Review - Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000 Mile
by Monisha Rajesh
“Trains are rolling libraries of information, and all it takes is to reach out to passengers to bind together their tales.”
Monisha Rajesh loves trains (in fact she wrote a similar book about riding the trains in India). She quits her dream job in London, packs her bags—and her fiancé—rents out her apartment and circumnavigates the globe in 80 trains.
Her travels through Europe are fairly quickly dealt with in the book, which was a little frustrating. But as the journey progresses, Rajesh slows down and I started to get a sense of the places she visits.
It is quite a trajectory. After Europe, it’s on to Russia, then China, Mongolia, Viet Nam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan (even Cambodia that does not have a railway any more). A flight to Vancouver, across Canada and then around the United States. She then loops back to Asia: to North Korea, Tibet, and Kazakhstan.
Her path takes her through a range of political systems, landscapes and cultures. But Rajesh thrives on the sense of community created on long train journeys, and the way they break down barriers between strangers: “the passengers who would always tell their story to strangers, offer advice, share their food, and give up their seats”. And how trains can take you into the heart of a country, where you can see how people live.
Rajesh’s book is full of little encounters: the Tibetan nun who exchanges WhatsApp contacts with her, the six-year-old on Amtrack, who invites them to share her family’s meal, the two Aleksandrs on a Russian trains, one of whom thinks she is a spy, to the amusement of the other one.
I loved the way she gave me a glimpse into places I don’t know if I will ever visit. Here is her description of the North Korean countryside as the train leaves Pyongyang: “The North Korea of tanks, missiles and the Kims was already a world away: oxen ploughed the fields; clusters of cottages had roofs of red chillies drying in the sun; and beautiful children squatted in the yard sifting piles of corn. Their parents paused their work and watched stony-faced as we swept by. Buffalos huffed and bowed, drawing wooden carts piled with people, and cyclists stopped to inspect the train as we slowed into a tiny station.” Although is a lot that is still hidden to tourists, her description of North Korea brings out some of the nuances that we do not get in the media.
There is a growing movement towards slow travel, towards taking the time to see and know and talk to people.
Flâneur is a French word that means “one who wanders aimlessly”. It always refers to a man with time and money, who walks the streets of a city. Elkin appropriates the concept by feminizing the noun. And she is not the only flâneuse: there have been many before her, some of whom are in this book.
Elkin grew up in the suburbs of New York where she needed a car to go anywhere. When she moved to New York City, it was liberating to be able to walk everywhere. Walking for Elkin becomes the only way of knowing a city. Being a flâneuse means having time to notice what the French writer Georges Perec calls the infraordinary: “What happens when nothing is happening”. Like sitting at a café and watching life go by.
In each chapter, Elkin introduces us to another flâneuse: the writer Virginia Woolf in London; the artist Sophie Calle in Venice; and in Paris, the writer Jean Rhys, the writer and socialist George Sand and film-maker Agnes Varda. There is also the photographer and writer from New York, Martha Gellhorn, who travelled widely, including to Spain during the Civil War. Tokyo gets Charlotte, a fictional character from Sophia Coppola’s film, Lost in Translation. But more about that later.
Paris is the center of this book. Elkin goes to the city to study, falls in love with it and stays. She talks about what it means to be an immigrant, and how you are always caught between where you live and where you are from (something I completely identify with).
Writing about her own experience interspersed with those of a woman from another time provides a multi-faceted glimpse of the cities. For all the women, walking was a liberation and in the cases of Woolf and Sand, a defiance of convention. Woolf and Sand moved to the city from the country, finding freedom on the city streets. Sand started dressing like a man because she found women’s clothes impractical, and she attracted much less notice.
I found the chapter on Tokyo disappointing. Elkin moves there because her boyfriend gets a job. She hates it—she can’t walk anywhere and has trouble adjusting to the culture. The other woman here is Charlotte—disconnected, lost. Elkin does end the chapter by saying she grew to love the city and would want to go back, but does not really tell us why.
This is not a conventional travel book, and parts of it are a bit slow, but I loved the fact that Elkin appropriated the term flâneur for women. I think I will become a bit of a flâneuse myself!
This is my first review for Women on the Road that is neither written by a woman nor about one. But I thought this was worth doing because Seth Kugel takes us back to the thrill of discovery, which we seem to have lost in this time of information overload.
Kugel retreats from our hurried, always switched-on way of functioning, where we consult online resources for the perfect restaurant before we go to a city and where our itinerary is planned down to the last detail. His journeys tend much more towards serendipity—he takes chances by going to places that are off the tourist map (sometimes for a good reason). This makes his trips truly voyages of discovery as he stumbles across the unexpected. On a whim, he gets off the train at a Hungarian town called Mezóberény. Walking in town, he finds a distillery where two of the workers are more than happy to give him a guided tour.
Kugel’s emphasis is all about slowing down and taking the time to get to know a place through its people. Researching a destination before getting there is good, up to a point, he says, but leave time for wandering aimlessly, for going somewhere not mentioned on Tripadvisor.
