Travel Book Reviews – Americas

By Suroor Alikhan

Click here for reviews from: Africa – Asia – Europe – World

Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza

Salt Crystals
by Cristina Bendek (Translated from Spanish by Robin Myers)

“That’s how we were built: out of historical circumstance, a mysterious process that landed us all in this cooking pot…We’re all beset by the same pressure on this island that weeps and dances, and we’re more than skin. Engrossed in the rhythm, I think, we’re like the salt that makes the seas, simmering in the heat of a History as acidic as wound-healing vinegar…In this enormous womb, I know we’re like salt crystals, refractory, luminous, mirrors for each other.”

Salt Crystals

This month’s pick is, exceptionally, a novel, but one that reads like a combination of a memoir and travelogue. Set in San Andrés, a Caribbean island that is part of Colombia but physically closer to Nicaragua, it is narrated by a woman returning to the place where she was born.

Victoria Baruq grew up on San Andrés, her parents eventually returning to the mainland where they died in a car crash. Victoria has been working in Mexico City for several years. After a break-up with her partner, she decides to move back to her parents’ old home in San Andrés.

We follow Victoria as she makes friends with the locals, and tries to find out more about her ancestors. “The past is important on this island,” she writes. “It’s a constant reference in everyday life.”

The people of San Andrés are a mix of Black, Arab, white, and Colombians from the mainland. The Spanish claimed San Andrés in the 16th century but were driven out by British settlers. Trade brought Arabs to the island, and some stayed.

As Victoria delves deeper into her family’s past, she starts to peel back the layers of the island’s history: from the arrival of the British settlers, slavery, the treaty with Colombia and much more. Victoria’s parents were from mainland Colombia but her maternal grandmother was originally from San Andrés, an islander, a Raizal. As Victoria goes back in time, she discovers that her family had owned slaves, and that her ancestor had married one of his slaves.

While searching the past, Victoria also becomes a part of the island’s present. An old school classmate, Juleen, takes her to a thinkin’ rundown, a sort of bar/restaurant shack for thinking people where they talk about the island’s problems. She takes part in a protest about drinking water.

Cristina Bendek does not gloss over San Andrés’s huge problems. Popularity with tourists has brought excess waste, and hotels have been built with no attention to planning about such essentials as water, already scarce on the island. Because of climate change, storms that used to bypass the island are now hitting it, resulting in floods. The corruption in the local government just makes things worse.

The book draws on both the history and the present-day situation of San Andrés, so in that sense it reads almost like non-fiction. But I kept forgetting that the story of Victoria’s family was fictional: it felt so real, as if these people actually existed. I’m sure some version of them probably did.

The way the book is written—beautifully translated by Robin Myers—gives the reader a real feel for San Andrés and also the way people talk, a mix of Creole, English and Spanish. You get a sense of the different ethnicities living there, and the complicated history that binds them together.

I enjoyed the book and most of all, I learned something about an island I never knew existed.

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Bicycling with Butterflies — My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration
by Sara Dykman

“Beyond my footsteps, mahogany-colored clumps dripped from branches of scattered trees. They shimmered in the sparse light, nearly indistinguishable from the tree trunks and pine needles. … Millions of monarch butterflies… Millions—clinging to the trees like shelved books waiting to be read, their stories of adventure painted on their wings. Each had flown thousands of miles to escape the freezing winters of the United States and Canada. Each had the potential to travel many more miles back north in the spring. As did I.”

Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration

In the spring of 2017, Sara Dykman followed the migration of the monarch butterflies from their overwintering spot in Mexico all the way to southern Canada. She did it on a bicycle—what she calls a “Frankenstein bike” made from several parts: ugly (therefore unlikely to be stolen) and sturdy.

Her starting point is the El Rosario monarch sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico, one of four Mexican winter sanctuaries where they go into a sort of hibernation. Dykman spends six weeks at the sanctuary and finally sets off on 12 March, when the monarchs start to spread their wings and head north. The journey takes her through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and then north and east to Ottawa, Massachusetts, New York and back west and south to Kansas and Texas and finally Mexico: a total of 10,201 miles. It takes her nine and a half months.

The distance covered is impressive, but more so when you think of the tiny butterflies that make this journey each year. Every spring, they head north, to lay their eggs on milkweed, ensuring that the growing caterpillar will have plenty to eat. The caterpillars become butterflies who continue their parents’ migratory route.

The monarchs Dykman sees when she returns to Mexico in November are probably the great-grandchildren of the ones who started out in March.

Like many other species on our planet, climate change is affecting the monarchs. Damp conditions followed by unusually cold temperatures can be fatal. In the winter of 2002, after freezing temperatures followed 48 hours of rain, their wings froze. An estimated 200 to 250 million monarchs died, covering the forest floor with their bodies.

Their habitat, too, is being lost. As wild spaces disappear, the milkweed they depend on to raise their young is often mowed down or lost to property developments. 

A growing movement of people is determined to preserve the monarchs and their migration. Dykman meets many of then on her trip: they grow milkweed in their gardens for the monarchs, raise awareness about them, and in whatever way they can, try to preserve natural habitat. 

As she cycles on the monarchs’ trail, Dykman does her bit in raising awareness, talking to people she meets and to journalists, and giving lectures to both adults and children, with several speaking engagements in schools. The school lectures are special: not only does she get to educate a new generation but she gets to share in the children’s wonder and joy of discovery. 

This is one of the things I took away from this book: although there is reason for concern, given what we are doing to the planet, there is also reason for hope. As people become more aware of the effects of their actions, even the smallest ones, they are trying to help. 

And also, something I come across time and again when I read of women travelling solo: that people are often generous and helpful. Complete strangers open up their homes to Dykman. In Mexico, a man on a bike slows down when he sees her and stops to offer her an ice-cream cone. 

But in the end, this is a book about the monarchs: the beautiful and frail-looking creatures that, year after year, make unbelievably long journeys. I learned so much from this book about these tiny, indomitable creatures and their importance in our web of life.

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Soundings—Journeys in the Company of Whales
by Doreen Cunningham

“Then, the whales came. I heard them before I saw them, their breath hissing through the air. Punctuating the silence. The sound was so startling, so alien, it broke the world open. We were no longer the only beings on this spinning sphere of rock. They appeared in the lead, belugas, each breath a triumph of endurance, of stealth, of intelligence, of community, of evolution, of luck. … The mothers huge and white, moving along the lead like ghosts. The babies small grey cogs next to them.”

Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration

As a BBC journalist in the mid-2000s, Doreen Cunningham travelled to Utqiagvik, the northernmost town in Alaska, to report on climate change and how it affected indigenous whaling communities. The journey was life-changing. She became part of the Iñupiaq family she stayed with, finding a sense of belonging that she had not felt before. Cunningham’s Iñupiaq family, headed by Julia, make her a part of their lives, even giving her an Iñupiaq name. And this is where she saw the whales – the grey whales. 

“Soundings” follows this voyage, as well as one she took in 2013, when her son Max was two years old. She was a single mother, barely employed, just about holding it together. She takes courage from the whales: if a mother whale can make it alone with her young child, why can’t she? So she throws caution to the winds and flies to the West Coast of the US to introduce Max to whales. 

This is a fascinating book. The chapters alternate between the two trips, and as you follow Cunningham, you also learn about her life: her childhood with a difficult mother, her fight with her controlling partner for the custody of Max, and her life as a single mother in a women’s refuge (she used up all her savings in the custody battle). She also writes about how initially she had to fight to convince her bosses that climate change was worth writing about. 

And through it all, the whales: never far from her thoughts, giving her the courage to carry on. 

I found the chapters on her stay in Alaska particularly interesting because they taught me about the way the Iñupiaq live. They hunt whales, but it is done as a community. The hunters are in constant touch with each other, and once a whale is killed, the word goes out and everyone goes home. The whale is cut up and everyone gets their share. They take from the ocean just what they need, no more.

The second trip with Max is quite different. This time, you often see the world through the eyes of a two-year-old, with a sense of wonder. Travelling with a child is not easy, and not everyone appreciates having a toddler around. But Cunningham is determined to find the grey whales, and so is little Max.

This book is a memoir, a travelogue, but most of all, it taught me about whales. These amazing, intelligent giants, who communicate with each other with complex sounds and bury their dead, although “bury” is not really the right word.

“The body, heavily scarred from the battles of life, is borne far, far out before it is let go. The whales dance and dive, down past where the light fades, where the colour gives way to black. In the deep sound layer, they remember him. Voices call in from far around the ocean basin, singing goodbye.”

