From Afghanistan to Quasi-Vegan in Just Three Books: The Places in Between (Rory Stuart), The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India (Rory MacLean), & Eating Animals (Jonathan Safran Foer)
I’ve been waiting for my new crop of Better World Books books to arrive, and in the meantime, I’ve nursed from the last dregs of those I have. This week’s installment of thoughts on travel literature includes The Places in Between, an amazing journey on foot across Afghanistan; The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, a road trip along the old intrepid traveler trail between Istanbul and, umm…India; and Eating Animals, a very sobering look at factory farming and alternative reasons (beyond not wanting to kill animals) for being—at the very least—a responsible meat-eater. It’s been a rather serious path, but one that ultimately left me feeling rewarded, a little more enlightened, and a lot more inclined to live more adventurously. Let us begin.
The Places in Between, Rory Stewart
This book intimidated the hell out of me, which is why it was the last of my last order for me to pick up. It seemed to promise such serious, hard-to-read stuff, a la The Kite Runner. I tend to find myself more often swerving towards the more light-hearted reads of the travel world and endeavoring into the serious stuff with a sense of responsibility. Whatever the case, I finished somewhat interested in visiting Afghanistan and, in the same breath, happy I’m too far away and fund-depleted for such ill-advised adventuring.
Rory Stewart, having had to cut Afghanistan out of his walk across Asia, excitedly backtracks when the country is again opened to tourism. Despite everyone doubting his ability to make across the country, especially to do so on foot without being killed or kidnapped, he does so, and his adventure puts him into close contact with soldiers, former Taliban leaders, and possible wolf attacks. Stewart’s writing made me sympathize, envy, and respect him. His descriptions of the people he meets feel incredibly honest, unflinching in the face of fear, honestly but carefully reactive in the face of appall.
Despite a heavy subject, the book never felt exhausting to read but rather an answer to curiosities I didn’t know I had.
The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, Rory MacLean
In the sixties, backpacking came into its own. Hundreds of thousands of travelers set out of trips seeking instant karma and reenactments of dharma. Rory (how on earth did I manage to read two authors named Rory this time!) MacLean presents an amazing premise: Travel this trail again and meet people who have remained along the route, aged hippies who’ve never pushed on, inspired Iranians who left the countries for free love and returned for roots of culture, the drivers and handlers and hostel-owners. What we get is an appropriate far-out mix of Allen Ginsberg, ex-military stragglers, and ever the in between.
What I really like about this book is its unlikely but completely accurate collection of characters you meet along the “trail”, be it the hippie trail from Istanbul to India or the north-to-south route from Patagonia to Alaska. I tend to too often lump travelers into being more similar than we are, but MacLean provides a real look at the eclectic array of intrepids out there, completely different souls on a similar wavelength. It’s an interesting thing to see your own versions of these characters in the people around you, in the homes of your pasts.
Anywhere you go, the book suggests to me, has people with incredibly heart-breaking, interesting lives to share with you, and they are all worth knowing.
*My one complaint was this one was that sometimes the “trip” was a bit too much, as if the writer became too distracted by being mystical and mythical. The stories that are more grounded in reality work much better for me, which meant enduring a bit of odd storytelling in Istanbul.
Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
That afternoon, I’d had some heart-warming moments touring a turtle hatchery and animal conservation facility, CECON, where I got to bury turtle eggs and release a baby olive ridley sea turtle into the Pacific. They were moments that linger. After dinner at our hostel, scanning the book exchange, I spotted Eating Animals, which I’d been wanting to read for over a year.
Within twenty minutes of picking it up, I regretted it. I put the book down, if only for a minute, to mutter a “son of a bitch” before reading on. I’m no stranger to the horrors of animals in the food industry. I’ve seen a collection of online videos, watched the appropriate documentaries, and read tough stuff like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. For whatever reason, maybe the image of that little turtle climbing around in my hand, I knew this time was different.
I’ve been vegetarian for nearly a decade now, unwavering in meaty communities—Russia, Turkey, Guatemala, Louisiana—around the world. I began the book almost as another pat on the back for sacrificing on behalf of the good cause. I stood confident in my oft-repeated doctrine of “If I can’t kill it myself, I don’t eat it”. Seriously, what was there to be afraid of? I’d already taken the plunge and was living an easy meat-free existence.
This past November, my wife Emma upped the ante on her vegetarianism by giving up milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt, and all those great dairy treats—ice cream—we veggies hold dear. Hey! We still have pizza, fried egg sandwiches, and the occasional gelato, so life can’t be so bad. I resisted the change, clinched a little firmer onto my smoked Gouda. I understood why she was doing it but wanted no part.
In fact, we’d had lunch at a nearby restaurant that day, and I’d already selected my breakfast for the next morning: chilaquiles—a delicious Mexican speciality with crispy tortillas simmered in a red pepper sauce, covered in fresh cheese, side of beans, two fried eggs oozing from atop the mountain. Dinner that night had just been a precursor, biding my time for morning. Then, I found Eating Animals and read my way right out of it.
For the next twenty-four hours, the book rarely saw a tabletop. As I waited for my breakfast, minus eggs and cheese and sour cream, I plowed on. Beside the pool with my mayo-free vegetable sandwich and beer, I waded through page after page. On the shuttle ride home, cramped between bags and passengers, I only grew stronger in my resolve: Being vegetarian—not eating animals—simply wasn’t enough.
What makes Eating Animals so powerful for me was that, unlike those other aforementioned objections to the food stuff, Jonathon Safran Foer was not out to slander. The premise of the book is vegetarian father—Foer—exploring the idea of feeding his child meat. In fact, he seems to chase every lead to make it okay, from discussing the nostalgia of traditions—Thanksgiving, his grandmother chicken and carrots—to visiting the most ethically minded animal farmers out there.
I’ve explained my vegetarianism hundreds of times over the last few years, but this book changed all of my logic. Foer’s most compelling arguments, the ones that ultimately stuck me with a choice, have nothing to do with animal rights. Rather, his data on the other implications, environmental damage and world hunger, brought about by factory farming are so disturbing I just can’t…not even if I really, really want a cheese and mushroom omelet.
He points out that the ethical choice of vegetarianism (or quasi-veganism—I will eat cheese or eggs under very specific circumstances where I absolutely know it didn’t come from factory farming)…the ethical choice of vegetarianism has become less and less about whether or not you agree with eating animals. The choice to do so these days means so much more, means supporting something with irrefutably evil ties. So, I’m left with pretty much no cheese now, no yogurt, and so on, just praying he never decides to investigate beer.
In 2013, I took a year to work part-time and pursue a travel writing career on the side. Part of my travel writing training was to read travel books and take from them what I could. These are thoughts on some of those travel books.