Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas
by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker
This is a look at New Orleans in all its complexities and contradictions, with essays written by musicians, activists, environmentalists, Native Americans and Arabs.
Each essay looks at a particular aspect: the history of its founding, its movement of peoples, the city’s relationship with water, oil, trade and music, and how each of these shaped modern-day New Orleans. And each essay is accompanied by a beautifully drawn map.
“Maps typically show what is visible and fixed in place, but cities are made as much of invisible and transient forces, of the departed and present people who shape its culture and politics, of weather and atmosphere, of joys and sorrows, holidays and slants of light. This atlas tries to map some of those invisible forces….”
And this it does, building a multidimensional view that links history and the contemporary. Take, for example, the area around Central Business District. A site of slave pens in the days of slavery, but also where civil rights activist Paul Trevigne was married in the 1800s. Today it’s the site of the oldest bakery in New Orleans (started in 1904), a shrimp restaurant that opened in 1913, a mosque, the start of the Chewbacchus Crewe’s carnival parade and a venue with a rich musical past and a thriving present (including a New Orleans genre, Bounce). The Superdome—the refuge of hundreds of people during Hurricane Katrina—is in the area. The Mixology Festival takes place here, serving some 194,000 drinks in five days.
The essay topics don’t follow conventional demarcations. Some juxtapose things you wouldn’t think go together (but they do). Their titles are eloquent: "Hot and Steamy: Selling Seafood, Selling Sex"; "Lead and Lies: Mouths Full of Poison"; and "Repercussions: Rhythms and Resistance across the Atlantic". This is truly a vivid, warts and all biography of New Orleans, written by people who love the city. By the end, I could smell the city and hear it—the music, the parades and the people on the street. Rebecca Solnit produced a similar book on San Francisco, and I hope there will be others.
Riding with Ghosts
by Gwen Maka
Gwen Maka always knew that she would set off on a Grand Tour someday. When she was in her 40s, after her children had left home and her dog had died, she made up her mind: she would cycle from Seattle to Panama!
Maka’s preparations were mostly practical—a bicycle, tent and a gas cooker. She did little research into the region, so she went with fewer preconceptions. This was the 1990s, without the ubiquitous online advice that we rely on now. Had she looked into the route in detail, she said she would never have gone!
Maka’s meandering path from Seattle to Mexico takes her through Washington state, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and California. She cycles through the Rocky Mountains, through snow and wind as winter starts. She wakes up one morning to three inches of snow: “It was staggeringly beautiful… The snow fell… blinding me to everything except the delicate, white-laced branches and the silence of the world.”
The Central American leg of her trip takes her through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. She brings each of these countries to life, differentiating each from its neighbours: the vibrancy of Mexico, the resilience of Salvadoreans, and the strong Honduran women. But her descriptions are detailed and vivid so to sum up the countries in this way does them and her writing a disservice. Eventually she runs out of money and energy, stopping short of Panama.
The people around her—alive and dead—are part of her journey. She rides with the ghosts of indigenous peoples, the continent’s original inhabitants, decimated by colonialism. Her companions include Janie, an ex-hippie and former lawyer on the Ute Mountain Indian reservation, and female heads of household in Honduras, who laugh with Maka about their absent husbands (more trouble than they’re worth, the women seem to think).
Despite warnings about “bad men”, she does quite well, although a few encounters with truck driver Ed (who holds forth on Sex and the American) and a powerful “muscle-bound Angus Aberdeen bull” who objects to her camping near his harem and comes bellowing after her.
In Mexico, she finally wins her badge of courage. A doom-monger who tells her she’ll never make it to Durango recants once he learns she had just cycled through Baja: “Jesus Christ; you’re crazy! Forget everything I said. You’ll be okay.” And she deserves the respect: neither athlete nor seasoned traveller, she is a gutsy woman and an enjoyable travel companion.
Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico
by Isabella Tree
If you’re looking for a tourist guide, you won’t find it here. Isabella Tree travelled to Mexico determined to get under the skin of the country, to see beyond what most tourists see, and I came away with a real sense of Mexico and Mexicans. I had no idea that Mexico is the third most biologically diverse in the world, with every environment from snow-capped volcanoes to rainforests. And the people are as diverse.
Tree moves fluidly between the past and present, and it feels like the two are interwoven. Take, for example, the strong impact of religion. When missionaries first came to Mexico, Christianity was absorbed into the religious beliefs of the original Mexicans. So religious observance is much more real, much less sanitized, than say, in the West. Tree is in San Miguel during Easter, and her description of the processions really bring home the importance and meaning of religion. In the nearby Sanctuary of Atotonilco, men still flagellate themselves, believing that it cleanses the soul.
There is also the relationship Mexicans have with death. It is seen as part of life, and isn’t hidden away in hospital corridors and out of sight. They celebrate the dead in the Dia de los Muertos, where a night-long vigil is held in cemeteries and the dead are offered their favourite foods. This was originally a month-long ceremony, but has become part of the All Souls Day rituals.
Mexico has a bloody history. The colonizers arrived, as they did everywhere, with an inherent belief in their own superiority and a lust for gold. They were utterly unable to understand, or even to acknowledge, the indigenous way of doing things. This resulted in the brutal destruction of a way of life—and of lives.
Mexico City is an example of this. The Aztecs built it on land that had several lakes, and the city was planned with this in mind. But the colonizers razed their carefully thought-out city and replaced it with buildings that were too heavy for the ground. Today, Mexico City suffers from flooding and many buildings slope. However, it still has an area of chinampas, garden islands, which were common during the Aztec times. This is where a lot of the fruit and vegetables that supply the city are grown, in a way that makes perfect sense for a waterlogged area.
