Elephant Complex – John Gimlette

Of all the sudden, unexpected spaces, my favourite was Galle Face Green. It was slap next door to the ocean, and was so long that the far end often vanished into the spray. Although never quite the hub of Colombo (nowhere is), it’s always been through of as the natural place to fly a kit, display an army, or walk off a dish of mulligatawny. In the evening, half the city would be here, crunching up roasted crabs, or tottering into the waves, saris hoiked up to the waist. Alice would have loved it. One of the gypsy’s monkeys was always dressed as an Englishman, and, up by the lighthouse, all the anti-aircraft guns wore little quilted jackets.

I’m going to say it, John Gimlette is now officially my number one travel author. Sorry Paul Theroux, you held on for a good while. But while Mr Gimlette will no doubt revel in his new found glory, I will concede that for me, Elephant Complex was not as enjoyable as his romp around Paraguay or the Guyana’s and Suriname. Why did I bother reading it I hear you mumble, as you flick onto the next blog. For those of you who stay, I want to say I was hoping my love of Gimlette would pull Sri Lanka into the orbit of my interest.

Travel Writing can’t just be about the author, which sounds obvious, but reading this drove the lingering doubt out of my mind. It seems I’m not much of an armchair traveller, I have to have an interest in the place, almost care about it, and while I thought I might have an interest in Sri Lanka, I don’t.

Gimlette’s own interest in Sri Lanka came from local Tamil’s who lived near him in London, and after months of planning he dives headfirst into this complex land drenched in the history of racial violence, incursions from Portuguese, Dutch and the stubborn buffoons of England. Gimlette travels this history, meeting all types of Sri Lankans, both native and historical interlopers as he traces the story of this remarkable and historically important island and detailing the savagery both past and more recently present of the foreign powers who coveted Sri Lanka and the natives who despised each other enough to drown it in blood.

He meets people from all sides, as he marvels at the native Elephants, the gigantic reservoirs, the mysterious kingdom of Kandy, the awesome passion for cricket and the wildmen of the east.  All the while Gimlette observes characteristics of the people, flora and fauna, and how they are coming to terms of a recent peace after decades of brutal civil war, which somehow left the country’s tourism unscathed. Using a mix of local transport and hired drivers there is little of the land that he does not scrabble around in. He treks in the wild with guides and stays in dilapidated hotels, all the while poking under stones and into matters and issues that form the strata of this complex country.

It is a credit to Gimlette that he stays objective in his retelling of the history, despite his friendship of Tamil exiles in London. He recounts the atrocities and absurdities from both sides in the civil war that barely bumped into the news around the world except very occasionally, before sinking without a trace. The episode of India stepping in, which eventually ends up uniting the two enemies is something I was completely unaware of. It’s not all warfare though, although after such a long, horrific and recent period of conflict it is always there, just bubbling under the surface. Gimlette’s family come out to spend some time with him during his three months on the island, and he visits the tea plantations and the more hidden locations to properly inject himself into this physically beautiful island.

Sri Lanka was somewhere I was thinking of visiting a few years ago, and indeed a friend of mine had been recently and commented on how amazing it is. However, Gimlette’s thorough exploration has sated any lingering interest I had. Maybe I am an armchair traveller after all.

Sanath never got to inspect the half-eaten man, and was unfazed by this brush with eternity. He still drove like a fighter pilot and blamed the English whenever the road wasn’t there.
In a sense he was right. A lot of these roads were English, many of them engineered by a single man: Thomas Skinner. He began building highways in 1820 at the age of sixteen. ‘Ceylon,’ the governor had said, ‘needs firstly roads, secondly roads and thirdly roads.’ For the next forty-seven years, Skinner worked to this brief, covering the island in over three thousand miles of road.

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Shadow of the Silk Road – Colin Thubron

You wander through courtyards interlocked like those of a Ming palace, where the stelae are carved alternately in Arabic or Mandarin, and a minaret rises out of a porcelain-tiled pagoda. Stone dragons and tortoises coil and slumber here and there, ignorant of the Muslim ban on living images. The roofs tilt and swing above their high-coloured eaves, and across the lintels Chinese birds and flowers flock round Koranic inscriptions. An imam’s sermon booms over the loudspeakers from a prayer-hall  strung with neon lights. The voice is emphatic, overamplified, but I can barely comprehend a word.

