OxTravels: Meetings with Remarkable Travel Writers
Various authors, edited by Mark Ellingham et al
When the editors of OxTravels invited a list of eminent British travel writers to contribute a story without payment, they were astonished to receive submissions from almost all of them. That speaks volumes for the high regard in which the charity Oxfam is held, since all the proceeds from this book are destined for the Oxford-based development agency. Since the contents page reads like a who's who of the foremost travel writers of this generation (and a few from the previous and the next), it is no surprise that the quality of the writing should be exceptionally high. The sideways approach to the unexpected corners of the world into which these 36 writers have penetrated is often thought-provoking as well as entertaining.
The premise of the book was simple: the writers were invited to write a story about a meeting. This loose theme provides a unifying thread but plenty of latitude for originality. To give an idea of the scope and variety, writers chose as their subjects not just memorable characters met on the road—a Jain nun in Karnataka, a gang of illegal diamond miners in Namibia, a Brazilian environmentalist vainly trying to protect a huge tract of virgin forest from loggers—but inanimate objects (a big yellow taxi), animals (a cute Antarctic penguin) and dead authors (Graham Greene who spent time in West Africa).
Even without reading the short biographies that accompany photos of the contributors, you can surmise that some are novelists. Not that novelists have a monopoly on the skill of bringing characters to life in a few deft strokes, but this attribute is in evidence at every turn. Even the title of one piece "Madam Say Go" catches the cadences of speech of a poor Indian woman who has been dismissed without cause from her job in the Middle East. It is a chance encounter on a plane to Mumbai that allows Sonia Faleira to dramatize the predicament of so many thousands of migrant workers from the sub-continent. Having worked faithfully as a housekeeper and nanny in the Gulf, Kadali has been sent packing by her hysterical employer. "I wash, I fed, I school bus took. I told stories of India. The children liked my stories. See my hands? So much work, hands need hospital!"
Particular stories well told are more effective and certainly more memorable than learned articles about, say, the sex trade among destitute Burmese women or the ethics of bull-fighting. In some stories the writer is a participant not just an observer. Peter Godwin's account of his meeting with illegal diamond miners in a "wild world way off the grid" near the Zimbabwean border is tense and gripping. When he tells them that he hasn't come to buy diamonds, they become suspicious and discuss whether or not to kill him, while "baboons bark in the distance, kestrels wheel on the thermals" and he think of his sons. The desperados relent when he claims a friendship with one of their heroes, a prominent and fearless politician in the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, Roy Bennett (now in exile in South Africa). The armchair in which we readers travel is not always a comfy upholstered one, and quite a few of these stories may leave you feeling jolly glad that you will never go to these desperate places.
Political engagement is not too unexpected in a volume dedicated to an international agency working for justice and an amelioration of poverty. Other stories are more frivolous, like Sara Wheeler's brilliant account of a holiday romance "The End of the Bolster" or the hilarious story by Chris Stewart of seeking the help of a curandera, or village healer, near his home in the south of Spain to tackle an unmentionable problem (except he blushingly has to mention it to her).
Startling juxtapositions are inevitable in an anthology such as this, but sometimes they take place inside a single story. Within less than a dozen pages, William Gimlette turns a gimlet eye on a remote tribal village in Orissa to try to get a handle on what made Iron Age man tick in southern England. I am sorry I can't mention every one of the gems in this volume but commend everyone to buy a copy.
The Sacred Thread: A True Story of Becoming a Mother and Finding a Family—Half a World Away
By Adrienne Arieff
Although this book describes a journey that takes place in India, it is more autobiography than travel. The author is disarmingly frank about the heartbreak of serial miscarriages and infertility, and the fraught decision to opt for surrogacy at an Indian clinic. But I struggled with how excruciatingly American-centric her terms of reference are. She reaches for the Pepto Bismol whenever she eats the local food; she believes street food can kill you and longs for Coke and Ruffles. But more worrying throughout is her burning desire to turn the village woman who is carrying her twin daughters into her best friend. Understandably, she does not want to view the arrangement as a merely commercial one. She wants to liberate Vaina from domestic servitude, to claim her as a soul sister, a lifelong friend. It doesn't seem to occur to her to try to find out whether Vaina shares these ambitions. She demonstrates the cultural blinkers of which Americans are so often accused. She even calls a women-only get-together in the surrogacy ward of the clinic a "shower", a social event that is unknown in Europe let alone Gujarat.
Adrienne Arieff is so wrapped up in her pursuit of motherhood that she has little time or inclination to convey anything of the flavor of the town of Anand where she spends months before the birth. We hear on numerous occasions how uncomfortable the hotel bed is and how intermittent the air-conditioning. She stalks the town's shops looking for yet another present to take to Vaina (but none, it seems, for her long-suffering translator). One of her more baffling choices is a drum kit. (We are spared learning whether Vaina takes this back to her village.) Every so often flashes of awareness struggle through ("I feel a little bit like a bright pink Western elephant"), but seem to be quickly extinguished.
Eventually the happy ending promised in the cover design comes to pass and Adrienne and lawyer husband take their little daughters back to San Francisco. No doubt (rich) couples with infertility problems will find this story inspiring. I wish her and her babies all the best in the world.
Mud, Sweat & Gears
By Ellie Bennett
If The Sacred Thread is decidedly American, this book is quintessentially English. The bumbling but lovable amateur is a familiar British type. Like so many who see their 50th birthdays looming, Ellie Bennett begins to worry that almost none of her youthful ambitions have been realized. So after one too many pints down the pub, she agrees to cycle the "End to End" with her old friend Mick, the 1000-mile distance between Land's End at the tip of Cornwall and John o'Groats at the top of Scotland. She sets off on an old town bike she has had for years and without any training to speak of. She is soon blubbing on one of Cornwall's steeper hills. But she always cheers up when they get to a pub.
The love of pubs and elevation of beer-tasting to an art form may be a little hard to fathom for non-Brits. Yet she doesn't take too much for granted and fills in some background on the "real ale" campaign that has transformed the British brewing landscape over the past few decades. Anyone who reads this should be persuaded that cycling and pubbing are a winning combination.
The early sections in particular read like a blog, which indeed they were, so this is not the well-crafted prose of Ox Travels. But the author's amateurish charm as an Everywoman cyclist applies equally to her writing. She can be amusing, particularly on the macho, high-tech cyclists they occasionally encounter, one of whom asks her what kind of GPS she is using to which she replies she has torn some pages out of an atlas and marked the route with a highlighter pen.
It is a shame her editor didn't make more use of his highlighter pen, because spelling and grammatical mistakes abound. In a book all about cycling, it is hard to excuse the misspelling of "pedalling"—our heroes are propelling themselves up hill and down dale, not peddling encyclopedia door to door. The most amusing was the "vernacular" railway instead of funicular, and Scottish golfers shouting "Four" when they are really warning "Fore" as in "look a'fore ye".
Still this is a cheerful little volume full of entertaining digressions and gentle humor. It could even be useful to any unfit readers who fancy taking on this famous cycling challenge with little preparation, and to those who are just looking to organize a large scale pub crawl.
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.