In this issue: Two British travelers writing about their round–the–world trips turn out to be as different as bark and cheese—one a grandmother who ran around the world, at some points supplementing her diet with tea made from aspen bark—and the other a man in search of the best food in the world, which includes farmhouse cheeses from County Cork. Jacqueline Spratt and her fat–loving husband spring to mind when reading these two books in tandem. Then for something completely different, a witty meander around England by an author with a sharp eye for the pompous and the absurd.
Just a Little Run Around the World
By Rosie Swale Pope
At the age of 56, Rosie Swale Pope became a widow. Stricken with grief and enraged by the idea that her husband's prostate cancer might have been treatable if detected earlier, she decided to embark on a madly ambitious adventure, to run around the world solo to raise awareness. She had taken up running in her 40s and become so enthusiastic that she had gone on to complete a number of marathons around the world. No stranger to adventuring nor to hardship, she had previously sailed around the world, horse–trekked through Chile, and done long distance runs in wild parts of the world like Macedonia, the Sahara and Cuba. But this undertaking was an epic of a different magnitude.
The self–conscious modesty of the title "Just a Little Run Around the World" is soon qualified by the subtitle "5 years, 3 packs of wolves and 53 pairs of shoes" which hints at the true grit and heroism required by this remarkable woman to accomplish her ambition. She describes herself at one point as an "ordinary traveler" although who among us have been knocked unconscious while trying to cross a semi–frozen river and have pulled a laden wagon with broken ribs or be willing to bivouac in minus 50 degree temperatures for months at a time?… Unconvincingly she insists that she is not intrepid, but that it is her equipment that is intrepid.
She is determined to find everyone she meets "nice" and helpful, even the wolves who track her in Siberia whom she persuades herself are there to protect her. Early in the book she attributes (rather dubiously) a quote to Darwin, "to be a traveler is to see the goodness everywhere" and later when her supporters at home have sorted out the logistics, she concludes that "love conquers all adversity". At one point she says, "Only in this part of Russia, I think, could you meet a man with an axe in the forest in the middle of the night with it ending up as a positive experience". What she means is "Only in this book…" The reader must decide whether her determined optimism strays into Pollyannaish territory.
The vast territories that Rosie strays into are truly hostile, and take far more than blind optimism to negotiate. Even the hardy natives of Alaska do not think that it is possible to cross their terrain; one villager tells her, "The last woman to make it alone on foot through the Kandugak Valley was Mrs. Tocktoo running away from her husband in 1916." Although cocooned (often quite literally) in her specially made down equipment, her small budget of less than $5000 a year (from renting out her small cottage in Wales and her modest pension) means that she travels close to the people and humbly seeks to learn local ways – hence the tip to boil up aspen bark for the vitamins it contains – and sometimes goes native, for instance when she ditches her useless mosquito repellant and uses vodka to soothe her mosquito bites as the Russians do.
The stoic tone of her book is reminiscent of the classic literature of exploration and mountaineering in which limbs lost to frostbite are dispatched in one laconic sentence. When a shard of glass embeds itself deep in her foot, she digs it out with her knife a "bit ferociously". Like hardy travelers everywhere, she learns to take no comfort for granted, though few of us have learned to feel grateful for the ability to open our eyes in the morning without having to thaw our eyelashes, as she did in Siberia, Alaska and Iceland.
While heroically mastering so many practical skills of winter camping and long distance running, Rosie has not turned herself into a great prose stylist. At times the simplicity of her writing and the shortness of her sentences are effective and affecting, almost like a children's storybook. But at other times her pedestrian language disappoints. The arrival in a new continent, i.e. Alaska, after a full year and a half of running through Russia, gives rise to a feeling she "can hardly describe" and she voices the hope that some destitute people she has met along the way "are doing OK". The pleasure is in the truth of the story not in the telling.
Eat My Globe: One Man's Search for the Best Food in the World
By Simon Majumdar
Where Rosie resembles a sadhu or an ascetic who has renounced all indulgence and is indifferent to suffering, the 40–something author of Eat My Globe is precisely the opposite. Simon Majumdar is a classic metrosexual, i.e. an unattached male with a high disposable income, who has taken himself as his own love object and whose world is one of "smart bars, well–mixed cocktails and plush leather seats". His mid–life crisis takes the form of giving up his lucrative job in the London publishing business in order to embark on a round–the–world gourmandizing tour.
He girds his considerable loins to travel the world, to go everywhere, as he says, and eat everything. "Everything" here seems to exclude healthy fresh vegetables because the culinary focus is squarely on meat, especially offal. In fact the front cover should carry a Warning to Vegetarians or anyone of a squeamish disposition. In Palermo he tucks into a sandwich filled with calf spleen simmered in lard served with a few slices of lung. Sour ram's testicles, roast puffin, seal flipper and hákarl (rotten shark meat) feature in the chapter on Iceland. And as for the mystery sushi which was "a small blubbery sac on top of vinegared rice", that turns out to be cod sperm. (Some of these will be familiar from Extreme Cuisine reviewed in these pages in October.)
His 278–page romp through 27 countries is a paean to gluttony, at times stomach–churning but often amusing. St. Thomas Aquinas who enumerated six ways to commit gluttony would not have approved of Simon Majumdar who is constantly guilty of "eating too soon, eating too expensively, eating too much, eating too eagerly, eating too daintily and eating wildly". In this Super Size Me meets Anthony Bourdain's Cook's Tour, much of the humor derives from the author's outrageous prejudices. He deplores Australian wines ("awful…over–oaked Chardonnay and figgy Semillon"), abhors pizza ("snot on toast") and Brazil earns from him nothing but "an internationally recognized hand signal." The only time he refrains from airing his obnoxious opinions is when his interlocutors might have a gun.
Alongside the endless visits to markets, restaurants and the homes of foodie locals, the author throws in a bit of cursory travelogue although he freely admits that he has "barely scratched the surface" of most of the countries he visits. Whereas a long journey on foot does not allow you to pick and choose your destinations, Simon jets here and there whenever he gets an invitation from readers of his food blog. His year long trip costs 17 times as much as a year of Rosie's trip.
As his journey progresses, he admits that he sometimes feels jaded with all the meals he chases. And what of the poor reader who also will surely tire of crunchy skin, moist flesh and tastes lifted by lemon? The Rabelaisian smacking of lips soon palls, especially when he does it in the face of a friend who is feeling under the weather in Mozambique and cannot face his plate of giant prawns.
If he were genuinely determined to go everywhere and eat everything, I wonder how he would fare if he found himself running with Rosie (remembering that the effort of consuming a flavorful but tough steak in Buenos Aires left him rather exhausted) and running out of food in Alaska despite her iron rations. Would he be capable of jesting about eating a soup made of boiled up vitamins and seal oil to keep alive, accompanied by an occasional lump of walrus blubber? I think not. His idea of a hero would be a submarine sandwich. Ironically these diametrically opposed travelers have something in common: they both returned home with stress fractures, but one feels that only one of them was earned.
Mustn't Grumble: In Search of England and the English
By Joe Bennett
Finally, with a sigh of relief, we come to a book in which there is no grand project. The scale is reduced and the observant traveler's eye becomes far more acute in this hilarious yet insightful account of a trip round England by an expat, a long–term resident from New Zealand. He may be roughly the same age as the eater of globes, but his wit and approach to travel is a whole lot more mature.
The random encounters of the road are his bread and butter, or rather his crisps and bitter, because this is a pubbing man, and one whose company you would be bound to enjoy if you were lucky enough to come across him in the Barge Inn or the Dog and Duck. In fact I wager you would find yourself laughing out loud.
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 14 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Taking a Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.