Cunningham writes with passion and honesty, and it was a pleasure to spend time in her company.  She fills the book with information but also with humanity, with the story of her life and the people she loves. This is also a call to do more to stop climate change, not just for the sake of the whales but for the planet.

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Review – Life Lessons From the Amazon—A Guide to Life From One Epic Jungle Adventure
by Pip Stewart

Pip Stewart and two of her friends spent nearly three months in the wilderness in Guyana, hiking through the rainforest to the source of the Essequibo River and then kayaking the 1,014 kilometres of the river to the point where it meets the Atlantic Ocean.  

Life Lessons From the Amazon

The headwaters of the Essequibo and 625,000 hectares of pristine forest are protected by the Masakenari community, and the women had to get their permission for the journey. The Masakenari not only agreed but helped them. (The author fee from this book goes to the community and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative.) 

The group sets off from the village of Masakenari with guides from the Waî Waî community. The guides not only help them navigate the jungle, but give them advice on important survival tactics, such as what to do when faced with a jaguar (don’t run, fight), and the importance of always taking your machete with you, including when going to the loo. 

The hike is harder than the three women imagined—it is not only physically demanding, but there are poisonous spiders as big as a hand, not to mention prowling jaguars and anacondas. The women work with their guides to hack their way through the jungle, clear dead logs from the river, and catch fish. Most visitors do not do this, so it creates a bond between them. 

Once they have located the source of the Essequibo, the river trip begins, bringing more adventures. The women manoeuvre their way through white water and waterfalls; a six-foot green anaconda dives into the water from a branch in front of them (rather worrying, as they can stay submerged for 10 minutes and are good hunters); and Stewart is stalked by a caiman as she washes pots by the riverside. She also learns that it is not wise to go into the water during menstruation as it could attract the piranha.

Throughout the book, I felt I was there with the group: the pain, discomfort, and the moments you want to give up but can’t. They fall sick, get trench foot from too much damp, and Steward manages to bring back a flesh-eating parasite.

Balancing out the challenges are the magical moments: a jaguar sitting on a rock, lazily watching them kayak past; Guyana’s national bird, the hoatzin, startling them with a nasal grunt; and a hummingbird drinking nectar inches away from Stewart’s face.  

The trip also teaches Stewart lessons, which she shares with the reader—lessons about resilience, strength, the importance of community, and self-belief—lessons that might be useful in dealing with everyday life. 

She also reflects on travel as a privileged person with the money and time to explore remote places, and the effect of tourism on pristine environments and local communities. 

Nature had become home to them. After three months, they found the noise and busyness of Guyana’s capital Georgetown jarring. The rainforest, with all its dangers, had tested them almost beyond endurance but had also given them back a sense of self, a path towards inner discovery.

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Review – Destination Heartland—A Guide to Discovering the Midwest’s Remarkable Past
by Cynthia Clampitt

“Why Midwestern history? Because I love American history, and the history of the Midwest is, to a greater extent than most people realize, a key element of that history. … [P]eople need to know…how many sensational, fun places there are to explore the events that shaped both the region and the nation.”

Destination Heartland: A Guide to Discovering the Midwest's Remarkable Past

That quote from Cynthia Clampitt’s introduction sums up the purpose of this book. Destination Heartland is practical guide to the historical part of the Midwest, a region that includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

The Midwest was settled faster than any other region, and in the 1800s, many innovations came from here, including the airplane (the Wright brothers were born in Wisconsin). It was also the farming heartland of the country, responsible for growing the food for a burgeoning population. Reading this book gave me a real sense of the way this part of the country grew and its contribution to the US.

The region is full of open-air museums, or places where you can relive the past, with people – known as interpreters – dressed in period clothing. Old World Wisconsin is a typical open-air museum: in buildings dating from the 1840s to 1910s, you can watch blacksmiths working, a school lesson or women preparing a meal, just as they would have back then. 

Many museums and sites are dedicated to the peoples who make up the Midwest: Native Americans, African Americans, Slovaks, Czechs, Polish and more. The African American Museum in Kansas celebrates Black people such as Ronald Waters, who helped stage the first successful sit-in; Ruben Waller, born into slavery but became a soldier and lived to 105; and Junius Groves, an agricultural scientist who, in 1902, was known as the “potato king of the world” and became one of the wealthiest African Americans in the US. African Americans played a key role of in the city’s history—Kansas was a safe place for those escaping slavery.