And talk to people: find an excuse to get into a conversation. He practices what he preaches, even though he isn’t a natural extrovert. Stopping in a village in Turkey to take photographs, he gets into conversation (mostly in sign language) with one of the villagers, who invites him to his home for a meal and to meet his family. An encounter like this is precious because it is spontaneous and not set up by an agency beforehand. And these are the things that you will remember.
One of the chapters I particularly enjoyed was “Why We Travel”. Kugel takes a look back: the ease with which we hop on a flight now is different from the way it used to be, with the camera not quite as ubiquitous. He also dissects the reasons we make journeys, whether to broaden our horizons, improve our social standing or look for an “authentic” experience.
The book is a mix of anecdotes, information and useful tips, including a mini-guide to risk assessment and reduction. Kugel devotes a chapter to the workings of sites like Tripadvisor and booking.com, and how you can get the best out of them. So he doesn’t dismiss technology, but simply prefers paper maps to Google maps because they provide you with a better sense of where you are. (I agree and have a large collection of city maps.)
I would recommend this book. Kugel writes well and what he has to say enhances the adventure of discovering more about this diverse world we live in.
“Take every precaution and abandon all fear.” Mary Hall, c. 1905
Why is it, when asked to imagine an explorer, people inevitably think of a sunburned unshaven white man squinting into the sun? The truth is that there were many intrepid women explorers, who for some reason did not get the kind of publicity the men did. (In an earlier book he wrote about adventurers and explorers and universal travel themes but then realized nearly every protagonist in that book was male.)
In this book, Mick Conefrey tries to remedy the omission.
He found that women discovered the
lost city of Cana in the Middle East, mapped the Sichuan Glacier in the
Himalayas, reached the top of the Huascarán in Peru, became the first European
to visit an Ottoman harem, and held the record for the fastest flight from
Britain to Australia for 44 years.
And Conefrey is not just writing about modern women. The lady in the Ottoman harem mentioned above was Lady Mary Montagu, who visited Constantinople in 1716. She decided to set the record straight about harems, saying that the men who wrote about them had no idea what they were talking about. (Naturally, she was right.)
Women were constantly being patronized. (Not that this has changed that much.) When British novelist Charlotte Mansfield made a difficult journey to Africa in 1908, a newspaper asked if she would agree to get lost so they could get an exclusive on her “rescue”.
Rosita Forbes, an explorer in the early 20th century, was criticized for being too young and pretty to be an explorer. And of course, everyone (except women climbers!) knew that women couldn’t climb mountains because they had difficulty coping with high altitudes.
In 1929, Miriam O’Brien and Alice Damesme scaled the Grépon, a difficult peak of the Mont Blanc Massif on their own, to the fury of a French climber, Etienne Bruhl: “Now that it has been done by two women, no self-respecting man can undertake it.”
The book is anecdotal rather than a narrative, but Conefrey paints a vivid picture of these women, listing the clothes they travelled in and the equipment and food they carried. Henriette d’Angeville, the second woman to scale the Mont Blanc in 1838, wore 14 pounds of clothing, including silk and wool stockings, flannel-lined trousers, a blouse made with six layers of wool, a fur-lined bonnet, a furlined cloak, nailed boots and three pairs of gloves. We should be thankful for the invention of GoreTex!
Conefrey is intrigued by how men and women approach travel. He does find differences between individual men and individual women, but there is more that unites than separates them. Women are far from being the timid souls imagined (or wished for) by men, he concluded. They often travelled on their own, fending off unwanted attentions and dealing with whatever fate threw at them. Before she made the epic flight from Britain to Australia in 1930, Amy Johnson ⎯ Britain’s answer to Amelia Earheart ⎯ had not even crossed the English Channel. She used linen shirts and Band-Aids to mend the wings of her plane, but she made it. T
This is an inspiring book ⎯ not just because of the amazing voyages of these women but because they made them against all the odds stacked against them.
Review ⎯ Alone Time: Four Cities, Four Seasons and
the Pleasures of Solitude
by Stephanie Rosenbloom
Slow down and take the time to look around you: that is the message of this book, an antidote to our busy and always-on culture. It is, as its title suggests, a paean to travelling alone.
Stephanie Rosenbloom spends two weeks by herself in four cities: spring in Paris, summer in Istanbul, fall in Florence and winter in her home town, New York.
Alone time is when you can do exactly what you want (that does not mean spending hours staring at your phone)—time to really savour life without having to fit into someone else’s needs or expectations. Savouring is a quality that Rosenbloom emphasizes throughout the book: the ability to notice details, to enjoy the small things and most important, to get the most out of anticipation. If whatever you were looking forward to turns out to be disappointing, you still have the months of joy of anticipating it “in the bank”, as she puts it.
And she practices what she preaches. Before she gets to Florence, she spends $75 dollars on a ticket to walk through a passage built in the 1500s that leads from the Uffizi to the Pitti Palace, over the Ponte Vecchio. But when she finally manages to get in, the guard hurries the group along through the art-filled corridor. Rosenbloom was disappointed but decided that the months of anticipation were worth it.
