Perceptive Travel Book Reviews November/December 2006
by Wendy Knight

In this issue: Mexican Days: Journeys Into the Heart of Mexico, Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island, and Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home.

Mexican Days: Journeys Into the Heart of Mexico
By Tony Cohan

Mexican Days begins with author Tony Cohan returning to his home in San Miguel de Allende from a travel assignment only to discover it over run with crew from Once Upon A Time in Mexico, starring Antonia Banderas, Salma Hayek and Johnny Depp. More problematically, he finds himself at the proverbial crossroads in work and life. In recent years he and his wife, Masoka, a writer and textile expert, have been spending significant time away from San Miguel (they also have a home in Los Angeles) and each other. Hollywood's invasion of his quixotic Mexican hideaway fuels his discontent.

Fortunately, an auspicious assignment from a travel magazine editor to write about different regions of Mexico sets him off as a turista in his adopted country. Cohan's assignment takes us across Mexico-- from the fabled artist town of Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas where armed Zapatista insurgents preside. Yet this book is not a series of essays stitched together like an Abercrombie and Kent itinerary. Nor is it an obligatory encore to his highly acclaimed On Mexican Time. Rather, Mexican Days is Cohan's respond to the ultimate existential ponderings: Why? Why do we travel?

One of his first stops is the town of Xilitla (shee-Leet-la) situated in the Sierra Gorda mountain range near the Gulf of Mexico. He stays the night at El Castillo, the former house of Edward James, "a wealthy English eccentric" now a bed and breakfast owned, remarkably as it turns out, by a woman from his past. In the aging house of a dead poet, past and present collide to startling effect.

Throughout Mexican Days, Cohan explores past and present, old and new, cliché and truth and arrives at the refreshingly real place in between. Well-traveled and well-read, he possesses a command of Latin American history and can articulate a noble wisdom where a lesser author might stutter on the stage. After a conversation about Che Guevarra with his friend, Eduardo, Cohan ruminates: "Latin Americans, half-children of Don Quixote, understand in Che's failure the truth in the proposition that, as little or nothing comes of things anyway, it is the noble gesture, not the result that redeems a life."

A gifted novelist (His novel, Canary, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), Cohan approaches his non-fiction work with a novelist's attention to character and imagery. The real-life characters that populate Mexican Days--Xiaver, Eduardo and Karen--spring to life under Cohan's deft touch. Of Reverend Billy, a former neighborhood, he writes, "Licking his lips, he said, "God Bless, God Bless," Then flicking his Camel into the rain, he pulled his slicker up around him like a shroud and stumbled off across the courtyard."

So much of travel writing is cliché. Sit down for twenty minutes and attempt to describe the fading sun without using the words "lovely" or "breathtaking" and you'll have the faintest inkling of the challenge. Yet Cohan manages to arrange words into fresh, poetic prose. "From the downstairs living room, I watched the sun drop into the mountain cleft. The piled cubist arrangement of building opposite flared red."

For many of us, it is only when we barrel down the desolate, dusty road that we suddenly appreciate the simple beauty of the lives we have temporarily left behind. Cohan's epiphany comes in Xico while writing about San Miguel de Allende. "I missed Masko, too, and what we'd made there and found in ourselves. Summoning things I love, I began loving them again, writing my way back where I once belonged."

Cohan belongs in Mexico, all right, and on every bookshelf in America.

Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island
By Lea Aschkenas

Cuba was not a country that Lea Aschkenas, a twenty-six year old Jewish reporter from San Francisco, expected to belong. Like many of her generation, snippets of CNN newsreels of a cigar-puffing Fidel Castro (never mind, as she informs us, that Castro quit smoking in the early '80s) and pop culture references to jazz and rum informed her knowledge of Cuba. In November 1999, though, a volcanic eruption in Ecuador alters her plans and so she finds herself in Cuba instead. While her impetus for traveling to the communist country was impulsive, her decision to stay, and then return, was anything but.

Her sentence construction and word usage are sometimes clunky and awkward, but with skilled storytelling and youthful effusiveness Aschkenas pulls us into her journey, training a curious eye on the inequalities and barriers that Cubans encounter. Earning a meager twelve dollars a month, (in large part because of the U.S. embargo) the average Cuban can barely afford necessities like soap and rice, fueling a black market for dollar transactions, and preventing international travel.

Within a week of arriving on Cuba, Aschkenas meets Alfredo, a dark-skinned, dread-locked Cuban who works as a lighting and sound technician at National Symphony Orchestra. It is amidst the concerts and subsequent strolls back to her hotel laced with intense political discourse that an improbable and sweet relationship develops.

But a defacto caste system prevents Alfredo from entering Aschkenas' hotel and "gives tourists more freedoms than me" as he righteously argues. She is always aware of the disparities between her relatively privileged American life and his economically impoverished one. "Like Cuba, with its 1950s cars and ongoing struggle for sovereignty, my relationship with Alfredo seemed frozen in time." In Es Cuba, as in life, the political is personal.

