Questions of Travel
By Michelle de Kretser
Unusually for this column, the book under review is a work of fiction, a complex sprawling novel with a huge cast of characters. The title reveals why perceptive travelers might be interested in reading it, because it addresses many of the issues that arise when we set off to explore other lands and cultures. It intersperses the life stories of two main characters over four decades. The Australian Laura Fraser spends her twenties working in Britain and traveling around Europe before returning to work for a guidebook publisher in Sydney. Ravi is a Sri Lankan IT specialist who migrates on a special visa to Australia after a family tragedy makes life impossible in his home country. Through these characters and their migrations, the author—who moved from Sri Lanka to Australia with her family when in early adolescence—can examine different versions of and reactions to displacement from home. The book examines traveling for pleasure, as we in the privileged west can do, and traveling out of necessity as so many others do, and where these intersect (if at all).
Before taking up fiction writing, de Kretser spent ten years working for Lonely Planet, which gave her ample opportunity to meditate on the business of modern-day travel. Through Laura, we trace a process of disillusionment, from her youthful enthusiasm at seeing the monuments of London "iconic from tea towels," to her distaste for the corporate travel publishing world where an "e-zone" is created to enhance the prestige of digital publishing and where they aim to make the travel content (dreaded word) "snappier, wittier, less brown rice and more sushi, for a global net-savvy e-generation."
Laura comes to some hard-hitting conclusions about the hypocrisy of corporate publishing, which she tries to explain to her friend, the sharp and ambitious head of marketing: "Have you noticed the only word you never hear around this place is 'tourism'? Because tourism's about dollars, no argument. But 'travel' lets you pretend. Travel has an aura. It allows us to believe that publishing guidebooks is a good thing. We can tell ourselves that what we do contributes to global harmony, international understanding, you know the stuff I mean."
The novel asks many of the questions that preoccupy thoughtful and committed travelers. What can I do for this poor family in Indonesia with whom I've developed a connection? How moved am I really by seeing the great sites? How authentic is my interaction with local people? A brilliantly satiric passage describes the downfall of a tourism company with which Ravi is involved called RealLanka, which promises foreigners access to the daily life of Sri Lankan families: "Clients began to complain that the experiences for which they had paid handsomely and in hard currency lacked authenticity. Those who chose to stay with urban families were affronted when their hosts addressed them in English or invited them to watch reruns of American soaps. A Norwegian wrote that the household into which he had been thrust was grossly materialistic…A New Zealander demanded a refund: her hosts' eleven-year-old daughter had confided that when she grew up, she wanted to be just like Britney Spears." Readers may feel some discomfort in recognizing their own distorted expectations of the picturesque travel experience.
The writing is of such high quality and the characters so convincingly realized that the insights about travel arise naturally out of situations and characters.
The author excels at piling up concrete easy-to-visualize detail. Take Laura's arrival in Naples in the 1990s: "By the time the airport bus pulled in, Naples stood in a brownish, benzene dusk. What had Laura expected? Arias, gunfire, the ghosts of centurions perhaps, certainly her pocket explored by the expert hand… She began to make her way through the crowd, between folding tables on which were set out socks, combs, pocketknives, cheap, useful things…" (Reviewers must resist quoting at length, though it is tempting in this case.)
This novel captures precisely the ways in which the pleasure in travel ebbs and flows, with the high points and the troughs, the exhilaration and the loneliness of the rootless. "This was travel, marvellous and sad." Highly recommended.
A Little Nostalgia for Freedom: Living Life to the Full
By Steve Bonham
The genial author takes short trips to Morocco, London, Egypt and Hong Kong, as a platform for addressing the big questions. His aim is to encourage his readers to step outside their grooves and see the world and themselves, with the unprejudiced eye and heart of a child. But his argument relies on a simplistic opposition of conformist and rebel, of "voluntary slave" tied to work and mortgage with adventurous seeker after unpredictable experience. He acknowledges in passing that it is only citizens of wealthy societies who can be described as voluntary slaves, and one suspects that the creator of Ravi in the book above would consider this polarity unhelpfully Euro-centric. The author is convinced that people who try to fit in are afraid of their dangerous edge and are denying their identity. Repetition of this assertion with only slight variations failed to persuade me of its worth. I found it difficult to appreciate the pop psychology, starting with the clichéd phrase in the latter part of the title.