In Istanbul, she visits the Sakirin mosque whose interior was designed by a woman, Zeynep Fadillioglu. In Florence, she discovers that some people had been converting street signs into art: arrows on directional signs dissolved into daisies or turned into an angel, or the stick figure of a construction worker was now shackled with ball and chain. In New York, she discovers the lobby of the Marlton Hotel in Greenwich with “patterned rugs and woodpanelled walls” where people sat working on their laptops in companionable silence. In Paris, she eats a meal on the sidewalk of a café, watching people and enjoying her food (rather than photographing it for Instagram).
Eating alone can be a joy—some restaurants appreciate a sole diner because they know the person will focus on the food rather than the conversation. Rosenbloom is shy and was self-conscious about eating alone. “I was more concerned about what I might think of me if I didn’t try. I didn’t want to be someone who experienced less of a city, less of life, because I was afraid. So I went.” And did not regret it.
She writes beautifully, with an eye for detail. For example, on a street in Istanbul, there are “cats sleeping on windowsills. A woman leaned out her apartment window and pulled up a string attached to a bucket with a loaf of bread inside. Damp laundry hung from awning poles, reminiscent of long-ago family afternoons in Brooklyn. I passed a small mosque made of wood, like the delicate pastel yalis along the Bosphorus.”
There is such a wealth of information here: references to studies on solitude, historical details and a long list of resources, tips and tools at the end for the solo traveller. If you had any hesitation about taking off on your own, this is the book that will inspire you.
Review - Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana
by Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Growing up in Texas, Stephanie Elizondo Griest dreams of becoming a foreign correspondent and roaming the world. The advice of a journalist to learn Russian opens the door to what turns into a “four-year, twelve-nation tour around the Bloc” of communist or ex-communist countries. This book focuses on Griest’s stays in Russia, China and Cuba.
She visits Russia as an exchange student. Sitting on the ground to waiting for her group, she is hauled to her feet by a babushka (grandmother), who scolds her for sitting on the cold ground: “You’ll freeze your ovaries.”
It is 1996, a few years after the end of communist Soviet Union and things are changing. Young Russians look down on anything communist, while some of the older generation are nostalgic. Griest dates Alexei, who managed to escape cleaning up Chernobyl by slitting his wrists just enough to get sent to an asylum for the mentally ill.
She learns that, for a party, you need a bottle of vodka per person plus one more. She comes into contact with a range of people: an old couple in a village, appalled that her mother does not keep her own pigs; affluent men who get their money from “biznes” (connected to the Russian Mafiya); and abandoned children at the orphanage where she volunteers.
But Griest wants to live in a genuine communist country. So she picks China and gets a job at China Daily, the Party’s mouthpiece. Her job polishing English copy is a long way from her visions of slipping subversive notes to imprisoned dissidents. Her vegetarianism is one of the first casualties of her stay — it was almost impossible not to eat meat (a term that includes a fairly large range of animals). She gets herself a sturdy Chinese bicycle and a brightly coloured plastic poncho for the rain. She becomes friendly with the Uighurs on her street, who make sure she never eats alone.
Griest is half-Mexican, something she was ashamed of growing up. She had never visited Latin America. So when her friend Machi invites her to sneak into Cuba with her (Americans were not allowed to visit the country), she agrees. They find Cubans gripped by the drama surrounding Elián González, a boy at the heart of a US-Cuba custody battle in 2000. She joins a march of 10,000 mothers demanding his return, sashays with a well-known dancer and hangs out with young people who share their dreams with her.
Griest starts out as a naïve young woman, sometimes annoyingly so. She matures as she travels. Being exposed to other cultures makes her reassess her own.
This passage from her time in Beijing about people cycling in the rain illustrates her joy at feeling part of what was once a society alien to her. The streets are “a kaleidoscope of yellow, orange, red, green and purple polka dot. These were the times I felt most part of this world: cruising down the street with a basket full of eggplants, dodging a downpour in a peacock blue poncho, on my way to where I needed to be, with no better way of getting there.”
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Review - Accidental Travels of a Single Woman
by Terry Woods
Terry Woods moves to Las Vegas but discovers she has an allergy to heat. So, to get out of town during the hot summers, she joins a travel club. This book is a collection of emails she sent friends about her trips, extracted from her journal.
Summers are spent both in the US, in the states of Washington, Texas, Oregon, California and South Carolina; and abroad: in Canada, Australia and Europe (France, Italy, the UK, Spain), to list a few. She takes a cruise up to Alaska and a river cruise through Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.
Woods enjoys meeting people, so her book focuses more on them. Dreading the journey home to Las Vegas, she meets an Iranian woman on the flight, an unexpected encounter which turns things around. In Paris, she meets Dr. Edouard Sakiz, who invented the abortion pill. She visits art galleries in France (some better than others) and discovers Aborigine culture and art in Australia.
