Three Pagodas Pass: A Roundabout:|
Journey to Burma
by George Fetherling
Harmattan: Wind Across West Africa
by Marcello Di Cintio
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|Two Travellers of Different Stripe
by Clara Thomas
These two books nicely illustrate the wide range that the category "Travel Literature" enjoys. They are very different in intent and effect: each one will satisfy the requirements of certain readers, while frustrating the expectations of others; both offer the armchair traveller entertainment and instruction, but enthusiasts of one will not find the other equally rewarding.
Di Cintio's is the story of a young man's first, 10 month experience of back-packing in Africa, from Calgary to Accra, the capital of Ghana, and then of roaming over most of West Africa, ending in Mauritania for the return flight home. His account is named "Harmattan" for the wind that blows sand and dust from the Sahara over West Africa from December to February and that has exercised a strange romantic spell over many a neophyte traveller before him. Fetherling's is the account of a trip marketed as a "round-the-world adventure for travellers with scientific and ethnological interests." As a well-seasoned traveller, he had his own agenda, which included numbers of side trips away from the ship. Ultimately he would fly from Tahiti to Bangkok on hoarded frequent flyer points and to Burma's ages old drug-smuggling Three Pagodas Pass.
Di Cintio was travelling as a volunteer with Canadian Crossroads International and his assignment was a three-month teaching post in Denu, a town on the coast east of Accra. Without teaching experience in Canada and without any notion of what he would be expected to teach, he was given a class in biology as soon as he arrived at the school and in a few minutes found himself in front of a class of about 40 cheerful, giggling students. Though the volunteers had had eight months of orientation in Canada and a few days in Accra, nothing had prepared Marcello for the teeming life or colour or hubub of Africa. He manages to get into his description of daily life a great deal of detail, often wildly diverse and giving the flavour of experience that was beyond new, beyond bizzare, in fact beyond anything that he could have imagined. This is very much a young person's story and would best be marketed, I believe, for young adults.
"I am sure of one thing. the world does not need to be saved, only savoured," he says, and on he goes, open to all kinds of experience, observing and appreciating all kinds of people, and in the process, earning our interest and respect (often exasperated). He is an innocent abroad, and he is also extremely lucky: he and Sam, a chance-met companion, walk forty kilometres across the Sahara in search of an American palaeontological expedition they have heard of -- and they actually find it. "It was only in retelling the story, and watching the others shake their heads at us, that I realized how foolhardy we had been." His adventure very nearly ended fatally, for after his return to Niger and the city of Zinder, he developed a raging case of malaria. He was saved by a group of Peace Corps volunteers who had access to the medical help he needed and the good will to nurse him to health. The camaraderie he finds throughout among young people, neophyte travellers like himself, is the most heartening aspect of HARMATTAN. The German girl-volunteers he meets seem ridiculously optimistic to him -- but then, he seems equally ridiculously optimistic to us, his readers. In the face of war and terrorism the thought of legions of such young people of good will tramping around the world brings a bewildering combination of hope and horror to a mature reader.
Optimism is not a word to be associated with George Fetherling's THREE PAGODAS PASS. He is a compulsive traveller from away back, motivated equally by curiosity, a fascination with the history of out of the way places, and a vital present day commitment to a political stance that is well left of centre. He and Bernadette, embarking at Piraeus just outside of Athens, were on an adventure in partnering that was doomed to end well before the voyage's end. Meanwhile, the ship was to call at a long list of places, among them Tunis and Casablanca, then across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, the Falklands, Antarctica, Tierra del Fuego, Pitcairn Island, Easter Island, and Papeete. From there George planned to fly to Bangkok and to spend a month in Burma -- pure curiosity with a political twist. "Burma once had one of the most robust economies in southeast Asia....For the past two generations, however, it has been ruled by a military dictatorship that is nominally communist but largely concerned with making money through drug trafficking."
Fetherling spends little time describing their antiquated cruise vessel or the fellow passengers, mostly seniors, who have to live with its many deficiencies. However, when he lands at little known tourist spots, the Falklands, Easter Island or Pitcairn Island for instance, his readers are treated to succinct, well-chosen medleys of past history and present conditions guaranteed to capture, instruct and delight his arm-chair readers. He is skilled at presenting a balance of factual information with on-the-spot observation that gives the reader a lively share in the adventure: visiting Pitcairn Island, for instance, he meets Tom Christian, the only living descendant of Fletcher Christian, the mutineer who set Captain Bligh adrift in an open boat and sailed away with nine seamen, twelve Tahitian women, six Tahitian men and one baby girl. He corrects the mythology that has grown up around the mutiny which "took place not because of brutality on Bligh's part....[but because he] was too lax in allowing the crew to form relationships with Tahitian women." The men simply didn't want to leave when their legitimate purpose was completed. In an admirably condensed exposition we are given the salient facts about Christian, his family and Pitcairn today -- administered by Britain through its High Commissioner in Wellington, New Zealand and badly needing an airstrip to connect it to the nearest island in French Polynesia. Finally, back in Vancouver, with a typical twist, he read in the newspapers a child molestation scandal "that rocked Pitcairn to its core."
Fetherling's hands-on method results in an amazing amount of information about a great diversity of places communicated in a short, 152-page book. He speaks about his shelf of books on Burma back home in Vancouver. Whereas both the charm and the frustration of reading DiCintio's HARMATTAN depend largely on his complete openness to every day's new impressions, Fetherling is anything but ill-informed about the places he visits. Burma, when he finally gets there, more than satisfies his earlier judgment: "a terrifying example of the present state of world affairs in the post cold-war era, because it combines the worst features of the excesses of communism and the excesses of the marketplace." This picture is somewhat blurred, however, by the inevitable human blunders, crass corruption, and general inefficiency that he encounters. It is a country completely under a military dictatorship, governed by a junta primarily concerned with continuing to harvest the huge rewards of drug trafficking. Here, as we travel with him on the border of Thailand, into Burma and the vicinity of the notorious Three Pagodas Pass, we are in considerable need of a map.
Joined by a mysterious young woman he calls M, who claims to be a translator, a graduate in English from Rangoon University and a student of Buddha, he suspects her of being one of the army of Burmese informers. His suspicion is certainly not allayed by her subsequent visit to him in Vancouver: "We danced around each others' lives," he says, and likewise his time in Burma was a dance around its chaotic, repressive reality. For information, well assembled and well reported THREE PAGODAS PASS cannot be faulted, but its real excellence rests on the earlier stages of the long journey -- on Pitcairn, Easter Island, the wastes of Antarctica and the slums of Rio and the combination of research and immediate experience that has brought them to the page so vividly