Travel Books Take You There and Back
At one point, Kassabova comes across a fortuneteller who answers her secret, unasked question. “What you have begun you will complete,” the woman, reading a handful of tossed beans, assures her, “but you must heed the signs along the way. Never ever ignore the signs.” Luckily for both author and reader, Kassabova seems indeed to have heeded every sign and missed nothing along the way.
LOVE OF COUNTRY: A Journey Through the Hebrides (University of Chicago, $27.50) addresses a homecoming of a different sort. Madeleine Bunting, a Londoner, confesses that “the north-west called to the restlessness in me,” and so she sets out to “zigzag … through the Hebrides out into the blue space on the map. Out to the edge.” Over the course of six years she returns again and again to some of the 270 islands off Scotland’s west coast, and comes to regard these wet, weather-whipped, sparsely populated outcrops as, to quote the Irish Gaelic poet Liam O Muirthile, a kind of “soul territory.”
Bunting follows in a long tradition of English writers escaping up to the region where the land fractures and frays. To her predecessors, she notes, “the Hebrides offered … an unusual degree of personal freedom from convention and class.” It was on Jura, with a population of fewer than 200, that George Orwell retreated to write “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Bunting makes a pilgrimage to where he “set up his typewriter in front of the window overlooking the sea, and with that vista in front of him, he infused the novel with a pervasive horror of the dirty, urban tedium of its setting.” Later she reminds us that it was on the wind-battered island of Iona that Irish monks seeking a hermit’s life gave the world the magnificent gift of “The Book of Kells.”
History along this coast, Bunting notes early on, “is unruly, and does not fit into an orderly narrative.” Eventually, though, that history, “mute with trauma,” speaks forcibly to her: “I had encountered multiple types of loss on my journey: of land, language, country and nation.” Her travels culminate in a visit to the Hebrides’ most iconic ruin, St. Kilda. After centuries of habitation, the final 36 residents requested evacuation from this remotest of communities in 1930. For Bunting, the loss still reverberates.
Running under her entire narrative are the feelings Bunting has for her homeland, England, and for the larger entity of Britain. It’s this relationship that’s eventually called into question and cuts deepest. She has justifiable difficulty reconciling, among other injustices, the removal of people from their land at the hands of the Crown during the 18th and 19th centuries: “No other country in Europe witnessed such brutal clearances.” This larger reckoning is what ultimately gives “Love of Country” its power and resonance. After all, what is love — of people, institutions or country — but the attempt to reconcile what cannot be easily reconciled?
The “survival” tale has long occupied a storied corner of the travel writing genre, from “The Worst Journey in the World,” Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s classic recounting of Scott’s 1910 Antarctic expedition, to Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the whaling disaster that inspired “Moby-Dick,” “In the Heart of the Sea.” Holly FitzGerald’s RUTHLESS RIVER: Love and Survival by Raft on the Amazon’s Relentless Madre de Dios (Vintage, paper, $16) instantly takes its spot among these giants.
The story picks up in the early 1970s in the midst of the long South American “dream honeymoon” of FitzGerald and her new husband, Fitz. That they survive a plane crash in the Peruvian jungle, then escape a penal colony, only sets the stage for their real troubles.
Making their way to freedom in the backwater of Puerto Maldonado, the couple learn that they’re stranded. It’s then that a mysterious, well-dressed stranger approaches their table at a local restaurant. “I can’t help but overhear your difficulty,” he begins. The man, who turns out to be a gold prospector, suggests they use a raft and float the five days downriver to Riberalta, gateway to points beyond. “No harm can come to you,” he insists.
Initially they dismiss the man’s plan as crazy. But the prospect of no exit emboldens the pair. So they find a sturdy raft, made from four logs lashed together, and construct a tent of plastic sheeting atop it. “If you stay in the middle of the river,” they’re advised, “you’ll get there faster.” They are also cautioned under no circumstances to go for a swim. Why? Because “the candiru,” a minuscule saw-toothed fish, “swim up your butt and latch onto your intestines, suck your blood until you die.” Armed with this knowledge and little else, they set out in high spirits. “The river was faster than a galloping horse,” FitzGerald writes. “We joked about which of us was Huck Finn.”
Trouble arrives that first night. Unable to steer the raft in the powerful current, they miss the border checkpoint into Bolivia and shots tear through the darkness into their makeshift tent. But soon the days and nights are blissful. “I don’t know when I’ve ever felt so liberated,” FitzGerald recalls.
Then, on the fourth night, a drenching lightning storm hits. A tree collapses on the raft, missing FitzGerald’s head by inches. They almost sink in the tempest but manage to escape. Dawn brings the discovery that their raft has been taken far off course — they’re stranded deep in a swamp that rises during the rainy season. Worse, their supply of food has been lost.
In this world of water, the FitzGeralds struggle in vain to find their way back to the river’s current. They endure fire ants, suffer sunstroke and nearly drown in sucking mud. They sleep in a tree. Fear of attack by caiman, jaguar and piranha is constant. Strange glowing eyes peer at them nightly from the jungle. Bees swarm over every inch of their bodies — something they become nearly immune to.
And they starve, for page after harrowing page, for 26 days, until they are come upon — near death, emaciated — by two Indians out hunting for turtles. The couple endure, maintaining hope and affection for each other. It’s this that elevates “Ruthless River” above the typically heroic tale of survival. In simple, unsentimental terms, Holly FitzGerald has given us a most unlikely love story.