The places she stays in sometimes have surprises in store, such as the house in Seattle: two moose heads stare at her as she tries to sleep: “When I got into bed, the moose’s left eye stared directly in line with mine. If I turned to the right, there he was, staring at sideways with his black, cue-ball eye.” And to make her visit even less comfortable, the bathroom is split into three: the bath, the toilet and the sink, each in different places of the house.
Arriving in Madrid on the day of a royal wedding, she can’t understand why her bags are checked at every few paces. She did not know about the bombing in the city just a few months earlier, something I found surprising, given that she is curious about the world. But maybe being in Europe, it was a much bigger deal for us here than in the US.
The first chapter jumped from Italy to the UK, with a description about her and her friend in a fancy hotel pretending to be aristocrats, which is great for friends but is a little out of place in a travel book. And her first stay in Lake Como is all about the speculation about where George Clooney is going to be married.
But throughout, Woods provides interesting glimpses into her personal life and family history. She writes movingly about going to Louisiana to see her father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. He had left home when she was a child, and she hadn’t seen him for years.
And I picked up interesting information along the way: if chased by an alligator on land, be sure to zigzag (they have trouble turning). And to avoid being bitten by mosquitos, rub fabric softener sheet over your exposed limbs. Now, that’s a good tip for my next visit to India.
This book has been self-published, a fast-growing trend, especially in the travel genre.
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Review - Travels with My Radio
by Fi Glover
Fi Glover starts each day by tuning into the local radio station; it gives her a sense of being a part of the daily routine, no matter where she is.
The idea of basing a travel book on radio came to her in northern California, where she was recording an episode of BBC’s The Travel Show. Two DJs from KZST suggested she ask their listeners where the team should go. (They also told her about the Texan Lick cocktail and took her line dancing, but that’s another story.) Before long, listeners were calling in with suggestions—which is exactly what Glover loves about radio, the immediacy and the connection with people.
She decides to seek out some of the smaller stations, “the people who get phoned up about trailers and local barbeques”, stations with stories to tell.
There are over 350,000 radio stations in the world (and those are just the legal ones), more than 12,000 of which are in the United States. (The book was published in 2001, when internet radio was just catching on.) And so her travels begin.
In Vienna, Glover visits Blue Danube Radio, set up for the international community, whose offerings included English idioms for business travellers. She spends time with Radio Five Live, which has set up a temporary station in Charlesroi, Belgium, to broadcast to England fans during a Euro 2000 match. It’s pretty low budget, in a room above a café: “A sea of wires and lights and little black boxes and empty fag packets and piles of paper and people”.
She gets a taste of life as a UN peacekeeper in southern Lebanon at Camp Shamrock radio, managed from a small hut in the sweltering heat. The station helps soldiers let off steam, keeping in mind that Hezbollah and Israeli soldiers—the two sides they’re trying to keep peace between—can also tune in!
The US, with its vast array of radio stations, has something for everyone, whether you’re a conspiracy theorist or a Frank Sinatra fan. People pour out their insecurities, personal problems and vent under radio’s cloak of anonymity. Glover travels to New York, Las Vegas, Chicago and Palm Springs, where she meets members of Dusty Wings, a group of retired air stewardesses, who answer all her questions about planes (no, they don’t use the oxygen masks to get over hangovers). In the UK, she is heartened by a programme where local people speak about their lives.
But the cherry on the cake is Radio Montserrat. In 1997, the volcano on the island erupted, destroying homes and uprooting people. Radio Monserrat, with Rose Willock at its head, helped people through the crisis, providing regular updates. It shows radio at its best: a space where people could come together for comfort and advice. Even now, Rose says, “Each time the volcano sneezes, someone will call and tell us”.
Glover is a funny and informative companion. I think I would enjoy travelling with her—we share a love of hotels and a tendency to nick the freebies! I also learned a lot about radio, which is much needed now, when TV and video are so ubiquitous.
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Review - Her Fork in the Road: Women Celebrate Food and Travel
Edited by Lisa Bach
Food and travel—what more could you want? Her Fork in the Road is a collection of pieces by women writers including MFK Fisher, Isabel Allende, Francis Mayes and Dervla Murphy.
I love the way that the taste and smell of a particular food can immediately transport you to a place and time. The smell of chapatis cooking over a coal stove takes me back to my grandmother’s house and the expectation of a delicious lunch.
These women writers write evocatively about food—either eaten on their travels to other countries or cities, or by exploring the surroundings where they live. It is a real smorgasbord of what Bach calls “the world’s culinary bounty”—a lot of it appetizing and some a little stomach-churning, even for me, who is usually quite adventurous about food. No less fascinating are the people they eat with and those make and serve the food.
MFK Fisher is the only customer in a restaurant in rural France and is served by a slightly manic waitress. The waitress, determined that her captive audience sample as much of the menu as she can, keeps bringing out plates of food, until Fisher staggers out, happy and sated.
