I don’t get out much, ergo my love for vicarious road trips. As an armchair traveler, it’s important to choose your writer as carefully as you would a travel companion. This has become a more difficult undertaking in recent years, however. The booming “adventure travel” sector of the industry has spawned both a motor coach full of adventurers who have explored the farthest reaches of the Machu Picchu gift shop—and, concurrently, writers who bill themselves as adventurers because they didn’t bathe for a while and got a rash.
For example, Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor (yes, the actors) were only briefly at risk of being taken seriously in Long Way Round: Chasing Shadows Across the World, their account of a four-month, twenty-thousand-mile motorcycle trip. They seemed unaware that forsaking personal hygiene is also part of the universal lexicon, like a smile but not as welcome. Nomad: Journeys From Samburu was going along swimmingly until the author, Mary Anne Fitzgerald, talked to Gandhi on the phone, in 1992: Reception was good, credibility suffered. In another travelogue, two legendary mountain men got tired and thirsty pulling a cart across Mongolia for some two-hundred-odd pages. Who knew? In a collection of women’s travel stories, a goddess celebrated her womanness in the Amazonian jungle, but my impression was that almost any environment would have done the trick. Note that I can’t recall the titles of those last two volumes, so avid was my disgust when I abandoned them.
Even they couldn’t match Kira Salak’s The Cruelest Journey, however. While the book-jacket wallow put her firmly in the Robert Pelton, danger-is-my-middle-name category (“Adventurer, explorer, a real-life Lara Croft … ”—isn’t it enough to slander huge swaths of real explorers and adventurers, but Angelina Jolie, too?), in reality, Salak managed to talk the National Geographic Society into backing her six-hundred-mile “solo” kayak on the Niger River to Timbuktu, so she was intercepted every few days by a photographer and a fully stocked party barge, and couldn’t ever have been really short of cash. Recounting her adventures in The Cruelest Journey, Salak complains about the Sahara being hot, about being tired, about the bugs being bugs, about the river being choppy, about the people being curious and poor and continually asking for money (after she spreads around gold coins like candy), and, the last straw, about getting dysentery once. Perhaps this was uncharted territory for Salak, but most eight-year-olds would not be surprised by these facts of African life. I hope she never drives across Kansas and writes about it.
About fifty pages into this cruel literary journey, I was forced to review the author’s credits. “Wisconsin state mile record holder” caught my eye. Of all the states to choose for such a claim. The American record holder for the mile, Suzie Favor Hamilton, resides in Wisconsin and set many amazing records at UW-Madison. The Wisconsin state mile record assertion could not be confirmed, and neither could Salak’s grasp on reality.
Sure, adventure is subjective, but I feel cheated when I find out that Indiana Jones counted eating medium-rare hamburger as a risk. The reader ends up carrying all the exaggeration, self-absorption, and delusions of toughness that don’t fit in the backpack. On the other hand, the innocent who can’t be trusted to make it home with jam and bread, the hopeless bumbler, the quintessential foreigner squinting at his AAA map of the Sahara—this is the person with whom you want to travel to the ends of the earth, literally or literarily. From the moment he is duped into buying the travel espresso maker until he finds it crushed at the bottom of his rolling duffel upon his unheralded return, he is a first-rate companion. Luckily, my armchair travels have hooked me up with a number of writers who were not vexed to find that mountains were high and rivers wet.
A London couturier (he liked to say he was in ladies’ knickers), Eric Newby gamely responded to his diplomat friend’s cable: CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE? The result is a wry account of their appallingly flawed assault, in 1956, on Mir Samir, a 19,880-foot peak in northeastern Afghanistan that was then, and is now, one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Newby’s experiences make A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush as fascinating from a historical perspective as it is an engaging travel tale. There’s no presumption of adventure or exploration, but neither is there complaining; frostbite, dehydration, and encounters with well-armed tribesmen are treated as minor annoyances. In fact, instead of their exploits being lionized, the badly nicked-up duo are dressed down upon their return by the old-school British adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who labels them “a bunch of pansies” before striding off in his crisp khakis. Ouch.
Of course, Brits have the natural advantage over Americans when it comes to travel writing. They are funnier than Americans. They travel more and whine less. And that’s probably why native Iowan Bill Bryson lived in England for twenty-two years. He got funny and traveled more after that. Perhaps you know Bryson from his very popular A Walk in the Woods, but I feel he was at his best in Notes From a Small Island (1999). In Notes, he tramps around England, describing the green countryside and capturing the repressed silliness that seems to be the hallmark of English character. (Admittedly, I also like Bryson because something about his expression in the book jacket photo strongly suggests my Westie, Rascal.)
A pasty academic, Nigel Barley (that’s right, English), “does anthropology” on the Dowayo people of northern Cameroon and proves out the European reputation for being peevish when his front teeth are removed with pliers. (He had complained of jaw soreness after the “road” ended in a fifty-foot embankment and his face met forcefully with the steering wheel, so the procedure was clearly indicated.) The Innocent Anthropologist (1985) is a benchmark of scientific erudition and should not be avoided due to lack of interest in anthropology or Cameroon. The intrepid Barley returned to the Dowayo, with a slight speech impediment, to document crazy rites of passage in Ceremony: An Anthropologist’s Misadventures in the African Bush.
Rif Haffar is not English. He’s not an anthropologist, he does not suffer if he can help it, and he makes no bones about enjoying the material comforts that a salary from a California dot-com job offers when traveling around the world. What could be a recipe for boorishness, however, turns out to be Away From My Desk (2002), a refreshing, funny, and unapologetically American look at various faraway points. Haffar revels in the plush towels and complimentary bathrobe at a five-star resort in Dubai. He calls Bombay “dirty” rather than “colorful,” not because he’s complaining—it’s just a statement from a guy who likes his sewage on the side rather than over easy. Odd as it may be, these assertions are extremely rare in travel writing. Almost as rare as a traveler who’s comfortable in his rich American skin.
Another Brit who could easily get away with a moniker like “adventurer” or “explorer” is Redmond O’Hanlon. The Oxford-trained naturalist enlisted his nightclub-owning friend to accompany him on an outing into the deepest Amazon, before the whole place was made into salad forks; he called his account of their travels In Trouble Again (1988). O’Hanlon describes with unrestrained glee the effect, on his own body, of a host of tropical insects, fungi, bacteria, poisonous spiders, and tiny fish that set up shop in one’s private parts using retractable barbs. Again furthering scientific exploration at his own expense, O’Hanlon shares a hallucinogenic herb with some of the local Yanomamo to vivid affect. The reader learns, among other things, that even the most mysterious depths of the Amazon seem familiar turf compared to O’Hanlon’s gray matter.
If great female travel writers are few and far between, then those who are not on some sort of awful pilgrimage of the soul are even scarcer. The plainly stated My Journey to Lhasa (1927) is one of the most recent non-transcendent narratives. Alexandra David-Neel, dressed as a Tibetan peasant, not only penetrated the forbidden (to outsiders and infidels) city of Lhasa, but also, en route, contributed substantially to what little was known about the culture and fantastic topography of Tibet. Her writing is not funny and she is given to colonial paradigms, but cut the woman some slack—traveling with only a few local porters, she managed to conduct Himalayan surveying (in a good wool skirt and proper leather boots) that was not attempted again for some fifty years because it was too difficult.
Either through some sadistic flaw in my character, or perhaps a disbelief that The Cruelest Journey could maintain the level of ignorance and self-absorption manifested in its early pages, I stuck with it to the crying end. And was punished. Salak reaches Timbuktu after what seems like an eternity (to readers and undoubtedly the locals), but was actually less time than some kids spend at summer camp. In a crowning moment, she reveals a heretofore unspoken but deeply held desire to free some slaves in this ancient desert city. Never mind that her understanding of the culture was slightly muddier even than her acquaintance with its climate—Salak again throws around enough of National Geographic’s coin to buy freedom for a couple of souls, if not quite enough to change a centuries-old society. The newly freed slaves’ gratitude was tempered by the fact that they were separated from their families, homeless, and unemployed, but not wanting to dwell on these details, the book ends abruptly with Salak reflecting on her accomplishments over an in-flight cocktail. Eeeuuuwww. That made me so uncomfortable. Like I had sweated and not showered for two days and was covered with sticky sunscreen and sand fleas. And millipedes.