By Jeff Greenwald
Jeff Greenwald's memoir of Nepal in the 1990s has the flow and momentum of a good novel. And like a novelist, Greenwald fleshes out his story with idiosyncratic characters, jazzy dialogue, chance encounters, love affairs, close shaves, violence, and mystery. I counted four or five major story lines woven into this narrative of 373 pages.
Ingeniously, Greenwald (a writer for this webzine—an excerpt from his book appeared in December 2010) offers the reader an indirect portrait of the little known Kingdom of Nepal—offers it as a backdrop to his day-to-day life in the expatriate community of Kathmandu. This is a time-honored technique. Hemingway used it in The Sun Also Rises: Jake Barnes leaving a cafe and walking down Boulevard Saint-Michel, the sights, smells and sounds of Paris unreeling before him—as Jake encounters them, not as in a National Geographic travelogue.
And like a Hemingway novel, romantic entanglements play a prominent part here. By page twenty-eight, Greenwald (who was thirty-six in 1990) has met a lissome young American photographer named Grace, and you find yourself pulling for the two expat journalists as they warily circle each other, draw close, draw apart, then reunite, and on and on.
Greenwald's second love—a hopeless and frustrated long-distance love for his younger brother, Jordan—colors nearly every page of Snake Lake. Portrayed by the author as a brilliant linguist, scholar, artist, and philosopher, the solitary, self-destructive Jordan resists nearly every effort made to help him. Greenwald seems to find himself on the wrong side of the globe whenever Jordan's latest crisis occurs; his desire to reconnect with (and to save) his younger brother has a grim fatality about it, as if Greenwald were caught in some terrifying familial bond that he is helpless to escape.
Amid these personal stories, Greenwald also writes of the 1990 People's Movement in Nepal, an upswelling of revolution that eventually overcame the monarchy of King Birendra (the same king who, with his wife, Queen Aiswarya, was murdered in the grisly 2001 Royal Massacre, purportedly by his son). In 1990, Greenwald was a journalist filing stories for the San Francisco Examiner; thus, much of Snake Lake is an eyewitness history. For Western readers who think of Nepal in terms of prayer wheels, Buddhist monks, and Sir Edmund Hillary, Greenwald's account of riots, beheadings, torture, imprisonment, royal corruption, and police gunning down protesters in the streets makes for a horrifying education in the history of the Himalayan plateau.
Snake Lake is also a memoir of Greenwald's attraction to and embrace of Buddhism—this by a quick-witted, savvy world traveler from the Bronx. At times, Greenwald's depiction of religion in Nepal sounds like a riot of competing gods, goddesses, demons, myths, legends, festivals, hashish, dementia, and scary mobs of besotted practitioners. Thus: the palpable relief felt by reader and author alike, when Greenwald makes his way to a nearby Buddhist monastery and sits at the feet of its abbot, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche (the word rinpoche is an honorific). Among the dozens of characters inhabiting Snake Lake, the witty, astute, and mischievous Chokyi Nyima is the sanest and wisest. In his maroon robe and red silk vest, he addresses the public every Saturday morning at 10 a.m., and Greenwald attended every lecture that he could.
The Rinpoche looked out the window, toward the saucer-shaped stupa of Boudha. "I think," he said, "that I now understand something. I understand why Western people love the ocean. Because the ocean is the one thing, really, that you cannot judge. The ocean is the one you cannot change. Even if you judge, even if you complain, it makes no difference. Even if you worry--'Oh, wave too small, wave too big, water cold, water hot, big shark coming'--no difference! I think this must be why Western people feel so relaxed near the ocean. It is the one thing, the only thing, they cannot change."
Snake Lake contains many passages of humor, ease, and happiness, but it seems clear that Greenwald wrote it to purge himself of the demons he had been carrying since the 1990s: anguish over his lost brother, the loss of Grace, the horror of watching his adopted country descend into violence and chaos. No wonder he kept returning and returning to the monastery all those Saturday mornings.
The Traveler's Guide to Planet Earth
Edited by Anna Metcalfe. Written by Andrew Bain, Sarah Baxter, Paul Bloomfield, Matthew D. Firestone.
Of the fifty-one natural wonders featured in Lonely Planet's The Traveler's Guide to Planet Earth, I've set foot in exactly three: the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, and Carlsbad Caverns. On second thought, I can't lay claim to the last, since the chapter in question concerns Lechuguilla Cave, a 500-meter-deep subdivision of Carlsbad—off limits to tourists. In terms of wanderlust and bravado, I probably rank in the bottom one-half of one percent of this magazine's readers and contributors.
Planet Earth is a companion book to the BBC's television series of the same name: an eleven-episode documentary first broadcast in the U.K. in 2006, then shown in the U.S. on the Discovery Channel in 2007. Lonely Planet's print version can't really be called the companion book to the documentary, since the BBC had already published four other volumes, in keeping with a mega-corporation's quest for maximum merchandising. In the world of Planet Profit, you don't want to leave a single coin uncaptured. As it happens, the BBC is Lonely Planet's parent company, with 75 percent ownership.
Still, the present volume is a handsome book, over 300 pages, with hundreds of staggeringly beautiful color photographs of nature's virtuosi. (The photos are so beautiful that you wish the book were larger—coffee-table-sized, say, instead of 6½ X 8¼ inches.) An astounding, downward-looking shot of Angel Falls in Venezuela (3,000 feet high, the world's tallest waterfall) should carry a warning for readers prone to acrophobia. Same goes for a shot of a BASE jumper, limbs flung, plummeting into the black insanity of the 1,300-foot-deep Cave of Swallows in Mexico. Cave-jumping?! Whatever happened to the ordinary summer pastime of parachuting off the Chrysler Building?
