In this issue: The Big Trip: Your Ultimate Guide to Gap Years and Overseas Adventures, Big Trips: More Good Gay Travel Writing, Exposure: A Journey, and The Ramen King and I: How the inventor of instant noodles fixed my love life.
At least for people in my generation, the titles The Big Trip and Big Trips suggest that travel is an intense, internal journey, somewhat hallucinatory, something of a struggle, yet ultimately valuable and probably cool. Forget shopping for souvenirs and finding the perfect beach; the word "trip" implies that travel entrails metaphysical growth. All four of this month's books are about mind–expanding travel—trips taken with the soul wide open.
The Big Trip: Your Ultimate Guide to Gap Years and Overseas Adventures
Lonely Planet authors and editors
In recent years, Lonely Planet seems to have moved beyond country travel guides and phrasebooks into a more general realm, producing books that offer insight and perspective over a whole aspect or genre of travel. Maybe LP has broadened its scope because travelers are using the Internet rather than books to source up–to–date destination information. Whatever the reason, I welcome the new, "big picture" books of recent years, including Bluelist, Code Green, and now The Big Trip.
The Big Trip: Your Ultimate Guide to Gap Years and Overseas Adventures is a comprehensive how–to guide for planning a long period of independent travel, and it would make an encouraging, practical gift for any young (or any–aged) person who is contemplating the idea of serious travel. Topics range from the broad ("Why go?" and "Why not go?") to the specific (how to get work abroad as a nanny, at a resort, or teaching English; and how to pack for anywhere with one bag). Instead of bus timetables and youth hostel ratings, the guide gives unusual aspects of each major destination such as "urban myths" and "what to expect". At 336 pages, this meta–reference book is not one to pop into the backpack, but a resource to use all through the planning stages of a trip—and then to pass on to another traveler.
Big Trips: More Good Gay Travel Writing
Edited by Raphael Kadushin
Our next big tripper is Big Trips: More Good Gay Travel Writing, the second in a series of collections by gay and lesbian writers, from University of Wisconsin Press. Editor Raphael Kadushin, himself a long–time travel writer, laments the state of most current travel writing:
"The going standard for...a destination piece now, in fact, has nothing to do with locating the essence of anything at all. It has more to do with sizing up the shiny look of a place and selling it, in a primal PR grunt that approximates carnival barker prose (Paris? Glossy. London? Swinging. Amsterdam? Grr. Vegas? Ca Ching. DuBai? Dabest.) ...if the quick word picture of the place needs some plumping up, what gets added are lots and lots of lists, lists within lists, and lists of lists."
In response (and maybe out of desperation for a good read), Kadushin sought and found "impressionistic" travel writing, pieces in the belles letters tradition that take time (and eschew lists) to describe a personal experience of a certain place at a specific time. Unexpectedly, the collection combines not only nonfiction with fiction, but also a short play, the wonderful "A Table for a King" by Martin Sherman, in which a lonely gay man in Corfu befriends the garrulous, moneyed and memorable "Mrs. Honey."
Sensibly, the collection of stories is divided into two sections, "Going Out" and "Coming Back." Highlights include the poetic "A Wedding in the Sky" by Michael Klein; "Return to San Francisco," in which Bruce Benderson's describes returning as a grownup to the Haight in San Francisco where he spent his hippie years; and "On Going Back," detailing long–distance walker Brian Bouldrey's ruminations on hiking the Santiago pilgrim route for the second time, with new diversions. By day he walks long miles, and at nights stays in convents or abbeys, where the conversation naturally turns to his travels:
We had heard of the Partage Monastery in Thiviers from our various evening hosts for more than a week. The name Thiviers was anathema. We were very excited. But we never heard the same explanation for the Thiviers Evil more than once, though the direness of the offense grew more colorful the closer we drew. In Limoges, the perceived problem was comical: the Thiviers monks were guilty of giving bad haircuts. Someone else told us they were rejecting the word of God. According to the Perigordians, the monastery of Thiviers was practicing medicine without a license ('Do not show them your horrible pilgrim feet, monsieur!'). The bishop of Sainte–Marie now said, 'There is a Vietnamese abbot there, and he is performing exorcisms. It is a very strange business.'
Vietnamese exorcisms! That was a new one!
Jean–Phillippe leaned in to me and took a chance that the bishop would not understand English. 'They take Visa and MasterCard.'
