No Touch Monkey!
And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late
Seal Press: 274 pp., $14.95 paper
Yoga for People Who
Can’t Be Bothered to Do It
Vintage Books: 258 pp., $13 paper
12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time
A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe
Mark and Rae Jacobson
Atlantic Monthly Press: 272 pp., $23
Somebody’s Heart Is Burning
A Woman Wanderer in Africa
Vintage Books/Random House: 324 pp., $13 paper
Dark Star Safari
Overland From Cairo to Cape Town
Houghton Mifflin: 472 pp., $28
In his introduction to “The Best American Travel Writing 2000,” the inaugural edition of that anthology, Bill Bryson was pleased to note that the genre was finally catching on. When Bryson (“A Walk in the Woods,” “In a Sunburned Country”) started writing travel books in the 1980s, he explained, there was no shelf for them in U.S. bookstores. The travel section contained only guidebooks; if you were looking for William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways” or the most recent Paul Theroux -- about all the American travel writing there was -- you had to look hard. Bryson attributed this mainly to our self-absorption, the same reason our newspapers and magazines seemed to favor domestic news over word from abroad.
But perhaps because we’ve discovered that travel can be a form of self-absorption, American travel writing has since taken off. Much of the new work seems to constitute a second wave of the memoir trend that swelled a decade ago. As any memoirist learns, one’s childhood, coming of age, illnesses and marriages eventually get used up; a whole generation of writers may have drained the dregs of its collective life story. One solution is to take your scribbler’s self-consciousness on the road. Just as Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff and Jennifer Lauck chronicled the alarming series of mishaps that were their early lives, we now have writers such as Ayun Halliday, Geoff Dyer and Mark Jacobson chronicling the alarming series of mishaps that are their journeys abroad.
In a parallel development, not long after Bryson’s essay was published, the outside world finally managed to capture U.S. attention. After Sept. 11, the insulated solipsism of peacetime was replaced with a sharpened interest in the foreign, and that may have increased the audience for travel writers. If a book can deliver not just the adventures of the storyteller in various exotic locales but also an enriched grasp of a distant place and culture, it qualifies as self-improvement as well as entertainment.
Solidly in the entertainment category is Halliday’s “No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late.” Halliday has been a penniless backpacker in many remote places and has had some rather bad experiences, both in and out of the toilet facilities of which she is quite a connoisseur. Fortunately, she is able to turn almost every one of these into a funny, memorable essay. What you will remember, though, is the author. For example, what you recall about Amsterdam is that it was there our narrator was attacked by infuriated prostitutes. Sumatra is not a place to dislocate your knee, and watch out for the marijuana in Saigon or you’ll end up like Halliday and her boyfriend, flat on your back in the guest house, praying to come down
Killer weed also plays a significant role in Geoff Dyer’s “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It,” another collection of mostly humorous essays. Dyer is a delightful stylist; “Out of Sheer Rage,” his attempt to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, is a landmark in stalker lit, the writings of writers obsessed with other writers. Though not as good as that one, this book has its moments, and many are drug-induced. Skunk weed in Paris, mushrooms in Amsterdam, Ecstasy in Thailand -- but even when Dyer is straight, his intense self-consciousness is an altered state. For example, here is Dyer on the rice paddies of Ubud, Indonesia:
“We’d never seen anything as green as these rice paddies. It was not just the paddies themselves: the surrounding vegetation -- foliage so dense the trees lost track of whose leaves were whose -- was a rainbow coalition of one colour: green. There was an infinity of greens, rendered all the greener by splashes of red hibiscus and the herons floating past ... as if sheets hung out to dry had suddenly taken wing. All other colours -- even purple and black -- were shades of green. Light and shade were degrees of green. Greenness, here, was less a colour than a colonizing impulse.”
By the time you finish an entire page devoted to green, you are certainly transported: not to any rice paddy in Southeast Asia but to the verdant reaches of Dyer’s mind. The best essay in the book, “Leptis Magna,” is named for the Roman ruins in Libya to which Dyer travels with considerable hardship. In this stripped-down, symbolic landscape, his internal and external environments merge, with results deeply funny and just plain deep.
“12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe” means to be another entertaining armchair journey but manages to rankle rather than amuse. Mark Jacobson and his wife took their three kids on a trip around the world, hoping that Cambodia’s killing fields, Egypt’s pyramids and India’s burning funeral pyres would snap the young Brooklynites out of their MTV-induced stupor. Instead of the “semi-dysfunction” promised by the title, we are treated to hundreds of pages of paternal kvetching. Like every other parent in the Western world, Jacobson is having problems communicating with his teenage daughter and cannot fathom his son’s fixation on video games. That’s normalcy, not dysfunction. In reality, so delighted is Jacobson with his offspring that he spares us neither details of the occasions of their conceptions nor their percentile ranks on standardized tests.
