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Category Archives: Travel Writing

Eight Feet in the Andes

andes

Dervla Murphy’s travels are always absorbing and often humorous. I’ve read her Eight Feet in the Andes thanking God I’m not on this four month trek with a mule and a 9 year old (who’s amazingly patient, uncomplaining and intelligent). I wouldn’t be able to stand all the bugs, the 25 mile hikes up worn out trails that barely hug the mountains, the eating just ship’s biscuits and canned sardines for days till the next town which could be a week away.

Yet I find the book enthralling. The Murphy’s encounter people with histories and cultures I’d never heard of, some are amazingly hospitable and some are very cold and aloof. I love how Murphy tells it like it is. She doesn’t glorify all the native cultures or demonize all the mestizos. Each encounter is related as objectively as is humanly possible.

I’ve also learned so much about the Spanish and the Incas, how they clashed and how that affected numerous ethnic groups who were in the way. I’ll add a few good quotations later in the week, God willing, as it’s time to return to my end of term grading.

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Posted by on December 18, 2016 in non-fiction, Travel Writing

 

From the Writer’s Almanac

It’s the birthday of the man who said: “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” Paul Theroux, born in Medford, Massachusetts (1941). After college he went in the Peace Corps and taught school in Malawi, Africa, and he wrote. Ten years after college graduation, he had written ten books, and it was the 10th that made his reputation: The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), a travelogue of his four-month trip across Asia. His advice for aspiring writers: “Leave home. Because if you stay home people will ask you questions that you can’t answer. They say, “What are you going to write? Where will you publish it? Who’s going to pay you? How will you make a living?” If you leave home, no one asks you questions like that.”

His advice for aspiring travel writers is the same: leave home. But without a companion, and never by plane. Theroux prefers trains. He said: “Ever since childhood, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2013 in Travel Writing, Writers' Almanac

 

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Lost on Planet China

lost china

After reading J. Maarten Troost’s Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation Or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid, I’m putting his earlier books at the top of my “to read list.”

When Troost and his wife outgrow their home in California, they consider moving to China. But first Troost feels the need to investigate. Would China be the place to bring up his two boys? Thus he sets off on what must have been months of travel all around the Middle Kingdom.

Soon after arriving in polluted Beijing, it’s clear that Troost isn’t exposing his sons to the PM 2.5 laced smog that passes for air in China. No. He’s a good father.

Yet he’s also a traveler and he wants to see what makes this empire tick. So he travels through China stopping in Tai an, Qingdao, Nanjing, Shanghai, Tibet, Chengdu and many other exotic, perplexing, fascinating, crowded, polluted (and less so in a few, a very few instances) cities. All the while Troost delights with his wit, perception and insight. Here’s a sample of his prose describing a trip to a traditional market;

And then, as if we were lost in some grim Humane Society nightmare, we began to wander past stalls selling frogs, chickens, eels, turtles, cats, scorpions –big and small- – dogs in cages, ducks in bags, and snakes in bowls. There were 2,000 stalls in this market, and this, apparently, was where Noah’s Ark unloaded its cargo. If you were planning a dinner party and looking to tickle your guests’ palate with a delicately prepared Cobra heart, perhaps followed by some bunny soup and sauteéd puppy, the Qingping Market is for you.

Now there is some wit and exaggeration, so if you’re looking for a literary journey with a stodgy, politically correct anthropologist, this book isn’t for you, but I’d rather travel with Troost than a disciple of Margaret Mead.

Troost experiences the full China – the majesty of the Forbidden City, come ons from the prostitutes, the cute pandas, the karaoke on the Yangste River Cruise, the constant haggling, the bandit taxi drivers, the expat pot heads in Yunnan, the cheerful Tibetans, and the hordes who’ll knock down their great grandmother to get to their assigned train seat.

He weaves in history and politics with a light touch that makes it memorable and interesting. You’ll learn a lot about bargaining and patience on the road from Troost.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2013 in contemporary, memoir, Travel Writing

 

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The Waiting Land

My friend Adrienne mentioned Dervla Murphy as a great travel writer and I was looking for a good book on Nepal so I ordered her “The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal.”

I love her writing. She calls everything as she sees it, which makes for good travel writing if you ask me. In this book, Murphy travels to Nepal where she works in a Tibetan refugee camp. Her writing is funny, insightful and gutsy. As a traveler, she takes risks I wouldn’t, such as getting in the midst of a Nepali – Tibetan fracas and almost landing in jail. On her trek she fords icy rivers with water up to her neck — on more than one occasion. She sleeps on mud floors because well, Nepalis do and the mattresses probably have bed bugs anyway.

When I read this book, I felt I knew what it would be like to live and work in Nepal. I felt the people she met were like people any of us might really meet.

Here are a few passages to give you an idea of her writing:

My six months among the tibetans in 1963 had shown me that many refugees do not deserve the haloes with which they have been presented by sentimental fundraisers in Europe or America. But by the time one had been disillusioned by Tibetans one has also been captivated by them; through unpleasant individuals and events may demolish the idealized version there remains an indestructible respect for the courage, humor and good manners that mark most Tibetan communities.

Before leaving India, early in 1964, I had determined to come back to the Tibetans as soon as possible. However, refugee situations can change quickly and by the spring of 1965 conditions in India had improved so much that nothing really useful remained to be done by an untrained volunteer, and I felt that i would be wrong to inflict on the Tibetans yet another aimless “Tib-worshipper.” But then came an item of news from Nepal concerning recently-formed refugee camp in Pokhara Valley, where 500 Tibetans were living as family units in 120 tents with only one Western volunteer to help them. It was considered that here I would at least not be in the way, even if my limitations prevented me from achieving much, so on 5 April 1965 I flew from Dublin . . . to Nepal.

And so her journey began. The book is written in diary form and contains entry after entry of observations, insight all delivered with wit. Nepal is indeed different from the West. Here’s another random passage:

July 24

Many event which would be regarded as crises a home are witnessed with indifference here.  A few days ago I saw a man attacking his wife outside their house; as his rage increased he tried to pick up a heavy stone for quicker results, but his son, aged about twelve, struggled desperately to restrain him, and eventually the mother and the son were victorious. That afternoon I again went up the street and saw husband and wife sitting in their doorway amicably stripping corn cobs together.

 

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2011 in classic, Travel Writing

 

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