Tag Archives: travel

“Lost in the Valley of Death – A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas” by Harley Rustad

When I started reading this book, my son asked, “Is Rustad as good as Krakauer”? That’s setting the bar very high. Comparison with Krakauer’s Into the Wild, about the death of Christopher McCandless in Alaska, is inevitable. Justin Shetler travelled to India seeking adventure and “enlightenment”. He disappeared.

Shetler was a man of extremes. He was sexually abused as a child and again as a teenager, and received only minimal help in dealing with the terrible trauma of these experiences. I think his risk taking, use of hallucinogens and extreme physical training reflect the profound need for safety and escape from emotional pain. 

“Trauma” is much discussed recently. “Trauma informed therapy” is offered by various mental health professionals.

I think the bottom-line message of Lost in the Valley of Death is that SOME THINGS CAN’T BE FIXED. I feel terribly sad for both Shetler and his grieving family and friends. 

Rustad is very good. I’ll have to look at other his books before I’ll decide if he matches Krakauer. 

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“This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals” by Erica Buist

This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals

At first, this book, with its dancing skeletons on the cover, didn’t impress me. The author discussed a loss she had suffered, mentioning that Americans don’t grant a bereaved person much respect or attention when the person being mourned falls outside of a few clear categories – immediate family being the most prominent.

Then Ms. Buist, able to work without going into an office, departed on a world tour to check out death festivals and practices in various cultures. I didn’t feel particularly responsive to what she wrote about Mexico and Nepal.

But back in the USA, she stumbled onto transhumanismof which I had been wholly unaware! I missed it! OMG. (I don’t like missing things.) Transhumanists, according to Ms. Buist, believe that we can and should develop technology that will permit us to live forever as CYBORGS. Just keep replacing your organic parts (including your brain) with well-designed machinery, and you can live forever.

Transhumanists consider it weak to “accept” death. They detest the contemporary American “death positivity” movement, which seeks to overcome the taboo against talking about death and encourages people to plan for their final days. Ms. Buist analyzes these movements in terms of both gender and socioeconomic status (relative privilege), and it gets VERY interesting. Why are most tranhumanists male and many “death positive” spokespeople female? (Did she miss Atul Gawande?) She also analyzes the Mexican Santa Muerte movement, which translates roughly to “Holy Death”, symbolized by a female death figure to whom one can pray for a delay in leaving this life. (Okay, I missed this, too. And it is somehow related to narcotics trafficking.) Both the Mexican government and the Roman Catholic church disapprove of Santa Muerte, going so far as to destroy shrines. I’m pretty sure this hasn’t gotten to New Jersey.

Will Erica Buist tackle the controversial “medical aid in dying” movement? I’m only on page 139 of 296. Six more countries to go! I definitely plan to keep reading.

“The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot” and “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” by Robert MacFarlane

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Landscapes)
Underland: A Deep Time Journey

These books came to my attention when I read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (see review dated March 25, 2021). 

The Old Ways is about walking, and about paths. MacFarlane sees walking as a relationship. You walk the path, and THE PATH WALKS YOU! You make the path deeper, clearer. In turn, the path stimulates your imagination, teaches you, connects you to landscape and history. The locations described in this book are in England, Scotland and “abroad”. My personal walks (especially during Covid) seem so very tame compared to those described by MacFarlane! My part of South Jersey is rectilinearly grided with roads laid down when farms were sold. See my poem “Pandemic Winter” (February 7, 2021). Why do I walk on roads, rather than paths? Ownership is one reason. Additionally, there are ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes. 

My rambles are more interesting on my bike. There are winding roads (not all paved), and more features to look at. Crop fields, tree farms, a corn maze, houses from modest to MacMansion, people and their pets. And birds!

Underland is similar, but about geographic features under the earth. It’s organized into three parts, titled Seeing (Britain), Hiding (Europe) and Haunting (The North). 

This book needs a trigger warning. “Don’t read if you suffer from claustrophobia.” Regrettably, I’m in that category, having unexpectedly freaked out during a medical procedure. I stopped reading “Underland” in the second Chapter, upset by a detailed description of the death of Neil Moss in 1958. Exploring Peak Cavern (Derbyshire) with friends, Moss stumbled and became wedged in a narrow passage. Every available type of rescue expertise was deployed, but he died. His father decided against efforts to recover his body, because of risk. It remains, entombed. I DON’T NEED THIS IN MY HEAD. A glance at other chapters of “Underland” convinced me to set the book aside. Too much confined space.

