Perceptive Travel Book Reviews December 2016
by Susan Griffith



In this issue: an intriguing illustrated encyclopaedia of undiscovered places to revive a sense of wonder, a fearless chase around the world for precious minerals and another less than inspiring backpacking narrative.



Walking with Plato

Photo by Tony Robinson-Smith



Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
By Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton

Who would have guessed that the world still has so many secrets and surprises to deliver? This marvelous compendium of "Curiosities, Imponderables and Wonders" contains about 600 wonders of the world, some esoteric, others more familiar. At least a few are bound to make you wonder how you could have missed something so interesting, even in places you know well. I visit Toronto frequently but had never heard of the Monkey's Paw bookstore which has the world's first randomizing vending machine of old books. I have just come back from the seaside town of Whitby in North Yorkshire and wish I had known that its museum contains a reconstructed "Tempest Prognosticator," an 1851 invention to predict stormy weather that relied on the agitation of leeches. Not long ago I dutifully ticked off most of the sites in the pretty Swedish town of Lund but no one told me that the university's Museum of Student Life includes a collection of 100 plaster casts of famous Scandinavian noses.

Organized country-by-country, the book is a collaborative project that grew out of a website (naturally) which attracted insider knowledge from contributors all over the world. The hardback is beautifully produced: attractively designed, intelligently written, and accompanied by more than a thousand excellent photographs, maps, and drawings. The typo-free text reveals the work of skilled storytellers who can condense information into a lively couple of paragraphs. For example we learn from the entry about the August Von Spiess Museum of Hunting in Sibiu Romania that the bear population increased under the reviled dictator Ceauşescu because he banned hunting, to leave more bears for him to shoot. The writers sometimes take a pleasingly wry approach to their subject, as with Alexander Golod's new age Pyramids in Ostashkov, Russia, which purport to confer healing properties, especially through items for sale in the gift shop.

If your bucket list contains predictable places like the Taj Mahal and Sydney Harbour Bridge, you must read this book and replace those clichés. Perhaps instead see the desert fire pit in Turkmenistan known as the Door to Hell and the asphalt Pitch Lake in Trinidad. After browsing open-mouthed, you may be prompted to come up with a personal Atlas Obscura—weird and wonderful places you have visited that didn't make the editors' cut. I looked for the weekly water court that has been taking place for 1000 years outside the cathedral in Valencia Spain where disputes over water access and irrigation are aired and settled. Personally I might have included more food-related experiences like eating wriggling octopus tentacles in Gwangjang Market in Seoul. Not that the book omits all culinary specialties—we learn from one fascinating item that Tongzi Dan is a seasonal treat in Dongyang, China. It consists of eggs boiled in the urine of small boys.

Many choices are a touch ghoulish like the "necropants" found in the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, consisting of the skin peeled from the legs of a dead friend, guaranteed to bring prosperity if worn with a coin in the crotch. According to the thematic index there are more than 50 Macabre Museums as well as scores of natural wonders, gardens, self-declared micronations, fantasy constructions, curious contraptions, and other man-made oddities.

This is a book to be savored serendipitously. Incredibly, a very similar book less catchily entitled The Atlas of Improbable Places was also published in September. I haven't got hold of a copy yet, but it would be fascinating to see where the two volumes overlap and diverge. I suspect that with its high production values, the Atlas Obscura would make the preferred Christmas present.






Gold Rush: How I Found, Lost and Made a Fortune
By Jim Richards

The subtitle of this memoir-cum-travelog is misleading. Rather than a manual for entrepreneurs, this is an unexpectedly engaging account of one man's quest for adventure through pursuing gold and diamonds. Lots of travel writers make their passion their theme, such as food or wildlife, but none that I know has chosen mining. After seeing a newspaper article about a gold rush in Brazilian Amazonia in 1990, the author as a young man resigns from the British Army and sets off for Latin America to pursue his pipe dream.

