Perceptive Travel Book Reviews October 2012
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Two books that bring an historical perspective to contemporary journeys, one in the least known region of South America, the other in the much-trampled British countryside. Plus a book about America that starts with a gimmick but ends with genuine insights.

Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge
By John Gimlette

For some reason I remember, as a nine-year-old, coloring in the 13 countries of South America at school, and wondering about the three tiny little countries in the top right corner. I can't say that I have spent much time since thinking about British, Dutch or French Guiana, now officially called respectively Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana (a d├ępartement of France). This splendid book by the distinguished travel writer John Gimlette brilliantly addresses our collective ignorance of this under-reported part of the world. Guyana and Suriname between them receive less than 2,000 tourists a year and rarely register as possible holiday destinations.

Last month in London, Wild Coast was awarded the prestigious Dolman Travel Book Prize for 2012. Past and present are skilfully interwoven, and conveyed through human stories, from the colorful exploits of long past colonizers and their descendants (like the environmentalist Diane McTurk, renowned for rearing orphaned giant otters), through the insane ambitions of the Reverend Jim Jones. Intriguing figures from history become living characters in the narration. Gimlette writes: "One clear bright day, I borrowed a bicycle and hurried out to meet them" referring to a demoralized Dutch expedition that arrived in a Suriname estuary in 1772. Much of the poverty and simmering resentments that the author encounters can at least partially be explained by the dark side of European colonization and in particular the shameful history of slavery.

Wild Coast cannot be described as a jolly read, and I for one did not put it down with a burning desire to book a ticket to Georgetown or Paramaribo (however mellifluous its name). The author does not shrink from describing the misery and despair, the brutality and moral malaise he encounters. The author's journey simultaneously fascinates and repels. At times I was tempted to whisper along with Joseph Conrad's Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness "the horror, the horror". Take for example one encounter in Port Kaituma:

"Each of the rum shops played its own techno, enveloping everything in waves of interlocking sound. It was like being caught in some devastating electronic crossfire. Often people looked as though they'd already been mechanically deafened and now just stood and watched. Once a man who was almost naked came over and screamed at me, waving some wounds in my face. I couldn't even tell what language he was speaking, but his breath smelled of paint."

Yet Gimlette is also bewitched by these lands and by many of the individuals he meets, whom he describes with affection but without sentimentality. Harrowing poverty is often mitigated by human kindness. Typically he employs a rhetorical device: he is sorry when it comes time to leave Georgetown, with "its open arms and its open drains".

Even with respect to the rich wildlife and breathtaking waterfalls of the Guianas, this book refuses to gush. In few other parts of the world has man made fewer inroads on nature. The river Rupununi, he senses, was "desperate to gulp up our trucks." The writing almost shades into magical realism. In mountain and jungle everything seems to cackle and scream. He is "surrounded by giant amber crabs and vines as fat and smooth as transatlantic cables" and overhead in the canopy "there were balls of mud, assembled by the ants, the size of cars." Exaggeration and metaphor are used to memorable effect throughout this book. The facts may have been somewhat tampered with, but the insights are penetrating and the impressions authentic.

Ramble on: The Story of our love for walking Britain
By Sinclair McKay

Travel literature is a shape-changing genre, and we move abruptly away from the tragic absurdities of colonialism and fanaticism (not to mention the insects the size of rats) to the upbeat story of rambling in the British Isles. Rambling is not the same as wilderness hiking since it can take place in decidedly tame landscapes; in fact one chapter is devoted to Urban Rambling. Walking for recreation is a passion in Britain. An incomer like me never ceases to marvel at the density of the network of footpaths marked on any 1:50,000 scaled Ordnance Survey Map. Many of those red-dotted lines follow ancient rights of way that pre-date the motor car. Thousands of miles pass through privately owned land, including estates owned by the Prime Minister in Buckinghamshire and by Madonna in Wiltshire.

But the right to roam was hard won by an earlier generation, who are celebrated in this book. A landmark event was the Mass Trespass of 1932 on the hill called Kinder Scout in the Peak District of central England. This was a deeply political event that pitted the working men from the factories of the northern cities against the landowners and their gamekeepers, for the right to tramp across a hill only 2,000 feet high. The movement was analagous in some ways to today's Occupy with the important difference that it succeeded. Just a couple of years ago, the British government announced its intention to work towards a round-Britain coastal path that would allow access to 11,000 miles of walking pleasure.

Underpinning the social history that this book explores is the author's genuine passion for country walking. His own eagerness "to stride across meadows and to survey grand views" is obvious. He understands the poetry of walking in hills, which exert a magnetic attraction. He describes with wit and affection many of his encounters - in all weathers - with the astonishingly varied landscapes of the British Isles, from the granite outcropping on Devon's Dartmoor to the bleak and wild north of Scotland, from the "deodorized" over-signposted tracks around the Brontes' village of Haworth to the forbidden military domain of Salisbury Plain (which, entertainingly, he fails to access). These experiences are possible thanks to the organized rambling movement.

If Ramble On were to have an epigraph, it might have been the famous statement by the philosopher Kierkegaard: "Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness.... the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. If one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right."

Follow the Money: A Month in the Life of a Ten-Dollar Bill
By Steve Boggan

Although in his feverish pursuit of a single ten dollar bill, Steve Boggan gets very little chance to take a leisurely stroll in city or country, things do turn out reasonably all right for him. He cooks up a strange theme for a trip around the US, which is to introduce and then follow a marked bill whither it blows. This means that his itinerary is utterly serendipitous. He denies that it is a gimmick (defined as a "trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity or business") although of course it is. Which isn't to say that it isn't entertaining. He connects with a succession of characters, and confides to one that after his father died, most of his normal activities began to seem pointless, including his job as a journalist. But when a newspaper editor proposes the idea of "following the money", he feels excitement stirring and is a sufficiently talented writer to transmit that excitement to his readers.

His 30-day experiment begins in Lebanon Kansas (population 218) which claims to be the geographical center of the United States of America. He stays with a friendly couple who run a hunting lodge and tells them to spend his marked bill in the normal way (his only rule is that he cannot influence how the money is spent) but to let him know so that he can chase it. At the local general store, he transfers his allegiance to the next random recipient and ends up traveling through the backwaters of six states this way. This dependence on the co-operation of strangers could only work in small-town America. If he had tried to shadow someone in Lower Manhattan or Palo Alto he might have received a less writable-about response. It can also succeed only if the traveler has charm and wit, which this writer evidently has in abundance.

He meets a succession of tolerant folks, from a Macedonian immigrant turned successful musician to an apple-growing family who have recently lost a child. The pangs he experiences when he is forced to separate from some of these new-found friends seem genuine, as does his apology to one of them for past arrogance in assuming that small towns like Lebanon were "sad, gray and boring."

This ingenious hook for a trip is not unlike the twitch-hiking experiment which also depended on the generosity of strangers. A couple of years ago another journalist from the north of England set off to test whether social networking could possibly get a person round the world on the good will of people contacted solely through twitter. Amazingly he got close to his destination on the other side of the world and naturally he wrote a book about it. These accidental tourists who depend on random strangers to shape an unpredictable journey have huge appeal.

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:

Wild Coast

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

international travel

Ramble on

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

Follow the Money

Buy Follow the Money in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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