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Travel Book Reviews - Asia
by Suroor Alikhan

Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation
by Elizabeth Pisani

Indonesia is a complex country. It is made up of 13,466 islands with over 360 ethnic groups and 719 languages. When it gained independence from the Dutch in 1945, the declaration of independence read: “We, the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.”

According to Elizabeth Pisani, “Indonesia has been working that ‘etc.’ ever since.”

Elizabeth Pisani knows Indonesia well. She was posted there as a journalist with Reuters in 1988 for three years. She returned to the country in 2001 after retraining as an epidemiologist specialising in AIDS. In 2011, she decided to write about the country. She spent a year travelling through Indonesia, trying to see what held this diverse country together. Pisani speaks fluent Indonesian, which opened doors for her. She had one golden rule: always say yes!

Pisani has a reason for this rule: she knows that planning a trip in Indonesia is fairly pointless.

Boats leave 18 hours after they’re supposed to, buses wait until they’re full before departing and tend to make detours to “drop someone at home or pick up a package from Auntie’s”. So the only way to get anywhere is to say yes when someone offers a lift. Even when she’s not sure where exactly they’re going. This sense of adventure permeates the book.

In Sumba, an island in the south, not far from Timor, she meets Mama LakaBobo, an old lady with a face “made crinkly from smiling”. Mama Bobo practically adopts Pisani, telling her about the village and how to behave according to adat. Adat is one of the most important aspects of life in most of the country (not in big cities like Jakarta). It is loosely translated as cultural tradition and is a mix of “body of lore and transmuted wisdom” that rules over birth and death, marriage and divorce, education and conservation.

During her travels, Pisani stays with local people, becoming a part of the life of the community. She looks up acquaintances from her earlier visits to the country, and they welcome her back into their homes, as if she had never really left.

What Pisani realizes at the end of her trip is that the country is held together through the vast networks that people have, which create extremely strong bonds. “The sturdiest of these threads is surely collectivism—village-based in Java, more clannish in much of the rest of the country, formalised nationwide through the giant web of bureaucracy. Almost all Indonesians are bound into at least one important web of mutual obligation, often several.” This, and faith, provides people with a sense of security.

I loved this book—I’d rate it as one the best of the travel books I’ve reviewed in this column.

She brings us as close as we can get to the country and the people without ever going there—and I suspect, even if most of us do go, because she takes us to areas so remote tourists are very unlikely to visit.

Find out more or buy the book from Amazon

Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak

Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea
by Kira Salak

This is unlike any travel book by a woman that I’ve read so far. Kira Salak is an adventurer in the real sense of the word—she lets nothing stop her, whether it’s fear of the unknown (and sometimes the known), the delirium of fever or having to trek through impenetrable jungle. A part of me wanted to shake her for taking such crazy risks while another part was rooting for her to complete her journey.

Salak is driven by her emotional baggage, a need to prove herself to her aloof parents. Their rather unorthodox way of child rearing included not setting boundaries just because she was a girl. This partly explains why she didn’t think twice about taking risks. 

Everyone Salak meets warns her off going to Papua New Guinea on her own, except for the Papuan women at the YWCA in the capital, Port Moresby. They are excited at her plans to go up the rivers into PNG’s deepest jungle and suggest their “wantoks”—people from the same tribe or family, or just good friends—with whom she can stay on the way.

Her trip is as fascinating as it is harrowing. She is abandoned at a remote village by the man she paid to take her up the river. At one point in her trip, the only way to reach her next destination is to hike through miles of forest. A woman from the village she is staying in, Mila, offers to take her. The hike tests Salak to her limits.

“The rain is torrential. In the heavy humidity, I cannot tell the difference between water and sweat. I plow through the knee-deep muck of our trail, my pack is weighing me down, sinking me deeper into the muck.” They go over mountains so steep that Salak had to pull herself up using tree roots. And all the time, Mila seems barely to break a sweat!

Because of the way she travels and her determination, Salak manages to penetrate places tourists don’t see. In the north, she goes to the camp of Free Papua Guerrilla Movement. The guerrillas were fighting for independence from Indonesia for their home, New Guinea, the other half of the island. The stories they tell her are heart-breaking, and depressingly common in today’s world.