Alfredo, who is at once is romantically naïve and politically astute, professes his love for Aschkenas early on (p.22) after dinner at a "peso" restaurant where he orders dessert with his meal. "Here, when you find something you like, you have to go for it, because you never know when it might disappear." Throughout the book, she is candid about her reticence to pursue a relationship with Alfredo. So when they moment arrives (p. 161) for her to admit serious feeling for him ("At some point in our travels... I had fallen in love with Alfredo") we are left wishing that she choose to reveal more about the process of love, rather than its mere declaration.

Despite their seemingly economically and socially mismatched relationship, we can't help desperately hope that the couple will endure their numerous obstacles. When Aschkenas returns to the U.S. we worry that the frequent telephone outages in Cuba and Alfredo's lack of a computer will prevent the lovers from communicating. When she does make it back to Cuba a couple months later and determines to find a job and live with Alfredo there, we enthusiastically embrace the impractical notion, all but sending her job leads.

Alas, Aschkenas is unable to find work in Cuba. Despite the cultural and racial obstacles they potentially face in the U.S., she and Alfredo agree that they are likely to find better opportunities there. She decides to return to California where she will await Alfredo's arrival on a fiancé visa.

As they shuffle in the immigration line at the airport Aschkenas paints a vivid scene of apprehension and bureaucracy. She hasn't yet departed and we already feel their gut-wrenching longing: "I too was crying now, fat silent tears as the immigration woman called me up. I kissed Alfredo, and he held on to me so tightly, I could feel the imprint of his fingers when he let go." The impending sadness explodes in a flood of tears (ours, not theirs) when she goes through the departure gate and Alfredo, "waved back, calling out from behind the line, "Tell me what it's like on the other side."

Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home
By Nando Parrado with Vince Rause

The other side is nearly what Nando Parrado witnessed when the plane in which he and other members of the Uraguayan national rugby team crashed in the Andes in 1972. It is here, in the impenetrable peaks straddling Chile and Argentina, that the dead and alive remain for 72 days without food, water, medical supplies, warm clothing or means of seeking help.

The remarkable story was first revealed in the book Alive by Piers Paul Read and subsequent blockbuster movie. Parrado waits thirty years to tell his story, framing the ordeal with the introspective and wisdom that time permits, yet not sacrificing any suspense. Miracle in the Andes is one of those books you tear through page after page. Only when you glance over to the clock radio and see the orange numbers flash 3:10 a.m. do you reluctantly set it down.

Parrado's prose is direct and exacting ("They placed us here because they had already given up hope that we would live very long, and they saved the warmer places for those who had a chance to live."). With this unceremonious dictation we are swept up in the amazing tale of survival, ascending and descending a range of emotions. We sink into utter despair when a rescue plane abandons them and feel elation when team members discover the plane's tail with much-needed supplies on a futile expedition to find a way out. Each day brings another set of life or death choices.

One of their earliest and wrenching decisions is how to stay nourished. Parrado describes the moment he looked at a teammate's raw wound and saw something else: "I had looked at human flesh and instinctively recognized it as food." While he is horrified by the thought, we are not. For we are already on the mountain with him-starving, wounded and caked in ice-and regard their decision to eat the frozen flesh of the victims with the same brutal pragmatism that they must: "If you don't eat, you are choosing to die."

Among the passengers that perish are Parrado's mother and sister, Susy. Parrado understands that the most searing emotional situations call for the most restraint in their retelling. Gathering his sister in his arms, Parrado is consumed with grief but "just as my sadness was about to overwhelm me, I heard once again, that cool, disembodied voice whisper in my ear: Tears waste salt. I lay awake with her all night, my chest heaving with sobs, but I did not allow myself the luxury of tears." We do what you must in order to survive.

Their dire circumstances foster ingenuity among the teammates (seat cushions are used as insulation, a piece of wreckage becomes a basin to melt snow), as well as fierce disagreements about whether to wait for help or save themselves. For Parrado, waiting to be rescued felt "as if I stood blindfolded before a firing squad, waiting to feel the bullets slam into my chest."

While on an earlier expedition to find help, the fragile Roy finally lays down in the snow and surrenders. In this, Parrado sees his own helplessness and the primal fear of death ignites a life-saving rage: "I kicked him savagely in the ribcage... Get on your fucking feet. Stand up or I'll kill you. You bastard. I swear it!"

Ultimately, of course, it is life, not death, that prevails in Miracle in the Andes. Parrado's unwavering determination to get himself and his teammates out of the mountains is fueled by love. In a deathbed promise to Susy, he vows to return to their father. "I couldn't stand the thought that he would suffer one second longer. In my desperation, I raged silently at the great peaks that loomed above the crash site, blocking the path to my father..." Love is what creates life. And in Miracles in the Andes, Parrado gracefully confirms what Roseanne cash sings, "Long after life, there is love."

Wendy Knight received the Lowell Thomas Award for her book Making Connections: Mother Daughter Travel Adventures. She writes frequently for The New York Times and appears regularly on ABC News Now. She is also the author of Far From Home: Father Daughter Travel Adventures. Her last article for Perceptive Travel was "Dangerous Minds" which appeared in the July/August issue.

Also in this issue:

Mexican Days

Buy Mexican Days: Journeys Into the Heart of Mexico in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Es Cuba

Buy Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Miracle in the Andes

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

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