Starting in Xian in China, Colin Thubron charts as much of the old Silk road as he can, traversing what must be some of the least travelled parts of the world as he skirts the Taklamakan desert (Its name perhaps means ‘abandoned place’. but in local parlance ‘You go in and you never return.’ In it’s heart, unlike the Sahara, nothing lives.) through to central Asia, following the mix of people, philosophies, religion and of course, goods between East and West, finally looking out of the Mediterranean Sea at Antioch.

I’ve seen Thubron’s books on the shelf before, but have always passed him over, heading straight instead to Theroux, or more recently Gimlette or Jacobs. A novelist, like Theroux, the difference seemed that Theroux seemed to go to places that I wanted to read about, but Thubron didn’t. However I have had a slow burning interest in central Asia for a while, although I couldn’t say where it comes from, and a trip along the old Silk Road is something that appeals to the wanderlust in me.

Starting along with Thubron was a struggle, his China seemed impenetrable, conversation with locals muffled and difficult to understand, they being as inscrutable to the outsider as the country itself. It seemed Thubron himself was suffering, his conversation with the Sogdian trader indicating a descent into madness. The air clears some though as he reaches western China and skirts the Taklamakan desert along it’s southern route to Kashgar, before passing deep into Central Asia, an area that in my mental map is marked by here be dragons, so little do I know about it. Thubron fills the book with history, his interactions with the locals and officials, but it is prose that slowly seeps into your conscious, his descriptions of the places he ghosts through. It is beautiful, his descriptions at once evocative but distant, not immediately recognisable. As he filled out my geographical and historical black hole, winding down through to Afghanistan and Iran I took in the history but enjoyed it as if it was fiction, such was his elegant pen. Thubron has a natural curiosity that draws him deep into the history and nuances of a place. Even his trespassing in Meshed, something that for some reason I disagreed with, was something that was done our of pure curiosity, rather than a malicious incursion into forbidden territory. From the buried stoicism of the Uighur people to the state of Islam in Iran there is a melancholic yet piercing glance at the places and people of this historically critical part of the world, and it’s a trip I would love to take at some point myself, although I’m pretty sure I couldn’t write about it quite like this.

For more than half the year the sky above the sky above the town was opaque muslin, dense with unseen sand, and the sun only a white coin discarded there. From the invisible Kun Lun mountains, the twin Black and White Jade rivers cam winding out of mist between banks of silt and pebbles, flowing through the oasis to the desert. The Kun Lun seem to retreat forever into a cold elusiveness. here, in the Chinese mind, bloomed the orchards of immortality and the white land of death, where the Queen Mother of the West ruled from her jade mountain at the gate of heaven.

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The Old Patagonian Express – Paul Theroux

Neither an explorer nor a hitch-hiker; no rucksack, no compass. Just a tidy little suitcase and small gold-rimmed glasses covered with dust, an empty Pepsi bottle and a sandwich wrapper, sitting with Teutonic uprightness through the tumbling hinterland of Chiapas. His map was small, he had no other book, he did not drink beer. In a word, a skinflint.

Paul Theroux, author, traveller, grumpy old man. Even though he made this trip in 1978, when he wasn’t so old. It’s what I love about him, he judges fellow passengers with acerbic wit yet at the same time tempers his complaints about the grind of travel with the the enjoyment he gets from it’s many pleasures.

Another re-read to tide me over until some fresh words, the whole premise of The Old Patagonian Express was to track a train in his native Boston and to travel as far south as he could. There was no set itinerary, just a world train timetable and an ultimate destination of as far south as possible. Starting in a freezing Boston buried in snow, Theroux boards a commuter train and just keeps going. He passes through pretty much everywhere, never staying for more than a couple of days, unless waiting for a connection, this is Theroux travelling on his love of train journeys. The simple relaxing pleasures, even when stuck on a train in Mexico for hours on end, a simple beer stretched out on the empty benches of his car as the sun goes down makes up for the hours of interminable boredom, the realisation that at times the drudgery of the journey has taken his enjoyment of the scenery away, yet at others he finds it uplifting:

It is not often that one gets a view like this in a train and it was so beautiful that I could forget the heat and the dust, the broken seats, and was uplifted by the sight of the hills way down and the nearer hills of coffee and bamboo. For the next half-hour of this descent, it was an aerial railway diving across hills of purest green.

