Perceptive Travel Book Reviews August 2017
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: two weighty tomes that do not shy away from traveling to the saddest and darkest places in the world, and a third account of embracing danger in remote and intimidating landscapes.

Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel
By Thomas H Cook

The inclusion of the word Memoir is important in the title. This is a book mainly about the author's responses to places that have tragic histories and to the various ways these histories have been interpreted for visitors. Some that are included in this geography of pain and sorrow are universally recognized like Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Ground Zero. Many more are little known, even locally, like Machecoul in France, Kalaupapa in Hawaii and Wieliczka in Krakow, to which the reader brings no preconceptions.

Over many years, Cook together with his wife and daughter traveled the globe to confront and be moved by places of darkness. His stated motive is to focus on the unexpected rewards of learning about the astonishing capacity of human beings to deal with whatever befalls them. His impulses are not voyeuristic; only once does he regret visiting a place, the leper colony of Kalaupapa, which closed in 1969 but is still inhabited in isolation by descendants of sufferers.

Tourists sometimes fall prey to a Pollyannish approach, seeing only what is pretty and quaint, unaware that these can disguise past horrors. The cheerful modern streets of central Buenos Aires do not immediately reveal their grim history. To know that for years the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo marched every week in front of a government building, trying to find out what happened to their children who had “disappeared” under the military dictators, is to understand these streets in a different light. On seeing an anti-capitalist demo taking place, Cook laments that the cause of the grieving mothers has been appropriated and trivialized, which might not be every onlooker's response.

But having visited so many dark places, he is sensitive to those which he feels miss an opportunity to shed light on sad events, sometimes by reducing them to a tourist attraction, as at the Tower of London, and sometimes by commercialization, such as at Lourdes and at the Hasadera temple in Kamakura, Japan. Here he sees phalanxes of identical Buddha figures called Jizos. These guardians of aborted and stillborn children are tended by grieving mothers who pay large sums to the temple complex for their upkeep.

Even when places of unimaginable loss and pain are presented with dignity, such as Verdun in France, scene of the longest battle in history where close to 100,000 soldiers are estimated to have fallen, he witnesses inappropriate and trivial responses, not surprisingly in a high-spirited school party. On Phu Quoc island in South Vietnam, he sees children so oblivious to the horrors that they cheerfully take selfies alongside models of starving North Vietnamese prisoners.

It is sad to contemplate that this is just one man's choice of about 30 “tragic shores” and that many more volumes could be filled with similar places. His final chapter hints at many of these. His wife, Susan, sadly died before the completion of the book and he derives some comfort from his long acquaintance with dark places, that in the face of devastating loss, humans can find a reason to go on.

Far & Away: How Travel Can Change the World
By Andrew Solomon

Here is another American author who is attracted to “dark travel.” Prone to depression, the writer and art critic Andrew Solomon has traveled widely over his life, partly to understand how other cultures from Greenland to Rwanda deal with darkness in the human psyche. He too is interested in understanding (for example) how Cambodians survived unspeakable horrors.

But that is not the sole focus of this 578-page book of essays. Many are reprinted from journals like the New York Times Magazine and some of those I found to be too dated to be of pressing interest. Solomon was assigned to write about the art scenes of Russia, China and South Africa in the 1990s at a time of momentous change, but the artists and movements described have faded into obscurity. He describes in great detail the Yuanmingyuan artist village of Beijing, but since this was shut down by the authorities in 1993, it is now of historical interest only. His shorter pieces for the New York-based magazine Travel + Leisure (still being published) are of more interest to the lover of travel writing, even if some are also from a long time ago.

The best piece is the introductory essay “Despatches from Everywhere,” written specifically for this new volume. It teases out many questions and insights about travel in general. "Travel distils you to a decontextualized essence," something that was especially useful for him as a young man who wanted to be free of social constraints so that he could prepare to come out as gay. Solomon describes himself as an eccentric collector of experiences and addresses the issue of whether the point of travel is to observe or to engage with the societies visited.

The dilemma is illustrated beautifully in the recent article intriguingly titled 'Naked, Covered in Ram's Blood, Drinking a Coke and Feeling Very Good". On a visit to Senegal, he had an introduction to a woman who practised n'deup, the tribal ritual for ridding people of depression. He asked her if he could sit in on a ceremony but was told he might have to wait for months. The woman commented that he wasn't looking too well himself and offered to do the healing ritual on him, which he was game enough to agree to. He moves from observer to participant and the resulting story makes for fascinating reading.

Like all travelers he is in pursuit of the authentic, and is aware that in our globalized world it is increasingly difficult to find remote people carrying out their practices without the taint of self-consciousness. Most outsiders now see enactments of traditions, rather than tradition itself (which makes me grateful for the sing-sing I once attended in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea and the Tet blessing ceremony I happened upon in a village near Sapa in northern Vietnam). This is a volume that delivers surprises with each turn of the page, from dancing in the Solomon Islands to genocide commemorations in Kigali, all unified by the humane intelligence of the author. His concluding chapter charts his journey from timid child to brave adventurer who survives a long period adrift in the Coral Sea after coming up alone from a scuba dive and not being visible to the waiting boat.

Mind of a Survivor

Mind of a Survivor: What the Wild has Taught me about Survival and Success
By Megan Hine

Megan Hine would positively relish a terrifying experience afloat and would calmly know exactly what to do. Her job description is “survival consultant, adventurer, expedition leader and television presenter” and she has worked with Bear Grylls on television series such as Man vs the Wild and Mission Survive. The focus in this book is on the psychology that allows some people to survive while others panic or give up, and she believes that ordinary people can acquire these habits of mind.

I am not convinced by the premise. She may be able to talk herself out of panicking when bitten by a snake which she knows is either the potentially deadly coral snake or its less lethal look-alike the mountain king cobra. But not many of us would be capable of such a feat of mental strength.

It is all very well to break down the characteristics needed for survival—intuition, creativity, empathy, resilience all have their own chapters—but acquiring these is a lifetime's work and probably depends to a large degree on temperament. The book works better when she is telling stories about her brushes with danger and death, rather than when she makes extravagant claims that anyone who learns to access intuition and the rest will be able to survive not only in the wild but in their careers and life generally. Mind you, anyone who is capable of making use of a seal carcass in extremis (wear the skin as a gilet, use the gut as a rope, smear the fat on as sun block...) will probably succeed in life.

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 to the travel pages of the Independent, an online British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith.

Also in this issue:

Roam Alone: Inspiring Tales by Reluctant Solo Travellers

Buy Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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Miss Adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America

Buy Far & Away: How Travel Can Change the World at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The January Man: A Year of Walking Britain

Buy Mind of a Survivor: What the Wild has Taught me about Survival and Success at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK