Make no mistake, I like to tell myself in fits of reflection, one learns lots from books but just as much from experience, from going out into the world and doing, grabbing the good of what there is to be grabbed. This month’s contributions to the blogs de book reviews are two fine providers of both of these lessons, and not just that, these are two divinely entertaining specimens.
Greasy Rider: Two Dudes, One Fry-Oil-Powered Car, and a Cross-Country Search for a Greener Future
Inspired (as I can relate) by a very conscientious wife and perhaps a sense of mischief (also, relatable), Greg Melville sets off on an innovative and groundbreaking adventure across the continental US: He and his sidekick, an old college buddy called Iggy, are going to be the first men ever to traverse the country by car without buying gasoline. It’s not exactly On the Road. It’s not exactly Travels with Charley. But, it’s a hell of an interesting adventure.
Unlike other road trip memoirs, Melville’s is unique in that, more than a search for the nostalgic American identity, he and Iggy are getting there as fast as possible, hoping to avoid dive diners with that much-beloved small-town charm, and driving towards the future. The two characters play off each other so well, just like buddies will do, rather tirelessly annoying and challenging one another but stepping up when the time is right.
The result: Iggy challenges Greg to go beyond just the symbolic French fry car trip and investigate several green-themed items, which provide some fantastic detours from the main narrative, including trips to Al Gore’s house (in search for the greenest house in the US) and a visit to Arkansas and Texas to find out about Wal-Mart’s green initiative.
As for me, I moved through this one quickly. I love the idea, the mix of travel and social conscientiousness with Greg and Iggy’s somewhat opposed personalities but shared background. I was reminded how important the trip is, and I was reminded why the trip isn’t enough. Like the Greasy Rider, we as people, as travelers, and as writers must accept the challenge to investigate beyond point a to point b, to move ourselves mentally as well as physically. And, keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing isn’t a bad idea, either.
Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu
J. Maarten Troost becomes the first author to appear in this blog twice. A follow up to his very funny (and different) bestseller, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, this book starts with Troost bored of the D.C. corporate life, missing the simplicity, even the diet of rotten fish and threat of lurking sharks, of living on an isolated atoll in the South Pacific. His wife, Sylvia (the girlfriend he’d followed to Kiribati in his first book), who works with development organizations, finds the solution: Another new job in the South Pacific.
This time Troost knows exactly what he’s getting into: a land where cannibalism has been practiced for centuries, where volcanoes are gurgling molten lava and burping ash, where cyclones decimate cities, where young boys chew the root of pepper shrub to produce a saliva-based intoxicating drink called kava, where life is different and maybe easier than on Kiribati but is still filled with all the things that go along with a life abroad.
For me, from a writing perspective, this book is much better than the first. Troost feels in control of his rants and language, his observations still ring hilariously true but more like an investigation on which we are invited along. And, it’s fun. Knowing that this trip was supposed to produce adventures for a new book, he goes out of his way to pursue whatever seems interesting, things we all (or, at least me) want to do but sometimes just don’t manage to.
I dig these books, and I’m excited about the idea of traveling with purpose and panache, especially knowing that my own trip is coming up soon. In support of The NGO List and our own seemingly unquenchable sense of adventure, Emma and I will be setting off this November, from Guatemala to Patagonia by May, with plans to volunteer and check out cool projects doing good things in the world and linger in places that suit us. I can only hope for the wherewithal and drive (literally and figuratively) these two authors had. Some great writing coming from it would just be gravy.
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.
I started my travel blog over a year and a half ago. I read that it was a non-negotiable aspect of becoming a contemporary writer, even a writer who wanted to earn a living through the craft rather than blogging opinions on the latest iPod (which incidentally earns a lot of people a living). I’d made it my mission to put seven years worth of university towards something related to the degree it earned me: Creative Writing. It was not fiction, as I’d once planned, but travel writing, something much more in-tune to my life since graduating in 2005.
Starting off, I wrote about life as an expat in Russia and the grammar qualms of being an EFL teacher. Some of it was interesting (I think), some of it humorous (to my wife), and all of it fairly self-indulgent. I was writing about me for an audience of people who knew me, or potentially were in need of a new and distant friend who liked to write about himself. Most of the entries, however, I enjoyed writing, and I was sure they were improving me as a writer. It felt right in some way, but I also recognized that I had not garnered the thousands of readers necessary for a blog to earn you some income.
