1) "City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi" by William Dalrymple
A charming portrait of the ancient Indian capital of Delhi by a talented young British travel writer. Dalrymple, whose debut book of travel writing, In Xanadu (not reviewed), received much praise, spent a year wandering around the dilapidated city of Delhi uncovering the layers of history found in its architectural and human ruins. With his wife, Olivia Fraser (whose pen-and-ink illustrations help the book along), Dalrymple finds a Delhi that is still trying to overcome the traumas of British colonialism and the partition of 1947, in which most Muslims migrated from India to the newly created Pakistan and many Hindus, expelled from the Punjab, fled to Delhi, creating a new, less sophisticated class of resident. The title refers to the spirits that according to legend have, throughout the ages, watched over the inhabitants of Delhi. At first, Dalrymple finds that much of the old life, including the belief in djinns, seems to have faded; but after some digging, he learns that these old customs are simply hidden and very much alive. Judiciously parceling out strands of Indian history, Dalrymple shows that the unique Delhi ways have always been able to withstand the worst of wars and other calamities. He takes us, in an affable style, through the sprawling city and introduces us to the frugal Punjabi people who now make up the majority of the population, as well as to the remnants of the old colonialists, and then to the fascinating ways of people of the underbelly -- the sad, regimented lives of contemporary eunuchs, the tenacity of the squatters, and the timeless world of the many religions that have quietly coexisted for centuries in the chaotic warrens of the indestructible city. Not a heavyweight experience, but this warm look at Delhi is a pleasant starting point for anyone interested in this mysterious city.
2) "Shadow of the Silk Road" by Colin Thubron
Thubron (In Siberia, 2000, etc.) takes an arduous 7,000-mile journey following the ancient silk trade route from inland China to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
At the very least, his marathon expedition through desert, mountains and war-scarred landscapes testifies to the author’s fortitude and resourcefulness. He’s quarantined by Chinese authorities during the SARS epidemic, nearly killed by a drunk driver in a head-on collision and forced to endure treatment of an abscessed tooth by a team of Iranian village dentists who don’t use anesthetic. Thubron attends a rock concert staged in a Tehran military hospital, dodges suspicious guards at several remote border crossings and searches out the tombs of Genghis Khan, Omar Khayyam and Ayatollah Khomeini. He augments his trenchant narrative with impressive historical background and evocative lyrical prose: “In late autumn the road traversed a near-desert plain. From time to time a faint, brown wash overhung the horizon, as if a watercolorist had started painting mountains there, then forgotten them.” Even the most erudite readers, however, may find themselves daunted and disoriented by this lengthy sojourn in such consonant-laden regions as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, complete with their obscure attendant cultural histories. Until 1498, when the Portuguese sailed around Africa and found a safer route to China’s riches, the Silk Road across central Asia was traveled by successions of invaders. East-bound from Rome, Greece and Arabia came poetry, metals and conquering armies. From China, traders carried westward such wonders as silk, paper, gunpowder and the mechanical clock. Thubron carefully picks through the cultural and archeological remains of a half-dozen societies with a discerning eye and a scholar’s discipline, pausing to note the fallout from such relatively recent arrivals as China’s murderous Red Guards, the Taliban and ruthless Afghan warlords. He also pauses long enough to meet and introduce a host of memorable characters, including a Chinese college dean and some Afghan truck drivers.
An impressive, rewarding and occasionally exhausting trek, most suitable for the hardcore travel reader.
3) "Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris" by Sarah Turnbull
Love and adjustment in a foreign climate.
Though Australian journalist Turnbull came to Paris—and stayed—because of love, she is remarkably reticent about her relationship with Frédéric, the French lawyer she first met in Bucharest in the early 1990s. This is not an overly significant defect, because she delivers so much, and so intelligently, on the rest of her life there. The Australian TV reporter had taken off a year to travel around Europe when Frédéric asked her to visit him in Paris. She arrived somewhat apprehensive and speaking little French, but after a while found herself beginning to understand a society so different from direct, easygoing Australia. Soon she was in love not only with Frédéric but with Paris. Turnbull describes their two apartments, the first in a leafy suburb, the next in Sentier, the Parisian garment district, noisy but close to the city center. She observes the natives’ pride in their heritage and their differences, especially from Anglo Saxons, and notes the media’s deference to politicians. French business letters are written in flowery prose, Turnbull tells us, and it is considered selfish to dress like a slob. Even dinner parties are different: unfriendly and impersonal, the author found. (After fleeing from several tables to weep, she was cheered by a guidebook that advised her to think of herself as a chair to which no one was expected to talk.) As Turnbull adjusts to her new life, she begins working as a freelance writer and interviews such French cultural stars as restaurateur Alain Ducasse and clothing designer Christian Lacroix. At first the author cannot understand why Frédéric loves his family home on the chilly northern coast, but as she gets to know his relatives and the locals, that changes along with her other attitudes to the French.
An engaging story of a sometimes rocky but ultimately affectionate relationship with another culture.
4) "Last Chance to See" by Douglas Adams
Despite the joint authorship, this is Adams's (The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, etc.) book, written in the first-person and marked by his singular nose for absurdities, as he and zoologist Cawardine--who contributes an epilogue--tour the world on the track of rare or endangered species.
The journey begins in 1985, as the two men tramp through Madagascar in search of the aye-aye, a rare nocturnal lemur ("like virtually everything that lives on Madagascar, it does not exist anywhere else on earth"). Three years later, still flush from their first success, the team reunites to hunt the Komodo dragon. This proves a sickening enterprise, involving passage through honky-tonk Bali ("Bali Theme Park," Adams dubs it) to a bedraggled island where the giant lizards gulp carrion before delighted polyestered Americans. On to Zaire, where a tangle of red-tape and greed ("every official you encounter will make life as unpleasant as he possibly can until you pay him to stop it") doesn't prevent a glimpse of white rhino and mountain gorilla. In New Zealand, the duo spots the kakapo (a fat, flightless parrot); in China, the Yangtze River dolphin; in Mauritius, a rare fruit bat--all allowing for hilarious travel writing (as in Peking, where Adams visits Mao's tomb while the theme from Hawaii Five-O blares over giant loudspeakers) as well as a noble plea for ecological sanity.
Surprisingly mature reflections on the environment--with Adams's trademark comedy humming along at high pitch: eco-humor comes of age.
5) "The Pillars of Hercules" by Paul Theroux
With his effortless writing style, observant eye, and take-no- prisoners approach, Theroux (The Happy Isles of Oceania, 1992, etc.) is in top form chronicling this 18-month circuit of the Mediterranean. Only 15 miles separate the Pillars of Hercules at the mouth of the Mediterranean, but as is his wont, Theroux took the long way. It's the old Grand Tour route, charted by many seeking wisdom and experience. And if it was now haunted and decayed, so much the better: ``Half a lifetime of traveling had given me a taste for the macabre.'' Theroux has a gift for the quick landscape sketch: hoofing it about the paths of Corsica, the lunarscapes of Italy's toe, the streets of a Tunisian town; but everywhere he finds people. His misanthropy is given a rest on this journey; yes, fools populate the pages, but so too do a host of dignified characters, from the ordinary joes he shares cabin space with to Naguib Mahfouz and Paul Bowles. They all make for a very immediate experience: ``These sudden strange encounters . . . were much more interesting than the Roman amphitheaters and the ruins.'' Theroux has never been one to let pass any abrupt or truculent or stupid behavior (``several aspects of this reeking vulgarity interested me''), and it is always a pleasure when he calls a miscreant on his thuggish conduct. This contributes a snappy edge to the proceedings (Do you torture political prisoners here in Turkey? How do you feel about the Fascists coming to power in your Italian village?) and it keeps the journey fast on its feet. Theroux bestows perhaps his greatest compliment of all to the journey itself: ``I knew I would go back, the way you went back to a museum, to look . . . and think.'' Never has he said that before. As satisfying as a glass of cool wine on a dusty Calabrian afternoon.
6) "River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze" by Peter Hessler
A two-year sojourn in a small city in central China yields this youthful, gracefully impressionistic portrait of a time and place from newcomer Hessler.
In 1996, Hessler reported for his Peace Corps duty to Fuling, a city of some 200,000 souls astride the murky Yangtze River, which cuts through the green and terraced mountains of Sichuan Province. This account is a chronicle of the author’s days in Fuling and of a brief summer interlude of travel farther afield. Hessler’s writing is unselfconsciously mellow, a lazy pace that works admirably in conjuring up Fuling as a place. There is the gentle knock of the croquet ball in the morning when the court below his window comes to life. There is this river city of steps pressed against hills; there are ridgelines cut with ancient calligraphy and pictographs that disappear under water during the rainy season. There are his students—a poignant, watershed generation who delight him to no end. Big things happen while he is in China (the Three Gorges Project is in full swing and Deng Xiaoping dies), but it is the everyday stuff that is so affecting. The surprise and unpredictability of the townsfolk catch him unawares more than once, he feels the sensitivity of being a foreigner, with all eyes upon him and little cultural abrasions everywhere: “Those were our Opium Wars—quiet and meaningless battles over Chinese and American history, fueled by indirect remarks and careful innuendo.” And he loves it, despite the dislocations and frustrations: even the creepy drinking bouts at banquets (“Every banquet has a leader, a sort of alcoholic alpha male”) and the relentless mocking of his foreignness by strangers (for, although the Peace Corps is no longer considered a running-dog outfit, foreigners are nonetheless seen as freaks) become sources of nostalgia after a while.
A vivid and touching tribute to a place and its people.