Perceptive Travel Book Reviews October 2016
by Susan Griffith



In this issue: This month two male writers approaching middle age use travel to explore what life is all about, one on foot in Britain, the other in a campervan in Europe with his family. Plus one female writer [sic] who doesn't trouble herself with such weighty concerns.



Walking with Plato

Photo by Tony Robinson-Smith



Walking with Plato: A Philosophical Hike Through the British Isles
By Gary Hayden

Traveling under your own steam by bike or on foot between the extremities of the British Isles— John o'Groats at the most northerly point of Scotland and Land's End at the southwestern tip of England—is one of the UK's classic challenges. (See the Perceptive Travel story for a biking account of it.) Approaching middle age, the author declares himself to be an unlikely candidate since he is anything but a keen hiker. But he is a sucker for physical challenges and also he knows that his wife has always longed to do the “End to End.” Soon he is calculating how many steps there are in 1,200 miles (answer: nearly 2.5 million) and is getting together the camping equipment and freeze-dried emergency rations that will make it possible to afford such an undertaking. He sets off in some trepidation, which is not unreasonable since they immediately face appalling Scottish weather, monster blisters, and the tedium of walking beside a busy road.

So far, so predictable. But the author has an engaging voice, and little scenes are enlivened by his humor. Deep in a Scottish forest where they see hand-made signs for a café, he tells Wendy that this sounds too improbable to be true and if the café turns out to be made of gingerbread or she notices any chainsaws nearby to keep right on walking. He is thoughtful as well as amusing, and observes in himself the changes that take place gradually over the three-month walk. The privations they suffer on bad days— one day is so miserably unrewarding that the highlight is buying a Mars bar—heighten their appreciation of the easy and comfortable experiences. Plato says that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin, and we see that played out.

Despite the book's title, Plato is a relatively minor character, though we hear the role Plato's Republic played in the author's past when he painfully lost his religious faith. If you like your philosophy in easily digestible bite-size pieces— a little chunk of Plato here, an aperçu of Bertrand Russell there— this is just the ticket. But the moral that Hayden the Amateur Philosopher gradually draws from his travels on foot is closer to a Buddhist idea, that joy can be derived from the simplest of pleasures: bread when you're hungry, water when you're thirsty and a mattress instead of the hard ground. The author's experience of walking is transformative. The ennui that descends during the forced marches in the early days evaporates and by the final hundred miles, he is dreading the finish line. He claims that the long empty hours of walking were a “cold-turkey cure for his addiction to stimulation and distraction.” He successfully conveys how the constant walking brings about an altered meditative state. Total absorption in the moment heals the psyche. He finds that he listens to music more intensely, observes nature more acutely and, away from workaday cares and stresses, he becomes a more agreeable person.

He is disarmingly frank about his limitations as a travel writer. He had set off with no intention of writing a book and so did not keep notes. Even if he had, he wouldn't have been able to name trees or flowers, birds or rock types. We get little sense of the places they stop, mainly because after walking 25 miles in a day, they have no energy for sightseeing (though I confess I would have appreciated an informed snapshot of some of their destinations). He would not pretend to be a great prose stylist. In the end I decided that stylistic defects such as phrases repeated and plodding vocabulary aptly reflected the content. The unadorned list of the delights they encounter - 'woodlands and glades, scrubland and grassland, pastures and cultivated fields, steep-sided hills and peaceful valleys, grazing cows and sheep, ponds and millstones, hilltop monuments and ancient forts, hedges and stone walls, pubs and teashops, churches and almshouses, cottages of honey-coloured stone' - these should persuade any reader of the therapeutic pleasures of long-distance walking in Britain.






On the Road...With Kids: One Family's Life-Changing Gap Year
By John Ahern

Considering what a different travel scenario is conjured up by this title about family gap years, it is remarkable how similar this one is to the walking book. They share the same starting point (middle-aged man discontented with his life embarks on semi-mad ambitious trip) and the same narrative arc (initial misgivings and misery give way to life-changing fulfilment and happiness). John Ahern's epigraph by Paul Theroux, “Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about realising a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life,” could just as easily serve for Hayden's book.

John Ahern was a successful corporate high-flyer in Brisbane with a wife and two small children who clearly played second fiddle to his career. After two ruptured vertebrae and one or two evenings of “dream-talk” with his wife (another feisty live wire), he decides that his family life needs a dramatic overhaul. Together they concoct an intrepid plan to take their two pre-school children on a year-long tour of Europe in a camper van which they nervously purchase online for a cool 14,000 euros.

It's sad but true that you usually need to be an ex-corporate high-flyer with a fat redundancy pay-out to be able to contemplate such a mammoth trip. Yet they try to stick to a non-outrageous budget of $100 a day. The record of expenses spent on their wanderings from the arctic Lotofen Islands to the Moroccan Sahara makes for interesting reading.

As the months and the miles mount up, the author slowly achieves a new-found bond with his children (“I am now on first-name basis with all their teddies”). Like our long-distance walker, he begins to appreciate simple things— a campsite shower without a timer, an hour with his wife without the kids— and a “decadent feeling of timelessness.” He also enters the zone that is “the great gift of travel,” achieving the “mind release...the magnificent attentiveness and the losing of yourself in the simplest of activities.”

But these quotations fail to convey the author's self-mocking wit. The first page made me laugh out loud. On the long flight to Europe, he finds himself sitting in the seat from hell next to a mother who had lost control of two frantic bouncing drink-spilling children, from whom he is rescued by a sympathetic air hostess offering him three empty seats elsewhere. “When my wife Mandy... noticed my absence...” Aussie crudeness is here in abundance, for example during a crisis when his children want only their mother, Dad stands by as unwanted and useless “as tits on a bull.” This is not only an enjoyable romp but an insightful account of parenting in the 21st century in the context of travel.






Travel: The Ultimate Budget Travel Guide on How to Travel the World with Less Than $30 A Day While Exploring Amazing Places on Earth!
By Shea Hendricks

Oh dear. The title is almost as long as the book, which claims to be 96 pages, calculated according to e-reader pages of about 130 words each. The good news is that it will take about half an hour to read. The bad news is that you are unlikely to gain a single useful travel tip from the waffle and generalities.

Perhaps you had already worked out that you can save money by not splashing out on luxury hotels. The author is a fan of buying a vehicle and selling it at the end of a trip. No doubt a good idea, but where are the nitty gritty facts about cost and insurance and tackling border crossings (as documented by the gap year family)? Nowhere. An exercise in clichéd enthusiasm while stating the bleeding obvious.




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:








Walking with Plato

Buy Walking with Plato: A Philosophical Hike Through the British Isles at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Kobo


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On the Road...With Kids: One Family's Life-Changing Gap Year

Buy On the Road...With Kids: One Family's Life-Changing Gap Year in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK









Travel: The Ultimate Budget Travel Guide on How to Travel the World with Less Than $30 A Day While Exploring Amazing Places on Earth!

Buy Travel: The Ultimate Budget Travel Guide on How to Travel the World with Less Than $30 A Day While Exploring Amazing Places on Earth! at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK