Perceptive Travel Book Reviews June 2013
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Two women fulfill their quest for independence through travel: one a New Yorker in challenging destinations around the world, the other a Briton on an idyllic Greek island. The final book uses the medium of photography to record the horror and celebrate the spirit of the slums of Rio at a time when positive changes are a possibility for the first time.

Without a Spare: A Fearless Woman's Life of Travel
By Bonnie Kassel

Exciting as our youthful travels may have seemed to us at the time, it is far from certain that excavating and recording our travel memories would result in anything worth reading. Bonnie Kassel's travel journals from 1960 onwards must have been her starting point when sitting down to write her travel memoirs. The result is neither tedious nor self-indulgent, because the travel experiences retold are so gripping and because the book is so tightly edited. Twenty-four short chapters, each devoted to a different country, describe encounters and escapades that are so carefully selected that the reader's interest is seldom allowed to wane.

Although the author is an artist and master weaver, she has chosen a simple chronological structure for her travel reminiscences. In some ways, the book can be read as a bildungsroman or coming-of-age story. The optimistic naiveté of the author and her friend is breathtaking as they set off in a Volkswagen to cross from Egypt to Kenya, one of the most challenging trans-Africa overland trips for anyone, let alone two newly graduated young women from privileged east coast backgrounds. They blithely set off into the desert without a compass assuming they will be able to navigate by the sun, realizing too late that near the equator, the usual rules don't apply. Ah, the recklessness of youth. Years later when a traveler breaks his back attempting a Tarzan imitation on a jungle vine, Bonnie Kassel does not join in the general clamor of disapproval since she knows what it is to take foolish risks.

She and her various companions have an uncanny knack for landing on their feet, whatever scrapes they get into. If they arrive on a small Maldives resort island to find it fully booked, never mind, there is bound to be a cancellation. If they are lost and mired in the desert, never fear, a group of Tuaregs will come along in a minute to rescue them. But not all her risks end happily. The Ecuador chapter starts starkly: "I was raped in Quito", an experience that she professes to have taken in her stride.

It is difficult to reconcile the kind of traveler who goes nowhere without perfectly painted toenails with one who can sleep on a jungle floor seething with roaches or who can crawl around on a dusty road in Sri Lanka helping fellow bus passengers to find an essential wheel bolt that will allow their journey to continue. Not much information is given about how all these extended exotic trips from an early age were funded (the term "silver spoon" springs to mind). But her pluckiness and stoicism in the face of adversity are undeniable.

Her credo for turning a vacation into an adventure by avoiding planning and ignoring warnings is strangely seductive. Now in her 60s, the author still travels to new places that retain their power (occasionally) to deliver moments of exhilaration.

Falling in Honey: Life and Love on a Greek Island
By Jennifer Barclay

Whereas Bonnie Kassel operates on a world stage, Jennifer Barclay's travel sights are fixed on one tiny island in the Aegean Sea. Here is another woman traveler discovering her independence and inner strength through travel. Affairs of the heart loom even larger in this account. After an umpteenth failed relationship, thirty-something Oxford-educated Jennifer takes herself in hand and organizes a man-free month on the tiny wild island of Tilos, a walker and swimmer's paradise, accessible from Rhodes.

The writing style is straightforward: simple sentences convey simple pleasures. She accomplishes the hard trick of communicating the appeal of life in a place where nothing happens: "I continue towards the road to the village, stopping to inhale the aroma of a fig tree and to look at the fields of olive trees filled with poppies and daisies…I pass a smiling farmer in boots with tousled grey hair and then his sheep, clanking their bells…A little further along, through a gate held together with wire, pretty little goats leap off the path ahead as they see me coming…The beach is empty, of course; there's just the sound of water gently flowing in and out across pinkish pebbles.. On the hillside, there's a lone tree, self-consciously picturesque."