Being a foodie, I was particularly interested in the historic restaurants and inns Clampitt visits. Breitbach’s Country Dining in Iowa has been open since 1852 and run by the same family since 1862. The oldest continually operated hotel in Illinois is DeSoto House, which opened in 1855.

Every place that Clampitt visits has a detailed entry, both about what to see and the history surrounding it. She includes details a visitor might miss. For example, in Brucemore, a Queen Anne mansion in Iowa, she suggests looking up at the house because every chimney is different.

This is a rich and varied collection with something for everyone, even though Clampitt says that her book is far from a comprehensive listing. But if you take this book along as a travel companion to the Midwest, you will be kept busy! 

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Review – Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail
by Melanie Radzicki McManus

In 2013, 51-year-old Melanie Radzicki McManus felt she needed a break from everyday life. A native of Wisconsin, she is delighted to find that there is a National Scenic Trail on her doorstep: the Ice Age Trail. Seeing it as an opportunity to get to know her state better, she challenges herself not only to hike the entire 1100-mile trail from west to east but also to beat the fastest known time (FKT) set by a woman. Of the 22 thru-hikers until then, only three were women.

Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail

The trail follows the contours of the last growth spurt of the ice that covered much of Canada and the northern United States during the Ice Age. The ice made a final push deep into Wisconsin before it started to recede, leaving behind glacial detritus which can still be seen. The trail was created in the 1950s by Raymond T. Zillmer, an avid hiker, and mountaineer, following the contours of this last growth spurt.

However, to be able to set an FKT, Radzicki McManus will need help: she cannot be loaded down with tents and provisions. This means that there will be people crewing her – meeting her at designated places with provisions and supplies – and she will be spending nights in motels and inns. Her family and friends rally around, taking turns.

It isn’t easygoing. She hurts her knee on day 2 (it eventually heals); she develops cellulitis on her foot, which is extremely painful; and trail markers are sometimes hidden or disappear altogether. Plus, hiking in the blistering sun in patches without a single tree in sight is not fun.

But the path also winds through some spectacular places. Kettle Moraine is “pitted with kettles [large crater-like depressions] and dimpled with lakes, studded with pine woods and hardwood forests, alive with the sounds of rustling prairie grasses, warbling songbirds, burping frogs and more.”

Thousand-Miler is not just Radzicki McManus’s story. Interspersed with her journey are chapters about the trail’s history and the stories of other thru-hikers: Jim Staudacher, the first person to hike the entire trail when he was 19; Jason Dorgan, who finished the trail in 22 days and 6 hours; and Jenni Heinz, an army vet who was in Afghanistan. Heinz was part of a program called Warrior Hike, set up in 2012 by former vet Sean Gobin to help his fellow soldiers deal with the post-stress traumatic disorder.

I enjoyed the challenge that Radzicki McManus set herself and saw through in spite of several hiccups. There are moments of despair and pain—as there are in any major challenge—but she is clearly in love with the trail, and this comes through in the book. In fact, she went back a couple of years later to hike it from east to west, which made her the first thru-hiker in both directions.

So if you feel you need to escape from your routine and try something new, let yourself be inspired by this book!

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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. 

Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas

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 center 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 favorite 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 songline 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.

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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.

Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution

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 of 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 to 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?

An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude

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 humor 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.

Patagonian Road: A Year Alone Through Latin America

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.

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas

“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!

Riding with Ghosts

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 neighbors: 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 do 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 an athlete nor seasoned traveler, she is a gutsy woman and an enjoyable travel companion.

Find out more or buy the book on Amazon

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.

Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico (Tauris Parke Paperbacks)

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. The tree is in San Miguel during Easter, and her description of the processions really brings 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 favorite 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 favorite parts of this book is her visit to Juchitan, a town of tough women with raunchy humor 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 are completely accepted.

Sliced Iguana is a book about a complex country and I’ve only scratched the surface. The 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.

100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go

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.

Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions

Diski had a troubled childhood and spent some time in psychiatric hospitals. Living with her father and stepmother in London, she would spend hours traveling on the Tube (metro), the Circle Line, which had no final destination but kept going around 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 traveling 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.

Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile (Modern Library (Paperback))

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.

— Originally published on 09 August 2015

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