As usual he talks to as many people as he can, finding the Guatemalans taciturn yet the Salvadorean’s more open and friendly. The football match in San Salvador between El Salvador and Mexico is a highlight, as it descends into farce and violence. More often than not it seems the train is abhorred, the quicker, more comfortable bus a preferable alternative to all those that can afford it’s modernity. Unfortunately that doesn’t include Mr Thornberry, one of the more famous travelling companions Theroux has met. Despite his clear loathing of Thornberry, it is this old man that rescues Theroux when he has nowhere to sleep, even if it means turning in at nine pm.

There is a jump to South America, and indeed there are a few times when Theroux just appears in the next country seemingly without touching a rail. He settles into Quito and has to pull himself away from the parties and colonial churches as he treks through Peru and Bolivia down to Argentina. Another highlight is the time he spends with Borges, reading to the author and going to dinner with him before the final stretch of his journey to Esquel.

Despite it’s age, The Old Patagonian Express still reads well, Theroux is best when on the move and he writes this simple trip extended across a continent with wit and a keen eye, that leaves you wishing the line went just that bit further.

…it ought to be possible to make your way by road through Nicaragua, if only to judge how much reckless exaggeration there is in the commonly held view that Nicaragua is the worst eyesore in the world: the hottest, the poorest, the most savagely governed, with a murderous landscape and medieval laws and disgusting food. I had hoped to verify this. The inhospitable country, like the horrible train ride, has a way of bringing a heroic note to the traveller’s tale.

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Andes – Michael Jacobs

I proceeded without much optimism to the store and found him exactly where he was said to be. But he hadn’t got the key. His wife had it. He helped me track her down. She had the key, but had no idea how much she had to charge me for a European call. One of the many bystanders said the schoolteacher would know. We went to the school and interrupted the teacher in the middle of a class. She had a long talk with me about Spain. She too didn’t know what the call would cost. A discussion ensued, in which some of the school children joined in. The outcome was that I was going to be charged 60 cents a minute. We moved on triumphantly to the office. The phone was not working.

So I’ll open with the statement that this is probably going to be a ridiculous review. In a unintentional best of three, Michael Jacobs has won me over with Andes. I loved Ghost Train through the Andes, but struggled with The Robber of Memories and Jacobs is not far behind John Gimlette as my favourite travel writer (both have currently passed Paul Theroux). Jacobs is extremely likeable and honest and like Gimlette, has clearly done extensive research into the history of his route, there is a lot of Bolivar and Humboldt throughout, but the book wears this lightly. Flying into Venezuela he skirts in and out of the mountains, into Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina as he hops down the spine of the great range.

What’s so ridiculous about that, I know you’re thinking. In Ghost Train, Jacobs was clearly on a train, in the Robber of Memories, Jacobs was clearly on the River Magdalena. In Andes, it didn’t feel like Jacobs was in the Andes.
Now you’re thinking, yes, this is ridiculous, he clearly was in the Andes, and he clearly writes about it, the book, is called Andes. But at the end of the book, it felt like he dipped in and out of the Andes, purely because they were in between where he wanted to go, but perhaps that is the problem with travelling down a mountain range, you can’t really do it properly unless you’re a bird, or some kind of goat, or in this case Alpaca.

My brain blip aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book if you love South America, Mountains or Humboldt. Jacobs seems to have an extensive range of friends and contacts, so has plenty of people to meet and places to explore with them. At one point genesis founder and author Chris Stewart joins him for a time as they tramp around Peru, sometimes riding on Stewart’s celebrity and other times keeping it hidden. There are plenty references to previous wanderers down this part of the world, aside from Humboldt, including Isherwood and fleetingly, Theroux.