Planet Earth is a book of wild places, with special emphasis placed on the highest, deepest, coldest, driest, wettest . . . or best place to encounter a polar bear or be eaten by a shark or fall into a volcano. Well, such are the exigencies of a television documentary that cost £16 million.
The book, like the series, is arranged by theme: mountains, caves, deserts, jungles, etc. You find yourself flitting all over the globe, rather than making a methodical tour via cartographic progression. Of the fifty-one featured sites, those devoted to England, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Holland, and Denmark add up to a grand total of zero. North America merits eight chapters. Predictably, each chapter is arranged magazine-style (i.e., webpage-style), full of graphics, sidebars, and insets called "Fast Facts," or "Getting You There." God forbid that a modern book-buyer be asked to read three or four pages of uninterrupted prose.
My favorite chapter is "The Rarest Cat in the Remotest Forest," about the Amur leopard in Russia's Far East (to get there, first take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok). There are currently forty Amur leopards surviving in the wild. For those determined backpackers who follow Planet Earth's travel tips and actually reach the Black Mountains, twenty kilometers from Vladivostok, their chances of sighting an Amur leopard are close to nil. Still, a frigid BBC cameraman managed to photograph a mother and cub.
Planet Earth touches on many of the big-ticket items in world geography: the Sahara Desert, Sequoia National Park, Australia's Outback, Antarctica, the Tibetan Plateau. But it especially relishes introducing Western readers (i.e., readers who aren't professional mountaineers, deep-sea divers, or members of television expeditions) to less well known places: the Teak Forests of India, the Atacama Desert in Chile, Eastern Mongolia. In such wise, Planet Earth delivers the goods, whether as a companion book for devoted BBC viewers, or a "how-to-get-there" guide for hardy explorers, or an encyclopedia for the general reader.
Cape Horn to Starboard
By John Kretschmer
Like many committed landlubbers, I'm addicted to sailing books. I've read Sir Francis Chichester's Gypsy Moth Circles the World; and William F. Buckley, Jr.'s Airborne; also several of Lin and Larry Pardey's homey travelogues; Tania Aebi's Maiden Voyage; and Gordon and Nina Stuermer's Starbound, with its set of tiny photos on the back cover, one of which was of a naked Polynesian beauty named Bebe. (And not a single follow-up photo of her inside the book, no matter how many times I maniacally scoured each page.) I own six or seven Horatio Hornblower novels—which for years I ignorantly believed were boys' adventures. But chiefly, I've read and reread Hal Roth's sailing books—in particular, Two Against Cape Horn, the 1978 account of a voyage through the Chilean archipelago to the famed southern-most tip of South America—Mt. Everest for ocean-going adventurers.
Author/sailor John Kretschmer heard the siren call of Cape Horn when he was in his twenties, a college dropout, with barely three or four years of ocean sailing to his credit. Cape Horn to Starboard is his 1986 book describing a daunting 16,000 mile journey he made two years earlier, from New York to San Francisco via the Horn—a re-enactment of the famous clipper-ship transits of the nineteenth century. Those clipper ships of the 1850s were over 200 feet long, with three masts, and eighteen or twenty sails. Kretschmer embarked in an English-made fiberglass Contessa 32 named Gigi, thirty-two feet long—a toy boat, in other words. Ithaca, New York's Burford Books has lately reissued Cape Horn to Starboard, with a new introduction and afterword by the author, in part, according to Kretschmer, because the Contessa 32 is a much beloved boat design among bluewater sailors (especially British sailors) and the U.K. readership of the book has held steady over the years. Also, because it's a fine, rollicking adventure book.
Today, Kretschmer is a professional sailor, explorer, author, and instructor, but back in 1986 he laudably portrayed himself as a callow, slapdash, brash, overconfident, mistake-prone novice seaman: "In the morning I had to admit to my fearless crew that, although we were not lost, I wasn't quite sure where we were."
When he left New York, Kretschmer hoped to arrive in San Francisco in 120 days, a typical clipper-ship transit. He made it in 161 days. The author/captain sailed every mile of the trip, and was joined by various crewmates on successive legs: his girl friend, Molly Potter; Ty Techera, Gigi's legal owner; and fifty-year-old Bill Oswald (called Oz). Relationships aboard a cramped vessel tend to be strained, to put it mildly, and Kretschmer describes a number of near mutinies. Cape Horn to Starboard is filled with the kind of oceangoing storms, gales, monster waves, capsizings, and hurricanes that we readers visit only in our nightmares. On both the Atlantic and Pacific passages, Gigi had to sail through ancient-mariner-style doldrums, where daily runs of 100-150 miles dropped precipitously. In one twenty-four hour span, Gigi advanced only six miles. By this time, Kretschmer's dreams of breaking speed records or even matching the clipper-ship average were long gone. He and Oz nearly came to blows. Getting to San Francisco and off their damn boat was all they could dream of. At one point, they drew up a list of their fantasies: "1. Cold Beer, 2. Women, 3. Ice Cream, 4. Oranges. . . ."
For many readers, there's something comforting about the sight of heroic adventurers being humbled. Well, no doubt, such satisfaction is just our own envy and cowardice breaking through. In the end, one admires Kretschmer both for his grand seaborne victory and for his frankness in describing the despair engendered by a flat, windless sea. The doldrums will do it to anyone.
William Caverlee is a contributing writer to The Oxford American Magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, www.ulpress.org. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Flight Journal, Aviation History, and has been reprinted in a university textbook, The Writer's Presence-Sixth Edition.