This month, when the last of my internationally-shipped travel books had all been read and my new shipment was in the abyss of Guatemala City’s post office, I stumbled upon a fantastic article about 10 of the Most Inspiring Websites for Aspiring Digital Nomads. I bookmarked it and ignored for the next week. Then, in a fit procrastination—I’ve been having trouble getting the travel words out lately—I opened it up. Lo and behold, I was inspired. Many of the websites/blogs were about creating websites and blogs. Others, such as Nomadic Matt, were more travel-y. Whatever the case, a new fire was set alight.
Firstly, I downloaded an ebook. I’ve not been much of ebook reader, partly because of a dusty pre-Twitter/rugged nomad attitude and partly because my wife uses the iPad and I the laptop. (Seriously, who reads a book on a laptop? Or, for that matter, calls himself a rugged nomad then mentions using a laptop in the same sentence?) Anyway, inspiring website number one was The Art of Non-Comformity, which sounded fairly heady but proved to be as practical as philosophical. The suggested reading for said website was How to Be Awesome, which I enjoyed. Next thing I know, I’m downloading a book: 279 Days to Overnight Success.
Now, I’ve never read a self-help book in my life, feeling that I’m pretty adept at helping myself. This seemed like Chicken Soup for the Writer type thing, but Chris Guillebeau had sucked me in a little (and it was free). I wanted to read what he had to write. Fresh coffee on the coffee table, reclined on the sofa, Emma in the bed reading Spanish Harry Potter on the iPad, I mouse-d my way to the .pdf on my desktop and started. It was really good. Interesting. It was, as promised, very inspiring. I began making notes for a new blog as I read. I began thinking of how blogging might provide me a little more stable income than freelancing. I took another step into the 21st century world of writing.
After his book, after having looked at all the inspiring websites on the list, I got sucked in again with the list’s honorable mention: Smart Passive Income (Smart Passive Income wasn’t in the top ten because the blogger is stationary). However, the site has officially stoked me and pushed me over that final hurdle into acting on my impulse to blog for dollars. Patt Flynn, the generous author, takes readers through a step-by-step recounting as he makes his own income-generating site. Honestly, I’ve read a few of these sorts of articles, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing, and for once I feel as though I understand what that is.
So, while my book review is a little unconventional this week, maybe less book-y than normal, not quite 100% vagabondish, I’m recommending these two sites. Travelers and aspiring writers, curious cats and kitties of all sorts, I think, would get a great deal from them. Over my last couple of months in Antigua this year, I will be working on this project—my new blog—with the hopes of “launching” it before I leave. What better can one say about a piece of writing than it has literally inspired me to change something in my life.
The Fiction Side of Travel Writing: Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast is A reminder that stories--even travel stories--don't have to be true to reveal truths of the world.
Well, six months into this year’s tour of travel books and I’ve taken on a novel. Paul Theroux is a legend in the field of travel writing, both for his fiction and non-fiction accounts of the world, and The Mosquito Coast is perhaps his most well-known book. And, rightfully so. Like many from this year’s list of recommendations, this book doesn’t need my seal of approval, but I’ve come to give it anyway.
The Mosquito Coast is the tale of an American family leaving a working class life behind to try their hand in Honduras. More so, an American family follows a big-thinking Father into the jungle. I must admit straight off: There is a movie, an 80s classic starring Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, and River Phoenix. I’ll also say that, having seen the movie only increased my enjoyment. Ford does such a stellar job with the character of Father, an opinionated anti-capitalist inventor, that it was him I pictured thundering through the Father’s decrees.
And, it’s Father who drives this book. He waxes philosophically about the decay of America, what people need to be doing, his own prowess and achievements, and how he’ll improve the jungle communities of Honduras through ice and ingenuity—all topics that pique my curiosity. In a haunting way, the assuming declarations of Father ring familiar to my ears. In many ways, they sound sensible. Ultimately, his madness reminds me not to go too far or get too vocal, or at least to think first. He’s insightful and inspiring but, in the end, equally as difficult to believe in.