Tree travels through the country to find the “hidden Mexico”. She goes to Chiapas, where there is an armed struggle against the government. She spends a night in a sacred cave with the Huichol tribe, participating in a peyote ceremony. And one of my favourite parts of this book is her visit to Juchitan, a town of tough women with a raunchy humour and a strong sense of what is right. The women are big in every way, and no one messes with them, refreshing in an otherwise macho culture. The people here are native Zapotecs, pure-blood Indians. Gay sons are welcomed, and transvestites completely accepted.
Sliced Iguana is a book about a complex country and I’ve only scratched the surface. Tree tries to paint an honest picture of Mexico, and I think on the whole, she does justice to it, even though there is nothing about the narco-gangs. But maybe that requires another book.
100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go
by Sophia Dumbling
Whether you want to go to a retreat amid spectacular natural surroundings, the largest yard sale ever (stretching from Michigan to Alabama!), visit Lizzie Borden’s house (the lass with the axe) or go white-water rafting, this book will help you find exactly what you’re looking for.
There is something here for everyone—for the outdoorsy, the bookish, the history buff, the spiritualist or the artist. In her introduction, Sophia Dumbling makes it clear that this is a purely subjective collection. But the choice is huge. Dumbling is clearly passionate about her country and has visited most of the sites she describes.
The book is organized by theme, such as Get to Know America, which includes national parks, cities and kitsch. The American History chapter has a section on Tough Cookies You Should Know, which includes a memorial to women serving in the armed forces and a museum dedicated to pioneer women. There is also a girly section, X (Chromosome) Rated, with fun stuff like places to have afternoon tea and going shopping at Tiffany’s. Each section ends with websites where you can find more information or related books. There’s an index for people visiting a part of the country and wanting to check out the sites.
I actually read this book cover to cover and learned a lot about the United States, especially about the women who were part of its history. My only gripe is that the sections are not clearly indicated in the text—I would like to know when I’ve moved from Americana to All-American Kitsch, for example. I wish I had this book with me when I visited California—it made me realize that I missed a few things I would have liked to have seen. I guess I’ll just have to go back!
Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking around America with Interruptions
by Jenny Diski
This account of two railway journeys Jenny Diski took through the US—a short one, from Georgia to Arizona, and a longer one from New York circling the country—is not a conventional travel book. She hardly gets off the trains, except briefly. Diski is a smoker, and much of her time is spent in the smoking cabins of the various trains. She gets to know the other smokers who congregate there regularly and listens to their stories. And Diski, writing about her trip, goes back to her past and tells us hers. This is as much a memoir as a travel book.
Diski had a troubled childhood, and spent some time in psychiatric hospitals. Living with her father and stepmother in London, she would spend hours travelling on the Tube (metro), the Circle line, which had no final destination but kept going round endlessly. Diski travels “to keep still” and wants to be in places “where nothing much will happen”.
At the start of the book, she is in exactly that kind of place, on a freighter from the UK to the US—“a wriggly inlet” near Savannah, Georgia, to be precise—spending hours gazing at the sea. It is a tribute to her writing that she captures the fascination of looking at a vast expanse of water and the way it is constant and changing at the same time. But travelling means meeting other people, and she gets on well with the Croatian crew and less well with some of the other passengers (one couple in particular). On arrival, she decides to visit a friend in Phoenix, Arizona but because of Amtrak’s eccentric timing and schedules this takes two days. And so begins the US trip.
Diski writes with empathy about most of the people she meets—Bet, an older woman from El Paso with a disabled son, a young model who is going home to nurse a blood clot in her brain, and a gentle drunk. Her observations are acute, and I could picture the people she writes about. This quote of hers sums up the book: “I am not in any of the places the train passes through. I am on the train… my real landscape is filled with strangers who are thrown together by the accident of travel.”
Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey through Chile
by Sarah Wheeler
I spent three of my happiest years in Chile as a child, and it was the beginning of a long affection for Latin America. My parents and I travelled in the country, going south to the icecaps and Tierra del Fuego on one journey, and north to the Atacama desert on another. I learned Spanish, and my mother named our home in India La Serena after a Chilean town. We left just before Salvador Allende was elected president, and missed his turbulent overthrow in 1973.
Sara Wheeler visited Chile in the 1990s and decided to travel the country methodically, starting from Arica in the north and ending in the south, even managing to visit Antartica.
Wheeler is an observant, funny writer. I loved her vivid descriptions, both of the country’s natural beauty and the people she meets. On Christmas day, near the Atacama desert, she watches as a flock of flamingoes takes to the air: “great sprays of pink foam”. The people she meets come alive on the page: German Arturo, a “quixotic aristocrat” who she calls Mr. Fixit for his talent in opening doors for her; Pepe who looks like “a young Dali” and who comes to her aid when her car breaks down; and Gloria, the curator of a Mapuche museum with a face of “a Forces sweetheart”—a single, independent woman, not the kind often seen in the rural heartland. What I also loved in the book was the way Wheeler weaves a tapestry of the past and the present, making a clear connection between the two.
My one quibble is that she sometimes leaves out details: for example, she mentions staying at the grottiest hotel ever but doesn’t say what made it so terrible, or says she stopped for the best hot sandwich but doesn’t say what she ate (a terrible omission for a foodie like me!). But her journey through the country brought back some wonderful memories and made me want to return.