Perceptive Travel Book Reviews December 2018
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: three cracking reads by adventurers who refuse to be cowed by what they read in the media. From Somalia to South Dakota, the West Bank to the Western Sahara, preconceptions unravel as these writers encounter (almost) nothing but friendly assistance.

Step by Step: The Life in my Journeys
By Simon Reeve

Readers who have not seen any of Simon Reeve's travel series for television might be understandably wary of a travel memoir by a handsome and famous TV presenter. Made-for-television travel programs that rely on minders and fixers pre-arranging encounters for hosts who posture in front of the cameras do not normally give rise to books worth reading. (See my review of Extreme Frontiers here).

But Reeve's programs are not just travel fluff. They go way beyond the clichés, as he undertakes to overturn preconceptions, starting with his own. The many series he has developed and fronted aim to blend elements of travelogue and current affairs documentary. They end up providing real insight into the lives of people in places both familiar and seldom visited. In Equator, Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer, he simply followed those famous lines of latitude. His earlier series Places that Don't Exist included eye-opening trips to Somaliland, Transnistria, South Ossetia, etc. Selected stories from his filming experiences are interwoven in this book to make a satisfying narrative. He never loses sight of how lucky he is to be able to travel so widely at the behest of the BBC.

The writing style is simple and engaging, with no airs and graces, which is the same way that Reeve travels and films. His charm and empathy for the people he meets seem genuine. The first chapters of the book tell his backstory and perhaps provide a clue as to why he has a gift for interacting with the marginalized people of the world without patronizing them. He comes from humble origins, unlike many British documentary-makers and adventurers who have often been privately educated, gone to Oxford or Cambridge, or been commissioned in the forces. Reeve misspent much of his youth; as a teenager he suffered from depression and came close to taking his life. He describes in detail a road-to-Damascus experience which involved a journey alone to Scotland aged 17 and an unplanned and ill-equipped hike up a mountain which gave him his first sense of achievement and a lifelong taste for adventure.

Physical bravery defines many of his travels. Unlike some of the primadonnas of media travel for whom everything is carefully scripted, he is happy to go "off-piste." He states explicitly that "the richest rewards in life come from a bit of risk-taking." He was once one of the only white people in hyper-dangerous Mogadishu. He has met jihadists and people-smugglers. Once in a remote forest in Gabon, he and his cameraman were abandoned by their drivers after refusing to pay an outrageous bribe of $2000. So there is plenty of derring-do in this account of his life (so far), but also consideration of important issues such as the morality of creating national parks that displace local villagers or the harassment suffered by human rights campaigners after being interviewed by him.

His conclusion is full of optimism: "We are often sold a vision of the world as a dangerous and frightening place. In reality the world is friendly and astonishingly hospitable. And the further you go from the tourist traps the warmer the welcome and the more authentic and unforgettable the experience... I think the real Golden Age of travel is actually now, when it is cheaper and safer than ever."

The Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East

© Leon McCarron

The Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East
By Leon McCarron

Now we turn to another adventurer who seeks to test and challenge the widely held view that the Middle East is merely "dangerous and frightening," whereas in fact it is "friendly and astonishingly hospitable." Leon McCarron from Ireland has undertaken other grueling challenges including a 3000-mile walk from Mongolia and a trans-American bike ride (reviewed here and here). This time he sets off from Jerusalem to walk through the West Bank, Jordan and Sinai, returning to Israel at the end. Sometimes he travels in company—with friends from home, local guides, Harboush the Camel—but mostly alone.

He soon realized that his initial idea of keeping his journey free of politics was folly. It is not possible to avoid grappling with the tangled geopolitical mess. But he tries to stick to factual description rather than partisan commentary. The title raises the question: a land beyond what? The pale perhaps, or our comfort zone. Or beyond our countries' lists of safe destinations. I think he wants to describe a land that is beyond the media's representation of relentless conflict and turmoil, "a Palestine of tea, stories and good wild hiking." As he sits in the serene shade of a tree, he is astonished to pick up messages from his friends at home: "The news from the West Bank today sounds awful—be careful."

It was a revelation to learn that a small team in the West Bank is working to demarcate a long-distance leisure hiking route, the Masar Ibrahim al Khalil trail (Abraham path). It lifts the heart to think that long-distance trails following ancient migration and trade routes were launched in 2015: the 400-mile Jordan Trail from Um Qais to the Red Sea, and the Sinai Trail built and maintained by local Bedouins. It is these that he follows.

As both traveler and writer, McCarron is pleasingly modest and level-headed, with no grandstanding, no tedious details of ailments, no boastful keeping track of mileage. He doesn't completely suppress the rigors of his long difficult walk, but neither does he make a song and dance about them. He has a gift for conveying complex historical background with clarity. Most readers will learn a lot: who knew that the Samaritans are a fourth distinct Abrahamic faith that survive in tiny numbers in two locations?

To achieve balance in describing the situation is harder than walking a tightrope. The author worries that he has not spent long enough in Israel to give Israelis a fair hearing. On returning, he can't help but find the American-sized cars and general hustle alienating after the remarkable hospitality he has met among impoverished Arabs. He can't deny that "Israel is the elephant in every room" and meets settlers in the West Bank, 20 miles from Jerusalem, who argue simplistically that God has given them the land; where the displaced Palestinians go is their problem. It is a difficult epilogue to a book that tries to persuade that there is more to the region than conflict.

The Kindness of Strangers: Travel Stories that Make Your Heart Grow
By Fearghal O'Nuallain

It might have ended up schmaltzy; it might have been dull and worthy; but this anthology of travel stories in which local strangers are the heroes is lively and engrossing. Twenty-eight writers, many of them globetrotting adventurers, continue the themes of the previous two books: travel teaches you that kindness in other cultures is intrinsic, while fear and suspicion are learned behaviors from the news, the media and society. The particularization of this theme is infinite in its variety, from a scant 650 words about a random stranger in India offering tea, to 15 pages about two open-hearted sisters in rural South Dakota who generously take in a long-distance cyclist to sit out a blizzard. The best pieces read like carefully crafted short stories; others are polemical, still others funny. Some emphasize human rights (like the one about the Rohingya); some are thought-provoking, and only one or two are a little bit preachy or platitudinous. The most gripping describe dramatic rescues like the one about the Nubian family that finds Rebecca Lowe hallucinating without water in the Sahara.

The book grew out of a volunteer organization of the same name that worked in the Calais Jungle, a miserable encampment of thousands of migrants and refugees trying to get to Britain in 2015/6, before it was closed down by the French authorities. Contributors have given their pieces free and all royalties go directly to Oxfam.

Real travel makes you vulnerable, and of necessity open to accepting favors. Hannah Engelkamp's essay "Be Brave, Modern Pilgrim; Be Needy" was especially subtle on the relationship between guest and host, as strangers. She concludes that for the receiver to refuse help is a denial of our humanity. Overcoming her kneejerk suspicion of a fishmonger's offer a lift when she is stranded, Elise Downing accepts, having slowly realized that "better things happen when you let other people in." Altogether a delightful volume.

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 hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:
Sign Up

The Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East

Buy The Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon

The Kindness of Strangers: Travel Stories that Make Your Heart Grow

Buy The Kindness of Strangers: Travel Stories that Make Your Heart Grow at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon UK