The story itself is a great look at the lives and possibilities of rural communities, and especially recognition of why life there is the way it is. It’s an interesting foray into a dream many of us travelers have, that moment where we finally pack it up and start our own world on brawn and wit, teaching some locals the tricks of our trade. Father leads his family and his deftly purchased village, complete with villagers, to great heights initially, but he learns some hard lessons. I hope I remember them when my time finally comes.
Most of the us, from time to time, dream of falling off the grid, but many of us—certainly me—fail to grasp just exactly what that means: No more ordering books with free international shipping! WiFi! 80s classic films! Afternoons in really nice café bars with a Bloody Mary, nothing to do, and friends from all walks of life. While this is nice in spurts, is it really what I want? The Mosquito Coast was a great reminder of just how great I have it, regardless of whatever frustrations that seem pertinent to escape forever. It moved me to consider differently where all the traveling will take me in the end.
As a writer, and especially a travel writer who once specialized in fiction, Theroux provides a nice reminder of the possibility of combining those old ambitions with my new life. I knew it was out there, but it was nice to see it living on the page. This one is definitely something different from the memoirs I’ve been delving into lately. It’s something—travel fiction that is—I hope to try my hand at when all is said and done, which is probably a better idea than founding my own village in the jungle.
One thing I’ve learned venturing into the world of travel writing is that, by and large, we are a willing congregation of positive people. After all, what we sell is our own adventures: the places we go, the experiences within other cultures, and the inspiration everyone needs to get out there and do it. The industry gains little from crapping upon those places which…are lesser.
We are meant to inspire travel. How much inspiration comes from detailed confessions about stomach bugs, noting an abundance of actual bugs, and enduring people (because, let’s face it, annoying people are everywhere—that’s part of what makes them annoying)? I’d basically curbed my inclination to be a sourpuss and begun blowing sunshine out of my ass.
Imagine my dismay when this month’s books all take a rather grumpy, irritable stance about traveling, and amazingly, they all pull it off. I both want to go to the places they go, and I’m reminded of places I’ve been that were equally and equivalently as troubling. Truthfully, a piece me is a bit loathsome to have to write such positive things about these moaners and whiners.
1. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World
Longtime NPR correspondent, Eric Weiner, a self-diagnosed grump, sets himself on a mission to find just exactly what makes the happiest places in the world happy. His journey starts in the Netherlands, where one can find the World Database of Happiness compiled by “the godfather of happiness research”, Ruut Veenhoven. Using decades Veenhoven’s annals, Weiner is able to visit some of the happiest places on earth, including Bhutan (where the government measures gross national happiness), Qatar (where everyone is stinking rich), and Moldova (a study of the unhappiest nation on earth).
This book’s title had set it up to be a knee-slapper, and while it did inspire the odd chortle, it was much more serious than I anticipated. Weiner actually examines cultures, often quotes philosophers on the subject of happiness, and genuinely engages readers to think about the sources of our own contentedness and/or bliss, or lack thereof. I finished the book feeling wiser as much as entertained and feeling reassured that, regardless of location, we all still have to live with ourselves. It was a lesson I began learning some years ago after leaving home and realizing I hadn’t immediately changed because I was now in Korea.
2. The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
J. Maarten Troost, who is something of the Hunter Thompson of contemporary travel writing, moves with his girlfriend to a tiny atoll, Tarawa, in the Republic of Kiribati—Safe to assume that is remote. The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced an unlikely kir-ee-bas) is composed of thirty-three atolls just north of the equator, roughly 300 square miles of land (or Baltimore) in a space as large as the contiguous United States. It’s easy to picture it as paradise, a place with palm trees, peace, and plump plankton-fed fish. It’s easy to make that mistake.
Troost, a rather fearless and self-defacing protagonist, recounts stories from his two years on Tarawa. The island turns out to be a constant challenge, full of feral dogs, “La Macarena” on track repeat, and varieties of pollution—Kiribati is where the US practices bombing stuff—that would take the luster off of spit-shined (fancy shoe). So, what he offers is a real experience, an unapologetic look at the warts that remain atop what might have been paradise. These are warts, I think, all places have, at least the ones I’ve been to. However, I think Troost gets away with his frank delivery because, by the end of the book, his departure comes off bittersweet.
3. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
Bill Bryson is perhaps the most revered travel writer of our day. Known to be simply gut-bustingly hilarious, he has been amusing readers for nearly forty years. This is why I chose one of his books. He is someone I should not only like but emulate, a writer whose prowess precedes whatever paperback that bears his name. The one other time I tried to read him, I didn’t make it through the entire book. About fifty pages into this one, I closed it one afternoon, a chapter after his travels in small-town America took him to the Deep South, and told my wife why I didn’t like Bryson’s book: “He moans about everything.”
But, I did pick the book back up and persevered. Hey, Bryson doesn’t need me to back him; he’s got the rest of the world. I can say that I eventually came around. Either that or Bryson stopped whining so much. His book(s) do have some genuinely funny moments, this one especially when telling stories about his father, who took the Bryson family on the road trips that would later inspire the writing of this book. And, when he isn’t complaining, which is the “humorous” part, over the mundane, he captures places in a nutshell. Sometimes it’s an ugly, disfigured nutshell, but there is always something at the center to snack on. He earned at list another read from me.
So, I supposed I’ve learned that it can be done, that sunshine doesn’t have to shoot forth from every word I write, nor am I required to like every culture, to reach the goals I set forth in my articles, or to take my road trips and bus rides without complaint, which is a good thing for me because more than one person has told me I’m grumpy most of the time. Hopefully, some of that will start rubbing off on my writing.
I will start by noting the wondrous site which supplied the books (free postage to Guatemala) to be briefly reviewed in the following post. Better World Books: Not only are you saint to the expat in need of something better than James Patterson’s best-selling action novels, but you also raise funds for literacy, donate books, and encourage recycled/used book conglomerates. Kudos!
After my seven used books arrived at the Antigua post office some two months after ordering them, my intellectual life has gotten a lot better. No longer am I watching reruns of Big Bang Theoryover breakfast. Lately I’ve been waking up slowly, curled on the sofa with fresh reading, and learning a lot about the world, the world of writing, and perhaps being worldly.
When I first began writing about what I’m reading, I imagined myself reaching back into the annals of what I’ve read throughout my life (or at least my travel reading life). Never did I expect to have gotten through so many books in a month that I’d triple-up on a blog post. Nevertheless, I fear I’ll forget the impact each of these three most recent selections made on me, so I will not delay and I will strive to be brief.
The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival among America's Great White Sharks (Susan Casey)
I couldn’t wait to start this one. I’m without a doubt one of those people who’d make note of “shark week” on The Discovery Channel and try to catch every episode. My wife periodically buys me stuffed sharks, I scuba-dived in a shark tank in Korea, and now that I don’t have Discovery Channel (they have dropped the “The”) it isn’t unheard of for me to download shark shows. Suffice it to say, I liked this book before I read it.
That, however, is not to say it wasn’t fantastic on its own merits. Susan Casey is a first-class adventurer, researcher, and writer. This book, largely centered on and around the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, weaves just the right amount of facts, history, action, and honesty to make even the ninetieth shark sighting exciting. Plus, she doesn’t rise into hoity-toity-ness and deny us of the gruesome details of attacks, both on humans and animals.
On the writing side of things, there was plenty to take from this book. The breadth of her research is incredible, and not just about sharks: Even though it was the Great Whites that’d gotten me aboard this little vessel, the history of the Farallon Islands, the biographies of the scientists that live there, and her life aboard a rickety yacht in famously shark-infested waters all felt relevant and interesting. I really want to learn how to distill facts so fully and seamlessly.
Reading Advice: Do a subject search for a book written about something you love to learn about. Too often I found myself seeking out classics or authors I felt I was supposed to read. I always grind through those books, but give me something on sharks: two days and it was done.
God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre(Richard Grant)
Balls. It takes a pretty pert set of nads to undergo a project like this. The Sierra Madre is known as one of the world’s most dangerous places, both remote in an un-touristed and inaccessible way and in a full of drug lords, murderous bastards, and banditos way. Nonetheless, Richard Grant, taken with the place for reasons only foolhardy adventurers can attest to, decides to cross it. A couple years back I wanted to drive down to Guatemala from States but got talked down.
