OxTravels: Meetings with Remarkable Travel Writers
Various authors, edited by Mark Ellingham et al
When the editors of OxTravels invited a list of eminent British travel writers to contribute a story without payment, they were astonished to receive submissions from almost all of them. That speaks volumes for the high regard in which the charity Oxfam is held, since all the proceeds from this book are destined for the Oxford-based development agency. Since the contents page reads like a who’s who of the foremost travel writers of this generation (and a few from the previous and the next), it is no surprise that the quality of the writing should be exceptionally high. The sideways approach to the unexpected corners of the world into which these 36 writers have penetrated is often thought-provoking as well as entertaining.
The premise of the book was simple: the writers were invited to write a story about a meeting. This loose theme provides a unifying thread but plenty of latitude for originality. To give an idea of the scope and variety, writers chose as their subjects not just memorable characters met on the road—a Jain nun in Karnataka, a gang of illegal diamond miners in Namibia, a Brazilian environmentalist vainly trying to protect a huge tract of virgin forest from loggers—but inanimate objects (a big yellow taxi), animals (a cute Antarctic penguin) and dead authors (Graham Greene who spent time in West Africa).
Even without reading the short biographies that accompany photos of the contributors, you can surmise that some are novelists. Not that novelists have a monopoly on the skill of bringing characters to life in a few deft strokes, but this attribute is in evidence at every turn. Even the title of one piece “Madam Say Go” catches the cadences of speech of a poor Indian woman who has been dismissed without cause from her job in the Middle East. It is a chance encounter on a plane to Mumbai that allows Sonia Faleira to dramatize the predicament of so many thousands of migrant workers from the sub-continent. Having worked faithfully as a housekeeper and nanny in the Gulf, Kadali has been sent packing by her hysterical employer. “I wash, I fed, I school bus took. I told stories of India. The children liked my stories. See my hands? So much work, hands need hospital!”
Particular stories well told are more effective and certainly more memorable than learned articles about, say, the sex trade among destitute Burmese women or the ethics of bull-fighting. In some stories the writer is a participant not just an observer. Peter Godwin’s account of his meeting with illegal diamond miners in a “wild world way off the grid” near the Zimbabwean border is tense and gripping. When he tells them that he hasn’t come to buy diamonds, they become suspicious and discuss whether or not to kill him, while “baboons bark in the distance, kestrels wheel on the thermals” and he think of his sons. The desperados relent when he claims a friendship with one of their heroes, a prominent and fearless politician in the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, Roy Bennett (now in exile in South Africa). The armchair in which we readers travel is not always a comfy upholstered one, and quite a few of these stories may leave you feeling jolly glad that you will never go to these desperate places.
Political engagement is not too unexpected in a volume dedicated to an international agency working for justice and an amelioration of poverty. Other stories are more frivolous, like Sara Wheeler’s brilliant account of a holiday romance “The End of the Bolster” or the hilarious story by Chris Stewart of seeking the help of a curandera, or village healer, near his home in the south of Spain to tackle an unmentionable problem (except he blushingly has to mention it to her).
Startling juxtapositions are inevitable in an anthology such as this, but sometimes they take place inside a single story. Within less than a dozen pages, William Gimlette turns a gimlet eye on a remote tribal village in Orissa to try to get a handle on what made Iron Age man tick in southern England. I am sorry I can’t mention every one of the gems in this volume but commend everyone to buy a copy.
The Sacred Thread: A True Story of Becoming a Mother and Finding a Family—Half a World Away
By Adrienne Arieff
Although this book describes a journey that takes place in India, it is more autobiography than travel. The author is disarmingly frank about the heartbreak of serial miscarriages and infertility, and the fraught decision to opt for surrogacy at an Indian clinic. But I struggled with how excruciatingly American-centric her terms of reference are. She reaches for the Pepto Bismol whenever she eats the local food; she believes street food can kill you and longs for Coke and Ruffles. But more worrying throughout is her burning desire to turn the village woman who is carrying her twin daughters into her best friend. Understandably, she does not want to view the arrangement as a merely commercial one. She wants to liberate Vaina from domestic servitude, to claim her as a soul sister, a lifelong friend. It doesn’t seem to occur to her to try to find out whether Vaina shares these ambitions. She demonstrates the cultural blinkers of which Americans are so often accused. She even calls a women-only get-together in the surrogacy ward of the clinic a “shower”, a social event that is unknown in Europe let alone Gujarat.
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