MacFarlane wrote other books and I look forward to sampling them. He’s a thoughtful writer. I’m curious about The Gifts of Reading and The Lost Spells. 

“Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl” by Jonathan Slaght

I loved this book! We all need to escape sometimes. What better way than to follow a scientist into “the field”, when the field is in Eastern Siberia. And who can resist the idea of research on owls?

This is the story of Jonathan Slaght’s doctoral dissertation. His goal was to learn about Blakeston’s fish owl (Bubo blakestoni) and to use his data to generate a conservation plan to preserve this endangered but little understood species. Who knew there is such a thing as an aquatic owl, one capable of catching a fish twice its own weight? Other Asian species like tigers and bears generate considerably more popular interest.

Getting into “the field” is a big project in itself when you have to travel to a distant continent and then to a remote location with sketchy transportation and hostile weather, and then conduct your daily business in a foreign language (Russian).

In a Facebook Live interview a few days ago, Slaght discussed the issue of language. His research was done with Russians and mostly IN Russian, but he also kept a personal journal in English. What a challenge! Before writing Owls of the Eastern Ice, Slaght translated the travel and adventure classic Across the Ussuri Kray by V Arsenyev (1921), which documents the cultural and natural history of northeast Asia. (Available from Amazon, formerly unavailable in English.)

This book brings an important message to aspiring scientists. Science is not all white lab coats and precision! Slaght didn’t know much about the fish owls when he began his work. He had almost no idea of how to find them, and less information about how to CATCH one! Later, he had to fit them with transmitters and track their movements. I’m amazed at how much he accomplished. Interpreting the data was crucial, and he successfully generated a conservation plan for his target species.

Alongside the science, Slaght presented cultural and personal information about the people he worked among.

I read this book using the Kindle app on my phone. Not optimal when you want to look at a map frequently. I hope my public library acquires a copy soon.

I recommend this book to anyone who loves to travel or spends time enjoying nature. It would make a great gift for anyone in high school or college who likes science but wonders what real scientists do!

 

“The Last Whalers – Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life” by Doug Bock Clark

The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life

347 pages, including maps, photos, notes and glossary. Nonfiction>ethnography.

How did this book end up on the give-away shelf at my dentist’s office? Brand new, only recently published (January 2019) and astonishingly good!

I never heard of Lembata Island in Indonesia, or the Lamaleran people. Lamalerans living on Lembata number only about 1500. Others are scattered throughout Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia. The Lamalera are the last subsistence whalers on earth.

Anthropologists consider Lamaleran culture to show the highest level of sharing and cooperation ever documented. Those two traits are essential to survival when low technology is used to hunt whales. The Lamalerans traditionally barter with their neighbors in order to supplement their diet of meat with fruit and vegetables. They have only recently (25 years ago?) entered the cash economy.

Clark spent about twelve months with the Lamalerans over a three year period, becoming fluent in their language, observing their daily lives and sometimes participating in their religious ceremonies, both Catholic and animistic. Clark sometimes referred to “shamanism” rather than animism, but I don’t know if he meant the same thing as Coelho did in Aleph (see recent post). There is no reference to the type of shamanistic “trance” that Coelho describes.

It surprised me to learn that so isolated a group existed. Having read a certain amount of popularized anthropology and known a few academics in the field, I didn’t think going off to spend time with remote, exotic people was still a possibility. Clark seems to have arrived at this project through journalism and travel writing, though his status as a two time Fulbright grant recipient suggests academic credentials in anthropology.

Clark almost entirely leaves himself out of the story, telling about the people he describes with vivid detail from THEIR point of view. I couldn’t stop reading!

In an explanatory afterword, he discusses how he limited his behavior in order not to “distort” the community he was observing. He seems to have judged this by “journalistic” (rather than anthropological or academic) standards, admitting that he spent money to transport Lamalerans for medical treatment that would have otherwise been unobtainable.

The link below leads to my review of another wonderful book related to anthropology.

Noble Savages – My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by N A Chagnon

Looking back at my post about Chagnon led me to reflect:

Both the Lamalerans and the Yanomamo (an Amazon tribe) can be considered “successful” cultures, each achieving slow population growth in a challenging environment. According to Chagnon, the Yanomamo dealt with population pressure by fission, dividing into smaller groups when their numbers exceeded about 100. The Lamalerans dealt with population pressure by out migration. Adults found work elsewhere in Indonesia and beyond. Usually they maintained their contact with home, and provided a conduit for ideas about change. Sometimes they facilitate other departures, like temporary enrollment at a university.