I’ve come to appreciate this kind of book lately. Writers who attempt such ill-advised feats tend to do so with a fairly clear sense of humor about it. Responsibly, Grant works hard to prepare himself for each new endeavor, including learning to ride a horse before he goes, but he also purposely puts himself out there for the experience. I won’t say he’s fearless, but he’s certainly willing to scare the shit out of himself. Most of us, including me, could use a bit of that.
As a traveler, it makes me think of self-imposed limitations. I really like this sort proposition travel (and the consequential book to follow), willing one’s self to rise above a challenge, akin to running a marathon or finishing a bottle of whisky. I admire taking simply moving and making it into a goal-oriented adventure, accomplishing something. Traveling can be so much more than going places, and travel writing so beyond quaint things and sun-soaked details.
Reading Advice: Look for a book that’s about something you wouldn’t mind doing. I don’t know that I’ll be going to the Sierra Madre anytime soon, but I’ll definitely be giving myself such proposition challenges on upcoming travels. It’s nice to feel inspired.
Travel as a Political Act (Rick Steves)
Traveling has undoubtedly changed me politically. Before I left the States, I’d never boycotted anything, didn’t what NGO stood for, had only ever volunteered as a homework assignment and believed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had been going on for centuries. I grew up the Deep South with a family whose livelihood centered pretty squarely on Exxon. In college, my leanings slowly turned tree-friendly, but none of it really affected my life one way or another.
My new awareness has, at times, stymied folks on my visits back “home”. And, I can’t fault them: It was me who changed. Suddenly, I can’t shop at Wal-Mart, don’t eat McDonald’s (or meat), won’t drink Coca-Cola products, would never go to Starbucks, and the list has grown each time they see me. I must seem like a self-righteous prick. For that reason, and lacking the eloquence to present my findings, I’ve done little in the way of explaining these changes.
Rick Steves nails it. To my chagrin, he promptly announces himself as a Lutheran and America-loving white guy (I’d more or less guessed this from his picture), but it was I who turned out to be the stereotyping a-hole. Steves presents an amazing collection of insightful and mild (note: not just mildly insightful) essays about politically-charged countries and conflicts, and he manages to capture what it is to be truly changed by going somewhere. I enjoyed it such that I actually plan to read this book again.
Reading Advice: Read to change and/or clear your thoughts. Watch a movie or TV show for bland entertainment. I actually bought this book expecting strong lefty politics, a little back-patting for myself, and came across something that was much more rewarding. I’d love for my family and friends to read this as I feel they’d understand the expat version of me better. I know I now do.
Well, folks, I hope one of these latest books appeals to you and that you promptly buy it and buy it from Better World Books at that. I certainly enjoyed reading them, and I look forward to telling about the other good stuff I’ve got on the go. Until then…
This past November I did something I absolutely hate doing: Sitting in my father’s attic, I resigned myself to needing to thin out my book collection a little. Basically, I’d been holding onto four massive boxes—too heavy to be moving up and down that rickety attic ladder—of books from before I expatriated, some eight years ago. It was time.
In the page-ruffling fury of sorting, I started pulling out titles, stuff bought long ago but never read, which I thought might be of interest now. My plan was to bring a few books back to Guatemala with me, and here, they would either sink (wind up on take one, leave one shelf in a hostel) or swim (be read before being left on a take one, leave one shelf).
That’s how I would up reading On the Back Roads: Discovering Small Towns of America, a book I’d bought used some years ago in Korea. Even now as a travel writer, the write-up left me guessing as to why a younger me (let alone the current me) would chose it. Written by Bill Graves, an ex-military grandpa, On the Back Roads is one man’s campervan journey across the Southwest US, published by the meager press of AtticusBooks.com. Who knows how it got to Korea?
However, having finally reached the last dregs of the literature I rescued that day, it again was time. Honestly, for me, the book started off much like it sounds. Graves, who features primarily in RV enthusiast magazines, has a sort of Lake Wobegon tone to him: A wholesome, gun-toting, responsible-cocktail-in-the-evening persona. The type of guy goes out, buys himself a caravan, and takes trips on his own. That fella striking up conversations at a truck stop diner.
Soon though, I got over that. It’s something I really try to do when I read these days: Find the thing that made someone publish the book. The first time I noticed it with On the Back Roads is when Graves writes about the old Harvey House restaurants that used to line the railroads heading out west. This is before dining cars were a thing. Consequently, these fancy eateries were spaced out about the distance it took to travel from breakfast to lunch or lunch to dinner. The history was peculiar and made me want to know more.