Margi O’Connell-Hood finds the place where the perfect curry is made, in the backwaters of Malaysia. She joins the women who earn their livelihood stirring it, one of whom has a business degree but has come back to follow in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother.
Ashley Palmer gets involved in an “unfamiliar food” competition with a Japanese grandmother (the grandmother wins). Isabel Allende samples alligator and piranhas with the Sateré Maué Indians in the Amazon.
Some of the stories are more personal. Laura Harger remembers eating blue crabs as a child with her dying mother; Michelle Hamilton overcomes anorexia as she hikes around the US; and Chitrita Banerji writes about the foods forbidden to her mother when she becomes a widow.
This is just a sample of the variety of experiences in this book that make it so enjoyable. As with all compilations, there are pieces that are better than others. My one complaint is that the voices are not diverse enough. With a few exceptions, most of the writers are from the United States. I would have loved to have heard from more women from around the world.
Maybe it’s time to bring out another collection?
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Review - 203 Travel Challenges
by Maria Angelova and Ivalina Nenova
Even though we travel more, we seem to engage less with our surroundings, often content to be mere spectators.
This book aims to turn that around: to quote the authors, it’s not a book for reading but for action. Whether you enjoy adventure or quiet—coming face to face with polar bears or looking for a legendary bookshop—you can travel along without running out of things to do for a long time. And because the book aims to engage people with their surroundings both abroad and at home, there are also things you can do where you live.
Would you consider riding a camel in the desert, taking a parachute jump or following the story of a song? What about outdoor challenges - like jumping into the snow after a sauna? Or things you do once in a lifetime like fishing for piranhas in the Amazon? There are even suggestions to help you find yourself (do something that scares you). I have a friend who gets a haircut at every new destination—another of the challenges—and has a photographic record to prove it!
The two authors have thought up some universal challenges that are perfect for women who want to change the way they see the world. Some of the challenges may force you out of your comfort zone, but... isn't that the point of a challenge?
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Review - A Bike Ride: 12,000 Miles around the World
by Anne Mustoe
Anne Mustoe retired as a headmistress of a British school for girls in the mid-1980s, and decided to go for a bike ride around the world. She was attracted by the idea of being part of the landscape instead of gazing at it through the panes of car windows.
Mustoe heads east, and her journey takes her through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States. As a historian, she decided to follow historic routes whenever she could: the Romans through Europe, Alexander the Great up to the Khyber Pass, the Moghuls in India and the American pioneers. This means that the past overlays the present throughout the book, making for an interesting contrast. She had to skip certain countries like Iraq and Syria because of security. It took her 439 days to cycle 11,552.1 miles.
Friends join her to cycle part of the way, but for the most
part she’s on her own. She stays in small towns and spends time with the local people.
The fact that she is a woman cycling by herself provokes curiosity and breaks down
barriers. In Greece, she finds lodgings in the house of an old patriot, who
wheels her cycle to the woodshed, puts his finger to his lips and whispers to
it, “Ipno” (sleep). She is invited into homes of complete strangers and becomes
part of their lives for a brief time. In Turkey, she doesn’t see many women on
the streets, but finds they rule the home. A garrulous and confident café owner
becomes a “subdued, dutiful member of a female establishment” at home. In
Pakistan, she often stays in muzzafarkhanas,
normally meant for truck drivers. But the men look out for her and make sure
she is not disturbed.
India doesn’t go so well for her, which as an Indian, I am sorry about. It isn’t an easy trip, but I don’t think she really gives it a chance. Mustoe complains that she couldn’t get fresh fruit and vegetables, which I find hard to believe. That is something we have—and eat—in abundance.
Although the trip took place decades ago, it is still encouraging to think that a middle-aged woman who was not a keen cyclist or terribly fit could do something so adventurous. A lesson to us all that it is never too late to be on your bike!
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Review - Go
Girl! The Black Woman’s Book of Travel & Adventure
Compiled by Elaine Lee
Elaine Lee is an African-American woman who has made travel a way of life. Her compilation of 52 pieces of travel writing by African-American women encourages black women to travel by saying if these women could do it, so can you!
The book covers all continents, with a focus on Africa. Maya Angelou recounts her visit to Ghana when she was told she belonged to the Bambara tribe; Alice Walker describes her visit to Bali and finding peace there; and Gwendolyn Brooks tells of her visit to the Soviet Union as part of a group of American writers. Marianne Ilaw gives a laugh-out loud account of some of the men she came across in the Caribbean. One of them, Humphrey, offers to be her bodyguard because, he tells her, he had killed three men with a machete. But Virgil, a beachside vendor, tells her the truth: “Dat bwoy kunna kill a damn mosquito if it land on him nose!” Adrienne Johnson and Opal Palmer Adisa write movingly about visiting the Door of No Return in Ghana, from where slaves were sent to the Americas. Palmer Odisa describes the “ironically beautiful” view of the sea, in contrast to the cramped, dark rooms in which they were held.
