The Age of Islands: In Search of New and Disappearing Islands
By Alastair Bonnett
The geographer Alastair Bonnett has long been fascinated with the making and unmaking of bits of land surrounded by sea. In fact the subtitle of the book Island Dreams reviewed in the May issue, "Mapping an Obsession," would have been equally apt here. But Bonnett is less a dreamer than a subtle analyst of the practical and ethical considerations of artificial island creation, whether as Chinese military bases in the South China Sea or luxury resorts for celebrities in Dubai.
By now, everyone is aware that low-lying islands, including entire nations like the Maldives and Seychelles, are threatened by rising sea levels and are in danger of disappearing. At the same time, other islands are being created by geological activity and (more often) by man. The variety of new islands is eye-opening and includes the Trash Isles, which have been declared by activists an independent state with their own currency (the "debris").
The masters of creating land from sea are the Dutch. For centuries they have been reclaiming land to make islands, often as flood protection. Flevopolder is the most recent (finished in 1968) and the biggest (sixteen times the size of Manhattan). The author meets a couple who has lived here since 1994, and gets insights into the benefits (freedom, chance to re-wild) and drawbacks (lack of excitement, isolation).
Flevopolder and the planned Villiers Island off the lakeshore of Toronto meet with the author's approval, but a great many new islands are environmental disasters. While branded as eco-retreats, new luxury offshore developments in Panama, Lagos, Hainan Island (China) and the Gulf consume masses of resources, disrupt coastal ecology, and harm marine life. Bonnett writes powerfully of the paradox implicit in building a luxury eco-island for well-heeled city dwellers wanting a cleaner greener alternative. For example, at this moment, Forest City is being constructed on an artificial island between Malaysia and Singapore. He points out how much forest and other natural habitats have been destroyed to make it: "instead of mangrove forests there are golf courses; instead of seagrass meadows, there are planted road verges and gardens."
Despite his day job as an academic geographer, the author has an engaging personal style of writing. He admits to being attracted to places where no one in their right mind would want to go, such as the dead zone around the new Hong Kong International Airport built on several islands artificially joined together. The book opens with a reference to his acute disappointment when the arrival of a hurricane prevents him from reaching a Tongan island, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, formed in 2015 by a series of volcanic eruptions. He had spent months planning and large sums of money to set foot on this new island, all in vain.
He can tell a cracking story whether from history, like the haunted plague island of Poveglia in the Venice Lagoon, or from his own experience, like when he has to impersonate a potential investor in order to visit Ocean Reef, a secure retreat for Panama's wealthy set. This wide-ranging account explores the limits of human invention and ambition.
Tough Women Adventure Stories
Edited by Jenny Tough
Who doesn't love a good example of nominative determinism? Tough really is the editor's surname, which may go some way to explaining why she would choose to run an average of 33km a day for a month, alone and unsupported, through the high Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, something that had never been done before.
This volume is full of heroic endeavors like that: one woman spent 75 days leading a scientific expedition through the Arctic where the temperature routinely touched minus 40°C with a wind chill factor of minus 55°C. A Polish woman (with a full-time office job) launches herself off mountains in order to achieve speeds of 200km an hour wearing a wingsuit (this was a new adventure sport to me). A Swedish fashion photographer-turned-alpinist becomes a peak-bagger, climbing to the highest point in 61 European countries in a year. A former ME-sufferer becomes an endurance swimmer.
If your idea of fun is curling up with a good book, the good news is this is a good book. The bad news is that it will make you feel like a lazy blimp. Vicarious adrenaline rushes can be yours as you follow someone who has no other option but to choose between going up a vertical cliff face or down into roaring white water to avoid death. Some of the 23 pieces are reminiscent of classic adventure (male) literature, which tends to adopt a phlegmatic stoicism, a matter-of-fact understatement of suffering. Other contributors are willing to confess that they howl in pain or cry in relief, both thoroughly understandable reactions in some of the unendurable situations described.
Adventure-activism is a theme. An intense love of the outdoors often leads to a passionate commitment to conservation. A Canadian canoeist joins a scary sit-down protest in front of dam-building bulldozers to prevent the "sickening corruption-fuelled destruction" of a river in northern Albania. One woman cycles the length of South America on a bamboo bicycle she built herself, campaigning against biodiversity loss.
Toughness is often more mental than physical. These women will not give up, even when struck down by injury or Ross River fever. They square up to dangers and obstacles ranging from charging caribou to muggers in Spain to a progressive illness. I sometimes worried that this much punishment of the body can't be good for you, and indeed a few of the writers describe failure, such as Sarah Outen's aborted Pacific row (which led to her suffering PTSD). It occurs to me that the kind of person that covers 110 miles in a 24-hour obstacle race is never going to be a laugh-a-minute and none of these tough women could ever moonlight as a stand-up comedian. But this collection of stories by strong brave women is inspirational, as intended.
Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move
By Nanjala Nyabola
If a volume devoted to female adventure heroes is unusual, a book about traveling as a woman of color is a true rarity. Nanjala Nyabola is Kenyan, educated as a lawyer in the US and England, and has worked as a professional advocate for refugees and displaced peoples. As she says in the opening sentence, this is not a travel memoir. But it does follow the author to countries as diverse as Botswana, Haiti, Nepal, and Italy, and offers insights into how important our identities are to the ways we experience the world and how we are treated when we travel.
The short essay that gives its title to the book is one of the most eye-opening and pertinent. Unlike the tough women talked about earlier, Nyabola is not a fearless traveler when she ventures to Gorom-Gorom in northern Burkina Faso near the Mali border. She admits to being terrified at every step, imagining that she is being cheated at the bus station, and worrying that the bus will crash, that her fellow passengers will rob her or that soldiers glimpsed at a border post have just staged a coup. When none of these catastrophes comes to pass, she realizes that her fears have been created by guidebooks. It dawns on her that the majority of guidebooks, especially those written about Africa, are written by white men for white men. Although that shouldn't matter, she maintains that "race (like gender, sexuality and other markers of identity) shapes travel."
She appreciates that blending in with the locals can be a distinct advantage. But the bureaucracy of travel is far harder for those who do not hold what she calls "powerful passports." After recounting how her visa application to a South American country was petulantly turned down by the consular office in Nairobi, she contends that travel documents have become "loaded with all the politics of a rapidly securitizing, racist and violent world" and can become a "tool for humiliation".
Many of the essays focus on issues of human rights and migration rather than travel, though the two have affinities: "Travel is not migration. Travel is merely a small dose of what is experienced by those who leave, knowing they can never go back." This is a thoughtful book written from a vantage point which may be unfamiliar to many of us.
As an aside, anyone interested in gaining deeper insights into both the soul and the underbelly of some African cities might investigate the series of noir anthologies of stories which has been extending its list into Africa with the most recent additions Accra Noir and Addis Ababa Noir.
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.