Then, I started looking for it. Graves was a master of details, of catching great moments of characters, of history, of characters dealing with disappearing histories. The stories were short and sweet and stacked with a finite knowledge of small towns at once unnecessary yet somehow fascinating. What he was discovering on those back roads was that little-life America has never disappeared nor lost the quirkiness that has garnered it such infamy and intrigue.
Great oddities began to surface: A town in Oregon where it is illegal not to have a gun, a guy who “hunts” ants in the desert or more accurately harvests them to send them off to ant farms. Everywhere Graves goes (at least in the book), he finds these unusual good ole folks or these every-town-has-them stories of triumph or regret. He is obviously fascinated; thus, it is difficult not to be as a reader. Hey! Old Man Graves was teaching me something.
It’s something I often forget in my travel writing. I get lost in wanting to live out some great adventure, to excavate from within an unbelievable tale of myself. However, much more interesting than me traipsing across ruins or hiking amongst giant sequoia are the stories that brought me there in the first place. Graves had a great nose for finding the yarn of wherever he was, from California to Wyoming, Oregon to Arizona, and in between.
His extensive research of the minutiae of each minute place rendered something worth reading, even if written by and from the perspective of someone vastly different from me. So, yet again, a book has taught me about the world, myself and how to see myself in the world. My adventures in travel reading continue to be worthwhile, and I hope it’s fun for you to read about, an inspiration to pick up the odd book or two or even take-on your own reading expedition.
As a reader, one of the most inspiring things to me is to find an author that seems so beyond me as a writer, a sort of icon upon which to emulate. I remember this feeling when I first discovered Kurt Vonnegut, gobbling up near half a dozen books in a couple of weeks. The simplicity of insights, the simplicity yet punch of his sentences, enchanted me. I was dying to think that way, to imagine worlds so succinct in their reflection of our own. I’ve never come close.
In this year’s exploration of travel writers, I’ve had a similar experience with Tim Cahill. Cahill is a decent enough writer, no Vonnegut we’ll say, but what I came to admire in him was his prowess as a traveler. Reading one of Cahill’s classics (He’s been around for decades), Hold the Enlightenment, I was struck by how differently two people of similar tastes—Tim and me—can travel: Somehow he manages to get himself involved in these missions where the destination is an afterthought.
Sometimes, I get caught up in my own experience as a globe trotter, losing myself in the list of countries I’ve lived in, seen, and bookmarked for later reference in chronicling. I know about street food in Thailand, hiking on the Great Wall of China, snorkeling Shark and Ray Alley in Belize…but I tend to travel to a place much more than with a specific purpose. The latter of the two seems to yield the sort of wild adventures that I only get by chance and bad luck.
Hold the Enlightenment, however, is a series of tales of high jinks. Cahill is one of those people, at least via his stories, that seems to sniff out mischief, from seeking out the last tiger in Turkey (“The Search for the Caspian Tiger”) to putting himself through a yoga retreat (“Hold the Enlightenment”) to swimming with great white sharks in “Swimming with Great White Sharks”. Wherever he is, it seems more about the adventure than the place. And, that’s a place I’ve not yet reached.
I suppose at some point, say over thirty years into the biz, you’ve been around more than once and the draw of ticking another beach, ruin, or world wonder off the list just isn’t important. As pleasing as his stories are, full of research and interesting facts and crazy characters, it’s the thought of having the gall that often drives me through them and on to the next one. I still try to stay out of trouble while traveling, but Uncle Tim just puts on a helmet and runs toward it.
However, as the cliché goes, there’s always someone who’s seen and done more. Even Cahill gets to meet his match. In “The World’s Most Dangerous Friend”, Cahill travels with Robert Young Pelton, bestselling author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, a guidebook for the kamikaze traveler. Pelton takes Cahill on a hilarious press trip turned to ill-advised mission to interview guerrillas in the jungles of Columbia. Cahill is out-of-his-depths from day one.
This adventure into the world of travel writers has been mostly about me learning the craft, the journalistic values of successful authors. Though Tim Cahill certainly has merits as a penman, what I took away from his book were new ideas on the craft of traveling. It’s been a long time since my vagabonding ego got slapped with “you’re just not adventurous enough”. It’s been an inspiring feeling and one that I hope I can harness better than I did Vonnegut’s short sentences.