Love is just one of the things on the minds of the writers whose stories appear in THE BEST WOMEN’S TRAVEL WRITING, Volume 11: True Stories From Around the World (Travelers’ Tales, paper, $19.95). For more than 20 years, Travelers’ Tales has been publishing books that might best be described as the literary equivalent of a group of travelers sitting around a dim cafe, sipping pints or prosecco and trading their best stories. With more than a hundred titles currently in print, this publisher has carved out a valuable niche in the travel world.
The latest book’s editor, Lavinia Spalding, hungry for travelers who “go with an open heart” and have “the inclination to practice human kindness, a sincere intention to build pathways of understanding and a willingness to be transformed,” read nearly 500 submissions before settling on the 31 stories that make up this diverse collection.
In the opener, Zora O’Neill finds herself drawn away from a resort’s placid blue waters and toward the newly formed refugee camps that have sprung up on the Greek island she and her family visit every year. Like so many of the stories here, “On the Migrant Trail” is told with simple grace. O’Neill’s account demonstrates once again that history’s first draft is often written by the intrepid traveler.
In a different vein, Samantha Schoech offers a hilarious yet ultimately disquieting yarn about spending a week in Venice — sans children and husband — with a gal pal and having perhaps too fine a time. Pam Mandel, in a poignant essay, deals with grief in — of all places — Waikiki. And a trip to Singapore reminds Abbie Kozolchyk of that most important of all travel maxims — call your mother. In story after story, the refreshing absence of bluster and bravado, coupled with the optimism necessary for bold travel, create a unifying narrative that testifies to the personal value and cultural import of leaving the perceived safety of home and setting out into the wider world.
In NOURISHED: A Memoir of Food, Faith, and Enduring Love (With Recipes) (Convergent, $26), Lia Huber, a food writer and recipe developer, leaves the “meat-and-potatoes” safety of her Midwestern upbringing and sets out on a quixotic path of self-discovery.
As a young woman, she is led by her hunger for enlightenment to the island of Corfu. There she falls in love for the first time — not only with a man but, after an epiphany at the sight of an egg fried in olive oil, with the deep pleasures of good food simply prepared. Upon her return to America, health problems force her further in the direction of conscious eating, and her fate is sealed at a San Francisco farmers’ market “one Saturday morning in spring when a farmer held out a pea to me and changed my world.”
Huber is prone to such pronouncements and the reader might be excused for slipping into cynicism, except for Huber’s wholehearted belief in her path. Finding her soul mate, Christopher, she sets out to make a career of her ardor for food. Passion carries the day over pragmatism and the two — victims of wanderlust — are off to Costa Rica, Paris, Guatemala, Italy, even Minnesota. Eventually Huber meets a man who might be called — to slip into the parlance of this charming foodie’s travel memoir — her guardian angel, the chef Bruce Aidells, who magically appears at key moments and helps Huber land a job as a recipe tester.
Although Huber wears her zeal and her spiritual beliefs on her sleeve as she moves from one inspiration to the next, she’s endearing, engaging company and the reader roots for her success. Eventually Huber and Christopher adopt a baby, victories begin to accumulate, and the three approach a happy ending that Huber knows is merely another new beginning in her larger journey.
Finally, in THE ROMANCE OF ELSEWHERE (Counterpoint, $26), the South African-born Lynn Freed offers nearly two dozen essays from a life influenced by the road. A traveler deep down in her soul, Freed says her “dreams of displacement” began “in childhood.” As a young mother, she even became a travel agent in order to hide from her family her need for escape.
“There has always been romance in distance,” she reminds us. Yet it’s the push-pull of the desire to leave coupled with the “strong attachment to the comfort, the privacy, the intimacy, and the pride of home” that has shaped Freed’s life. “The rhythm of leaving and returning has kept me nicely unsettled for over 45 years.” Without it, she confesses, “I would have drowned any desire to write in restlessness and despair.”
Freed approaches the world — and her prose — with the cleareyed, forthright wonder required of the most committed of travelers. In the essay “Keeping Watch,” she recalls growing up “luxurious but not rich, safe and yet threatened, carefree if one did not think too carefully about the future,” in apartheid-era South Africa, and of her childhood terrors at the prospect of a “Knife-at-the-Throat day” when the servants might “rise as one.”
Elsewhere she speaks eloquently of travel’s power to transform: “The traveling writer is someone seeking … a sort of non-existence, the quest for which can lead, paradoxically, to the discovery of the self set free from the bafflement of context.” And in the deceptively economic essay called “Locked In,” she reminds us just how perilous it sometimes is to be a woman in the world, no matter how seemingly placid the setting.
Freed is also one of the funniest writers around. And in “Useful Zulu Phrases, 1986,” the laugh gets caught in the throat as she offers a hilarious list of some of the helpful hints that were once offered white South Africans attempting to learn Zulu in order to better command and control their black servants. In “Caveat Viator,” she gives us a blistering, bone-true indictment of new age man’s self-aggrandizing struggles to be at harmony with the natural world — from Northern California to Africa.
In this marvelous collection’s final essay, “When Enough Is Enough,” Freed may be speaking for road warriors everywhere when she confesses to the occasional urge to “flee the things and the people that seem to hold me in place, to grab what’s left of the life and make a run for it.”