The book darts all over the place, and offers intriguing asides on an unexpected range of topics, from the corsairs of the Barbary coast to Sufis, from the tango to Edith Wharton. The character who threads his way through the whole book is Knulp, a fictional creation of Herman Hesse in an early novel of the same name. Knulp is the archetypal wanderer, with no constraints on his time or freedom. For the author, Knulp is a hero to be emulated, who inspires the author to try to "conjure up something beyond the mundane and the given". Knulp could just as easily be seen as an unfulfilled responsibility-shirking misfit who wanders cheerfully but aimlessly, but this alternative is not properly addressed.
The author's own travels seem rather mundane. His disappointment that a golden eagle photographed in the Atlas Mountains appears as an anonymous speck is trite. He ropes in old friends to join him on some of his jollies. He is thrilled to be upgraded on the flight to Hong Kong. For me there was a disconnect between what he asserted as theory and what he actually accomplishes on his travels. His quest is too tightly scripted before he sets off, which ironically seems to make him less open-minded because he endeavors to mould his experiences to his theory.
The generalities and abstract language in which the author wallows sometimes verge on the "mission statement" school of writing. On a group bonding trip to the desert of Egypt, he says that the point is "to create a rare space for reflection and insight." This reminds us that his day job is as a facilitator of leadership and personal development programs, which accounts for the tendency towards psychobabble. I confess that at points it made me feel "a Little Nostalgia" of my own, for the vivid concreteness of Michelle de Kretser's prose. Maybe this just isn't my kind of book.
Something else that makes it difficult to take seriously is the high level of glaring errors - "derry-doing" instead of "derring-do," Huguenot misspelled, and hundreds of others—always a danger in self-published books that have by-passed a rigorous editing process.
The World's Cheapest Destinations (4th edition)
By Tim Leffel
What a relief to turn to a completely different genre, which is my kind of book—full of practical advice on the nitty-gritty of making a travel budget stretch from Honduras to Hungary, Cairo to Kathmandu. As someone who aims in my books about working and volunteering abroad to help backpackers and others to plan budgets, I appreciate the arithmetical effort that lies behind a statement like "rule of thumb about buses in India—a standard bus costs $1 for 2-3 hours of travel and a more upmarket one costs 60-90 cents per hour".
Tim Leffel (editor of this publication you're reading) does a great job of covering the gamut of budget travel choices clearly and in an accessible, digestible form. This updated fourth edition tackles the usual topics of eating out, accommodation and transport but also reminds readers not to deny themselves unmissable treats and thrills even if they cost a bit. I remember the spiral of frugality my traveling companion and I got into on our first Eurailing trip to Europe, subsisting miserably on the bread and jam breakfasts served in youth hostels. Tim Leffel knows that the sane person's approach to travel is to allow the occasional well-chosen splurge.
As well as being refreshingly opinionated, this book is peppered with quirky facts. I wonder how the two beer brands of Cambodia ended up being homophones (Angkor and Anchor). I love the feature that concludes each country chapter that lists a few things you can get for a "buck or less" —anything from a hair cut in Phnom Penh to a large glass of fresh starfruit juice in Malaysia. What I think of as his bananometer informs us that for less than $1 you can get two bunches of bananas in Laos, 15-20 bananas in Guatemala, and enough bananas for your whole guesthouse in Ecuador.
I am not without my quibbles. Inevitably some countries seem more thoroughly updated than others, depending on where the author and his informants have traveled since the last edition. I was a little surprised to see Mumbai referred to as Bombay, and to read that the power-sharing between monarch and Maoists is holding in Nepal, when the monarchy was abolished several years ago. Perhaps a more serious grumble would be the short shrift that Africa is given. Why omit Ghana where it is supposedly not difficult to get by on $20 a day and which easily satisfies the author's criteria of attracting plenty of travelers and having a decent infrastructure? Another country that could be hammering on the door of the next edition is Tunisia which at the moment ranks as having the second cheapest cost of living in the world (according to xpatulator.com).
The accolade of cheapest country now goes to Nepal where pack-carrying trekkers routinely spend less than $10 a day. The costs quoted throughout are bound to exacerbate any case of itchy feet. When you are told that you can spend two weeks or more in any of the countries covered "for the price of a MacBook or the best iPad", many will choose not to upgrade their gadgetry. For the price of four or five bunches of bananas, you will be on your way to a fantastic trip.
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: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.