Web surfing to learn more about Clark, I found his article in Gentleman’s Quarterly about a recent attempt to contact a smaller and more isolated tribe, the Sentinelese. I’ll write about that soon.

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer

Less

I had a little trouble getting into this book, because the protagonist (Arthur Less) was agonizing over turning 50. Been there, done that, LONG ago! Fortunately there’s lots of other stuff going on. Less undertakes a journey, a literal trip around the world, to get away from a romantic break up.

One stop is Berlin, my city of dreams! Not as I knew it, but recognizable. Less thinks he speaks serviceable German, but in fact he makes all kinds of mistakes. With confidence and hand waving, he gets by. He teaches for 5 weeks at an institution that sounds like the Free University of my memories.

Greer cheerfully critiques the American gay scene. A friend tells Less that the reason he (usually) doesn’t win literary awards is not that he is a bad writer but that he is a “bad gay”. Too reflective. Not sufficiently upbeat! Less accepts the advice and gamely starts to transform his recently rejected novel into a comedy.

Returning from his trip, Less finds his old love waiting for him. Happy ending! I’m glad I found this book.

“Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race” by Lara Prior-Palmer

Every heard of the Mongol Derby? Nope, neither did I. In fact, I was unaware of the sport of equestrian endurance racing.

The (modern) Mongol Derby originated in 2009, but is based on the sophisticated communication system created by Genghis Khan in 1224. Messengers on horseback connected Khan’s vast empire. Every year a new route is selected for the modern 1000 kilometer, multiday race. Each rider mounts a different horse daily, selected from those at a “horse station” in the Mongolian outback.

Ms. Prior-Palmer won the race in 2013, the first woman to win and the youngest competitor to that date. Her account is gripping. She was an experienced rider, but this race was an exceptional challenge in harsh, isolated terrain. Her book subtitle refers to loneliness. Riders are on their own most of the time, and language issues complicate their stays with nomad families along the course.

Much of the structure of the race is designed to protect the horses. Riding is restricted to certain hours, and veterinarians check on their condition (most heart rate) after each 40 kilometer segment.

It’s interesting to learn about the nomads still living traditionally on the Mongolian steppe, and to get some feel for the Mongol empire at its peak.

If you like travel, adventure or Asian history, you will enjoy this book.

PS – The 2019 Mongol Derby was won by a 70 year old Robert Long of Boise, Idaho. The race, which had 41 competitors, ended on August 14. Long described the race as a “death march”.

“Babel – Around the World in Twenty Languages” by Gaston Dorren

Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages

This book is so good I started to write about it when I was only halfway through! I’m not great about taking notes when reading for pleasure, and I didn’t want to forget some of the things that have made this book so much fun.

Gaston Dorren is not a native speaker of English. He lists Limburgish, the Dutch dialect of a province in Netherlands, as his first language. I remember that when I spent a summer in Netherlands, a friend described himself as a speaker of Sittardish, a dialect limited to a single city. For him, Dutch was a slightly formal language, studied in high school and used at the University and at work. Scientists, it seemed, spoke as much English as Dutch. I ended my months in the Netherlands with great affection for the people and their culture, and a tiny knowledge of (standard) Dutch.

In Babel, Dorren writes about twenty languages, use of which accounts for about fifty percent of the human population.  He starts by admitting there’s no way to count languages. How do you decide what is a dialect? We know (and regret) that languages have been lost. See my discussion of the indigenous western hemisphere language Potawatami, dated March 6, 2019.

But what else is going on? It is the nature of language to CHANGE! After all, this is a “blog”, a version of “social media”. Wouldn’t have made sense 20 years ago…

Dorren counts “second language speakers” when calculating which languages dominate the world scene. My life is full of second language speakers; both of my (native born) grandmothers, immigrants, students from overseas, friends from hither and yon. Each has learned English, and some have forgotten their original languages.

What I like best about this book is that, having chosen his twenty “big” languages, Dorren then discusses whatever interests him about each language – geography, politics, history, sociology, sounds, grammar…

He begins with Vietnamese, which has very few “second language” speakers. In other words, very few people study it. Despite his linguistic training, Dorren finds Vietnamese excruciatingly difficult!