Despite he’s almost whirlwind tour down the chain there are times when the impact of the mountains is plain, never more so than the in the lives of the bus drivers who plough up and over or round these massive road blocks. I have been over them a couple of times in Peru, thankfully it was either dark or I was sat at the rear of the bus, so was happily oblivious to the precariousness of my journey. Indeed Jacobs dedications at the beginning of the book include the bus drivers.

There are times when coincidences or events are almost too perfect to be real, Jacobs loves setting up an encounter or an incident that allows him to reflect, but there are too few to really affect the reading, he is less grumpy than Theroux, has much more interest in the history, but still enough curiosity about the present to make an interesting read. Given the size of the book it is perhaps more for someone who really likes Mountains, or Humboldt, or South America, or all three. At the same time, reading the book will be a lot quicker, and safer than trying to traverse the whole chain yourself, so, well done Michael, and thank you.

When, in 1838, Darwin finally published an account of his journey on the Beagle, with its enthralled description of the Andean crossing, he timidly sent a copy, with accompanying letter, to the man whose spirit runs through the whole book, Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt’s approbation was the greatest praise he could hope to get. ‘You told me in your kind letter,’ wrote the great German, ‘that, when you were young, the manner in which I studied and depicted nature in the torrid zones contributed towards exciting in you the ardour and desire to travel in distant lands. Considering the importance of your work, Sir, this may be the greatest success that my humble work could bring.’

At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig – John Gimlette

I opened my mouth  to protest, but at that moment the music restarted. She pressed her ear up close to my face, which disappeared into an impenetrable thicket of curls and ringlets. Everything went dark and my nose tickled.
You can’t say that here,’ I muffled. ‘The pyragues…’
The Pyragues was the name everybody used for the secret police. It was a Guarani word which meant – literally ‘the hairy footed ones’. It was a cute reminder that their raids were sudden, silent and invariably savage.

I don’t think it will be long. Paul Theroux’s grip on me as my favourite travel author is surely coming to an end. Two pretenders to the throne are coming up quickly, and out of the two, it is John Gimlette who is probably just ahead (Michael Jacobs is the other).
Having already enjoyed his trek around the top right hand corner of South America in Wild Coast, Gimlette is again back on my favourite continent, this time in it’s deepest heart, Paraguay. Originally there in 1982, Gimlette’s original intention for this book was for it to be a work of fiction, but in the end Paraguay’s incredible past proved larger than fiction and Gimlette trekked around the relatively unknown country, in all directions from the tropical capital of Asuncion.

Like Wild Coast, the level of research here is deep and exhaustive, but never for the reader. Gimlette casts a wry eye over the history, particularly politically or Paraguay, and he admits that he uses frivolity to cover his own anger at what the population have endured almost since their inception at the hands of their leaders. From his attempt to meet Stroessner, “We can’t find him, he must have gone for a walk”, tracking down Nazi runaways, Trekking to the back of beyond frontiers as he follows the massive, absurd figure of Francisco Lopez and his wife, the indomitable Eliza Lynch, Gimlette shares his knowledge in such a way that it is seamless with his travels, you can almost smell the gun powder from the triple alliance war and the tragic war in the Chaco as he travels to some of the remotest places there must be in the middle of a great continent.

Laugh out loud funny, Gimlette is unpretentious, engaging and genuinely curious about Paraguay and it’s colourful history. The engineers and doctors (including a seemingly large contingent of English at various times) that helped Paraguay fight it’s enemies throughout it’s history, as bits were torn off it and it’s population was decimated by the ‘flamboyant stupidity’ of it’s leaders. Talking with friends and other Paraguayans Gimlette probes them as much as he feels he can, in some cases they are piercingly honest and at other times there is almost complicit denial, or an acceptance of this is what it is like.

For some reason, Paraguay had been slowly creeping up on me, I’ve been to the triple frontier while visiting Iguazu falls, but that’s the closest I got. After reading this I definitely want to go, Gimlette has has illuminated the hidden heart of the continent and painted it in vivid colour.

