Perceptive Travel Book Reviews August 2014
by Susan Griffith



In this issue: Some comic insights into the unfathomable ways of Italians as seen through their train system, a heartbreaking reminder of the suffering of the Tibetan people, and an upbeat account of housing experiments in South American cities.



Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo
By Tim Parks

Even if you have never traveled on an Italian train, I defy you not to enjoy this book. Some of the comic aspects of train travel are universal, and Tim Parks encounters them all: the unwanted chatterbox in the next seat, the foreigners close to tears as they are foiled by the automatic ticket machines, the ridiculousness of bilingual announcements (one in so-called English rhymed "Trenitalia" with genitalia).

But it is when the foibles of Le Ferrovie dello Stato (State Railways) take on a peculiarly Italian aspect that this book is at its most enjoyable. With a massively long queue behind him, the author tries to buy a ticket from Beppe, who happens to be an acquaintance. He knows that if he protests to Beppe that they shouldn't be exchanging pleasantries with people waiting, Beppe will be offended. So he must listen to Beppe's concerns about his daughter, who doesn't seem to be taking her teachers seriously. This small encounter reinforces what the author has learned over his 30+ years of living in Italy, that personal relationships come before civic sense. One of the pleasures of this book is that the anecdotes and observations are not merely entertaining, they are illustrative of Italy's psyche and history.

This expatriate Englishman in Italy can tease out the comedy from exasperation, and cultural insights from the most ordinary incident. Take the way Italians conduct their still frequent train strikes. (I have experienced these the hard way on two separate occasions in the past two years, once arriving at a deserted platform in Mantua to find that my elaborate plans for a trip to Lake Garda were to be scuppered by a one-day train strike. More recently when stranded in the suburban Rome station near ancient Ostia where the only solution seemed to be a 7km hike to the beach to pass the time pleasantly until the strike ended at 5pm). The rail authorities like to appear helpful by giving plenty of advance warning and offering to let enquirers know which trains are (or rather might be) running, while still giving people an excuse to take a day off work.

Some of the set piece episodes are hilarious. Sitting in a compartment of the Rome-Sicily train, Parks finds himself eavesdropping on four separate cell phone conversations. A languid young man is calmly breaking up with his girlfriend ("I did it and that's that. It's called freedom"); a woman is telling her husband at the other end that she is having a dizzy spell in a tactical bid to persuade him to pick her up on arrival at Palermo; a girl is sleep-deprived from having been dancing into the wee small hours, and a sweating corpulent man must, Tim decides, be a Vatican banker. His keen ear for dialogue and his novelist's ability to flesh out and cleverly interweave imaginary scenarios sometimes makes you laugh aloud. A receptive reader may end up sharing the happiness which the author admits to in that Sicily-bound train: "How privileged to be surrounded by all this life." Parks congratulates himself (quite rightly) on being able to understand and place all the dialects, and we are lucky to have him as our interpreter.






The Friendship Highway: Two Journeys in Tibet
By Charlie Carroll

Only one of the two journeys of the title is made by the author. The other and more interesting one is by a young Tibetan man, Lobsang, whose gripping and heart-rending life story is told in alternate chapters. The increasingly urgent question, "How does Charlie Carroll know Lobsang's story?" is not answered until a few pages before the end. The two meet in a deserted bar in the charmless town of Zhangmuzhen on the Tibet-Nepal border. After hearing and recording his life story over an unforgettable seven hours, Charlie decides to try to smuggle him in the tourist van, only to be foiled by the rule that foreigners must walk. He never hears of Lobsang again. The ending is haunting.