This is crystallized perfectly in Jacobson’s reaction to another traveling family, the Wilsons. The Wilsons, a pair of doctors with three children, were traveling the world at the same time as the Jacobsons and documenting it on their website. Not six pages after mocking the Wilsons for their smug reports, Jacobson lets us know that “in our family, we read a lot of books.” In fact, one of his daughters “was already through more than half of Nabokov by the tenth grade.” And although he seems to find it just too much to take when the Wilsons post their kids’ poems about their Red Sea scuba dive, Jacobson’s daughter is his co-author, with three chapterettes of her own.
Jacobson is a vigorous writer and he’s pretty smart. He even nails what’s wrong with his own book when he observes that most memoirs of family life are written by children because "[t]he kid perspective just has more leeway, more room for irony, responsibility-free complaint.” While he could doubtless write a good travel book, he’d have to leave his family at home. Then perhaps he would not feel compelled to stand at the Western Wall, comparing the Jacobson clan to Montaigne and Odysseus, and saying that his wife and he should have had “twenty-five kids, fifty, maybe more,” because (I’m not kidding!) “the earth ... was lucky to have us.”
If Jacobson seems to have found the outer limit of travel as self-absorption and self-congratulation, Tanya Shaffer’s “Somebody’s Heart Is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa” inhabits the other end of the spectrum; here Africa takes center stage. Though Shaffer’s journey is undertaken in flight from a love affair she can’t make up her mind about and ends with her decision, she manages to put this aside to create crisply focused, emotionally rich portraits of the people she spent time with during her year as a volunteer and traveler in Ghana and elsewhere.
Although her enthusiasm for West Africa runs high, her relationships with both Africans and other outsiders were fraught with misunderstandings, doubt and jealousy, and what makes this book worth reading is that she presents these problems frankly. In one chapter, she intervenes to save the life of a baby who is dying and in the process, damages her friendship with the baby’s mother. In another, a girl who accosts her on the street becomes a friend, an acolyte, and then something more problematic; Shaffer finds her diary copied word for word in the African girl’s hand. There is a pitched rivalry between Shaffer and a young American black woman that turns ugly at a public festival. In the most dramatic story, she travels to Timbuktu in a motorized canoe crowded with Muslim traders and their goods. A serious accident gives her firsthand experience with local attitudes toward death and catastrophe, and brings into focus the underlying problem in her relationships with Africans. “I’d spent much of my time in Africa befuddled by the notion that if a friend asked me for something, it rendered our entire relationship suspect,” she writes. “But what friendship isn’t a balancing act, an ever-shifting dance of altruism and self-interest?”
Theroux would suggest that people like Shaffer take their altruism and self-interest and go home. One of the recurrent themes of “Dark Star Safari: Overland From Cairo to Cape Town,” his epic chronicle of his journey through Africa, is his hatred of aid workers (“oafish, self-dramatizing prigs and often complete bastards”). He also hates rich people on safari and funky backpackers, but not as much as he hates aid workers, whom he blames for robbing Africans of their initiative. Since this trip to Africa is a follow-up to his sojourn there in the 1960s, when he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, his perspective is nothing if not personal.
While Theroux’s strong opinions and personality permeate his travel writing, he strikes a balance between narrator and subject. He is not just a storyteller but a teacher, including a map in the front of his book (if only this were more widely imitated!) and layering his own adventures and impressions with useful historical, political and literary background. There is a terrific section on poet Arthur Rimbaud, who fled France and lived in Harar, Ethiopia, for much of his life; rich, comprehensible allusions to Conrad, Saki, Eliot, Naipaul, Philip Larkin, the hated white hunter Hemingway and others add texture throughout. Margaret Mitchell makes one of the most memorable literary guest appearances. An Ethiopian writer jailed for vague political reasons from 1977 to 1987 tells Theroux that he was practically mad after the first year, having been deprived of all reading and writing materials. Then a prisoner came in with a book the guards had missed. It was “Gone With the Wind.”
There were 350 men in Nebiy Makonnen’s cellblock, and they passed the book from hand to hand, an hour at a time. Makonnen decided to use his sessions to translate the book. He wrote on the foil from cigarette packs using a smuggled pen; the translation took two years. After his release, he collected the 3,000 foils and published his translation.
Theroux may be a crank -- he seems to mellow only after a couple of beers -- but his storytelling and eye for detail are unmatched. Though he sees one ruined, frightening thing after another, though he arrives home “Africanized -- robbed and diseased,” the reader will wholeheartedly agree with his assessment of the trip: “a delight and a revelation.” Still the dean of this genre, the irascible Theroux is the ideal companion for armchair travel, though one might rather run into Halliday or Dyer on the road. *