Having spent much of my twenties in the classroom, subjecting myself to the harsh workshop feedback of fellow aspiring writers, all of us snooty in a our pre-professorial tweed, I learned to look down my snout at anyone who lowered themselves to work in a genre, to pen less than literary articles for the purposes of sale as opposed to purebred art. I spent years in recovery, sitting before my computer screen with those haunting, judgmental voices in my head.
It wasn’t until a little over a year ago, with much trepidation, that I finally buckled down to writing with the intent to really sell the product. I declared myself a travel writer and began using—as so many say we beginners should—what I’d come to know best. It was a difficult admission at first. Like maybe I’d sold myself short. Like maybe I’d admitted defeat, owned up to not being able to hack it as a fiction author. In other ways, in the long run, the switch has reinvigorated a piece of me that had gone dormant after years of constructively critical abuse.
Recently, I’ve found myself in good company. Travel writing is undoubtedly filled with its own great voices, but I’ve also rediscovered some of those classic caricatures of literature—Twain, Hemingway, Hunter S.—were all into my new scene. These were authors of the highest caliber who’d found purpose in writing about the great exploits of their lives abroad. So, how pleased was I to discover that John Steinbeck, one of the most readable fogies I can think of, also took some fine diversions into the genre of travel.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America finds the aging authorial superstar loading up a custom-designed camper truck and hitting the open road with his best friend, Charley, an expressive canine companion also just a smidge past his prime. Steinbeck, a most astute observer of American life, wanted to go out and rediscover the muse that had inspired his gaggle of great works. What lucky readers we are that he also felt inclined to bring along a journal.
One the great parts of this book is that it seems to happen so organically, like a crafty veteran going about what he does best. Unobstructed by the linear length of a novel or the trappings of any particular plot, our old friend John is left to reflect in whichever ways he feels fit. From the tiptop of Maine, across the country, down and back, he partakes of the idiosyncrasies each state has to offer, slices of culture that are pure Americana but also purely Californian, Texan, and several other –ans.
Beyond the insight into 1960s USA, there is also a portrait of real travel, something more honest than “living the dream”. Steinbeck ponders some of the great quandaries faced when existing out of backpack (or camper truck in his case). In each vignette, he intertwines his own up and down of emotions with what’s around him and what’s to come. He anticipates the next adventure, dreads the next long leg of the journey, and provides a reality that mixes the mundane, incredible, and uncertain—what exactly it is to be vagabonding, even forty years later.
Before ever picking up Travels with Charley, a tattered coverless copy my friend Drew lent me, I’d come to terms with my new creative endeavor, completely at ease with writing pieces less artistic though more publishable. The bulk of my reading came from online travel magazines, save for the occasional good find on a “leave one, take one” shelf of our hostel. If I must admit, the envious oohs-and-aahs calling myself a travel writer elicited, even if loosely earned, had felt better than any recognition I’d received over a short story.
I took the borrowed copy with me on a trip back to the States this past December and found it hard to put down. It was making me examine my own trip, even if it was only to my father’s house in rural Texas, in refreshing new ways. I was thinking differently about the politics, belt buckles, and easy-moving oil rigs. My perception of the world around me was changing a little, if only in that I was developing one for places less than ostensibly amazing. That, perhaps, is the literary-side of travel writing. It’s not all press trips and ten-best lists.
It hardly seems necessary to recommend a John Steinbeck book, even if Oprah once did and set new audiences all a flurry for one of the great authors of the last century. However, lost in the world of literary fiction, in the bright light titles associated with the Steinbeck brand, I had simply never heard of this book. Amazingly, it reads with humbleness appropriate to its place amongst the classics, as if penned—as it was—by an author who had nothing more to prove but simply wrote from the heart.