Travelling is also about taking chances (intelligently, of course!) On her first visit to Egypt, Evelyn C. White is left behind in a small town while she’s cruising down the Nile. In spite of her unfamiliarity with the country, she decides to hire a taxi driver called Aesop to deliver her to her next destination.
I know travel is liberating, but one of the things that stands out in this collection is how much that is true for African-American women—liberation from the racism, overt or covert, they face in the United States. There is plenty of racism abroad, of course, but it can be tinged with curiosity and African-Americans are often seen as Americans first.
For me, reading the book felt, in a way, very personal—a camaraderie of sorts. I was familiar with some of the writers but this collection introduced me to others.
This quote by Dawn Comer, who goes to Venice for the Carnival in spite of warnings from her friends, sums up the book: “Yes, the world can be dangerous… We see and hear about tragedy every day. But, for me, the tragedy would be not going out and exploring the world.”
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Review - Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in
by Rita Golden Gelman
When her marriage starts to disintegrate, Rita Golden Gelman decides to go to Mexico on her own to take a break and think things through. Never having travelled on her own, she is nervous but willing to take a chance. And she finds that this is what she had been wanting to do all the time: travel, get to really know people and different cultures. The language barrier, as far as she is concerned, doesn’t exist if you really want to communicate.
Mexico is just the beginning. Her marriage finally breaks up, leaving her free to do exactly what she wants—her two children are adults and she supports herself by writing children’s books. She embraces her new life whole-heartedly, going to places where tourists seldom go: spending time in a Zapotec village in Mexico, staying with a Hassidic family in Israel and visiting Nicaragua soon after the Sandinista revolution.
But Indonesia is the place that becomes her second home. On her first trip to the country, she goes to Bali where she meets Tu Aji and his family. She moves into a little guest house for a few months and ends up staying eight years, becoming part of the family. Tu Aji is is a wise, thoughtful man who becomes her mentor, and she finds the spiritual dimension she had been searching for in her travels.
What I liked about Gelman is that she proves that it is never too late to take the plunge and go travelling. And a woman can have a fulfilling life without a man. All you need is a sense of adventure and a willingness to be surprised. But the biggest lesson I took away from this book was the kindness of strangers—Gelman takes people on faith and seems to be rarely disappointed. And that is an important lesson, especially in today’s troubled times.
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Review - Tracks
by Robyn Davidson
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to strip myself of all the expectations that society has of me and pit myself against the elements. Who am I really, under all those layers? In 1977, Robyn Davidson set out to answer this question, walking 1,700 miles across the Australian desert with four camels (the fourth was a surprise—she didn’t know the female camel, Zeleika, was pregnant) and Diggity, her beloved dog. At the time, Davidson was living in Sydney and knew nothing about either camels or long treks.
Davidson began her journey at Alice Springs, staying there for a year to learn to handle camels. Women’s lib had certainly not reached Alice Springs, “where men were men and women were an afterthought”. Her first trainer was a crazy tyrant who taught her well but drove her to the limit of her endurance and sanity.
National Geographic approached her, offering to pay for her story. But this meant that photographer Rick Smolen would meet her at various points during her trek. She hesitated: this was supposed to be a journey of self-discovery with no strings attached, but she needed the money. So she accepted, and the expedition began.
Davidson writes beautifully, especially when she is describing the desert. She sits near Ayers Rock, watching the “gathering evening changing the bold harsh daylight colours to luminous pastels, then deeper to the blues and purples of peacock feathers”. She develops a growing sensibility to the landscape around her until she could, just by looking at the tracks of a beetle, identify the beetle and know where it was going and why. This book taught me a lot about camels—they’re sensitive and intelligent and funny, not the bad-tempered creatures I’ve always thought they were. The animals in Tracks have characters as distinctive as any of the humans: Zelly, the female, is the sensible one who knows which desert plants are edible. Dookie is the dignified one, “the camel born to be king” and Bubby, the youngest, is the practical joker. And of course, there’s Davidson’s beloved dog, Diggity—irrepressible, loyal and incredibly patient.
Davidson meets a lot of Aborigines on her journey—they take her in and she learns a great deal from them. An aborigine elder, Eddie, walks with her for two days. “He was sheer pleasure to be with, exuding all those qualities typical of old Aboriginal people — strength, warmth, self-possession, wit, and a kind of rootedness, a substantiality that immediately commanded respect.”
The end of Davidson’s journey was nothing like its beginning. By then, she had become famous and, to her dismay, was being pursued by paparazzi. Rick Smolan came in handy: he knew how to talk to journalists and managed to help Davidson steal back some of her privacy.
And we have him to thank for the lovely pictures in the book. My favourite is the last one, in which a camel stands on a beach, gazing at the sea. To me it represents freedom, a complete liberation from expectations, which is what this journey was about. This book inspires me to take up a challenge myself.
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Review - Why LA? Pourquoi Paris? An Artistic Pairing of Two Iconic Cities
Diane Ratican, with illustrations by Nick Lu and Eric Giriat
“When you fall in love with a city, it is forever.” This quote from Toni Morrison encapsulates the spirit of this delightful book. Diane Ratican has obviously fallen in love with both Los Angeles and Paris, and she communicates her passion for them in this book, which brings both cities together.
