Don George, Editor
(Lonely Planet)You remember? You get off the bus, and you are suddenly in a place of lascivious squalor, the part of the town where children appear and start to mock the way you move and look. Their putative fathers stare at you from peeling, fall-apart houses. A old man saunters up and starts to harass you in a language you cannot understand. He smells bad, won't leave you alone.
There's a warm, sticky rain, turning the ground beneath your feet to a slimy mess, god-knows-what sludge. You ask, in your best guide-book style, if there is a hotel nearby. The sullen old man pokes a nearby fellow in the ribs, the guy with a sinister eye and a cough which may well infect you with a local, incurable plague.Suddenly a truck, filled with soldiers, all about fifteen years old, eyes murky with drugs --- veers over, parks in front of you, blocking the pavement. One or two of the kids lower their AK-47s, aimed directly at your medulla. Welcome to Nowhere.
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In Tales from Nowhere, you get to ride across the Atlantic on a giant tanker, go into upper Thailand where (speaking of AK-47s) you manage to stumble into soldiers guarding the border, well inside the Golden Triangle itself. Michelle Richmond gets lost in Beijing, a strange driver taking her miles to nowhere, and she is convinced she is going to be sold into white slavery.
Pico Iyer goes to Easter Island with his mother. The hotel restaurant offered "that South Seas specialty," Spam for breakfast, Spam for lunch, Spam for dinner. And Sweet 'n' Low. And Nescafe in a jar.
"Easter Island is one of the most Nowhere --- which means Nowhen, and even Nowhy --- places you could visit even in your dreams." The only thing that moved, at least according to the locals, were the moai ---- the "iconic stone figures." And they only moved after dark.
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Editor Don George has collected thirty-one stories here, all in the my-god-how-did-I-ever-get-here? style. Some are amateur (not all the writers are as well-known as Iyer) but they do take us from the nothingness of inner China, to a meeting with a charming girl named Echo in the Shanghai airport. She wears a tee-shirt that says "Tell Me Who Your Daddy Is."
Jeffrey Tayler read a 200-year-old travel book about a village far north of Moscow --- Valdai --- where "brazen and shameless women stop every travelling passenger and try to ignite lust with him." That was two centuries ago. He went there. The only thing that didn't change was the p'yanka, "the traditional Russian booze-up."
Stanley Stewart is in Borneo, upriver with the head-hunters, drinking something called tuak, rice wine, in a longhouse complete with 120 families." On the wrong side of ten bowls of tuak, he, a traveler with no special calling as a performer, is called upon to put on a show. "Make the Dance of England," bellowed the chief.
I began with the flamenco, a stirring rendition of heel-clicking and finger-snapping. I moved on to a Bohemian polka, interspersing this with bits of an Alpine jig of my own invention. Dizziness cut short the Irish reel and I passed groggily on to a high-kicking Cossack number which I ascribed to the Poles. When I tried a bit of Morris dancing, it came out like a storm troopers' rally.
My audience went wild," he reports. "They held their sides and hooted. They beat the ground and howled." The chief's mother "clung to a post, dabbling her eyes."
All of us have been on trips that began or ended in Nowhere. But, I suspect, none of us have been in pursuit of a story like that of Karl Taro Greenfeld. His assignment was to find the root of SARS which, it was believed, had started in the mountains of China.
The run-around he got from the various bureaucrats is the essence of this one, but his loss becomes ours. After months of vain pursuit come moments of high success ... but ... his computer is stolen in the train station in Hong Kong. The thief, he surmises, "wouldn't even be aware of my book, my transcribed notes, the thousands of hours of work that digitized information represents .... A magnet would be swept over the computer's hard drive to erase it, the notebooks would be tossed in a waste bin."
I'm having a hard time, as you've noticed, putting this one down or shutting up. It's that good. Let me tell you of the two best of the best in this great collection.
There is a trip by Simon Winchester to the country that all his foreign correspondent friends agree is the worst of the worst in the world. "All of us had been to just about everywhere, covering wars and famines and insurrections and goodness knows what from Aden to Zanzibar." And where did they agree was the worst? Baghdad? Luanda? Kolkata? Iraq? North Korea? Dallas? Sudbury, Ontario? Nope. Equatorial Guinea. Who?
Poor Winchester. The editor of the Sunday Times magazine had heard about the confabulation, and two days later he was on his way. In the capital, Malabo,
There was a scattering of markets, and a restaurant that served us an unremitting diet of bananas and stewed rat --- except for one golden day when we were given a plate of a darker and marginally more succulent meat that, after we had eaten it, was said to have been cat. The streets were lonely places, populated only by slack-jawed youths and suspicious looking thugs and a scattering of very large Algerian soldiers, and with the occasional East German spy to add a bit of sparkle to the social scene.
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Finally. You and I have read much, perhaps too much, about Hurricane Katrina. Joshua Clark's "His Picture Nowhere" about his visit to Buras, Louisiana three weeks after the fact is so good I'll probably screw it up if I try to tell you anything about it. It's funny and sad, so direct that you can taste it and smell it and feel, intimately, what it was like ... you and Clark and Alcedia looking for her "granddaddy's picture" in Buras: the three of you, along with the silence, which "you expected at any moment to be filled with the bird's call that unfailingly swoons into the quietest pockets of the world."
And I wondered what thing would be the first to claim this silence.--- Carlos Amantea