Only one African language makes it into this book – Swahili. Dorren describes the African attitude towards language as very different from elsewhere. French, (British) English and (Mandarin) Chinese (to name a few) are very clearly defined by official bodies, and VERY resistant to change. Correct speech is valued. Not necessarily so in Africa! Almost anything goes! Most people speak several languages – mother tongue, a local language for school, maybe another for high school, a regional language, plus Swahili and/or a “world language”. Dorren describes Africans “storming the language barrier”, cheerfully using any common speech they can find, gesturing, shouting… Correctness falls aside.

This is a great book to broaden your horizons. But beware… the urge to travel may overcome you. The only problem will be choosing a destination. Bon voyage!

“What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848” by Daniel W Howe, part of “The Oxford History of the United States”

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday I spent many hours in the car, driving to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then to a suburb of Washington DC and finally home to New Jersey. Recorded books make grueling trips bearable! My fellow traveler is working his way (selectively) through The Oxford History of the United States.

The Oxford History (conceived in the 1950s and published starting in 1982) will eventually consist of 12 volumes. They are not strictly sequential. (Some deal with a topic rather than a time period.) We are making no effort to read them in order. My husband began with The Republic for Which it Stands, covering 1865 to 1896 (Reconstruction and the “Gilded Age”). Then we jumped back in time to What Hath God Wrought.

Initially, this book was going to be titled Jacksonian America. Wow! I didn’t realize how much there is to hate about Andrew Jackson! His attitudes toward African Americans (enslaved or free) and native Americans were ugly. The rest of the world was turning it’s back on the “peculiar institution”. How would America move forward? The US was on shaky moral ground.

Taking a step back, the value of this book is that it shows how unprecedented and experimental the newborn United States was. The future success of our country was by no means assured.

Okay, I admit to having slept through a good deal of the recorded text, but it didn’t matter. What I learned was interesting! Consider, for example, the role of violence in civic life. Why so many riots? This book was published in 2007, but it has a remarkable amount to say about politics and behavior in 2018.

Three issues in this book that particularly engaged me were

  • the abolition movement
  • “Indian removal”, as in The Trail of Tears
  • women’s rights, especially suffrage

Sometimes supporters of these movements aided each other, and sometimes they found themselves at cross purposes.

When I’m on the road, I often need music or conversation, but well written history also makes the miles roll past. Previously I’ve read popular books about World War II. Shifting towards these more scholarly works has been worthwhile.

“The Fly Trap” by Fredrik Sjoberg, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

Published in 2004. Translated from Swedish in 2014 by Thomas Teal. Paperback by Vintage Books, 2014. 278 pages.

The Fly Trap by [Sjöberg, Fredrik]

This cheerful book delves into two of my amateur interests, entomology (the biology of insects) and art history (with emphasis on art theft and forgery). I hang out with entomologists, and visit art museums casually.

The Fly Trap is both memoir and biography. As Sjoberg’s personal memoir, it is the first volume of a trilogy. The next two books are The Art of Flight (2016) and The Raisin King. One reviewer suggests that these three books might also be categorized as travel, natural history, popular science or even poetry.

The “fly trap” of the title is a collecting device used by entomologists and called the Malaise trap. It is named after it’s inventor, Rene Malaise (1892 – 1978). According to Wikipedia, Malaise was an eccentric Renaissance man, and little was written about him before Sjoberg produced somewhat biographical this book.

Sjoberg is described (by Wikipedia) as

  • entomologist
  • literary and cultural critic
  • translator (If you are Swedish, do you have any choice?)
  • author

Malaise was

  • entomologist
  • explorer (Siberia)
  • art collector
  • inventor
  • geologist (one time defender of the Lost Continent of Atlantis)

With a mix like this, the book was bound to be interesting. It is enhanced by Sjoberg’s whimsical, non linear style. While studying Malaise, Sjoberg “caught” the art collecting passion, described in the book’s final chapter.

I pay attention to authors mentioning other authors. In one chapter (entitled “Slowness”), Sjoberg mentions (at least) three authors:

  • Lars Noren – Czech born French writer, still living
  • Milan Kundera – Swedish playwright, still living, best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • D H Lawrence – English, 1885-1930, best known for Lady Chatterly’s Lover

I recommend this book if you like the out of doors, natural history and/or bugs. Also books, art and travel.