Perceptive Travel Book Reviews December 2015
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: The exhilaration and trauma of uprooting your family to a tropical paradise, a long-distance coastal walk in England conveyed through the language of a poet, and a bizarre insight into the subculture of "non-sexual social nudism."

Can We Live Here: Finding a home in paradise
By Sarah Alderson

Dissatisfied with her high-pressure, long-hours job in London, the author has an epiphany one day as she is swimming lengths, that she and her husband and their three-year old daughter Alula should chuck it all in, become global nomads and find the perfect escape from the rat race. She prods the epiphany for holes but can't find any.

Through luck and feisty determination, the Alderson family turn the fantasy that so many entertain intro a reality. After travels in India, Australia and America, they hit upon the tourist hotspot of Ubud in Bali where they begin to put down some roots and stay for several years, while Sarah re-invents herself as a blogger and writer of teenage fiction.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the biographical blurb about Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love who also fetched up in Ubud, overlaps with this author's, minus the divorce. "With a husband, a house, a successful career, she finds herself lost, confused, and searching for what she really wants in life, so she steps out of her comfort zone, risking everything to change her life, embarking on a journey around the world that becomes a quest for self-discovery."

The book comprises short, sharply written episodes of the family's life, adventures, and anxieties in living, earning, and parenting in an alien culture. The writing is often witty; for example on renewing her visa: "When Imigrasi tell you to jump, you ask how high. Although the word 'high' spoken anywhere near an Indonesian in uniform freaks me out.'" But the wisecracking can be remorseless, and she depends far too much on hyperbole. The smile on her face after she resigns from her job is so wide she nearly needs stitches to her cheeks. When Alula asks why her toys are being packed away, her mother feels like a serial killer caught in the act. The tin pot on wheels they drive in Bali has an engine so loud it has its own ranking on the Richter scale. And so on and so on. The glibness of the style together with the author's love of shopping, childish horror of domestic tasks like washing dishes, and her irrational fear of creepy-crawlies means that sometimes she comes across as shallow and frivolous, and her narrative strays into chick lit territory.

Yet the reader's interest is piqued to know how long the Balinese enchantment will last. Gradually Alderson reflects more on the losses of a vagabonding lifestyle than on the gains, especially when bringing up a small child. The cracks in paradise begin to show. Crazy people inhabit the streets just as they do in London. Ubud is changing. Even in the two or three years they are there, "the once-stunning town is slowly becoming a sprawling urban mess" - and she has the self-awareness to admit that foreigners like her are the ones driving the rapid development. Perhaps it is partly due to the Eat, Pray, Love effect, but Ubud has become a magnet for what she calls "bliss-ninnies," people who seem to be intoxicated with ungrounded spiritual teachings.

By page 262 she has matured enough to know that the endless striving for somewhere "other" does not lead to utopia. The same question remains at the end of the book as she poses at the beginning: Is the whole quest merely an avoidance strategy?

Can we live here?

Walking Away: Further Travels with a Troubadour on the South West Coast Path
By Simon Armitage

Despite the title, this author is the opposite of dissatisfied with home. In fact the well-known British poet Simon Armitage is so rooted in the place he was born, he still lives in unglamorous West Yorkshire and retains the characteristic flat vowels of his heritage, distinguishing him from most previous Oxford Professors of Poetry. The book records a three-week walk along the South West Coast Path of England, through a landscape completely different from the landlocked industrial county of his birth.

The reference to troubadour in the title is because he sets off with little money, planning to exchange poetry readings for board and lodging along his route. It isn't really busking because the readings have been pre-arranged in village halls, pubs, churches and private living rooms. He stays with a colourful cast of obliging and eccentric hosts along the way.

His chosen route is a well-worn coastal path, though it is new to him and he makes it fresh by employing original and muscular language. The peculiar skill of both the poet and the accomplished travel writer may not be so different, which is to have an eye for detail and the knack of capturing a scene or a moment in words. As he crunches and scrambles along a shingle ridge towards a harbor, the stones "rattle and clatter like broken pottery." A pod of leaping dolphins offshore "darn the water". When he is put up in an unfurnished garden roundhouse, he can't sleep because he feels like "an ant under a tureen". Marvellous. On a few occasions, I thought he had invented words: a raven passes "cronking" and sections of rock look "crozzled" but these turn out to be dialect words from Northern England meaning "calling" and "burnt" respectively.

His sharp descriptive powers are applied with equal aplomb to the people he encounters, who also elicit gentle and often amusing pen portraits. He never settles for casual stereotypes. Snatches of overheard conversation speak volumes about a place, for example he hears a teacher in a staff room: "I think I'll walk up to the airport at lunchtime to pick up my bike" on the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall where he completes his journey. Subtle and nuanced observations throughout illuminate the landscape and society of this part of England.

Naked at Lunch: The Adventures of a Reluctant Nudist
By Mark Haskell Smith

I began reading this on a packed transatlantic flight and hoped the guy beside me wouldn't come to the wrong conclusions about my R-rated choice of reading matter. Did I really want to read a book that mentioned "scrotum-airing" in the first paragraph? Should I have stuck with my original idea of reviewing the rather highbrow The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee (a fascinating read about Italy by the way)?

The Los Angeles journalist Mark Haskell Smith is intrigued by what motivates and rewards people who long to cast aside their clothes along with social conventions. His wife is not impressed with his choice of sub-culture to investigate and wonders why he doesn't, for example, spend time with people who make cheese. (It is reassuring to learn that the author is normal enough to have a wife with a sense of humor.)

The publisher's category is emblazoned on the back cover: Travel Writing. True enough the author travels—mainly around the US and to several European countries—in pursuit of his theme. Fascinating as this in-depth study is, I wasn't convinced it is a travel book. An interest in velodrome-cycling, tango-dancing, or cheese-making, might take you to different locations but only to meet the cycling, tango, or cheese buffs (or in this case buffs of being in-the-buff), not to interact with the places that host them. Contact with place is especially limited for nudists who are often ghettoized in self-contained resorts, cruise ships, and beaches.

Call me prudish but I am not persuaded for one second to join next year's Naked European Walking Tour in the Alps or to go grocery shopping naked in the notorious resort of Cap d'Agde in the south of France. I'm sure I would enjoy meeting the clever and witty author, but only in what the aficionados of nudism term "the textile world."

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, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

Can We Live Here?

Buy Can We Live Here? at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Walking Away

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

Naked at Lunch

Buy Naked at Lunch at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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