Falling in Honey is quite simply a description of paradise, where the rhythms of village life soothe the soul. All paradises are flawed of course: mosquitoes whine, sweat drips, cocks "squawk-a-doodle-do" at 5am, plastic debris washes up on beaches. And yet over time, she learns that the island can be depended on to work its magic, and to make happiness seem easy. The freedom to move to Tilos on a long-term basis would not have been possible (even for men!) a generation ago. Remote working is no longer a remote possibility due to new technologies, and as she says "home is a moveable feast". Later on in the book she explicitly points up the moral—that everyone can find their own Tilos. "Pick an island, any island".

Try not to be deterred by the "chick lit" cover artwork or the autobiographical stuff about the men in her life. She finds an Englishman with whom to share her new life in Tilos but loses him in dramatic circumstances. Against expectation this book encouraged me to entertain the fantasy of a Greek getaway, remembering how intensely I had enjoyed several extended stays on Greek islands long ago.

favela view
Flickr photo by domenicomarchi

Inside the Favelas: Rio de Janeiro
Photographs and essays by Douglas Mayhew

With the attention of the world about to turn to Rio for the World Cup next year and the Olympics in 2016, this is a timely investigation of Rio's underbelly. Anyone who has gazed over that beautiful city will have been appalled and intrigued by the near vertical favelas that have colonized the seemingly uninhabitable ravines between suburbs. More perilous than the locations was the way that drug gangs attained supremacy, controlling every aspect of daily life for the poor and dispossessed inhabitants (as documented so memorably in the 2002 film City of God). Curious travelers to Rio could penetrate these frightening strongholds only on organized tours approved by the cartels, a dubious form of misery tourism.

This book serves as a superb antidote to the superficial view obtained on one of those tours. Douglas Mayhew visited and photographed scores of favelas. Some of the photographs capture the soul-destroying dereliction, others the triumph of the favela-dwellers. Barefoot children crunch up rubbish-strewn steps. Muscular young men shoulder heavy pieces of furniture. Ugly peeling expanses of wall are pocked with bullet holes. Beauty can be detected in some of the images, and touches of color—a gingham curtain, a few seashells embedded in a wall—redeem the bleakness. Some of the photographs of flimsy scaffolding or mazes of power cables resemble abstract paintings. Almost no faces are shown, which was one of the conditions of entry. The favelas are certainly not romanticized in any way, and yet the impression left is not of despair.

The text is fascinating, and very current. Since 2010, the state government and mayor of Rio have implemented policies to claim back the favelas from the drug warlords and to install governing UPPs (Police Peace Units). The task is herculean, and the amount of military hardware and courage required to achieve this is terrifying. Favela by favela, the authorities are reclaiming these former no-go zones, and are often greeted by applause and practical help from the residents. One of the ways of bringing favelas into the mainstream is by mapping them for the first time, though it will be a long time before they will appear in guidebooks and on Rio street maps.

It is ironic that an exposé of favela life should become a coffee table book published by a press called Glitterati. One of the strands of Mayhew's story is told by focusing on graffitied slogans or "wall-speak". Favela walls have routinely been covered by drug faction insignias, threats and despairing messages like "Vai ter que aturar" (You will have to bear it). One photograph of street art depicts a young boy with toxic green goo dripping from his extended tongue. It is moving to see a slogan like "Gentileza gera gentileza" (kindness generates kindness) daubed on a peeling cracked wall.

Another structuring image is stairs, often the only access to favelas. The camera angles sometimes trick the eye into thinking it is seeing a stairway to heaven rather than to dystopia. The other principal image is the notorious gatos, a slang term for the tangles of wires that illegally tap into the city's power grid. They encapsulate visually the chaotic resourcefulness of the "people of the hill". One of the last photographs in the book is of an electric wire and node mended with green tape, making it look almost like a green sprouting branch.

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 (personally updated by her over its 14 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently 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, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

Without a Spare

Buy Without a Spare in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Falling in Honey

Buy Falling in Honey in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Inside the Favelas

Buy Inside the Favelas at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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