In this issue: Brothers on the Bashkaus: A Siberian Paddling Adventure, Greece, A Love Story, and Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World.
Brothers on the Bashkaus: A Siberian Paddling Adventure
by Eugene Buchanan
Upon becoming the first rafting expedition to be awarded the Shipton/Tilman exploration grant in 1992, author Eugene Buchanan and three friends set off from America to Russia on a journey to explore a river that turns out to be nonexistent with a Russian contact who never shows up to collect them at the Moscow airport. Taking an initial risk that later characterizes the spirit of the entire journey, Buchanan and team allow themselves to be intercepted at luggage claim by beach–short wearing, bearded Latvians waving a paddle with a duct–taped sign reading, "We look for four American kayaker to go Kalar River."
In glaring contrast to the self–named "Team Cowboyshka's" slick and excessive amount of sponsored gear, the Latvians, for whom the nearly annual ritual of river running is a considerable economic strain, brandish equipment that is entirely homemade. Convinced to leave their name brand smutkyi (surplus) behind, instead of running a Class III to IV river on their state–of–the–art kayaks and cataraft pontoons, the Americans join the Latvian Team Konkas to risk paddling one of the hardest whitewater runs in Siberia, down the Class V to VI Bashkaus, using primitive life vests made of soccer balls, duct tape, and Ensolite (energy absorbing foam developed by NASA). Team Konkas' rafts are constructed from old germ warfare suits made airtight with a glue their scientist team leader Ramitch developed in his kitchen.
The disparity in supplies is underscored by differences in attitudes. Contrary to the Americans' environmentally–friendly travel habit of leaving no trace (even carrying out their human waste), Team Konkas regularly violates the principle low–impact excursioning, felling trees just for campfire seating at every night's rest spot. Team Cowboyshka nevertheless learns to recognize the Latvians' strengths. Without exception, the ten person Team Konkas puts the needs of the group ahead of the individual, sharing the one book they brought by passing around each page as they read it, never complaining about the strictly portioned squares of pork fat and sugar cubes that comprise the bulk of their diet for four weeks on the river, staying in wetsuits each night until the fire is built and campsite established, or downplaying the severity of the swamp foot or broken ribs some of them endure.
The Americans learn to appreciate their own faults and fortitudes as well, faced with the dangers of physical emaciation, armed horsemen, and lethal rapids on a rain–swelled river lined with memorials.
Buchanan, 14 year editor–in–chief of Paddler magazine and founder of Paddling Life magazine, expertly describes the alternating extremes of adrenalin and tedium integral to river running, with the added tension of bridging language and cultural gaps between the Latvian and American teams. Though perhaps directed towards an audience with a penchant for paddling, Buchanan's earnest and detailed descriptions allow easy access for armchair adventurers as well. Interspersed with details of Russian, Latvian, and river running historical specifics as well as Buchanan's own experiences, the narrative becomes rhythmical in vacillating between present moment and introspection. In other books this might detract, but in this case it functionally echoes a natural cadence of the water's current, the paddler's fluctuation between danger and doldrums, and this unique group's repeated frustration of cultural conflicts that eventually give way to mutual understanding.
Sometimes contradictory in its ruminations and suffering a few moments of awkward phrasing in the opening chapters, the only true letdown of the book is its denouement. At the end of a four week white water ride, the life–threatening crescendo of the last rapid sputters too soon into an anticlimactic meadow valley, where the journey effectively ends. This might have worked well as a device reflecting the author's own over–exhausted, adrenalin–depleted feeling of sudden cessation if a more explicit comparison had been made. Regardless, Brothers on the Bashkaus is an exhilarating and contemplative trek through the Siberian wilds with the added advantage of an authentic internal odyssey of negotiating intercultural rapids.
Greece, A Love Story
Edited by Camille Cusumano
The fourth in Camille Cusumano's Love Story series for Seal Women's Travel, the nonfiction anthology Greece, A Love Story follows Mexico (2007) Italy (2005) and France (2004) in its premise, so one would have hoped that this series would have matured into a consistently informed cultural exploration.
Given the variety of voices included, it is inherently difficult in anthology–making to deliver an even tone. However, specific story parameters or author requirements often help, whether a minimum knowledge of the language, an analysis of the local mores encountered, or at least a definite summation of what the experience meant in the life of the narrator. Editorial congruity could have tempered the staccato nineteen voices; contributors who have grasped Greece's cultural nuances stand out in stark contrast to those who offer pleasant description without any experiential arc.
