Perceptive Travel Book Reviews June 2016
by Susan Griffith


In this issue: Exploring trains as a place where social microcosms can be enjoyed, an invitation not to take flying for granted, and a potentially inspirational journal.




Ticket to Ride: Around the World on 49 Unusual Train Journeys
Edited by Tom Chesshyre

So many books have been written about the world's great long-distance train journeys such as the Trans-Siberian Express and the Indian Pacific across Australia, that you wonder what new vistas can possibly be described or experiences conveyed. This book is more about the people inside the trains than the countries and cultures traversed. The author, a travel journalist, is not as interested in trains as in the human love of trains, a passion that he discovers flourishing from Macedonia to Himachal Pradesh, Bordeaux to Poughkeepsie. His investigation of our species' fondness for rail travel starts with the most extreme example of rail enthusiast, called in Britain a “gricer” or “trainspotter” (person who collects train or locomotive numbers as a hobby), and in Australia a “gunzel.” But his view also encompasses those (like himself) who have fallen under the simple spell of rail travel. After traveling more than 22,000 miles in 22 countries, he has earned the right to hold to the view that trains insulate you from the world's clamorous problems.

Chesshyre has a good ear for dialogue and many of the chapters depend on conversations recorded pretty well verbatim. If he is with Unicef workers on the train to Jaffna, he might learn some sad truths about the disappearance of many Tamil children during the Sri Lankan conflict. If chatting to a local in Bordeaux, he begins to see how many local hopes have been pinned on the coming of a super high-speed train from Paris in 2017 (“Bordeaux will be on zee up!”). If it is an overheard conversation of an Amish family in Chicago station from whom he hopes to gain some insight about this traditional group, he learns nothing at all “I don't like Pizza Hut, but Ruth really likes Pizza Hut.”






Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot
By Mark Vanhoenacker

Appropriate to its subject, this book is much more elevated in both style and content than Ticket to Ride. The author, a serving commercial pilot for British Airways, has had many thousands of airborne hours to examine what precisely it is about flying that he loves, and how best to describe it in limpid prose. If his aim is to reclaim the magic of flying from the humdrum with which we travelers so often view our next flight, then he has succeeded. By evoking his own childhood wonder at the miracle of flight, and conveying how he can still feel moved by the experience, he made me (for one) feel guilty at how blasé I have often felt, sitting in a window seat, when I might have been pondering higher things than my seatback film.

Pilots of course have to be practical people who perfectly understand the physics of flight, atmospheric conditions, radio altimeters and wind speed differentials. But this pilot appreciates language and beauty as well. It is as though he is seeking to dissolve the boundaries between engineering and art, resulting in a startlingly original book. His language strays into the realm of poetry: “We fly through these streaming beams of rain, and then out into brief white-walled caverns of sunlight though which brilliance falls and accumulates in small blue puddles on the grey sea.” Or: “At night from a plane it is easy to see our species as we are: sandwiched between the celestial and the terrestrial spheres, the icy ball of stars turning frictionlessly over us, a high mirror to the steady roll of the dark lands and waters and the lights of cities.” This exalted language may not be to everyone's taste, but it does make the ordinary seem extraordinary (which is one definition of poetry).

On a more mundane level, he guides us in great detail around the cockpit and its routines. The descriptions are so vivid, that the reader feels as though he or she has had a glimpse into a hitherto secret society. Who knew that a female voice emanates from the computer of a 747 saying “Decide” about 15 seconds before landing, after which it is impossible to abort?

The author's tone of meditative calm leaves no room for rip-roaring tales of close calls or near misses. No mention is made of terrorists or suicidal pilots like Andreas Lubitz. Nor is there much human interaction, making this book poles apart from the sociable Ticket to Ride. Some might feel that there is too little human drama to sustain 330 pages. Vanhoenacker urges us, while flying, to do what any good traveler should be doing—remain curious, remain aware, see the sublimity of nature. The world is full of wonders. As we all know, being able to fly to any country in a single day brings those wonders closer. But this book reminds us that flying is itself a pre-eminent wonder.







Do Big Small Things: A Guided Journey toward Freedom, Happiness and Adventure
By Bruce Poon Tip

Whereas Vanhoenacker finds freedom, happiness and adventure in the upper atmosphere, the author of this “guided journey” urges us all to pursue these goals wherever we roam and to believe that we can attain them. Canadian entrepreneur Bruce Poon Tip founded the ultra-successful adventure travel company G Adventures (originally as GAP Adventures) over 25 years ago and has been on an ambitious mission ever since to enable clients to have “authentic and unforgettable life-changing experiences.” Do Big Small Things is more an exhortation to sign up to his mission statement than a guidebook. 

Much thought and effort has gone into the design of this volume that combines the functions of a (pre-) travel journal, an adult coloring book and a “how-to” book. The oxymoron of the title is a bit bewildering. While we're on the subject of size, the book is too big and heavy to cart around on a long trip. Yet its originality is to be congratulated. No doubt the author prides himself on “thinking outside the box,” and there are no boxes, straight lines or sharp corners in the layout of this book which is all swirling typefaces and flow chart style diagrams. Blank space abounds, for users to fill with their personal manifestos, notes to their past and future selves, drawings and doodles, and to generally “get dirty.” Unless readers are prepared to interact with this interactive travel journal, it will serve little purpose.

At times you feel the presence of a corporate workshop facilitator hovering over your shoulder, promising to build a positive and fun vibe before picking up his or her magic marker to start mapping and modelling the route to happiness through travel. Near the beginning of the book—which has nothing so conventional as page numbers—we find the following advice: Remember you are free → Abandon fear → Leave comfort → Hit the road → Enjoy the ride → Be You →  Let the feeling take you. A cynic might call this motivational stuff claptrap, while a devotee might find it inspirational. Given that people pay money for blank travel journals in which to record their experiences, and that others pay small fortunes to life coaches, maybe an outlay of $18/£12 on this artily designed and attractive paperback could be more than worthwhile for some.






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 and Teaching English Abroad, she has also 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, an online British daily newspaper.



See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith





Also in this issue:


Ticket to Ride: Around the World on 49 Unusual Train Journeys

Buy Ticket to Ride: Around the World on 49 Unusual Train Journeys at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot

Buy Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK


















Do Big Small Things: A Guided Journey toward Freedom, Happiness and Adventure

Buy Do Big Small Things: A Guided Journey toward Freedom, Happiness and Adventure at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Kobo