Sunday, September 14, 2008

Five Favorite Travel Books (in no particular order)

Now that I've been stationary for FOUR MONTHS, I think I'm coming down with a case of that old travel bug again. Since I know it'll be another six weeks or so before I hit the road, I've decided to write about books about travel in lieu of actually going someplace myself. That should help with the symptoms, right?

1. Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico - Ronald Wright

I picked up this book in 2000 from the now defunct corner bookstore near my old office in Palo Alto before making a trip to the Yukatan. I usually like to know something about the history of a place before I visit, to dig a bit deeper than the guide books, particularly when it's somewhere outside of the US.

Like much of my favorite travel writing, this book was multi-layered. Wright accounts his journey through the Mayan regions of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, retracing the path of a trip he'd made some twenty years earlier, switching back and forth through time, all the while making reference to the fascinating history of the Mayan people AND giving commentary on the current state of their modern day descendants.


Once out of Cancun, the Yukatan was fantastic. It had that combination of historic, urban (which in this case turned out to be historic as well,) and beach that I find ideal in a travel destination. We visited the Mayan ruins of Tulum, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Coba, etc, the colonial cities of Merida and Valladolid, and the beaches of Tulum and Playa del Carmen.
I visited the Yukatan with two friends, and felt my personal experience was greatly enriched by having read this book.

2. The Snow Leopard- Peter Mattiessen

You may recall, loyal readers, that I began 2008 with my 2007 Reading List, an attempt to record my impressions of the forty-odd books I'd read over the course of the year in bite-sized installments of five. After a strong start *ahem*, I fizzled after the third installment, managing to get through the first fifteen and ending with Ian McEwan's Enduring Love. The Snow Leopard, fortunately (?), was number sixteen on the List, and as such I have yet to comment on it here at Anemometer.

A classic of travel/ nature/spiritual writing. I had long been curious about Mattiessen's work, so when I found a used copy of The Snow Leopard in Dharamsala last year, I snatched it up. In 1973, Mattiessen accompanied a zoologist friend on a journey deep into Nepal near the Tibetan border to study the wild boral sheep. The pair, supported by several local guides and porters (some of whom were Sherpas), also hoped to catch a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard. Mattiessen, a Zen Buddhist, had lost his wife to cancer the previous year, and his tale is external and internal, a journey both physical and metaphysical.

The trek is described in beautiful detail and involves hundreds of miles of walking, in varying weather, over rugged and ancient trails connecting sparse-- yet diverse-- human settlements. The zoologist is not given to conversation, and there is ample opportunity for contemplation. Buddhism permeates the book: the Sherpas are Buddhists of the Tibetan variety, the path is dotted with stupas and prayer flags, and the boral sheep are found near a monastery where they've enjoyed the protection of the abbots for centuries.


On my own little trek last year, I crossed paths with many herds of goat-like sheep and sheep-like goats, and I was often reminded of Mattiessen's writing.

Amazon.com tells me that the current edition of this book includes an introduction by Pico Iyer (see Honorable Mentions, below).

3. Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia- Tony Horwitz

This book was passed on to me by Evil Dave, a Liverpudlian I was involved with while I was living in Japan
in the mid-nineties. He was not like the boys I usually dated. Dave was a little bit older, significantly better traveled, and a lot tougher than I was. Son of a dock worker, he knew how to handle himself in a bar fight; his brother-in-law was a gangster.

Horwitz wrote the pieces collected in this book as a free-lancer while his wife was Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. I particularly enjoyed the way he gleefully manoeuvres the chaos of the developing world. Ending with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, highlights include tales of chewing qat (khat) in Yemen, attending the funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, and my first introduction to the nightmare that is Sudan ("Khartoum, it is like something from Kafka," a German reporter remarks.)


4. A Journey in Ladakh- Andrew Harvey


Another 2007 read (#18).


In 1996 I spent a few months in Korea, working illegally as an English instructor. I stayed at a yaguan (the Korean word for ryokan, or inn, in this case a fleabag hotel for illegal foreigners) in central Seoul. There I met an assortment of native and non-native English teaching Westerners, all of whom were there with one objective: to save up enough money to travel (and get the hell out of Korea). Several folks were on their second and third tours of duty. One such woman had recently spent several months in Ladakh, in Northern India, a magical-sounding place I had only a vague sense of and where she had eventually developed iodine poisoning from her water purification tablets*. Perhaps then a seed was planted. (Why it took more than a decade to germinate is rather curious.)

I picked this up at a bookshop in Leh, Ladakh. Remember that I like to read about a place where I’m traveling or intend to travel (see Time Among the Maya, above). Harvey, a young British poet who spent much of his childhood in India, traveled to Ladakh in 1981. This was long before the seasonal Manali-Leh Highway was built, and Ladakh was very isolated (it's still one of the more remote regions of India).

Many of the folks who populate Ladakh are ethnic Tibetans who migrated there centuries ago, and the predominant culture is Tibetan Buddhist.
In his journey and in Leh, Harvey he meets an entertaining assortment of locals and fellow seekers. But it is his encounter with the young Rinpoche, and the guru-disciple relationship that develops, that is most beautifully written.

