I’m not Asia’s greatest fan. Though you’ll find some of the world’s most fascinating natural and cultural sights, I find it irritating that they’re buried amidst jumbles of telephone wires and that reaching them often involves darting out in front of more motorbikes than it should ever be possible to encounter on one road. Nevertheless, I enjoy reading about the place, when I can filter out the bits that I don’t like to be left with a vibrant and enticing locale. There are exceptions, however, and one is most definitely Sri Lanka. I visited last year and cannot wait to return.
The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries
It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, to learn that one of my choices is a work of fiction. The story is enthralling but most of all, it captures the essence of the country in which it’s set. Here’s one of my favourite descriptions from the book:
“She took a deep breath of what she’d expected would be salty air, and marvelled at the scent of something stronger than salt.
“What is that?” she said as she turned to look at the man, who, she rightly sensed, had not shifted from the spot.
He paused and sniffed deeply. “Cinnamon and probably sandalwood.”
“There’s something sweet.”
“Jasmine flowers. There are many flowers in Ceylon.”
“How lovely,” she said. But even then, she knew it was more than that. Beneath the seductive scent there was an undercurrent of something sour.
“Bad drains too, I’m afraid.”
She nodded. Perhaps that was it.”
For some reason, though this scene takes place in Colombo, it feels to me like it should be set in Galle Fort. Quite possibly that’s because I grabbed the first train out of Colombo to head for the hill country and quite possibly because Galle Fort oozes history, spice and sewage from every cobblestoned street.
Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson
My next choice focuses on an Asian country I also love: Japan. Travelling through Japan ought to have been a challenge, what with the different alphabet and all, but the Japanese go out of their way to make sure they can understand you, even if the conversation can get a little stilted. Here’s the author on the art of Japanese conversation:
“This was conversation by Non Sequitur and I was thoroughly familiar with it by now. The trick was to answer with equally arbitrary statements, until you sound like a couple of spies conversing in code.
“Yes, I can eat Japanese food. Baltimore is very big.”
“How long will you stay in Japan?”
“Until tomorrow, forever. It is very cold in Baltimore.”
He shook my hand. We smiled warmly at each other, clearly this was an International Moment.”
Fortunately, when I reached Kyushu, the lady in the tourist office at Yanagawa defaulted to technology when she realised our language abilities were sorely lacking. Video conferencing with a disembodied head on her computer, I was able to secure a map and a recommendation for lunch. The head seemed very disappointed that I had no further questions and I felt guilty as I thanked it and headed off.
Three Moons in Vietnam by Maria Coffey
Years ago, I found myself sleeping in Michael Caine’s bed. He wasn’t in it, of course – of course! – but he had stayed in that same room and slept in that same bed while filming The Quiet American. The bed was located in Hoi An, in an old Chinese chophouse that had been converted into a guest house. Despite that it heaves with tourists (more so now, I understand, than when I was there) I found Hoi An to be a wonderfully atmospheric place. Maria Coffey describes the place thus:
“It was no problem to while away some time in Hoi An. We explored the fish market along the river bank, where women vendors smoking fat hand-rolled cigarettes squabbled nastily and noisily with each other.”
I don’t remember any squabbling, but I do remember the noise.
Mirror to Damascus by Colin Thubron
On to the Middle East now, and a book set in a city whose history stretches back seven millennia, giving me hope that when the present conflict ends, the city will rebuild and restore. I visited shortly before the war kicked off and was enchanted by the place and its people. Clad in what felt like a mediaeval cloak, I marvelled at the Umayyad Mosque; free of my robes, I haggled in the tiny shops on Straight Street and never felt unsafe in the streets of its old town, even late into the night. In his book, Thubron tackles some of the city’s history:
“Some cities oust or smother their past. Damascus lives in hers.”
Here’s to when Damascus can live freely again.
The 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames
My final choice is another reminder that time changes everything. Mention Baghdad now and the Iraqi capital is still, to many, a place that instils fear instead of hope. But less than a century ago in 1928, none other than Agatha Christie made the journey from London to Baghdad by train. Her route took her through Syria, where she frequently stayed at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo. (Rumour has it that this historic hotel, which I visited but didn’t overnight in, has so far survived the war almost unscathed.)
Eames quotes the 1928 edition of the Thomas Cook handbook which “advises customers packing for Syria that “There is nothing better for travelling than a suit of Scottish tweed, supplemented by an ulster or other warm overcoat and a good waterproof.” The author had probably never ventured further than Ramsgate.”
Times change and for some places, that’s a good thing.
While novice backpackers cut their teeth on the well-trodden route from South East Asia to Oz, Africa outside the beach resorts and luxury safari camps can be challenging even for the most experienced traveller. Fortunately for the world of travel literature, this is good news. Challenges make for gripping tales. These books are my favourites from this enchanting, maddening and diverse continent. What are yours?
In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong
You could be forgiven for thinking that some of the topics chosen by Michela Wrong as suitable book material might be a chore to read but she has a talent for observation as well as insight and thus her work is hard to put down. This vivid account of Mobutu Sese Seko opens with the words:
“At 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, a group of guests who had just staggered back to their rooms after a heavy drinking session in L’Atmosphere, the nightclub hidden in the bowels of Kinshasa’s best hotel, heard something of a fracas taking place outside. Peering from their balconies… they witnessed a scene calculated to sober them up.”
I’ll forgive her following a.m. with morning. That’s one great opening paragraph.
The Congo isn’t somewhere I’ve been, though it is somewhere that fascinates me. This book, tackling the subject of how good leaders turn bad, is one to be devoured, one that will keep you turning the pages long after you should be asleep and one that is essential reading for any traveller to Africa, Congo or otherwise.
Blood River by Tim Butcher
Another Congo account, entirely different but equally enthralling, is Butcher’s tale of his journey along the Congo River. Such were the dangers likely to be encountered en route, you’d be forgiven for thinking at the outset that the author was a complete lunatic. It’s one of those narratives where you find yourself holding your breath so often that you wonder whether such behaviour could be good for you. He writes beautifully:
“The heat began to grow, so I shed my fleece, but not the feeling of torpor.”
He’s economical with words, yet is wonderfully evocative at the same time:
“I stirred in the pre-dawn chill, my legs pedalling for bedclothes.”
It’s such a casual phrase but one with an imagery with which you identify instantly, a delight to read right from the get-go.
The Lost Kingdoms of Africa by Jeffrey Tayler
This guy is great too and through this book, you get to accompany him on a journey westwards across the Sahel from Chad to Senegal. These days, much of the region would be challenging to visit, some on the no-go list through risk of kidnap or terrorism. He sums up Dakar:
“Women dressed in elaborate banana headscarves and tight-waisted floral dresses strolled the sidewalks. The wind set loose clothes flapping, but it carried no dust; it was pure, coming from the Atlantic, intoxicatingly fresh.”
I spent my holiday in Senegal by the ocean, from its capital Dakar to St Louis in the north, but having visited the Sahara, I can imagine how refreshing it must have been to have finally reached the sea after so long travelling through that desiccated region. I can also identify with his impatience to get out there and engage with the city:
“We soon slowed and got stuck in a traffic jam. I was too excited to sit still. With my bag on my shoulder, I jumped out…”
Isn’t that why you should always travel light?
The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers
Douglas Rogers’ poignant memoir about his family’s struggles in Zimbabwe is one of the most heart-rending works on Africa I’ve read. It’s a timely reminder that issues surrounding land ownership and race in African nations are hugely complex. There are no easy solutions but there are always victims. Rogers deals with the subject tactfully and with empathy for both sides:
“Other farming families stayed longer, determined to fight to get their property or livestock back, or simply because this was home. They were Zimbabweans. There was nowhere else to go.”
Swahili for the Broken-hearted by Peter Moore
Sometimes you just want to read something a little less serious, and Peter Moore has a light touch and a sense of humour that hits the spot. Each chapter begins with an African proverb, which is an education in itself, but it’s his witty turn of phrase and wry observations as he travels from Cape Town to Cairo that make the book such a gem. He’s the kind of person you’d love to go travelling with despite deep down knowing you’d be led astray, as with this account from the Zim side of Victoria Falls:
“Perhaps the most astounding thing about the falls is that there are no guard rails along the rim to stop visitors from falling in. Back home they stick up signs screaming ‘Danger!’ even if it’s a 1-metre drop onto a bed of spongy moss. Here you can get as close to a 107-metre drop as you want… As I crept towards the edge to peer at the river 100 metres below I lost my footing and slipped on the wet rocks.”
