Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Places In Between

To better understand a country it useful to read good travel writing, especially that written by someone who knows a bit of the history and background of the country in addition to having interesting adventures. It may largely be because I don't want to read the detailed history myself, but want to get a sense of how it affects daily life, that travel writing appeals to me.

I can like a book just because of its title. Some titles just dance forth. All of the books I have read about Pakistan and Afghanistan have great titles.

Eric Newby wrote the funny, evocative A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, that first introduced me to Afghanistan and Pakistan years ago. He went on to write many wonderful travel stories, but this may still be his best. One of the best parts occurs in a short paragraph or two when Newby and his companion meet up with the inveterate explorer and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger. Episodes of two writers meeting up with each other offer the opportunity to see the exact same situation from two sets of eyes. It puts travel writing plunk down in the real world.

Only recently have I found Thesiger's comments on the meeting in a book I borrowed from the library and it was worth the wait. Now checking on Goggle, I learn that Thesiger died in 2003. It is for me, similar to the time I found an obituary for Laurens Van der Post in Utne Reader, a somewhat obscure but wonderful magazine from the heartland of Minnesota or when I learned of Lewis Thomas' demise in the Globe and Mail. I feel personally affected. These men, through their words have influenced me and shaped my world. I feel richer for having known them. My life is more intimately connected to life because of their writing. I suppose because I disavow much of the modern media, I am bound to be late in finding out such things. I know I need to acknowledge the gift they have given me in some way. Some ritual observance is needed.

More recent books about Pakistan and Afgahnistan help to put the current political situation into perspective. Geoffry Moorhouse's To the Frontier won the T.Cook Travel Writing Award in 1984. It draws one along in a series of harrowing encounters, steeped in the politics and people of the place.

When I read a travel book, I make a judgement as to whether I would like to travel with the writer. Oh, I know they hide their worst side from us. I am guilty of it myself. Getting the balance right is partly a matter of having enough of themselves in the book and partly of having interesting views of the place. But it is more than that, because Paul Theroux passes on both accounts, but while I love his writing, I would not want to travel with him based on what I have read.

Theroux lacks a gentleness with the people he dislikes or dismisses. Moorhouse warms to all the strange people he meets, some of whom are very difficult. He isn't soft on them. Some of them are quite dreadful, but I don't end up feeling poisoned by them. This doesn't seem exactly right and maybe I need to take another go at attempting to express it. It's a blog, for Pete's sake, and I get to change it.

Under a Sickle Moon by Peregrin Hodgson chronicles a journey through the steep mountain passes undertaken at the time of Russian and Taliban clashes in wartime Afghanistan. Hodgson travels mostly with just a backpack and his wits. Like Dervla Murphy, he not only itemizes what he carries in his backpack, but he gets you interested in how each item matters to him. Tapes of the Brandenburg Concertos, for instance.

With all of these travellers, I wonder how they stayed alive. Rory Stewart's The Places In Between is in the same vein. The Scotsman decides to walk from Herat to Kabul right after the fall of the Taliban. He wants to retrace the steps of Afghanistan's first mughal emperor, Babur. Having travelled throughout the mountains in Nepal, Iran and India and knowing numerous Persian dialects, he sleeps on villager's floors, explores old ruins and talks with heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers. He is mistaken at various times for a local or an Arab and tries to pass himself off as an Indonesian.

Along the way unlettered tribesmen recite 15 generations of ancestors for him. By the sheer difficulty of the walk, he finally manages to shed the three armed guardians he has been given part way into his journey and gains a toothless Afghan wolfhound who has been fed chapatis most of his life. Stewart is assisted in several tough spots by NGO personnel , such as those of Medicins San Frontier. He reserves his most scathing descriptions for the international aid community in post war Afghanistan.

All of these books provide excellent background information about the current problems in Afghanistan in addition to being great reads. Recommended for all Canadians especially given our current involvement in Afghanistan.

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Anonymous Ruth said...

I am always looking for new book recommendations. I have read Theroux's writings, and agree with your assessment of his attitude, even though I have found his books thought provoking. Off to the library (web page) I go.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Borneo Breezes said...

I have been overly harsh about Theroux. His depiction of his relationship with VS Naipaul in "Sir Vidia's Shadow" is so seeringly honest, it makes me appreciate his candor and even his abrasiveness.

2:12 AM  

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