Instead of being a long narrative about the cities, the book consists mostly of striking illustrations by Nick Lu and Eric Giriat, which bring them to life. It’s an art book with practical tips, so it’s beautiful to look at and useful for traveling.
The book is divided into chapters, each looking at a particular aspect: monuments and cityscapes, culture, entertainment, sport and so much more. Ratican writes briefly on each city and then lets the illustrations do the rest. Facing pages illustrate common features—for example, the Colorado Street Bridge in LA and Pont Neuf in Paris; the Rose Bowl Flea Market and the Marché aux Puces; Union Station and the Gare du Nord, or women’s fashions in LA and Paris. By juxtaposing similar things, the artists bring out how alike and yet how different the two cities are. I loved the illustrations of the ghosts of Michael Jackson and Jim Morrison haunting their graves (MJ in LA, JM in Paris)!
I also enjoyed the quotes scattered throughout the book, not just about Paris and Los Angeles, but about life in general. The book ends with a list of useful addresses for restaurants, hotels and best places to shop - as a book in the travel genre often does.
I also loved the way Ratican brought together these two seemingly different cities. I’ve been to both and always thought of them as separate worlds. But it would seem they are not. And as I keep saying, I love the illustrations, which is why my first run-through of this book will certainly not be my last.
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Review - Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica
by Sara Wheeler
I was intrigued by this book for two reasons: one, that it is a woman’s account of a trip to the Antarctic—a change from all the books written about the explorations of men like Scott and Shackleton—and second, that Sara Wheeler sees this vast landscape of ice and snow also as a “landscape of the mind”, where you come face to face with yourself and your demons. I can’t imagine living in the middle of all that ice, but I do get the attraction of a “blank canvas” type of place (one of the reasons I like deserts).
Wheeler decided to make this trip after going to the Antartida Chilena when she was in Chile (see book review below). In 1994 she went as the first foreigner on the US government’s National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists' and Writers Program and spent seven months travelling the continent. Her book moves between the present and the past, blending them seamlessly together.
Unlike the Artic, there are no native people here. The continent is covered in ice, made of snow compacted over thousands of years. There are mountains, but most of the continent is miles of flat ice. Wheeler’s record of the trip is fascinating, not least the people she meets—Antarctica’s temporary residents, who live in the camps and stations, many of whom look forward to going home but then return as soon as they can. They talk about “getting away to the Antartic”.
Wheeler arrives at the American base, McMurdo, and finds an office space allocated to her, labelled W002 (for writer), hence her nickname, Woo. There are women working at the various bases, but it is mainly men (Beards, or Frozen Beards), which means that sometimes Wheeler, as the only woman in a camp, has to put up with schoolboy humour. One of the bars has an Annoy-o-meter with an arrow moving from Vaguely Irritating through to Murderously Provocative. It is interesting to see how the different countries’ bases differ—for example, the Italian has a Nespresso machine (heaven!) and good food. However, there are no luxuries here, and Wheeler writes entertainingly about bathroom arrangements (buckets and funnels) and creative cooking, put together with whatever rations are available. (She includes her recipe for Antarctic bread and butter pudding at the end of the book.)
But the privations don’t seem that important when faced with the stunning beauty of the continent. Wheeler is lyrical about the landscape. She describes a frozen lake: “sheets of cracked and rippled frosted blue, and ribboned crystals imprisoned in the ice glimmered like glowworms. It was bathed in light pale as an unripe lemon.” She talks about the continent “being sufficient unto itself…a world in which everything made sense”.
It really is an extraordinary journey, in every sense of the word. By the end of the trip, Wheeler has not only faced down her demons and fears but has developed a strong bond with the continent, a place that gave her peace in a very fundamental sense.
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Review - On The Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta
by Jen Lin-Liu
Food and travel—what’s not to like? This is a book about food across cultures—in this case, pasta in all its forms (I use the term to include noodles, dumplings, etc.). The writer Jen Lin-Liu is a Chinese-American food writer who lives in Beijing and runs a cooking school for foreigners. The book traces her journey as she travels from Beijing to Rome looking at how noodles evolved along the Silk Road.
It all started with a pasta-making class in Rome. Lin-Liu is struck by how similar making pasta is to making noodles. Surely there must be a connection? She is determined to find out and sets off overland from Beijing to Rome, crossing China, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey. Her mission is to document the changes in cuisine as she moves from East to West, and “what links made up the chains connecting two of the world’s greatest cuisines.”
It is a fascinating story because of the people she meets, of course, and because of the food. She cooks with local people—in this part of the world (as in most others)—this means women. As they cook together, they learn about each other’s lives.
She visits Isabel, an elderly single woman in a Tibetan town. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, she meets up with Gulzat, a “globe-trotting sociologist” who lives with her family and mother-in-law. In Kyrgyz culture (and not only in Kyrgyz culture!) the mother-in-law is dominant and the daughter-in-law does the housework. In Turkey, she finds women striking out on their own, determined to lead an independent life.
