Signs of Life: To the ends of the earth with a Doctor
By Stephen Fabes
The round-the-world journey by bicycle that gave rise to this splendid account can justly be described as epic, though the author would avoid any such boastful epithet. At age 29, after practicing medicine for a couple of years in the emergency department of a London hospital, the author self-diagnoses a case of Sehnsucht, which translates as yearning for ideal alternative experiences. He later uses another word new to me which could be construed in the same way: "dromomania" is a psychiatric diagnosis (no longer current) of wanderlust, desire for frequent traveling. (Perhaps we are all psychologically suffering from this at the moment!)
Unlike so many other accounts of cycle-touring, he barely mentions his cycling equipment nor his daily mileages. I loved the absence of ego. The enjoyment of the activity for its own sake and of experiencing the far corners of the world are enough to sustain him for an astonishing six years, London to Sinai, Cairo to Cape Town, Ushuaia to Deadhorse, Melbourne to Cairns, Timor-Leste to Mumbai via Kathmandu, Hong Kong to the Caspian Sea via Mongolia, Georgia and home. This is a mind-boggling achievement yet the writing is matter-of-fact and understated.
He can also be very funny. When he hears about the "common death adder" in Queensland, he is dismayed to find that those three words exist as a sequence. The front seat of a Balinese minibus is packed so tightly with wedged-in bodies that it looks like a mass grave. After trying to allegorize the first Chinese character of village names on his map, he is crushed to discover that he can't in fact find a "man-with-a-box-for-a-head attacking a giant spider" nor an "alien-with-a-scimitar" on road signs. Later in China, he teams up for a time with a Chinese cyclist heading for Tibet who depends on a translation app. One day Liyan decides it is "too cold for praetorium" which the author deduces refers to their little camping tents rather than the tent of a Roman general.
Because of his open-ended schedule he never takes the easy or obvious route, however rough and steep the alternative might be. Behind Santa Barbara he finds the Camino Cielo ("sky road") which eventually turns into a dirt road in the Ynez Mountains of California, and wishes he could ride a trail like this all the way to Alaska "away from the urban racket and all the teeming mess we'd made of the world". He pedals along redundant logging roads on the Pacific coast of America, on a wild isolated road through the center of Bali, and plunges into rural Malaysia. In Bangkok he pores over maps of Southeast Asia: "My eyes get drawn to the small, shy roads, the unmarked spaces, the towns with strange or playful names. Through maps, I stray, and my life is thrown off course."
This unpredictability, even a feeling of "sparkling fear" is what he thrives on; on more than one occasion we find him relishing "that delectable out-of-my-depth feeling" (in rural Kyrgyzstan) and "the sense of control drifting away" (in Afghanistan).
In addition to the quest for adventure, he seeks insights through the health care in various countries, just as he had done as an ER doctor in London, often treating the marginalized and dispossessed. He visits a remote lakeside clinic in Cambodia, a mental health rehab clinic in Mumbai, is asked to look at a patient with hepatitis in Ulaanbaatar. All very remarkable and remarkably engaging. The beauty of this travelog is in its selectiveness. Unconnected flashbacks of particular moments which can be startling or pensive, comic or moving. This is a gem of a read.
By contrast, this book leaves out nothing. This is the seventh in a series of books published primarily for Kindle every year since 2014. The title of the first one summarizes the whole story: "Journey to a Dream: A Voyage of discovery from England's Industrial North to Spain's rural interior". A couple, of relatively modest means, have fled the gray skies of Britain to settle in the hinterland of Galicia, the province in the top left-hand corner of Spain. Over the next umpteen installments, they renovate their home El Sueño ("the dream") and then acquire another shell of a farmhouse and turn it into a luxury holiday home dubbed Campo Verde. This latest volume is about whether or not their first season of renting it out will go well or badly (spoiler alert: it goes well).
The reader's first disappointment is that this is not happening in real time. The book was published in January 2021, yet the year that is being remembered is 2009. Travel details such as a menu del dia costing 10 euros can be of little relevance to anyone interested in travel to Galicia now. But the principal fault is that no detail is omitted, however mundane or inconsequential. They eat breakfast, do domestic chores, laze by the pool and sometimes go on outings. Conversations with his wife, friends and clients are transcribed verbatim down to "thank you" and "you're welcome".
A small vineyard came with their property and Craig has wine-making aspirations. Any potential romance in this pastime is quickly killed by the minutiae of how he sprays fungicide on his vines. Clearly it is necessary to be good at home improvements and repairs to prosper in this business and we are spared none of the technical detail. Two ten-centimeter diameter grey plastic ventilation pipes are one and a half meters tall and capped with a right-angled elbow. At times I wondered if the book might serve as a how-to plumbing manual, though much more wordy than a YouTube video tutorial.
The Briggses literally wash their dirty laundry in public: every changeover day we hear how they strip the beds, wash the dishes, cut the grass... Every entry in the guest book is fully quoted and gloated over. Every set of guests is invited over for drinks and tapas and we learn as much about these random people as Craig and Melanie do.
This is the fulfillment of a dream of so many, Britons in particular, to decamp to a sunny Mediterranean location and earn a living by running holiday accommodation. Anyone who is contemplating such a move might conceivably enjoy following the story of how this cheerful chappie and his equally can-do wife converted their dream into a reality. It may well be a season to remember for the plucky couple, but a book to forget.
What a perfect companion in a Covid-lockdown. If you are the type who enjoys passing the time with puzzles from the newspaper, or likes pub quizzes, you (presumably an avid traveler) will get a kick out of this new book from Bradt Travel Guides. The diversity of puzzle format and content is astonishing, and I had great fun opening the book at random in order to test myself. I was disappointed that I didn't do better on the matching of novels with countries of origin (11/16) but amazed that I did as well as I did on matching Olympic Games with host cities (10/15). I got some quizzes perfect, like recognizing the synopses of great travel books and matching big cat species with world distribution maps (by deduction rather than any expert knowledge). In some cases I got less than half right (identifying weather phenomena and natural disasters — would you be able to guess whether there are 16, 160, 1600, 16,000 or 160,000 lightning strikes per hour around the world? The last number is correct.)
After doing a Sudoku puzzle or crossword, you have learned nothing. But from this book I now know that the capital of Christmas Island is Flying Fish Cove, the difference between flotsam and jetsam (the former is debris unintentionally floating and the other has been deliberately thrown overboard) and that Chile is dubbed "the land of poets." Most questions are not so obscure; in fact many are easy, which is always good for morale. Lots involve pictures, maps, graphs and grids to lend visual variety.
I have left reviewing this one till last because the book is addictive. Now in good conscience I can see how many names for world currencies I can remember, how many writing scripts I can recognize, how many national drinks I can identify...
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 hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.