Perceptive Travel Book Reviews March 2020
by William Caverlee

In this issue: A photography collection from wild places, a memoir of a decade of nomadic travel, plus a book on the strange and often bloody religious festivals of Asia.

Feel the Wild
By Daniel Fox

In Feel the Wild, photographer, journal-keeper, and wilderness traveler Daniel Fox has given us a book of excellent color photographs, accompanied by a collection of meditations and essays on his life—a life of hiking, climbing, trekking, and kayaking. Fox travels alone, taking only the gear he can carry, protected, you might say, by his own hardiness, self-reliance, daring, and abiding love of nature.

Leafing through these photographs makes for a wide-ranging wildlife tour: Fox takes us to Alaska, Utah, Argentina, British Columbia, Baja California, Hawaii, Big Sur, Oregon, and Washington.

Early on, we come face to face with a handsome red fox on Kodiak Island in Alaska, its rufous-colored fur surrounding a pair of intent, hyper-alert yellow eyes. A few pages later is a scary-looking, open-mouthed elephant seal in Patagonia, Argentina. Then we find beautiful terns in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. Now, a raging surf off the Pacific coast in Oregon. Then more wildlife: bears, bison, deer, humpback whales, eagles, hawks...

Included among the photos are around 22 self portraits: the author hiking a forest trail in Big Sur or descending a rocky outcrop on Antelope Island in Utah... I don't know how these were taken: maybe using a timer and tripod? In addition, for those readers who are camera buffs, all of Fox's full-size images include technical info like f-stops, shutter speeds, etc.

Fox's writing is both philosophical and autobiographical. He urges us to go into the woods, to seek out solitude, to learn what nature has to tell us.

I love the wilderness. I love being in it and feeling it. I love the humbling experience of feeling powerless against it.

Nature's teachings hold the secrets to our survival and evolution. Its most precious gift: humility is the foundation of a peaceful and harmonious world.

Get out there! Get lost and go feel the wild.

In addition to this kind of exhortatory writing, Fox also recounts specific wilderness encounters. Once, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, he walked up on a black bear, and found himself forced to hold his ground, speaking to the bear, not running away, although armed only with a machete. The encounter ended benignly with no attack, no injury—although the bear came within seven meters of him. On another occasion, Fox took a kayak trip along the Pacific coast from Washington to Oregon. After two weeks of ocean paddling, he came up against a sudden storm and had to watch as his kayak broke in two. Somehow he made it to shore, bloodied but alive...This book is a portrait of the traveler as adventurer.

Ten Years a Nomad
By Matthew Kepnes

In Ten Years a Nomad, blogger and travel writer Matthew Kepnes tells his story. One day, as a young college grad in Boston, he found himself questioning the career track that lay before him. Such a moment, of course, is the decisive moment for many a poet, explorer, or artist. For Kepnes, as for many other young people these days, travel seemed to be the answer; and this book is his memoir, origin story, and message to others who have come to the same fork in the road.

Kepnes' first trip was a two-week jaunt to Costa Rica in 2003, not exactly a definitive break with his nine-to-five life, but it was a start, an eye-opener, a source of inspiration. Two years later, he and a buddy flew to Thailand. Here he discovered the backpacking world: young people on the road, new and easy friendships, living from day to day. In 2006, he made his way to Europe. Here he discovered the world of ancient cities, hostels, trains, and cafés, all the while making stops in Rome, Venice, Athens, Vienna, Prague, and Costa del Sol.

It wasn't too long after this that Kepnes was living abroad—as an expat—not just a backpacker. In 2008, he created a website and began blogging about travel. Eventually, he was profiled by the New York Times and his internet career took off.

A reader of Ten Years a Nomad can gain useful information about backpacking and living abroad. Hostel life, we learn, can be the opposite of glamorous—with thrown-together roommates, noise, discomfort, and grubbiness. Along with carefree romantic hook-ups are tearful break-ups and failed relationships, and Kepnes doesn't shirk from reporting on his own love life. The nomad's life also has its own possibilities for monotony, anxiety, burn-out, and the desire to quit traveling—all of which makes for an interesting commentary on one's original desire to seek out a new life of freedom on the road.

Divine Encounters: Sacred Rituals and Ceremonies in Asia
By Hans Kemp

Dutch photographer Hans Kemp crisscrossed Asia to put together this collection of powerful color photographs of religious rites and spectacles. Divine Encounters is a huge book: 400 pages in hardback, measuring around 10 inches wide by 13 inches tall. The book's fourteen chapters take us to India, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, Myanmar, Mongolia, New Guinea, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Kashmir. In each ceremony that Kemp documents, he includes a page or two of background description, plus a page of standard travel info: map, name of country, time setting for the event, the country's population, size, and principal religions.

The great bulk of the book is taken up with Kemp's photographs, many of which are two-page spreads. In one sense, these photographs could be said to provide a wide-ranging overview of religion in Asia, National Geographic-style—with street scenes, swirling crowds, shamans, colorful costumes, monks in procession...

But much of Divine Encounters is concerned with religious practice in extremis. For example, Kemp takes us to the Via Crucis in the Philippines, where the Passion of Christ is re-enacted publicly and bloodily. Here devotees carry crosses; others have their backs cut, then perform self-flagellation. A few are actually crucified, their hands and feet pierced with nails. Elsewhere, in New Guinea, Kemp photographs initiation rites, where young men endure painful skin-cutting. In Malaysia, a man is carried through the street while hanging from metal hooks through his skin. This book is not for the faint-hearted or easily shocked.

Divine Encounters is a graphic, close-up record of certain religious rituals in Asia. In the book's introduction, the author himself describes what he set out to document: "A world revealing itself through elaborate spirit rituals, blood-curdling ceremonies and exuberant festivals taking place all over the continent."

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

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Ten Years a Nomad

Buy Ten Years a Nomad at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Divine Encounters: Sacred Rituals and Ceremonies in Asia

Buy Divine Encounters: Sacred Rituals and Ceremonies in Asia at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada