09 July 2011

Book Reviews: Two travelogues

Here are two very different kinds of travel books written by two very different types of writers.  With one of them, the author immerses himself in the local culture and with the other, the authors mostly skim across the surface of local culture, choosing to spend as much time among other tourists as possible.  And by the by, only one of the writers is any good.  Is it any surprise, then, which of the two books I liked better? 

Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation by J. Maarten Troost is a travel memoir that I read on vacation last month.  Troost is both a funny and gifted writer, with a real talent for keeping up the pace, making wry social & political observations, and both educating and entertaining the reader.  I loved his two previous books, which are tales of his living in the South Pacific, and while I have never traveled to that region myself, after becoming a devoted traveler to the Caribbean, I recognized many truisms of life in a tropical not-first-world country. 

Let it be said now that I know very little about China other than pervasive Western perceptions that may or may not be purely stereotypes.  One of my best friends lived in China teaching English after college graduation, but that's pretty much as close as I've gotten to knowing anything about the culture. Having read Troost's book, I am as equally convinced of China's enviable position at the forefront of world economics & growth as I am knowing that I will probably never want to travel to "the real China" any time soon.  For someone who considers herself a traveler at heart, this was a disconcerting realization. And I know that's unfair for me to form this opinion from somebody else's biased  (western) persepective, but since I don't actually have enough time or money to travel the world at leisure, I have to prioritize somehow--and if that means not traveling to a country with serious issues regarding both human and animal rights, not to mention a distinct lack of healthy air, so be it. 

A few excerpts from the book, to demonstrate both Troost's humor and my reasons for distaste...

"At the gate, a sign informed us that old people (sixty to seventy years old), students, and maimed person would have to pay only 50 yuan to clim Tai Shan.  Not too many mountains offer a discount to the maimed, by Tai Shan does (91)."
"Waltzing, as it turns out, is very popular in China, and even President Hu Jintao himself was on the university waltzing team back in the day. I was unaware that waltzing was also a competitive sport, but in China the government, in an effort to overcome the rising rates of obesity that occurred as more Chinese eat Western foods, has mandated that school kids will now be forced to waltz.  lucky for the Chinese, Hu Jintao was not a squaredancer (314)."
Warning: the following passage about the Siberian Tiger Park is very disturbing and features something we in the US would call animal torture (and yes, before any apologists flame me, I understand that it is probably no worse than the lives of chickens in the US who are fated to be part of the farm factories, but at least most people don't laugh about that).

"One of my fellow tourists [a Chinese tourist] approached her with some money.  The woman dipped her hand inside this crate of live chickens and attached it to a four-foot stick, before handing it to him.  The man took the fishing pole with the dangling chicken...and lowered it out over the tigers.  A tiger leapt up and shredded a wing.  The chicken wailed. Oh, the fun we have in China. He lowered the chicken again. A tiger shredded a leg.  The chicken screamed.  Everyone laughed.  Because this is funny in China.  Slowly, painfully, piece by piece, the chicken was shredded into oblivion (371-372)."
I think that passage pretty well sums up why, if I ever go to China, I will not try to see the "real China." A package tour will do just fine for me.  Reading of Troost's experience in China was very disturbing in many ways, and while he realized that a lot of his discomfort was a result of his own cultural bias (though he lives in America, he is a half-Czech half-Dutch citizen of Canada), he knew very soon and with great conviction that China was not a country he wanted to raise his family, which is the purported reason for the book.  Though I did not love this book like I did his first two, I still highly recommend it for the armchair traveler.

And on the opposite side of the travelogue spectrum, we have Letters from the Caribbean: Sailing in the West Indies by Andrea & Ian Treleaven.  Andrea and Ian are a New Zealand couple who sailed from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean and then spent a few seasons sailing up & down the Caribbean island chain and then hit the Great Antilles and parts of Central America, where they spent most of their time seeking out other Australian  & New Zealand sailors rather than trying to experience the local culture.  The color photographs in the book are overall quite good.  The writing and the editing, however, leave much to be desired.  They get the names wrong of various places: they refer in one photo to the Pitoms of St. Lucia, rather than the Pitons; Cocoa Point on Barbuda instead of Coco Point; they mis-label the Lighthouse Reef resort as the Cocoa [sic] Point resort, they misspell the Spanish word for eel, from which the island of Anguilla takes its name; they refer to part of the USVI as St. Johns instead of St. John; and so on.   No telling how many other mistakes are there that I didn't catch because I am less familiar with islands not considered part of the British West Indies.

I bought this book because I so loved Ann Vanderhoof's An Embarrassment of Mangoes, a travel memoir of a Canadian couple who sail from Toronto down to Trinidad and back, and along the way immerse themselves as deeply into local customs and traditions as possible.  Well, Andrea & Ian ain't got nothin' on Ann, let me say.  The prose is tedious and repetitive and there is no real narrative.  It strains my credulity to realize that this is their second book, which means that their Letters from the Med sold enough copies for a publisher to take a chance on this book.  At the end of the book, they say they took away three things from their long voyages in my favorite part of the world: "the colours, and then the fantastic sailing conditions, followed by how fit and healthy we felt throughout."  Well, congratulations--you've just visited over 20 countries and not a single item specific to any of their cultures was worth mentioning in your epilogue?  Are you sure you're from New Zealand and not a typical American? I'm sure there are plenty of people like Andrea and Ian sailing the Caribbean, but I hope they don't all write books about their experience.  They remind me very much of sailors I've met in Tortola, Nevis, Antigua whom I didn't much like.  To be fair, they probably wouldn't much like me, either. 

If, like me, you are a true Caribbeanphile, buy the book for the photographs but skip the text. Like the stereotypical beauty pageant winner, it works best as a coffee table book, just sitting there and looking pretty.


  1. And if you're like me, you'll sit your dripping glass of kool-aid on top of it and leave a permanent water-logged ring right on the cover and then it won't even look pretty anymore.

    Although the China book sounds better, it probably wouldn't suit my tender little heart.

    Good review!

  2. Man, I've been living in China too long when those excerpts don't even seem in the slightest bit odd to me. I stopped reading China travelogues about five years ago when I realized that all I had to do was step outside. Good review!


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