Perceptive Travel Book Reviews August 2011
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Books on crossing Africa, exploring the Deep South of the USA, and confronting the two sides of modern-day Iran.

Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure
By Julian Smith

In 2007, American travel writer Julian Smith headed north from the coastal city of Beira in Mozambique. Destination: Cairo, or at least as far north as he could get in two months. He hoped to re-enact the century-old journey of an Englishman named Ewart Grogan, who in 1898-1900 made the first European south-to-north land crossing of Africa.

Grogan, age twenty-four, embarked on his expedition in the time-honored tradition of colonial adventurers— swaggering, indefatigable, armed to the teeth—along the way hiring and conscripting African porters and private guards, contracting dozens of ghastly maladies, and barely avoiding violent death from crocodiles, hippos, lions, and local inhabitants. Somehow, he lived to tell the tale—which he described in his book, From the Cape to Cairo.

Grogan did it all for love. His journey was a test of courtship, a stunt meant to convince the father of his would-be fiancée that he was a man of enough courage, valor, and accomplishment to merit nomination as a son-in-law. Nineteenth century fathers of the bride drove hard bargains. Today, one might imagine a bridegroom promising his fiancée (the father wouldn't even come in to it) to give up his Xbox or to take her to Jackson Hole for the weekend, but to dodge crocodiles?

Like Grogan, Julian Smith had a woman in the back of his mind every step of the way—his long-time girlfriend Laura, who was waiting for him in Oregon. There was a wedding date already set—thus the two-month travel limit. Smith's trek wasn't meant to impress Laura—or anyone, for that matter—rather it was the final solo adventure of a diehard bachelor. Smith doesn't hesitate in referring to himself as a world-class commitment-phobe. Indeed, at times, his entire jaunt comes across as a last-minute case of male wedding jitters. He and Laura had been together for seven years!

Nevertheless, Crossing the Heart of Africa is a riveting adventure story and a richly detailed travelogue, weaving back and forth between Grogan's daredevil escapades and Smith's present-day journey (which itself had plenty of dicey moments) by bus, taxi, motorcycle, foot. Once, at a game reserve in Uganda, Smith splurged for a cocktail at a tourist lodge:

The man at the next table turns out to be the owner of the hostel next door, where I'm sleeping. He ticks off the visitors killed by wildlife this year with macabre relish.

"A hippo got one in May." The channel is home to thousands of hippos, one of the largest concentrations in Africa. We can hear snorts and splashes far below in the darkness. A galaxy of insects swirls around the lights.

"And in March, an elephant killed two people," he says. "It got one, and the other tried to swim away. It saw his head out there in the water, then it swam out and"—he smacks his hands together—"whomp!"

Saved By Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran
By Roger Housden

English-born Roger Housden had long been attracted to Iranian and Persian architecture, poetry, and culture before traveling to Tehran in 2008. Based in San Francisco, Housden has written/edited a series of poetry anthologies and he carried the works of the thirteenth century Iranian poet, Rumi, everywhere he went in Iran. Saved By Beauty is peppered with lines of verse, mostly Rumi's—Housden would dip into its pages at times of stress, uncertainty, or just at the end of an over-crowded day:

Every moment and place says,
"Put this design in your carpet!"

Housden is a first-rate journalist and leads us on a crisscrossing tour of Iran, traveling from Tehran to Isfahan, Persepolis, Shiraz, Kurdistan, and on and on. Saved By Beauty is partly a travelogue, partly a historical and cultural tour, and partly a meditation on philosophy and self-discovery. Housden meets ambassadors, poets, political leaders, cab-drivers, film-makers, teachers, Sufi mystics. He wishes he hadn't met the three Iranian intelligence agents who detained him for 36 hours at the very end of his trip.

For a moment or two, in these last pages of Saved By Beauty, we think we're in a Jason Bourne thriller—one that is very real for Housden, however, who is threatened with arrest and imprisonment (and torture? disappearance? death?) by the agents of a police state. At the beginning of his journey, Housden had had a few moments of paranoia concerning his status as an American writer touring Iran. Throughout the course of his travels, however, his meetings with numerous open-minded and hospitable Iranians had lessened those fears—but here at journey's end, all his suppressed anxiety bloomed into a terrifying reality. Fortunately, Housden was not thrown in prison, and he flew out of Tehran after a day and a half of arrest.