At age five in 1989, Lobsang and his family flee into exile in Kathmandu. Lobsang is a clever boy who quickly learns Nepali and then English. He wins a scholarship to study in India where he meets and falls in love with Drolma, a Tibetan girl from Lhasa. When their studies end, they have no choice but to return to their respective families. Unable to bear the prospect of permanent separation, Lobsang crosses on foot over the high mountain passes and lives under the radar for about a year in Lhasa, seeing Drolma constantly until she begins to go absent from time to time. He suspects she is having an affair but in fact she has joined a protest group called Stone and Ice. The image they cling to is of an ice age in which stone (Tibet) is encased in ice (China) that will eventually melt. The stone will be eroded or damaged but it will endure. When Drolma disappears he learns that she has been arrested and taken to the dreaded Drapchi prison. He is in great danger and must flee in order to have any chance of campaigning for her freedom. Which brings him to the point when he meets Charlie who is nearly at the end of his trip. Charlie's own nail-biting quest for a Tibet visa and his subsequent travels with a compulsory guide are less dramatic, but still well told.

The dual narrative of this unusual travel book is effective in bringing to life the well known and tragic story of the Chinese colonization of Tibet and the ongoing human rights abuses. In this crash course outlining the last 65 years of Tibet's history, the author does not flinch from detailing some of the more gruesome details, from the routine contempt for Tibetan culture (for example Chinese-run tour companies sell tours of the sacred sky burials) to the torture of Buddhist nuns. Since his visit, the situation has become even more repressive, because of the number of Tibetans who have self-immolated. (When I was lucky enough to visit Llasa in June 2012, the streets were entombed with security, including circular palisades of fire extinguishers at the ready). In a good piece of travel writing, the reader accompanies the author on a perception-altering journey and this book certainly achieves that.






Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture
By Justin McGuirk

Radical Cities
© Cristóbal Palma

This is not really a travel book, but it will make you look at the cityscapes of Rio, Bogotá, Caracas and others with different eyes. Even if you never visit any of the avant-garde housing projects described, this fascinating and well-argued book will make you think about the continent with new understanding and also admiration for the ingenuity of South American architects in trying to solve seemingly intractable problems. Who would have thought that it was architects who pushed for cable cars in Caracas and MedellĂ­n to unify socially divided cities? In the case of the latter, Colombia's second city, the opening of the Metrocable in 2004 cut the commute of some of the city's poorest from 90 minutes to seven.

Slums sprawl over the hills and gullies of the great megalopolises of the southern American continent. We in the developed world are used to gazing upon these with pity and hostility and assuming that the ideal solution would be to provide decent social housing and to incorporate residents into the formal system by assigning property deeds and making the people pay taxes and power bills. But the author shows that that route leads to indebtedness and displacement through rising property values, and will ultimately fail. This thought-provoking book tries to rehabilitate the favela, celebrating its "spontaneity, energy, and resourcefulness." The polemic argued by McGuirk is that favelas are not the problem but the solution, not the aberration but the primary urban condition. He argues clearly and persuasively that a more successful solution is for the state to provide an open system or basic structure for residents to complete as they see fit. Innovative architectural firms have run with this idea attributed to Le Corbusier. One Santiago-based practice called Elemental working to settle 93 squatting families in Iquique in northern Chile was assigned a budget of $7,500 per family, which was half of the minimum needed. So they built 93 half houses, leaving residents to do the rest.

These activitist architects who are thinking outside the (literal) box are depicted by McGuirk as heroes. But we also learn of heroic politicians like Mayor Mockus of Bogotá who, when in office in the early 21st century, bravely attempted to return his dangerous city to sanity in unusual ways, which included hiring hundreds of mime artists to direct traffic and going about the streets dressed as a spoof-superhero Supercitizen. Those of us familiar with the antics of Toronto's buffoonish mayor Rob Ford can only look on in admiration and envy at a thinker-turned-doer like Mockus.

Knowing almost nothing of the subject matter beforehand, I found this book revelatory because of the author's telling and dramatic encounters with slum-dwellers, the clarity of its argument without using jargon or presuming any prior knowledge, and its unexpected optimism for the future.




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 16 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:


Italian Ways

Buy Italian Ways in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)





The Friendship Highway

Buy The Friendship Highway in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)



Radical Cities

Buy Radical Cities at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)







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