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Travel Book Reviews - Americas
by Suroor Alikhan

Women on the Road

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Review - Non-Stop Metropolis: A New York Atlas
Edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Shapiro

Rebecca Solnit is no stranger to conveying urban environments through maps (see her earlier atlas on New Orleans, reviewed below).

But how do you convey the complexity of New York? 

Rebecca Solnit has the answer: by breaking it up into its constituent parts and mapping each one. Through these individual maps (with accompanying essays by experts including linguists, music historians, environmental journalists and ethnographers), a multifaceted portrait of the city emerges. 

As Solnit puts it in her introduction, “Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory. So a city and its citizens constitute a living memory.” The maps in this atlas illustrate “a few of the myriad ways in which a city can be described and understood”. 

New York has existed for four centuries: the land on which Manhattan is built was bought by the Dutch West India Company from Native Americans for the equivalent of $24. It began as “a little Dutch outpost in Lower Manhattan that became a compact British city and then the official capital of the newly liberated United States”. Eventually, the capital moved to Washington, D.C., but New York remained the centre of finance, fashion and the arts. As Solnit says, “Maybe what it means to be a capital is to be a seat not of government but of imagination”. 

This book will take you deep into the metropolis. You will learn about the people who shaped New York; the riots that took place there over the years; and the way the city’s water, sewage and trash systems work. 

Maps sometimes pull together things that seem disparate but are somehow linked, like harpooning whales and publishing (the link is Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick and lived in New York); and brownstones and basketball. Some of the boroughs such as Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem and Staten Island get their own maps. 

But it is the people who make a city, and New York has always been a landing place for immigrants. Maps are dedicated to New Yorkers: the one about Jews divides them into those who are Orthodox, slightly Jewish, Black, Secular Humanist, Catholic (yes, really) and so on. 

And then there are the women: the chapter, City of Women, reimagines the subway map with subway stations named after famous women – like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Joan Didion and Ella Fitzgerald – instead of men.  

Also, as the map on Mother Tongues and Queens shows, languages spoken in the metropolis include hundreds of endangered minority ones, such as the Otomanguean languages of Mexico or the Nilo-Saharan languages of Sudan. 

My personal favourite map is the one on songs celebrating New York, “the ways that what starts as a particular place can end up as the tune that you hum, a song line with no guidance other than to the human heart”.

I thought I knew New York well, but this book has opened my eyes to its multiple layers. It is worth buying a print copy of this book not only for its beautiful artwork, but also because it will have you spending hours poring over it.

Buy the book on Amazon

Review - Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution
by Alma Guillermoprieto

Alma Guillermoprieto is a Mexican journalist who started out wanting to be a dancer. As a young woman, she trained in New York and then spent six months in Cuba in 1970 teaching modern dance. This memoir is her account of her life-changing stay in the country. 

Her stay in Havana does not begin well. She takes a dislike to the school’s director, Elfriede Mahler (a North American woman) and the feeling is mutual. Things do not improve over the six months but Guillermoprieto is the only candidate for this post so Mahler hires her. 

Guillermoprieto falls ill almost immediately and is taken to hospital, where she receives a full medical exam, X-rays and all, something she had never had been able to afford in New York or Mexico. Here, it was free of charge. In a way. 

“I’d just been informed that this care was being given in exchange for a certain conduct, a stance towards the world that bespoke my bravery and social commitment.” 

At the time Guillermoprieto's arrival in Cuba, the nation was focused on the zafra de diez milliones, a push by President Fidel Castro to encourage the Cubanos bring in a bumper sugarcane harvest of 10 million tons and eliminate Cuba's dependence on Soviet aid. The entire country seems mobilized around the harvest and it is the main topic of conversation: Will they reach 10 million or not? 

She lives in the school dormitory reserved for special guests and begins making friends – Lorna Birsdsall, the assistant director, married to Manuel Piñeiro, in charge of Fidel’s security (everyone referred to Fidel Castro by his first name, which somehow made him feel more approachable). Her closest friends are a group of gay men through whom she learns that going out for ice-cream or a meal requires patience: you must queue for hours and even then, it’s not a given. From her students, she learns about the frustrations and dreams of the young. 

The author provides a strong sense of Cuba in the early 1970s. I loved her descriptions of the city, like the suburb Vedado (Forbidden), where old mansions slowly crumbled.

“The functional names of the streets–L and 14, 27 and G—contrasted with their extravagant reality. … [W]e glimpsed a turn-of-the-century mansion, protected by wrought-iron gates, covered with vines as if bedecked in lace…and gradually falling apart without losing any of its panache. … How could a revolution—by definition abrupt and radical—have emerged from this city of subtleties and the decadent filigree of light and shadow that filtered always through its vegetation?”

She wrestles with her feelings about the Revolution, at times giving her something to believe in, at others wondering whether it can make room for art. 

Ultimately Cuba is the backdrop for the biggest change in her life: she abandons dance and becomes a journalist.

Before Cuba, “I’d never once imagined that belonged to a wider community than that of my friends and fellow dancers”. Cuba teachers her a wider sense of belonging and a common purpose.

Find out more or buy the book on Amazon

Review - An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude
by Ann Vanderhoof

Imagine giving up your everyday life—the constant running against the clock, crazy working hours, cold grey winters—and sailing to the Caribbean. Something we all dream about in a sort of if-only way. But Ann Vanderhoof and her partner, Steve, did exactly that. She had her reservations—she had never set foot on a boat until her first date with Steve. She would have to give up her job: a difficult step for a woman who was defined by it. And how would they manage for money?