Harvey added a subtitle, "Encounters with Buddhism", and an afterward to the 2000 edition of this book. Reviewers on Amazon don't seem to be too impressed with this addition. Curious about where he's been since the early 80's, I wikied Andrew Harvey and learned that "An independent scholar, Harvey is known primarily for his popular nonfiction books on spiritual or mystical themes, beginning with A Journey in Ladakh (1983). He now lives in Chicago where he writes, conducts workshops, leads tours, and offers spiritual counseling services by telephone." I also learned from his personal website that he offers two week trips to the sacred spots of South India for $3700 (airfare not included). If this sounds interesting to you, I could do it for significantly less.

*Oh, the insignificant details that stick in one's brain.

5. In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler's Tale- Amitav Ghosh


Amitav Ghosh is one of my favorite writers, full stop. Though he currently lives in New York City, he grew up in Kolkata and went to university in New Delhi. He later received a PhD in Social Anthropology from Oxford, and the events in In an Antique Land largely take place during the time he was working on his dissertation.

I'm finding it challenging to sum up what this book is about. It's composed of two unrelated stories. In part, IaAL is about Ghosh's experiences living in a small Egyptian village as a graduate student. Ghosh was a city boy, but the village is pure village, a sleepy place beginning to be drawn into the greater world, populated with timeless characters. People ask him, with shock and horror, questions like, "Is it true that they burn the bodies of the dead in your country?! You must make them stop!" Or embarrassing questions like, "Is it true that the men in your country are not circumcised?!", the colloquial word for uncircumcised being "unclean".

IaAL is also about Ghosh's research into the Indian slave of a Jewish trader living on the Malibar Coast of India in the Twelfth Century. All information regarding this slave originated in documents from the Cairo Geniza. A Geniza was the store room of a synagogue used to collect anything written in the Hebrew script, which was considered the language of God. The famed Cairo Geniza held nearly 200,000 manuscripts from the Ninth Century onward, the significance of which was not appreciated until the Nineteenth Century. The body of correspondence that mention the Slave was conducted between an Arab merchant in Aden (a port city in Modern Yemen) and his friend, a Jewish trader living in Mangalore (that's in the modern-day State of Karnataka!). It was written in Judeo-Arabic, Arabic written with the Hebrew script. Ghosh eventually learned to read this arcane language in his pursuit of the Indian slave, but first he had to learn Arabic.

In 2002 I had the good fortune to see Ghosh in Berkeley. He gave a reading from his then-new novel, The Glass Palace, then stuck around to sign books. I'd read three of his works at that time, and was amazed by the breadth and variety of the themes and styles he employed. My first taste was The Calcutta Chromosome, which I'd first picked up from a table outside a book shop on Filmore Avenue in San Francisco. It's a science-fiction thriller that is, broadly speaking, about the discovery of the cause of malaria. In his one shot at the genre, Ghosh won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Besides the books mentioned above, I strongly recommend Ghosh's essay collection Incendiary Circumstances: A Chronicle of the Turmoil of Our Times, and his early novel, The Shadow Lines.


HONORABLE MENTIONS:

* Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign- Pico Iyer

This was #9 on the 2007 Reading List, so I've already written about this once back here.

I loved most of the essays in this collection. They're concerned not merely with travel to odd, out of the way places like Easter Island and Bolivia. Some of the pieces recount journeys of the mind. The strange out-of-body quality of jet lag (which was conveyed rather well in the film Lost in Translation), the fiction of perennial outsider WG Sebald.


** Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft- Thor Heyerdahl


In 1947, five Norwegians and a Swede set adrift
on a balsa wood raft from the coast of Peru in an attempt to prove Heyerdahl's theory that Polynesia may have been populated by people from South America. While they did prove that the traditional balsa craft could make the trip, the theory was decidedly bunk. It was, however, a grand caper in the long tradition of Scandinavian adventurers (Jon Krakaur, in his personal account of the 1996 Everest disaster, Into Thin Air, mentions Goran Kropp, a Swede who towed 200 pounds of equipment on his bicycle to Nepal for a successful solo summit, without oxygen. Last year I met a 48 year old Norwegian, Line, in Dharamsala who had ridden her bicycle there from Norway. I ran into her five months later in Kathmandu, when she was pondering having a go at Everest.) The 1947 sensibility is at times disturbing. There's an awful lot of wanton shark killing. A simile that stood out to me was the description of a whale, something like 'it was as much like a fish as a bat is a bird'. Perhaps most interestingly, the word "anemometer" appears on pages 203 and 207 of the 1960 Rand McNally edition.

*** The Ascent of Rum Doodle- W. E. Bowman


Bowman's parody of mountaineering chronicles was inspired by popular books like Annapurna, Herzog's harrowing account of the first ascent of that mountain. If you liked Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, you'll love this book. It's cover to cover silliness. Bill Bryson writes the intro to the most recent edition.

2 Comments:

Anonymous jb said...

Hmm. thanks for the list, I'll dig up a book or two from it.

When's yours coming out? ;)

12:56 PM  
Blogger Sheila said...

Have you noticed how difficult I find it, trying to stay on topic? Let's just say that my book, when it comes out, will probably cover 3-4 days and be 1000 pages long.

7:11 PM  

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