Salak brings it all alive. She writes lyrically about the PNG landscape: “We’re travelling up the Wogamush river. … All is lush and vibrant in this country—I’ve never seen a place so rich, so bursting with colour. Not even Tahiti had so many rainbows capriciously streaking the sky… And the green! Such green, everywhere. The darker green of the wild sugarcane lining the shores, and the sultry green of the rainforest beyond.”

I would recommend reading Four Corners. It is a personal book, and along with the vivid account of her travels, it is also a voyage of self-discovery. I have to say that I was very glad to go on this expedition with her while sitting safely on my sofa!

Find out more or buy the book at Amazon 

Honeymoon in Purdah

Honeymoon in Purdah
by Alison Wearing

This book is a mosaic of Iran, made up through portraits of its people. It is perceptive, funny and thoroughly enjoyable. By providing a glimpse into everyday lives, it breaks the stereotypes about the country.

During this trip—a honeymoon for the Canadian couple, Alison Wearing and Ian—Alison often went out by herself, sometimes completely forgetting about her companion. Strange behaviour, you might think, for a honeymooning couple. Except that, as she reveals a third of the way through the book, they’re not married, not even a couple. She wanted to visit Iran and since she couldn’t do it as a woman alone, she persuaded her gay roommate and close friend to go with her.

The book was published in 2000, so the trip probably took place in the late 1990s. The war between Iran and Iraq had ended less than a decade ago, and although president Hashemi Rafsanjani was the country more towards business, the hardliners were very much in charge. Alison complied with the strict rules about how women ought to dress and got herself a hejab (scarf to cover her hair), a manteau (a long, shapeless coat) and a chador (the cloth to drape over the hejab and manteau). While she was clearly foreign, her effort to blend in made her more approachable.

Ian and Alison stayed with friends of friends or in cheap hotels (and even once with a mullah!) and what emerges is a pattern of unfailing hospitality. In Shiraz, a man offers them a lift to the poet Hafez’s tomb but must pick up his mother first. The mother decides they should all go to her home for lunch instead. Hafez, after all, had been dead for 600 years and could wait; she was 74 and couldn’t. When Alison complains about the heat to a couple in a post office, they whisk her off to a mountain oasis hours away, leaving Ian a note, “Mr. Canada, We take your wife. We make her cold”. Even the police, who arrested Ian when he photographed a procession, plies them with endless cups of tea and buys them a film to replace the one they had to destroy.

Alison and Ian met people on both sides of the political divide: a young man who regretted not becoming a martyr in the recent war, people who had been imprisoned and tortured by the government, and those like Tip, a young man raised in the US and making money selling opium so he could eventually return. Alison also spent time with foreign women who were happily married to Iranian men and had chosen to stay in the country.

And that is the strength of Honeymoon in Purdah, in which portraits of a cross-section of the Iranian population bring the country to life. Iran is opening up to the world but the book’s portrayal of its resourceful, curious and hospitable people still holds true. 

Find out more or buy the book at Amazon 

A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan
by Farzana Versey

This book about travelling in Pakistan is particularly interesting because the author is an Indian Muslim woman, whose various identities affect the way she perceives and is perceived by Pakistani people. Farzana Versey travelled several times to the country between 2001 and 2007, and A Journey Interrupted is a series of vignettes from her trips. 

A bit of history is needed to understand the impact Pakistan has on Versey. In 1947 the Indian subcontinent was split into India and Pakistan. Pakistan became a state for Muslims and in history's greatest migration, some 14 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs moved from one side of the border to the other. The migration was extremely violent, with massacres on both sides and an estimated half a million people killed in a religious genocide.

Many of the scars still run deep, which partly explains the ongoing tensions between the two countries. The years have improved things somewhat but an Indian travelling in Pakistan can still provoke strong reactions.

The book begins with one of Versey’s trips being cut short: she is deported because her visa runs out. She applies for an extension but is told that she is “from the wrong country”. The retired army general she speaks to says: “We gave you an opportunity [as Muslims] in 1947. … Your family should have come then.”

Versey’s family, like mine, chose to stay in India and lived too far south to be directly affected by the partition. As far as we were concerned, India was home. But for some people this remains unimaginable—one woman asks her how it feels to not live in your own country. 