The hardest part, as Ann says, was the decision to go. Once they decide, they buy a sailboat, which they do up and christen Receta (Ann loves to cook). They go through the Intracoastal Waterway that runs along the sea on the US’s East Coast and then to the Bahamas, Grenada, and all the way down to Trinidad. They get to know some of the local people and fellow cruisers, some of whom become good friends. And they learn to rely on Herb—a volunteer living on Lake Ontario, who provides forecasts and guides boats through the Caribbean, every single day of the year, speaking to around 80 boats a day.

In the Bahamas, Christine Rolle, a tour guide, introduces them to the love vine, “for men with weak spines” that makes “Viagara seem like a Flintstone vitamin”. In the Dominican Republic, they eat “Silken avocados that dissolve like pale green butter on our tongues. Papayas the size of footballs, with honeyed flesh.” They fall in love with Grenada and its people and make some good friends, one of whom is Dingis. On their way back north, they stop to say hello and throw an impromptu birthday party for her daughter.

It’s not always smooth sailing. The hurricane season is approaching, so they need to sail to the Windward islands to get out of the way. Between the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic and the western tip of Puerto Rico lies the Mona Passage, where the ocean floor drops from 150 feet to 16,000 feet—the second deepest hole in the world. The waterfall this creates “sets up wild and conflicting currents”. Needs must, and they make the harrowing journey. 

Ann Vanderhoof writes with humour and a lot of affection for the people they meet. The trip changes her—she feels much closer to nature and its rhythms, and learns to let go and to “lime” or hang around. Not to mention becoming a seasoned sailor and an expert on rum. When they get back to Canada, you can feel the shock of the contrast between their life on the sea and their old lives: standing bemused in front of their storage space, they can’t understand what to do with all the stuff they had.

This is a journey of discovery, both of the region and its cultures, and also a personal one. And each chapter ends with at least one recipe (often more), which is one way of bringing the sunshine and blue seas into the readers’ homes.

Find out more or buy the book on Amazon

Review - Patagonian Road: A Year Alone through Latin America
by Kate McCahill

Inspired by Paul Theroux’s travel book, The Old Patagonian Express, Kate McCahill decides to take a year off and travel through Latin America. Unlike Theroux, she is determined to spend time in places rather than just pass through. Latin America is too big to see in its entirety, even in a year, so she focuses on Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.

McCahill learns some Spanish before she leaves the US, and seems to manage well, considering that often, no one speaks English in small towns she visits. But there is still a language barrier, especially in the first half of the trip, and it prevents her from getting into detailed conversations, which is a pity. In spite of that, she does get involved with the lives of the communities she lives in, sometimes volunteering as a teacher.

In Xela, Guatemala, she takes Spanish lessons from 24-year-old Linda, who has taught people of several nationalities (and received marriage proposals from a few!). McCahill loves the market with its “pyramid-shaped cones of grain, stacks of raisins and enormous dates, baskets spilling over with oranges” and chicha, the fermented corn drink, doled out from bubbling cauldrons by “deeply wrinkled, white-haired old women”. In El Salvador, McCahill stays, inadvertently, in a brothel in Santa Ana, but enjoys San Salvador, in spite of its reputation as being crime-ridden. She loves Granada in Nicaragua and writes lyrically about it: “Just as the bells of the churches are announcing five o’clock, the wind finally lifts off the water and filters through the streets, the trees and onto the cobblestones.”

In Quito, Ecuador, she attends Easter celebrations, where people drag large crosses through the streets. In Cochas, Peru, artists show her gourds that have been intricately carved, each one telling a story. In Bolivia, she visits a silver mine in Potosi, and sees the dangerous working conditions for miners. And in Buenos Aires, she rents a room from two sisters, Alex and Vicky, older women who treat her as part of their family.

This is also a personal journey for McCahill. She leaves behind a lover in the US, whom she misses. But long-distance relationships are notoriously hard to keep, and this one does not survive. She gets through heartbreak and homesickness, especially for her Finnish grandmother. But travel can both loop in on itself and free you at the same time. She sees familiar things in places she’s never been before: a flower in a garden in Granada takes her back to her grandmother’s kitchen. “Once you visit a place,…you will find it a thousand times again”. And then there is the freedom that comes from being somewhere no one knows you.

Through the book, you witness the way she deals with some of her insecurities and by the time she reaches her last destination, Buenos Aires, you can sense her growing self-confidence. A good recommendation to travel, if you needed one! 

Find out more or buy the book on Amazon

Review - 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.

Find out more or buy the book on Amazon

Review - 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.

Find out more or buy the book on Amazon

PLEASE NOTE: Every effort is made to keep articles up to date but the changing coronavirus situation has made it impossible to provide information about the pandemic or travel restrictions. You'll find updated information from the CDC about travel conditions by country but please check all appropriate sources before you travel as situations can change in minutes. 

Review - 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.

Find out more or buy the book on Amazon

Review - 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!

Find out more or buy the book on Amazon

Review - 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.”

Find out more or buy the book on Amazon

Review - 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.

Find out more or buy the book on Amazon

You can also read great book reviews about AfricaAsiaEurope, and the rest of the world.

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