I have always been interested in stories of working abroad because of the books that I have been writing since the 1980s. The author outlines the four main problems that overwhelm anyone who dreams of working their way around the world: he lacks money, knowledge, contacts and legal papers. Tackling them systematically, he learns Spanish in Guatemala, tries some amateur gold panning on the Miskito Coast of Honduras which also teaches him jungle skills and, after befriending a Guyanese man called Jerome, learns about gold dredging in Guyana which he decides to investigate. His army officer background and university degree in geology from Goldsmiths College (perhaps an inevitable choice of university for a young man already obsessed with gold rushes) help him to land a job at a remote gold mining camp up the Essequibo River of Guyana.

Later he goes solo and sets up his own diamond prospecting operation on the unmapped Ekereku plateau near the Venezuelan border. In one of the remotest places on earth, he spends his days diving into the murky river to oversee the dredging of sand and gravel which deliver some gems of great value. The characters he meets along the way are out of the wild west, or maybe the Heart of Darkness—smugglers and potential muggers, prostitutes and sharks. The wildlife is even more terrifying, including frenzied piranhas and marabunta (army ants), caiman and parasitic jigger worms. Those the author has to cut out of his hands and feet with a sterilized Swiss army knife.

When the jungle starts to make him stir crazy, he moves on to Australia to start from scratch, trying to get a mining job by contacting companies listed in the Yellow Pages (remember those?). After nine blisteringly hot months working at Meekatharra in Western Australia, he moves on to Laos which in 1993 was uncharted territory for geological exploration and traveling generally. He collects samples in the notorious Golden Triangle where conditions are even harsher than in Guyana, with leeches (removed with soap), scorpion stings, a diet of barbecued rat, Hmong insurgent attacks, and dengue fever. But these are not as discouraging as his next port of call in Indonesia where he loses all his savings investing in what turned out to be a massive international gold fraud.

Another hardship posting in Pakistan restored his finances, allowing him to register mineral rights to an area of Australia and ultimately to float a company (whereupon travel book aficionados may lose interest). But there was enough evocation of landscapes and tales of jungle survival and derring-do for this book to count as a travel book. and an enjoyable one.






Shave My Spider! A six-month adventure around Borneo, Vietnam, Mongolia, China, Laos and Cambodia
By Tony James Slater

Whereas our Gold Rush author's knack for understatement is redolent of manly mountaineering and adventure literature ("I kept a hacksaw blade in my diving boot; I'd rather cut off a finger than drown"), the author of this vapid backpacking yarn employs a juvenile blogging style as he flees from night markets to the safety of Burger King and complains of noisy hostels and travel rip-offs (yawn). To prepare for an open-ended backpacking trip with his new wife, this 34-year old adolescent borrows lots of guidebooks from the library which makes him feel "all grown up," but never opens them and forgets to return them before departure.

The pointless hyberbole—almost the first sentence mentions a "train stretching into infinity"—is a sign of lazy writing. In the first few pages, he confesses that his previous travel book about Thailand isn't selling so well, "but that's okay because it was rubbish"—a reckless admission that might serve to warn readers off this sequel. The ambiguous grammar of his wife's attempt to bolster his confidence is far more amusing than his lame jokes: "You don't write books about travel because you're good at it" she reassures him, "but because you're absolutely terrible at it." She intends "it" to mean travel (he cultivates a hopelessly accident-prone persona), but after reading this book, she must surely be referring to his writing. The stuff of his dreams is "to visit cool places, write books about them and make a living from it." No genuine love of travel can be detected, just a need to find some content for money-spinning publications.




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:








Atlas Obscura

Buy Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders  at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Kobo


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Gold Rush: How I Found, Lost and Made a Fortune

Buy Gold Rush: How I Found, Lost and Made a Fortune in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Kobo









Shave My Spider! A six-month adventure around Borneo, Vietnam, Mongolia, China, Laos and Cambodia

Buy Shave My Spider! A six-month adventure around Borneo, Vietnam, Mongolia, China, Laos and Cambodia at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK