TraveLit--A blog about travel literature.
Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.
White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World.
By Geoff Dyer. Pantheon Books, 2016, 233 pp.
The stories in White Sands find Geoff Dyer on journeys in various parts of the world: on a book tour in China, researching Gaugin in Tahiti, reflecting on “The Lightning Field” in New Mexico, making a pilgrimage to Theodore Adorno’s house and contemplating the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Each piece is preceded by a brief prologue relating to the author’s past that provides an associative context for the story that follows.
Dyer doesn’t just travel. He’s a writer who probes the experience of place and of travel itself, looking for meanings. Sometimes he finds them. His essay on the Watts Towers draws on jazz musicians and various writers to create an intriguing portrait of the man who built them, Sabato Rodia, and their import.
On the other hand, his story of seeking out Adorno’s house struck me as mainly pretentious. “I have this need to show off, to show that I know things,” he says, and this piece seemed to me to suffer from that need. Read More
The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story
By Douglas Preston. Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 326 pp.
For centuries a legend flourished about a lost city located somewhere in the Mosquitia region of Honduras: Ciudad Blanca—the White City—or the City of the Monkey God. Although the dense rain forest made exploration a challenge, various artifacts discovered in the area seemed to reveal a culture unknown to researchers. Adding to the mystery, indigenous people believed that the city was cursed: anyone who entered this “forbidden place” would die.
Did this city even exist—or was it just a myth? Douglas Preston first became interested in the subject in 1994, when, while working on a different article, he learned that new sophisticated radar technology could penetrate jungle foliage to reveal what lay beneath and that someone was planning to use it to find the White City. Read More
By Oliver Sacks. Drawings by Dick Rauh. National Geographic Literary Travel Series, 159 pp.
It’s hardly surprising that Oliver Sacks kept journals on his journeys. How else would he keep track of his many observations, clarify his many thoughts, or create his many stories? Oaxaca Journal is the diary (somewhat embellished) of the 9-day fern-tour he took with the American Fern Society to Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2000.
Although the tour was organized by professional botanists, many members of the group, as in the American Fern Society itself, were amateurs, and this was the draw for Sacks, who had great admiration for amateur naturalists (or birdwatchers, or astronomers, or archaeologists)—their passion, their erudition, the fact that they are inspired by a “sense of adventure and wonder rather than by egotism and a lust for priority and fame.” Though not himself a fern expert, throughout the book he expresses his respect for the botanists he is with, and though generally a “singleton,” he says, he finds real joy here in becoming “one of a group.” Read More
Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time
By Mark Adams. Penguin, Plume, 2012, 333 pp.
Between 1911 and 1915, Hiram Bingham, Yale professor and swashbuckling explorer, made three trips to Peru, where he came upon the ruins of the Inca empire, then largely unknown to the outside world. A century later, explorers and archeologists are still trying to understand these sites, constructed to align with the sun, stars, and one another, and to comprehend something about the superb engineers who built them.
Mark Adams is not an explorer. As he tells us at the start of his book, he has not even been much of an adventurer. Indeed, though he worked at Adventure magazine, which ran articles on “extreme expeditions,” he himself “had never hunted or fished, didn’t own a mountain bike and couldn’t start a fire without matches if ordered to do so at gunpoint.” Married to a Peruvian woman, he had been to Lima many times, visiting her family, but he had rarely traveled outside the city. Reaching the age of 41, he decided it was time: he would follow Hiram Bingham’s route through the Andes to Machu Picchu.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu alternates between the story of Bingham’s explorations and Adams’s own, and though the former carries the historical weight, both are engaging.
With Adams, we are on the ground, Read More
Review: Throwim Way Leg: Tree Kangaroos, Possums and Penis Gourds--On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea
Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums and Penis Gourds—On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea
By Tim Flannery. Grove Press, 1998, 326 pp.
New Guinea is a wonderland of fauna and flora found nowhere else on earth, a paradise for an ornithologist, an entomologist, a botanist, or a zoologist like Tim Flannery. But to explore the country’s riches, the researcher has to deal with a seriously rugged terrain: dense bush, steep mountains and slippery descents, slimy logs bridging flooding rivers and deep ravines, extreme heat, and humidity so intense that, as Flannery says, “You can feel the fungus growing on your skin.” There is also the disease factor—malaria, dysentery, scrub typhus, altitude sickness. And then there is the fact that when you finally arrive at a village you have no idea whether the greeting will be friendly or hostile.
To take this on, the researcher has to be fit, intrepid, up for adventure, and passionate about his work. The Australian mammologist, Tim Flannery, though too modest to cast himself as hero, is all four. He is also a writer who can draw readers into both his fieldwork and his personal experience in prose that is at once plain and gripping.
Throwin Way Leg, in New Guinea Pidgin, means “to go on a journey,” Read More
In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic
By Valerian Albanov. Preface by Jon Krakauer. Introduction by David Roberts. Alison Anderson, Translator. With Additional Material from William Barr’s Translation from the Russian. Modern Library, Random House, 2000, 205 pp.
For some of us, the stories of polar exploration remain forever fascinating. They take place in an otherworldly world. Like novels, they grip us with their unpredictable challenges and turns and move us with their chancy, sorrowful deaths. But we read them always knowing that, unlike fiction, these incredible stories of endurance actually happened.
In the Land of White Death, first published in Russian in 1917, was a story I had never heard of. Like many polar tales, it is a story of survival and loss. Unlike most, though, it is a first-person narrative, related with the immediacy and intensity of a personal voice.
That voice belongs to Valerian Albanov, the chief navigation officer on the Saint Anna, which set out in August 1912 on an expedition from present-day Murmansk to Vladivostok to explore new hunting grounds Read More
Misguided: The Elusive Truth
By Elizabeth Marcus, the author of Don't Say a Word, a memoir, and many wonderful essays on travel and other topics. For more of her writing, visit her blog, eLizwrites, and be sure to link to the Archive.
Once it was Baedeker or nothing. Now a slew of guidebooks compete for the privilege of answering the traveler’s every question. Usually I take along only one book, but on one trip to Northern Italy many years ago, I packed four: Fodor’s for the basics, Michelin for authoritative facts and maps, and, just in case our then-teenagers awoke from their adolescent comas and I struck a vein of curiosity, the more thorough Cadogan’s Tuscany and Umbria and Cento Citta by Paul Hofmann. It was an illuminating experience — but less for what we learned about Italy than for what was revealed about the books. With guidebooks as with cooks, it seems, it is possible to have too many.
All we wanted was a simple, clear account, but in Verona we began to realize we were getting more of a murky stew. Read More