Peter, if you’re reading, where shall we go?
I rarely read up about a place in a travel book as preparation for a holiday, but I do love to read about travel. South America, as regular readers will know, is my favourite part of the world and so I thought I’d begin here as I share my best loved travel reads. If you’ve any recommendations for must-read books on any of the South American countries, then do share – I’d love to know. And watch out for more on this theme at a later date: my bookshelves are stuffed full of addictive page-turners not only for the rest of the Americas, but destinations spanning the rest of the world’s continents.
Inka Kola by Matthew Parris
If my house was burning down and I only had time to grab one travel book, it would be this one. I’ve read Matthew Parris’ absorbing account countless times and it’s a delight from the first page to the very last. From his introduction to Limeño traffic to accounts of hostile bandits and remote mountain villages, this is a fabulous insight into how Peru used to be. In the opening chapter, Parris writes:
“Go to any scrapyard in Europe and command the wrecks to rise like Lazarus from the slab: you will have launched a fleet of the finest and newest Lima has to offer!”
I’m reminded of my first visit, in 1995, when my friend announced that, in order to find a cheap ride, you had to flag down the least roadworthy taxi that passed. The dilapidated Beetle that would take me back to airport at the end of that trip had as many rusted holes as it did square inches of metal and the doors were held in place by ordinary kitchen string. That we made it at all was a miracle, but it was indeed cheap.
Eight Feet in the Andes by Dervla Murphy
Few mothers would take their nine year old daughter on a long distance Andean trek with only a mule as transport, but then few people would look to Dervla Murphy for parenting advice. What results is a wonderful adventure and a lesson to everyone that you should never make excuses to avoid fulfilling your needs, especially where travel is concerned. I’ve never had children, but I like to think that had I done so, he or she would have accompanied me on my travels.
Often, Dervla’s experiences are far from mine, but I did identify with this:
“She…provided two litres of watery chicha fascinatingly diversified by scraps of floating vegetation. (“Better than insects” commented Rachel, peering into my glass.)”
I only tried chicha once, this home-fermented maize beer not to my taste. Rumours that those who made it spat their own saliva into it didn’t help to convince me otherwise.
Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler
Peru’s neighbour Chile is the subject of this well-written and engaging work. The author spent six months travelling in the country and writes as confidently as you’d expect. Some of my favourite parts of the book are her interactions with those she meets, including this episode in the Torres del Paine National Park:
“I asked if they could sum up the difference between Chilean Patagonia and Argentinian Patagonia in one sentence. “Absolutely none at all except the Chilean bit has mountains,” said the Argentinian. “Quite,” said Fabien (her Chilean guide) and that was that.”
That brief exchange sums up the difference in temperament between the chatty Argentinians and the more reserved Chileans. And in terms of comparing scenery, I can report that both are spectacular and equally beautiful.
The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux
While I’m not disputing that Paul Theroux is a great travel writer, he’s a grumpy old man much of the time and as a consequence, I often find his work doesn’t quite hit the spot. This is an exception and the combination of trains and the Americas is a happy combination as far as I’m concerned.
However, towards the end of the book, Theroux reverts to type as he writes about La Boca, a colourful working class neighbourhood of Buenos Aires:
“I roamed the city on my own. It now depressed me. It was partly the effect of La Boca, the Italian district near the harbour… some of the squalor was affectation, the rest was real dirt.”
He was writing in the late 1970s. I visited three decades later and the vibrant colours and equally colourful characters who inhabited the place made it one of the areas I remember most fondly. But who am I to disagree?
Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France
Somehow Miranda France manages to point out Buenos Aires’ flaws with more charm and seems to be affectionately ribbing her adopted home rather than moaning about it. This, I love:
“There was a word I kept hearing: bronca. An Italo-Spanish fusion, like most Argentines themselves, the word implied a fury so dangerously contained as to end in ulcers. People felt bronca when they waited for an hour to be served at a bank, and then the service was bad because the cashiers all had bronca too. Bronca crackled down the crossed telephone lines and stalked the checkout queues in supermarkets with hopeful names like Hawaii and Disco.”
Ah, Buenos Aires, what a screwed up and yet utterly captivating place! See you next year, I can’t wait!