In contrast to this last-chapter imbroglio, the center of Saved By Beauty is the blue dome of the seventeenth century Royal Mosque (a.k.a. Imam Mosque) in Isfahan: "Brilliant, radiant turquoise blue, alternating with the deep dark glow of lapis lazuli." Housden found himself nearly alone the day he visited the mosque:

I step through the door into a passageway that directs me to the right and around a slight turn. There before me is the great inner courtyard, with its ablution pool in the middle and a recessed sanctuary at either end. The blue and yellow flower patterns weave around me on every side. Not a square inch is left unattended to. Wherever I look, shifting colors and patterns hold my eyes. It's like sitting inside a child's kaleidoscope. . .

Housden is overwhelmed: "I was sure I had just seen the most beautiful and perfect structure that could issue from the mind and hand of man."

(For photos and an excerpt from the book, see the Perceptive Travel feature by Housden here: Welcome to Iran)

Look Away Dixieland
By James B. Twitchell

"I don't hate it! I don't hate it!" are the last words in William Faulkner's novel, Absalom, Absalom! —the young narrator Quentin Compson speaking of his homeland, the American South.

Ah, well, yes, there's still the South . . . that two-hundred-year-old conundrum, both for visitors and for those of us who live here. What other region of the United States is freighted with so many preconceptions and with such tragedy and anguish? Word associations roll out too quickly: slavery, the Civil War, racism, Jim Crow, Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, Emmett Till, the Birmingham church bombing. . . .

In 2009, James B. Twitchell, a Vermonter and a long-time professor at the University of Florida, took a road trip in a motor home across the rural midsection of the South from Georgia to Louisiana. He traveled on U.S. Highway 84, with plans to see only small towns and forgotten backwaters, rather than the shiny New South metropolises of Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, Jackson.

His was a personal journey as well. In 1876, Twitchell's great-grandfather, a Louisiana state senator, was gravely wounded and nearly killed in an assassination attempt in Coushatta, Louisiana, during a widespread outbreak of white violence against (mostly) blacks—in this case against a white Northerner who was termed a carpetbagger.

Twitchell explains at the outset that he is writing two books in Look Away Dixieland: a travelogue of twenty-first century Southern states and a search for family history. Although, understandably, themes of violence and racism hover over his pages, to Twitchell's credit, he balances both his tasks admirably.

As Twitchell drives west, we learn about Ruskin, Georgia, a nineteenth century communitarian experiment. Also, Dothan, Alabama, a one-time center for Jewish immigrants to the South. Also Laurel, Mississippi, which Twitchell calls a "squirrel Valhalla." He lists the species: "Fox squirrels, eastern grays, western grays, tassel-eared, two kinds of flying squirrel (southern and northern), and then the so-called pine squirrels—red and Douglas."

In particular, he writes of Colfax, Louisiana, eighty miles from where I live, where in 1873 white supremacists slaughtered 70 (in some accounts 150) blacks in what is today called the Colfax Massacre and which is termed by the author as "the bloodiest single instance of anti-black violence in all U.S. history." The first time I heard of Colfax was in an Atlantic Monthly article in 2003.

James Twitchell eventually makes it to Coushatta, Louisiana, and the site of his great-grandfather's assassination attempt—and comes to a kind of personal closure. Along the way, while meditating on the region's bloody and terrible history, he encounters numerous instances of (as the cliché goes) Southern hospitality, generosity, and welcome from both blacks and whites. At journey's end, not surprisingly, he seems nearly as full of misgiving and bafflement as when he began.

William Caverlee is a contributing writer to The Oxford American Magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, His current article in Oxford American is a profile of American short story writer Andre Dubus. Another recent essay appears in the literary journal, MEMOIR (and). See his previous batch of travel book reviews here.

Also in this issue:

Crossing the Heart of Africa

Buy Crossing the Heart of Africa in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Saved By Beauty

Buy Saved By Beauty in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Look Away Dixieland

Buy Look Away Dixieland in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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