It was obviously an excursion they’d enjoyed many times before and Mrs Berera wasn’t the least bit perturbed when her chair slid backwards and forwards across the truck as Lino whirled along in a tornado of red volcanic gravel. We tried to keep an eye on her in the mirror but sometimes Mrs Berera slid completely out of view and it wasn’t until the next fold in the earth’s crust – and the reversal of centrifugal forces – that she made her stately reappearance.

Short Walks from Bogota – Tom Feiling

The way he saw it, the FARC were no more than terrorists. They were also responsible for the bulk of the cocaine production and trafficking that had so destabilised the country. If only they could be defeated, he reasoned, Colombia would soon be on the road to peace and prosperity. Uribe struck a chord with many Colombians, who were by now so desperate to live in peace, free from the threat of kidnap, robbery and extortion, that they happily voted for a man who promised yet more war.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand it’s a straight written travelogue / journalistic report of Colombia in it’s current state, of somewhat uneasy, foggy peace, that seems to be solidifying but could dissipate at any moment. Feiling has a passionate interest in Colombia, I couldn’t say he loves it, or perhaps he does, which is why he is so brutally honest. And that leads me onto my other feelings. Feiling puts Colombia under the microscope as an outsider, clearly detailing the history and detail of the seemingly endless procession of woes that have plagued the country, almost since it’s independence from Spain. He does such a brilliant job that I finished without hope, that I wonder if the changes that Colombia must make to heal itself are so seismic that they will never happen.

For all my doom-mongering, although Short Walks is full of the statistics and politics of Colombia’s history, it is not a heavy read. Feiling travels to place that even now, with the country enjoying a relatively stable and peaceful time, few would dare to visit. There are those whose character and fortitude offer glimmers of hope that this vast, abundant and beautiful country can forge itself anew, but they seem pebbles on a beach. Immense pebbles, when the killers of your family or friends are still riding around town unpunished and unconcerned it shows incredible strength to continue with your life.

Delving into the history of the FARC, a spent, almost irrelevant force still dreaming of the revolution, the paramilitaries who sprung up against the FARC and committed possibly even more atrocities, the army, who despite having money lavished on them to wipe out enemies of the state, never quite seem to manage to do it, realising the almost symbiotic relationship they have, while there are still enemies, there is still a need for the money and the power they have, Short Walks draws up a concise and blood filled history of one of the most famous yet probably least understood countries in the world.
It is ordinary Colombians that suffer for the endless orgy of violence, who still find joy in dancing, who still believe they can live in a peaceful country that are the real stories in Short Walks. Towards the end Feiling speaks to women who have ‘adopted’ graves of people who have no name, in place of relatives that they know are dead but have no idea where they are buried. Although they know it is not what they seek, it offers them a shred of comfort, and at the same time shows how a largely innocent population is struggling to come to terms with what has been inflicted upon it but those who most of the time have purported to be looking out for it.

I’m glad I read this, it would be a stretch to say I enjoyed it, and that would seem almost wrong given the subject matter. At one point Feiling disparages backpackers that have started moving into Colombia now that it is slowly opening up. He comments on their lack of interest in Colombia itself, seeing it as white water rafting followed by a cocaine fuelled orgy, a two week tick in their travels. I mostly agree with him, although it is relevant to any country in a sense, and not to every backpacker. After though, I thought, what could they do? Colombia itself is struggling on how to best deal with it’s past, how to heal the deep deep divisions, maybe the fact that they are visiting Colombia, travelling around it, interacting with Colombians and showing them that the outside world does have an interest, however small, and that they are not afraid to come and visit is, if not a good thing, then possibly a start?

It is a credit to Feiling that I’m left with such mixed emotions after this. Short Walks felt cold and left me cold, but it’s the truth, and it seems right that it’s out there. And it’s convinced me of something that I’ve long thought about. I really do want to visit Colombia.

‘It’s not a bad thing to have feelings of hatred or to want revenge,’ Mira told me. ‘The question is: what do you do with those feelings? An eye for an eye is the worst thing you can do. That just means everyone becomes blind. Committing yourself to non-violence doesn’t just mean that you don’t throw the stone. It means convincing the man with the stone in his hand not to throw it. If we can just exercise some self control, we can build ourselves a house with those stones. We can start building a different kind of country.’