Exposure: A Journey
By Joel Magarey
Australian writer Joel Magarey's first book, Exposure: a Journey, details the twenty–something narrator's journey across the unfriendly terrain of the Americas and through the bizarre internal landscape of his own mind and obsessive–compulsive disorder. Before his first journeys, in high school, Magarey dreams of the mystical nature of his future travels:
Often, during summer dusks as I sat on the pillar, watching the island fade to a narrow dim circle of surf, listening for distant seagull squawkings in lulls between waves, or following the slow rise of an orange moon, I'd hear the sound of a note playing on the air. It was like the sound you could make blowing into a bottle, but it was the sea–wind blowing into my half–open mouth, and I'd listen entranced as it played, deepening or rising with the strength of the wind. Sometimes that haunting sound, the embrace of the warm wind, and the dark passion of the raging waves would gradually invade me until my thoughts had faded away, and in that darkness I would feel the presence of a force or power, a living presence it felt like–yes, it was the living presence of the universe, humming through the wind and the wave and the ocean and the island and all things.
Shivering in the cooling wind, I would come back to myself, to the rock pillar. But as I'd climb down from the headland and walk back round the long curve of Horseshoe Bay, my skin would be prickling and my mind swimming with a sense of even greater wonders still to come. Then the future life that was to bring these wonders would assume indistinct forms, causing the strongest hunger of all. There was a dark, mysterious, undefined plane. There was a somehow subterranean journey. There was a golden vein, which, now glimpsed, I would find and follow.
Romantic ideals notwithstanding, a primary practical goal of Magarey's round–the–world trip is to overcome his OCD and delusions by means of a rigorous, unpleasant psychological treatment called "exposure." This technique involves Joel's reiterating to himself his worst fears and nightmares—the very provocations that lead him to his odd, repetitive behaviors in the first place.
Despite his efforts towards clarity and mental health, Joel's illness gets worse when he's away from home, but rather than lead him to sheer self–destruction, it takes the form of extreme acts of kindness to, or even rescue of, utter strangers. In a remote part of the Orkney Islands, Joel loses days of hiking time trying to find a man who probably isn't even there. In India, beggars get the remnants of Joel's travel money and sanity. In Zimbabwe, a severely crippled woman is given a wheelchair. And so on—all these acts of charity are done so that Joel can ease his compulsive guilt and fears, but none of them really works.
However, Magarey's predilection for extreme camping does pull his attention from his internal psychic battles to external survival struggles. After nearly dying (of exposure!) on an Alaskan kayaking trip, and out–roaring a bear in the Rockies, Magarey later immolates his own tent, mattress, and facial hair while camping alone in Bolivia. To these and other near–death experiences, Magarey reacts with a lightheartedness that he—understandably—can't summon for the psychic battles.
The book is also a complicated love story, with Joel's remorse about, enjoyment of, and love for his Australian girlfriend affecting his every move all over the world. Pleasure, danger, and guilt pull Joel's psyche in different directions, making his journey a mind–%#&, an orgiastic escape route and a prison, all at once. Despite the book's sometimes grim psychological component, in places the narrator is laugh–out–loud funny about his predicament, and it's likely you'll read his story as compulsively as the narrator doles out advice to himself and money to others. One drawback is that the storylines become a bit torturous, weaving between the present time of the journey (the Americas and Africa, 1995), past journeys (China, Fiji, Russia), and stays at home (Australia). Frustrated and impeded by flashbacks, sometimes the structure seems unnecessarily complicated, but—at risk of calling in the sympathetic fallacy—that probably mirrors how the narrator felt about his whole journey. Form follows content, and it's good to follow Joel through several hilarious near–death experiences and a sad romance, all of which suggest the folly of over–preparation.
The Ramen King And I
By Andy Raskin
Magarey's book is in some ways the converse of The Ramen King And I, the first book by American writer Andy Raskin. While Magarey is seeking a way out of his long–term, committed, monogamous relationship, Raskin is trying to find his way back into one. Raskin's route involves playing jazz trombone, enjoying world–class sushi on two continents, and writing heartfelt letters to Momofuku Ando, the creator of ramen instant noodles. In between, there are lots of insights into Japanese culture, an East Coast Jewish family, and heterosexual thirty–something love:
Was this Ando's so–called true desire—a manifestation of the 'the innate human urge to connect with the world' that led him to invent instant ramen?
Yes, and it was hot.
It's fair to say that both works explore not only different world regions, but also different ways in which youngish men fall in and out of strange love, real sex and misadventure in the 21st century. Big trips, indeed.
Gillian Kendall is author of Mr. Ding's Chicken Feet, co–author of How I Became a Human Being, and editor of Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing, all from University of Wisconsin Press. For Perceptive Travel, Kendall has previously written several book reviews and "Acrophobia Down Under."