In this issue: Honorable Bandit: A walk across Corsica, Blue List: The best in travel 2008, and Go Your Own Way: Women travel the world solo.
Honorable Bandit: A walk across Corsica
By Brian Bouldrey
Some writers take you with them on their journeys. Knowing that Brian Bouldrey has covered hundreds of miles of many continents on foot, I was all set to join Bouldrey and his friend Petra on their walk across the island of Corsica. However, reading this book is not so much like hiking alongside Bouldrey, chatting about whatever's on his mind, as it is like being inside his mind as he walks. Without imposing too much order on the prose, which seems to be based on journal entries, Bouldrey discloses a great deal, from his deepest thoughts to the trivial songs that he can't get out of his mind ("There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…"). There in his head, we hear his memories, we share his and Petra's inside jokes, and we participate in silent, ongoing, one–sided arguments with other trekkers.
Roughly half the book comprises Bouldrey's rambling interior monologues, and the other half is scenes from the actual trail. Both halves of the book inform each other, as one would expect, but there is more forward motion in the physical world than the mental.
The musings from the "inner world" ramble into places both revealing and unforeseen, such as the long chapter about prisons, and prisoners who escape them, and an equally compelling memoir of the gay men's party scene in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS crisis. Though his prose is always quirky and personal, occasionally Bouldrey's inner journey diverts so far from the beaten path that he leaves me behind (a couple of his sentences don't make much sense, and some distracting word–play infiltrates much of the end of the book).
Occasionally I wished for more of the outer world––such as his glorious and affectionate interactions with his friend Petra, the "stupid German girl", a long–time hiking pal who refers to him as a "stupid American boy," or his hilarious, Dickensian observations of others on the route.
It's ironic that this book came out so close to the release of the film Into the Wild, because while thousands of people have seen that movie, too few of them will find and read Bouldrey's sane, grown–up version of trekking in the wilderness––and coming back out. Just as the journalist narrator of Into the Wild examines McCandless's motives, Bouldrey questions his own need to leave civilization behind. He reaches various conclusions, among them this confession:
"The Cirque may be the most difficult stretch of traveling I ever do, I thought, even in the middle of doing it. Do people in the middle of historical battles ever have such thoughts? I am climbing over sheer rock faces with ladders and chains and a backpack swinging around, pulling down behind me, and the only way I think I can get by is by imagining somebody telling the story of my doing it, and hoping I don't look bad when the story is being told. Not the best motivation for physical or moral certitude, but today, it will have to do."
Every other chapter has a title that begins with "Why I walk," and the book is in part a meditation on that question. I think the best answer is here:
". . .[N}ear the end. . .we begin to recall home and its routines. The habits of living day to day dull the senses––the ritual of getting up each morning brushing your teeth, commuting to work, desk tasks, coming home, preparing for another day and heading to bed––so that I often cannot see the small wonders of the everyday world (grass growing, a cloud fleeting by in the shape of a bra, the child across the street learning to ride her bike; all ordinary miracles). It is only when I am removed from habit that I can see a work of art that reveals a new mind's vision, or when I am traveling in a foreign place, or when I fall in love. And this seems a definition of love: the removal of habit, the ordinary world made foreign and wonderfully strange, life as a great visionary work of art."
Hiking as an act of love and creation! It makes me want to walk, too, and find out why I do it.
Blue List: The best in travel 2008
By Lonely Planet authors and editors
The inside cover suggests this is a "definitive travel encyclopedia," but LP publisher Roz Hopkins's foreword more realistically offers it as a "conversation about travel." In fact it's something in between a travel catalog (like all LP books, the photos alone are worth the cover price) and a compendium of greatest hits, sent in by dozens of travelers around the globe. Along with 150 pages of selected "bluelists" such as "Budget Travel" and "The Best of Cosmopolitan Africa" and "Volcano!" there are 80 pages of "go lists," summaries of 30 different countries/cities/regions, most of them relatively un–touristy. All the other information is arranged by theme: this year's themes are "Travel Islam," "Bluelist Moments," and "Endangered Wildlife."
A great bedside book or present to someone just starting to dream of a big overseas journey, this Lonely Planet "guide" is less a guidebook than a wish book or a challenge: it's a synopsis of everywhere you might want to go this year, if you can warp time and produce endless amounts of hard currencies.
But don't get the Blue List confused with the wonderful, detailed Lonely Planet guides to individual countries. Blue List won't provide much practical help to any actual person, on a real budget, who is heading to visit just one country. On the other hand it can serve as a kick–start to the traveler's imagination, a kick in the pants for the lazy, or maybe just a kick to read for armchair travelers.
Go Your Own Way: Women travel the world solo
edited by Faith Conlon, Ingrid Emerick & Christina Henry de Tessan
Maybe I'm just projecting. But based on my own recent efforts to pull together an anthology of women's travel writing, I think these editors had trouble getting what they wanted: stories of women having adventures on their own. While about a third of the stories are actually trips taken by one woman, solo, alone, on her own, the majority describe brief sojourns by women whose husbands/partners/families are waiting for them back at the hotel, figuratively or literally. Some of these women have guides to show them around, and some are on trips that are being sponsored by others, which seems sort of cheating at the being–alone aspect of travel promised by the title. However, that drawback just makes the real lone–woman adventures all the more precious.
And even if they're not strictly solo trips, many of these are great travel stories. Lara Triback's highly memorable "Three Minutes of Freedom" tells the story of a woman so determined to learn to really tango––in the right shoes, despite the hell of high heels––that she quits her job and moves to Buenos Aires. Julianne Balmain's "Wolf Pleasures" describes a morning cruise around Manhattan, when the androgynous narrator slips away from the pack at a business conference to find the wilderness at breakfast, while "Where Clouds Are Born" is a lovely meditation on pregnancy in Hawaii. "French Laundry" is a charming and civilized piece about a young American girl living in a charming and civilized place, while "This Nigeria Will Eat You Up" and "Central American Dreams" tell of women braving political unrest in countries that are neither charming nor very civilized. "In the Land of Athena," about a woman who takes her teenage daughter through Greece, embodies the spirit of solo female travel. Although mother and daughter are close, it's in the moments of separation that they have their most profound adventures.
Some of the stories in the collection detail complex inner, as well as outer, journeys, often having to do with relationships with those partners waiting (or not) back home. In "Iceberg," Alison Culliford explores the connection:
After the icebergs, something changed in my mentality. I stopped worrying about getting back to London, the politics of the wedding, and the mountain I had to climb just to get back to a position of normality and accepted the fact that I could not communicate from the boat. I just went with the rhythm of the voyage, immersing myself totally in the sights, the sounds, and the stories of people I met. Naturally, as experiences were swapped over cod cheeks in the canteen, people got to know that I was planning to get married. They asked about my finance and how we'd met, and expressed joy at the forthcoming happy event. They talked about their relationships, their marriages and divorce, children, travel. "Mark's one very lucky man," they said. The more I talked about it to these complete strangers, the more I felt distanced from the event, as if it were someone else, not me, that they were referring to."
I will give copies of this book to women planning to travel on their own, or women who dream of doing such a thing someday. Meanwhile, I hope that reading these may inspire more women to take solo adventures––I hope I'm one of them.
Gillian Kendall is author of Mr. Ding's Chicken Feet and co–author of How I Became a Human Being, both from University of Wisconsin Press. She is currently planning her third economy–class trans–Pacific trip in 7 months (and seeking sponsorsâ€”hint, hint). Her website is www.gilliankendall.net. Kendall previously wrote for Perceptive Travel with "Acrophobia Down Under."