Among the stars is Alison Cadbury who finds that renting an island house comes with the obligation of entertaining her 90–something landlord as he reminisces about his deceased wife and complains about Cadbury's coffee–making skills. Cadbury's visceral landscape descriptions and comprehension of rural conventions roots her tale in the location, where country miles are measured by the number of cigarettes smoked en route. Her close discernment of linguistic nuances underscores vivid characterization, such as her landlord referring to his wife as 'my lady' rather than the more common 'my woman'.
Similarly observant is Amanda Castleman's poignant stream–of–consciousness rendering of her divorce in Greece, a tenderly wrought accusation of the flaws of Athens as well as her relationship. Eventually reclaiming her strength (without a Medean desire for revenge) and regaining objectivity, Castleman concludes that "Greece callouses the skin but softens the soul."
Linda Hefferman's self–deprecatory humor ("I felt invincible, wearing my naivete like a superhero's unitard.") in "Special Delivery" buoys her sweet account of a small town high school girl conquering jaded Athens. Hefferman's comparison of her personal background with that of her new Greek surroundings rounds out the story well as she makes her way from the city to the country to deliver something from her Greek–American neighbor to the relatives with whom he has long ago lost contact.
Ashley Black's "Adøspotos: Those with No Master", is a bittersweet search for biological parents among Greece's disappearing nomadic tribe. As she hunts the wandering Sarakatsani in mountaintop village Phitea she learns that even the rural shepherds have access to internet ("Tassos keeps two computers in the back, behind the cheese.")
A provocative story by Katherina Audley, "View from the Bartop", tells of her stint as a bargirl in a small Cretian village, dolled up to lure customers ––and as the title suggests, even dancing on the countertops. What makes Audley's story much deeper than a party girl account (which the anthology also contains) is her acute awareness of what she's doing, and her keen grasp of cultural rules and consequences, making adept use of them in seeking help from locals to deal with European ruffians sharing her hostel.
Even among the more successful stories, however, some basic questions are often left unanswered, whether it is the narrator's reason for being in Greece; her age, background, hometown; what she learns about Greek culture (as opposed to mere physical description); or, most importantly, how her Greek experience impacts the rest of her life. Nevertheless, Greece, A Love Story is an easy introduction to the country through a foreigner's eyes, though many will crave something more. Perhaps a full–length memoir by Alison Cadbury…
Disclaimer: Seal Press released my anthology Tales from the Expat Harem. â€“JEG
Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World
Lonely Planet Publications
With gap years, career changes, early retirement, and other forms of life assessment becoming increasingly popular, this new release by Lonely Planet is sure to be an indispensable bible for those looking for a major change. Showing just how easy it is (logistically, at least) to find ways to add meaning to one's life by giving back to the local or global community, Volunteer covers humanitarian (development) and conservation and wildlife opportunities according to type: organized volunteer programs, structured and self–funding volunteer programs, religious organizations, and do–it–yourself volunteer placements, with detailed listings of program organizers worldwide. Included is very necessary information on handling the reverse culture shock of returning home to "normal life" after intense and emotionally charged projects.
In addition to the many captivating photos, each section is generously peppered with informative, intimate direct quotes from experienced participants, many of which evoke a sense of place ("The jungle is definitely not the place for the squeamish: every bug and insect was on steroids and had tattoos."), offer insiders' tips, or provide insight into the satisfaction ––or dissatisfaction–– participants feel. Negative examples, though not as numerous, are included as lessons to learn from.
The depth of the practical information is impressive, with useful reminders of nitty–gritty pre–departure preparation: strategies for gaining support (even the financial sort) from one's employer, planning ahead to protect employee stock options or pensions, or organizing power of attorney over one's affairs.
In short, the uplifting, enthusiastic messages from experienced volunteers makes one want to jump right into a far–flung placement, while the supporting logistical information in Volunteer effectively removes any obstacles to doing so.
JENNIFER EATON GÖKMEN is an American writer who has called Turkey her home for the past thirteen years. Co–editor of #1 international best selling nonfiction anthology Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey, she has written for National Geographic Traveler, and hosts a Turkish television series on TRT International focusing on expatriation issues (Bir Yar Gelir Bizlere). Gökmen develops content for print and broadcast media worldwide and is currently penning her Turkish adventures in a comical transcontinental confessional Elective Brain Surgery: Tales of an Unflinching Expat.
Gökmen last appeared in Perceptive Travel with "In the Offering: Two Sides of a Turkish Sacrifice".