Versey travels alone. Pakistan is in many ways more conservative than India. One of her guides, a man, is embarrassed to be seen with her. When they go out for a walk, he complains she walks too confidently and displays too much curiosity.

But people also open up to her.  She meets writers, musicians, poets, chaiwallahs (tea-sellers) and prostitutes. Versey breaks through stereotypes to reveal a complex nation where the “personal becomes the political”.

She talks to journalists. Contrary to the popular perception of Pakistan, there exists a critical and fairly vocal press, which finds ways around the occasional attempts by the government to silence it. She learns about the gay community from a gay woman, a courageous member of a (still illegal) minority in a country that stigmatises homosexuality. 

Versey gave me an insight into a country that neighbours mine and to which I have never been. It is a highly personal book but because it takes place over several trips, it may come across as a bit disjointed, with writing that is occasionally a tad clunky. But I recommend it for a nuanced portrait of a nation.

This book is too expensive on Amazon, but you can order it from India through Abe Books.

The Kama Sutra Diaries: Intimate Journeys through Modern India
by Sally Howard

This is a travel book with a difference. Sally Howard takes us on a journey through the sexual mores of India, with all the contradictions. The civilization that gave us the Kama Sutra and the Khajuraho carvings has become a conservative society with double standards. But India has always been a country of paradoxes—a place that has space for wildly differing attitudes and peoples.

Each chapter starts with a quote from the Kama Sutra, which links the past and the present throughout the book. Howard starts with a visit to the Khajuraho temples—built between 950 and 1150—with carvings of seemingly impossible sexual positions. For years, the temples were known just to the locals (the British arrived in the 19th century). Can you imagine Victorian British men stumbling across these erotic carvings in the middle of an Indian forest?

Howard travels through India with Dimple, a 32-year-old BIG (Bad Indian Girl), who walked out on an unhappy arranged marriage and is now a single mother. (A Good Indian Girl, or GIG, is expected to stay in her marriage, no matter how unhappy or abusive.)

This is a book of surprising encounters. In Gujurat, an openly gay maharaja has started a retirement home for gay and transgender people, including hijras (now recognized as a third gender, with rights) or eunuchs. In Shillong in the northeast, Howard and Dimple talk to a man from the Khasi tribe, a strongly matriarchal society in which women make the major decisions. Not surprisingly, the men are feeling marginalized, a feeling which is familiar to a lot of women, and not just in India!

As an Indian who has been out of the country for a long time, I found this book an eye-opener. Some of these things I did know about, but others were a complete surprise. I found the change in attitudes gave me reason for optimism, in spite of the backlash. Women are starting to fight back and stand up for their rights, as is the gay community. There are anti-“Eve-teasing” (a euphemism for sexual harrassment and groping) flash mobs on the Delhi metro. Not to mention the country-wide demonstrations after the horrific rape in Delhi in 2012. It will take a long time for attitudes to undergo a significant shift but the cracks are showing.

Find out more or buy the book at Amazon

Around India in 80 Trains
by Monisha Rajesh

Looking out of her window on a foggy London day, Monisha Rajesh feels she needs a change. So begins her journey to India. Rajesh’s family had moved back to India from Sheffield in the early 1990s for a traumatic two years. She feels that she and India had “parted on bad terms” and decides, 20 years later, to give the country another chance. In a nod to Jules Verne (Around the World in 80 Days), she will take 80 trains. 

Being Indian, and having travelled on trains a lot when I lived there, this book is particularly close to my heart. With the horror stories about women travelling alone in India, Rajesh’s solo train experience was the same as mine 30 years ago. Like her, I was in a compartment with five men, and instead of being harrassed, I was looked after. One of the men even insisted on buying me breakfast. (“You must eat.”)

Rajesh’s descriptions of India and Indians also struck a chord. Indians have no problem asking complete strangers personal questions: “with the proficiency of a pickpocket they extract details ranging from your salary and star sign, to your brand of mobile phone and any unusual birthmarks”.  Rajesh makes it all come alive: the man selling coffee and tea on the train calling out his wares, “carfee, carfee, chai-carfeeee”; a red sari among tall grass, “like a single tulip in a field of green”, a fruit seller squatting by his basket, counting out a wad of money. I’ve decided that it’s time I took an Indian train again.

Find out more or buy the book at Amazon

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