem to invite comparison with the activities of Travelers' Tales, the San Francisco travel-book publisher whose various little specialties include "spiritual travel" and women's travel. The company, founded and run by James O'Reilly and Larry Habegger, who've been collaborating on a syndicated weekly travel column for nearly 20 years, also deals in food-related travel, travel humour, travel narratives, travel classics, and travel guides. But its best-known brand is the Travelers' Tales series. The latest volume--Travelers' Tales India (distributed by Publishers Group Canada, $29.95)--is typical. It's edited, as many of them are, by O'Reilly and Habegger. Its audience is Americans who wish to travel in India but aren't prepared to read a number of books that might prove long or difficult. The result is a fat hodgepodge of excerpts, with such useful apparatus as a bibliography and a glossary but also an overabundance of sidebars whose annoyance factor is approximately that of pop-ups on the Net. The writers are authors and journalists, past and present, famous and obscure. But the roster does include some of the finest practitioners of travel narrative. There are four bits, for example, from the work of the Scots travel writer William Dalrymple, author of such important books about India as City of Djinns, From the Holy Mountain and The Age of Kali, all published in the 1990s. There's also a passage from A Goddess in the Stones, one of the last published works by a monumental figure in travel writing, Norman Lewis: the only book I know on India's minority tribal peoples. Bringing such writers to people's attention is a worthy effort. But the rest of Travelers' Tales India is largely magazine and newspaper journalism.