Before we begin: If you have twitter and are not following me, do me the favor: https://twitter.com/JonathonEngels
I’ve taken to calling myself a travel writer these days, but in all honesty, I still feel a bit fraudulent. When some new, unsuspecting soul hears the words “travel writer”, they immediately associate it with the cliché of “getting paid to travel”. Of course, as a freelancer, and far from monetarily proficient in that regard, I know that this view is a fantasized version of what really amounts to hours of hunching over a laptop, ignoring the view, and literally submitting one’s self to a lot of rejection. Still, a piece of me believes if I can only get that one big break…
Then, Thomas Kohnstamm, an author with much more clout than I, put it all into much finer perspective for me. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, & Professional Hedonism follows Thomas on his first big assignment, writing a section of the Brazil guide for Lonely Planet. Most of us, hacks like me, complete novices, and non-writers alike, regard such work—writing for the largest independent publisher of travel guides—as the dream, the pinnacle of travel writerhood. In some ways, Thomas shows us we are sorely mistaken.
It takes Thomas nearly 50 pages of stumbling, bloodied debauchery—telling off his boss, shunning his girlfriend, and street fighting in his goodbye salute to New York—before we actually get to the actual assignment, at which time it’s clear that prudence will not be on the itinerary. Distracted by Rio, a romance with Inga the Lufthansa flight attendant, and unidentified recreational drug use, he is already horribly behind schedule on day one. What’s more is he is expected to cover all aspects of six Brazilian states in the northern nether-reaches of the country in a matter of four weeks. The assignment was impossible before he started late.
Thomas gives himself seven weeks, breaks his budget, and stretches money in ways he’d not imagined: living with a model/prostitute, taking a foray into dealing drugs to tourists, an unexpected twist into used motorcycle sales, and finally, using his Lonely Planet status to get freebies. It’s exciting to follow him through it all, at times enviable and other times just downright head-shaking. Overall, his exploits are a little out-of-realm of possibility or desire for me, not to insinuate I haven’t met folks with stories dissimilar. Which is to say, I think for many travelers (and writers for that matter), Thomas’s Hunter-esque lunacy is living the dream.
That’s where the Lonely Planet comes back into it. Beyond the insanity, there is the underlying current of the darker side of writing guidebooks. The incessant research it requires. The horrible plane/bus/truck/boat/motorcycle rides. Time and money restraints. Formatting. Marketing percentages. Word counts and dejected creativity. Clichéd, inaccurate descriptions. The effects that being written up in the Lonely Planet has on the once-hidden oases it promotes, the sudden onslaught of spring-break vagabonds that crush the soul of a place—the horrible need for it all. Then, the soul-stealing reality of being a starving writer. Ultimately, as Lonely Planet users (at some point we all are), we begin to lose our faith in “the Bible”, perhaps even judge ourselves.
I must admit to buying a Lonely Planet for nearly every country I go to, and I’ll even admit that Emma (the beautiful backpacking wife) and I have prematurely purchased several such guides to places that got pushed back and delayed indefinitely. Australia, New Zealand, India, and South America are all now jammed into boxes of books in corners of closets and attics, and they are all just about as crisp as the day they were bought. Other guides—Korea, England, Turkey, and Central America on a Shoestring—have been thumbed to death and milked for just about all they’re worth. Lonely Planet has been with us, earned its keep time and again.
Thomas, who expresses similar sentiments in his preface—“I almost always take a guidebook with me when I travel, and it invariably helps me in some way that makes it worth its price and worth its weight in my pack.”—pushes one’s respect for the Lonely Planet on its ass. His descriptions of policies, implausible and required inclusions, and dysfunctional information gathering leave little doubt as to why, on nearly every trip, I’ve chased down some restaurant, hostel, or departing bus that no longer exists. Furthermore, the minutiae of subheading text sizes and laundry services in every dirt-road town hardly make it appealing as a career. The Lonely Planet is far from gospel truth or any dream I’ve had.
By the end of the book, Thomas has written himself out of being referred to reverently by last name. He presents a main character (himself) more like that one wild friend in college, far outside the bounds of my compulsive, married, and timid nature. As a traveler and writer, who may just be headed to hell at the end of it all, the book is as unrealistic as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for me. However, I can’t help but admire the persona a bit, the gumption, and the how-to of living this tale and still getting hired by Lonely Planet again. The questions beyond Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? that I’ve gotten from the book have opened my eyes, honestly changed the way I look at some things. For that, you can’t fault a few swashbuckling yarns for being a bit too gonzo.
Get more info @ http://www.thomaskohnstamm.com/index.html
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.