Perceptive Travel Book Reviews January 2018
by William Caverlee

In this issue: a mad hunt for half the world's birds in one year, a graphic novel about hiking Spain's Camino, and an author's dive into "dark tourism" spots on multiple continents.

Birding Without Borders
By Noah Strycker

On January 1, 2015, Noah Strycker embarked on a round-the-world trip with the goal of spotting 5,000 different bird species (roughly half the species on the planet) during the next 365 days. Among bird-watchers, such a feat is called a “Big Year,” and Strycker has published Birding Without Borders as a travelogue of his record-setting year.

For, indeed, he broke the previous record of 4,300 species, and then pushed on to hit 5,000 on day 299, and eventually ran his total up to 6,042 when he spotted a Silver-breasted Broadbill while in India on the last day of the year.

Birding Without Borders is both an engrossing travel tale and a bird-watcher’s extravaganza. Strycker is a fine writer, and we jolt along with him on his nonstop race around the world. He travels light: backpack, binoculars, camera, spare clothes, medical kit…

This was no luxury tour. Strycker hiked up mountains and down into jungles. He slept in tents, hostels, and dodgy hotels. He got sick, skirted a typhoon, missed airline connections, hitched rides on motorcycles, and clocked forty-one countries.

Most of the time, he was guided by local birders, who volunteered to meet him at each new border. Then they happily, generously, helped him learn the ropes of their country’s geography and bird life.

Strycker’s enthusiasm is evident on every page and soon we are pulling for him to clamber across a rocky outcrop or traverse a swaying rope bridge atop a forest canopy in order to spot one last rarity before nightfall. Then it’s a few winks of sleep and a race across the mountains to get to the next airport and on to the next country.

Here’s the author in Peru, being coached by his host, an Indiana-Jones-style guide and super-birder named Gunnar Engblom:

“Here’s the plan,” he said, as the van slalomed around slow-moving trucks, pedestrians, farm animals, and potholes along a cliffside, guardrail-less road. “We’re heading for a place called Andamarca and a bird called the Black-spectacled Brushfinch—a super-endemic species, first described to science in 1999, that is known only from a small part of the Cordillera in central Peru. We have a good chance to see one but Andamarca is kind of far from here.” He paused to glance at his watch. “I think we can just make it if we drive into the night, sleep in the van and then get up at sunrise.”

And they did it. Spotted a pair of the elusive finches. Birding Without Borders continues in this breathless and highly enjoyable vein. It includes photos, a world map, a list of gear, and fifty-one pages of small-print, listing all 6,042 of Strycker’s birds, from the Cape Petrel (Jan. 1, Antarctica) to the aforementioned Silver-breasted Broadbill (Dec. 31, India).

On the Camino

On the Camino
By Jason

On the Camino is an ingenious travelogue, in the form of a graphic novel (more accurately, a graphic memoir). The cartoonist Jason, who goes by a single pen name, is Norwegian and the author of numerous books. In 2015, he decided to hike the famed pilgrimage route, the Camino de Compostela (also known, as the Camino de Santiago—or, in English, as the Way of Saint James).

The Camino, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covers 500 miles across northern Spain. The route Jason took begins in the French city of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees, then traces its way through hills and fields and dozens of Spanish towns to a terminus at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, with a voluntary bonus lap onward to the Atlantic Ocean in Finisterre.

The Camino began as a religious pilgrimage, and today it continues to draw believers, but it has also become an attraction for hikers and trekkers of all kinds, many of whom have set themselves a personal challenge or seek to achieve the kind of nonsectarian spiritual experience that is said to occur when hiking the Appalachian Trail or running a marathon or similar feats.

A highly evolved tourist industry offers hotels, restaurants, hostels, and dormitories for the pilgrims, so one is not exactly crossing Antarctica by sled. Numerous books, movies, and television shows have featured the Camino, including the 2010 Martin Sheen movie, The Way.

Our cartoon hero spends much of his walk alone, bewildered, or occasionally just plain lost. As a cartoon figure, Jason draws himself with a human body and a dog’s face—most of the other characters that he meets along the way are also dog-humans, with a few cats sprinkled in and one or two birds.

On the Camino is witty and intelligent—and highly readable whether you’re a fan of graphic novels or not. In a hostel in the town of Estella, Jason sits down to dinner with a group of fellow hikers, and he and a dinner companion open a conversation:

“Has anyone seen that Martin Sheen film, The Way?”

“Yes, I’ve seen it.”

“I have a problem with that film. Where’s the scene where Martin Sheen hand washes his socks?”

“Or the scene where he pins a hole in a blister or wakes up bitten by bedbugs?”

On the Camino doesn’t shy away from blisters or bedbugs—or sweat, dirty clothes, or noisy hostels. Its last twelve panels are set on the road to Finisterre. In captionless, wonderful drawings, Jason walks silently and alone toward the coast. Arriving, he doffs backpack, shoes, and socks, and takes a cooling step into the sea.

Shadow Trails: Adventures in Dark Tourism
By Tom Coote

In two previous books, Tom Coote traversed the gnarly Silk Road in Central Asia, then toured several war-torn, dysfunctional countries in West Africa. Happily, he survived those two outings and has now published a collection of short travel pieces from additional journeys he has made in recent years.

In Shadow Trails, he visits sixteen markedly non-Disney destinations—places like Chernobyl, Rwanda, Columbia, Algeria, Libya, Northern Ireland, and Ground Zero. The slender hardback volume measures around eight inches by ten inches and is generously illustrated with plenty of color photographs.

In Bogota, Coote visits the haunts of drug lords, where “it was only outlaws and foolish tourists who chose to come out at night.” (See parts of the story in an earlier issue here.) In Lomé, the capital of Togo, he makes his way to a voodoo market. After touring Chernobyl, he was made to take a radiation exam to see if his exposure was low enough for him to be allowed to leave.

One of the grimmest chapters is his tour of Northern Ireland. Here, he takes one of Belfast’s Black Taxi tours, where drivers “herd cab loads of camera wielding tourists between sectarian murals, murder sites, and cemeteries, in both Protestant and Catholic parts of Belfast.” Coote includes several photos of brightly colored paintings on the sides of buildings, with their slogans and images of Bobby Sands, Nelson Mandela, and others. One mural pictures Stevie McKeag, who won numerous “Topgun” awards, given by the Ulster Freedom Fighters to “whoever had killed the most people in the preceding season…”

In Shadow Trails and his two previous books, Tom Coote ventures into places that most tourists flee from, in their search for entertainment and diversion. Coote has other fish to fry, namely, to press beyond the safety zones and send us descriptions of what he finds.

William Caverlee is a freelance writer who has been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Oxford American, Cimarron Review, Flight Journal, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. His work appears in The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings, and he's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Birding Without Borders

Buy Birding without Borders at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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On the Camino

Buy On the Camino at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Shadow Trails: Adventures in Dark Tourism

Buy Shadow Trails: Adventures in Dark Tourism at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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