An Innocent Abroad
Life-Changing Trips from
35 Great Writers

Don George, Editor
(Lonely Planet)
When the subtitle offers us "great writers" telling about 'life-changing" trips, I'm agog. I'm all for change-of-life . . . especially when coming from noteworthy writers.

So who am I to complain that the editor may have exaggerated some when Marina Lewycka loses her luggage on her way to the Russian city of Yaroslavl, and reveals that her "life-changing" experience was viewing a UNESCO World Heritage site "wearing borrowed underwear and an ill-fitting mauve polyester suit."

Or how about Kerre McIvor in Havana, where she falls in with Gerado. He wants to escort her and her husband around the city, but he has a plumbing problem in his apartment (no water). Kerre is sympathetic, wants to cough up some money so that Gerado's poor wife won't have to walk up and down four floors several times a day to water her and the apartment and the children.

However Kerre's husband Tom is convinced that Gerado is trying to rip them off. With their back-and-forth on this, she comes to be convinced that Tom is doing "his best Easter Island statue impersonation."

There's eight pages of fight and sulk between the McIvors while lovely Havana awaits outside basking in the sun. Gerado asks for $1000 to buy water pipes and faucets and things and she says we should do it and old granite-face says no and there you are. I was hoping to see a bit more of the city. What's more, I'm not so sure this is a life-changing experience as much as a reaffirmation of that old honky suspicion that these pesky Latinos are out there solely to try to figure a way to get dollars out of your pocket and safely into their own where they belong.

Traveling with these doughty "innocents" is apparently not only Stanley Stewart's visits to the "soft thighs of Bernini's Prosperina in the Galleria Borghese of Rome" or Tony Wheeler's nude beaches in Yugoslavia or Jane Smiley's arthritic horse on the back roads of France --- it is also Colleen Kinder getting snubbed by the locals in Batopilas in the depths of Mexico's Copper Canyon (drug-dealing has taken over from silver as the local cash crop) at the same time as she's fighting with her boyfriend as to why there is no word in Spanish for "to wonder," leaving me wondering if inter-familial brawls are de rigueur in life-changing present-day world travel.

On the other hand, Alexander McCall Smith has a dandy chapter telling of his time teaching in Swaziland, where he admires the local royalty, especially King Sobhuza, "a great friend of old traditions, particularly polygamy."

    The king has a very large number of wives, requiring a bus to transport them to the more important events.

Dave Eggers has a mildly interesting story on how men abroad, alone in a bar, are often offered a tumble in the hay with the ladies, but one wonders why Eggers has offered up such a slight and evanescent and not so innocent tale here. He's a terrific writer, but one suspects that the editor or his publishers decided to go out and buy Eggers and Smith on the cheap . . . to purchase, as it were, a couple of "great writers" with second-hand stories to doll up this volume.

§   §   §

There are couple of downers, naturally, and to my delight, one that I experienced myself. It's about Morocco forty years ago, driving on the road between Tangier and Fez, along the spine of the Atlas Mountains, and being alone on the road with beautiful beautiful clear blue sky, thrilling to the adventure of it. Samuel and I, on the same road, with the same adventure, at exactly the same time it happened to Richard Ford and his wife Kristina. But theirs was even more fraught than our own.

There you are zipping along on the road and suddenly you find yourself being tailed by a car and there are no other cars (nor people) around and this is suddenly a very deserted place in a country you don't know very well and the car behind you behind tailing you is uncomfortably close, you wondering who the hell is it and what are they after . . . outside of your very life? Not only are they crawling up your tailpipe, but then they begin driving up alongside you like they want to push you off the road, and the road is no help at all because, as Ford writes, it had "further narrowed and become windy up into a low revetment of mountains."

    Off to one side was now a steep fall-off. It would be easy, even without being chased and harassed, to drive right off and never been found again . . . I was now driving faster.

And you are thinking "why aren't there any towns here, or police, or any traffic at all coming the other way?" And suddenly . . .

. . . Well, we got lucky; we came to a downgrade; and calling on my Baja 500 driving skills, I managed to outrun this creep. Not so lucky for Ford.

The white truck forced him (he and Kristina were in a rented Deux Chevaux!) to a stop in the middle of the road, there alone, and as two men got out of their truck:

    "They're going to kill us now," Kristina said, staring straight out at them.

    "Yes," I said, "I think they are," Or I said something like that --- something movie-ish and grave sounding.

And he started to walk towards them, with only a coke bottle to hold onto as he got out of the car.

"What's wrong with you?" one of the two men shouted at me in French . . . "You're scaring us to death," I shouted at them in French. Both men coming towards him started laughing. I wasn't laughing. I was angry. But I was more afraid than angry . . . They shot you while you were holding a big Coke bottle in your hand, then went and had a nice lunch.

"Why won't you let us sell you some kief?" the one man said. The driver. "That's all we want to do. It's what we do for a living. You won't let us do what we do." He's begun speaking English now and seemed --- they both did --- extremely good-natured and agreeable."

§   §   §

Some of the best articles here are by writers we've never heard of before. Ann Pritchett has a dandy piece on her first trip to Europe when she was nineteen, where she and her friend were knocked out by a stark Parisian beauty, a tall waitress in a crêpe restaurant with a tattoo of "a clutch of flowers" on her back. That's it: Ann and Marti immediately decide they are going to get a tattoo --- Ann a black and white cow on her biceps, Marti a fish, "a little fish on the shoulder blade."

But this is 1983 when tattoos were not the order of the day for young ladies. Especially tattoos of cows. Still, "Qui vous a donné cet tatouage?" they ask, to which that lovely tall thin Parisian lady replies archly, "Rub-on."

Another of the best here is Suzanne Joinson in Sana'a, Yemen, "a place famous for regular kidnappings and for operating entirely outside the sphere of 'Western law.'" Her flight to Oman is cancelled, and rather than wait in Sana'a, she is offered by her hosts a week on the island of Socotra. Which she has never heard of. Me neither.

The best of it is the island, which is very weird: "There are cactus-like plants straight from Star Trek, and the most insane-looking trunks, like a child's drawing: thick, twisted, as if made from Play-Doh, poking from rocks apparently needing no soil to grow. Out of their tops are the strangest blooming pink flower." But it's not the island alone that gets to her (and her loving reader). It is her thoughts. Here she writes about (and reminds one of) Freya Stark.

Stark wrote some exquisite travel books about the very places that Joinson is now exploring. In her adventures from back then Stark would not only tell you what was going on around her, she would also let you in on what was bubbling around in her head. Her acute observations put you right there. Thus, we got the gift of traveling with a first-rate new friend to an exotic place at a time when English ladies were expected to stay at home and tat. This on Stark's seeing the Persian Gulf for the first time:

    It is green in the twilight, with a salty smell: it is genuine sea. It throws up a dust of glistening shells for sand, and at its edge are tufts of rushes. It lives in an immense and happy loneliness.

In this book, Suzanne Joinson has the same gift of taking us with her, but more, of making the reader complicit in her journey. This is what comes to her as we drift off to sleep on the beach on the island of Socotra,

    The island is known as the home of the Phoenix, and as I close my eyes in the evening peace, the myth seems entirely feasible.

"A feeling comes upon me that at first I barely recognize. Or rather, the familiar feeling that plagues me --- of ties to home loosened to a degree that I am permanently untethered --- is, at this moment, dislodged. In its place is happiness --- a rare, almost impersonal emotion, like a line of moonlight that has accidentally glanced this way, nothing to do with the earth itself."

    And what I learn is this: there are places in the world where one feels new, young, and alive again. Where plants grow without soil. Rocks exist in formations that make no sense. Trees are made from dragon's blood and their trunks have healing properties. It is possible to feel connected to sand that is a mysterious mustard-yellow color and to pick a flower that has no name.
--- L. W. Milam
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