She finds many similarities in food across the cultures: not just noodles and dumplings, but also a dry bread that must have originated with nomadic tribes, as well as the ubiquitous dish of rice and meat, polo to the Uighurs, plov in Central Asia and pillao in Iran (and what I, as a South Asian, know as pullao). Pasta, often in the form of dumplings, is a constant until Iran when it practically disappears. In Kashgar, Len-Liu learns to make manta—Uighur dumplings. In Turkey, she finds a similar dish—tiny dumplings called manti. Turkish mothers-in-law judged their daughters-in-law by how many manti they can fit on a spoon (40 is the magic number). She comes across an identical tradition in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, except instead of being called manti, the dumplings are called Venus belly-buttons.
This is also a journey of self-discovery. Len-Liu has been married for two years and explores how she can keep her independence and be part of a couple at the same time. Her conversations with the women she meets along the way help her to come to an understanding.
Which brings me to something I enjoyed about the book: Len-Liu herself. Her voice is clear. Passionate, fiercely independent, warm and just a little pig-headed. She has an insatiable curiosity and eye for detail, and the countries and food come to life in this book.
As for the origin of noodles… we still don’t know.
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Review - The Olive Route: A Personal Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean
by Carol Drinkwater
Carol Drinkwater is passionate about the olive tree—she has an olive grove in Provence—and this book is about her search for its history around the Meditarrenean through Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Malta, Tunisia, Libya, Greece, Crete and Israel.
Drinkwater had intended to make the trip in September 2001, but couldn’t continue because of the 9/11 attacks and the conflict that followed. She finally made it in 2005, before the Arab Spring but after the Iraq invasion.
She starts in Lebanon, where she finds a plantation of 6,000-year-old trees. In Syria, she is assigned a driver and a guide who dictates where she can stop and what she can see. In Libya she falls in (quite reluctantly) with Western men working on oil rigs. One of them lends her a driver and a car—the only way she can get around while avoiding the strictly monitored tourist tours. Travelling into the country, she notices the poverty—the immense wealth earned from oil certainly isn't helping the people. She wonders whether Libyans will one day rise up against the corruption of Ghaddafi and his coterie. Prescient, indeed.
She makes friends along the way, often (but not always!) with people who are also passionate about the olive tree: she meets Maryam, a Druze from Lebanon, on a plane and they become close friends; Murat, her young driver in Turkey, who is a little bemused by her passion for all things olive; and Nat and Julia in Malta, who are trying to revive olive plantations on the islands. In Israel, she joins the Tu-Bishvat tree-planting ceremony with Israelis in Palestine.
Everywhere she talks to local people, not only about olives, but about their lives. She describes historical sites the way they must have been—sights, smells and sounds, providing a simultaneous glimpse of the modern and the ancient. I loved this because it emphasizes how things have changed, but how much remains the same—a sense of continuity we often miss in this “now” age.
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Review - Just a Little Run around the World
by Rosie Swale Pope
Rosie Swale Pope loses her beloved husband Clive to prostate cancer. In honour of his memory and to raise awareness about early cancer screening she decides to run around the world. The only way to stay on land most of the way is to do it in the Northern Hemisphere, with some of the most inhospitable places on this planet—Siberia, Alaska and Iceland in winter. Her “little run”—which she started on her 57th birthday—took five years and 53 pairs of shoes. It is a story of endurance, courage and sheer bloody-mindedness.
Other than a couple of unavoidable trips by boat and plane, she really does run every mile. If she has to leave the trail to go to hospital, she makes sure she resumes where she left off. Her son starts a website about her run, which attracts a lot of well-wishers, several of whom help her, sometimes by donating equipment and sometimes by coming out to support her on the way. The people she meets give her an intimate glimpse into the countries she runs through—the culture as well as the resilience of ordinary people, often living in difficult situations, both economically and physically.
One of the things that comes through in her book is the generosity of complete strangers who invite her in, feed her, give her a place to stay the night and sometimes drive miles out in blizzards to check on her and bring her food. Crossing the Latvian border a Russian border guard gives her 50 roubles to buy a bowl of soup from his mother’s café in the next village.
As someone who loves animals, I was fascinated with her stories about the wildlife. In Siberia, a pack of wolves keeps watch over her every night while she’s on their territory. A grass snake snuggles up in the folds of her sleeping bag and has to be persuaded to leave his new, comfortable home for the woods. In a blizzard in Greenland, she almost runs into “a nose and a pair of black eyes”— a polar bear. Fortnately, the bear ambles off.
Rosie’s run takes through Wales, England, Holland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Alaska, Canada, northern United States, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroes and Scotland. Those of you who read my reviews know that I like my travel books to have maps. But especially in this book, where Rosie not only runs through places unfamiliar to a lot of readers but also covers so much ground, I think a map would have been very helpful.
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