Travel Reads: ‘Eighty Days’ By Matthew Goodman

It is easy, without historical context, to mistake our own travels – and the documentation thereof – as some kind of bold act. We think ourselves grand for going around the world and we think our stories worthy of sharing merely because we can. But 150 years ago, this was just not the case. Travel was a big deal, women traveling an even bigger deal and women traveling solo, if not quite unheard of, certainly a long way from standard practice.

It was the Victorian age. Men – mostly men – traveled by steamship and rail. As for documenting said travels, that was the territory of men as well. Women were as unwelcome in the newsroom as they were in the pages those newsrooms produced, relegated to fashion and housekeeping and maybe the arts.

In to this landscape two bold women took it upon themselves to race one another around the world. One, an elegant and cultured arts writer – Elizabeth Bisland – the other, a scrappy go getter news hound in a checkered jacket – Nellie Bly.

Eighty Days” is the story of their adventure not just to succeed as great travelers, but to become well known and respected journalists as well. Off they go, propelled by their own will, two very different women on mirrored journeys. Nellie Bly invented the trip; Elizabeth Bisland was convinced to participate. Ms. Bisland packed for propriety and style, Ms. Bly anticipated the carry-on only traveler by over a century by insisting on taking nothing more than she could manage herself, lest she be delayed while waiting for her luggage.

They were both determined, bold, articulate and so brave. Looking back through history only magnifies the unusual nature of their travels.

The book is a terrific read, full of compelling characters – newspaper men, suitors, handsome sailors, exotic foreigners, missed communication, hunger and frustration – in short, all the stuff that makes up a good travel story. And it’s impossible not to admire these exceptional women, racing against time and against the standards of the day. Matthew Goodmans brings a heroic Nellie Bly to life in the first pages and Elizabeth Bisland’s grace and unexpected nerve are made real next. It’s impossible to decide whom you want to win. And finally, when one of the women does win, it doesn’t matter – the adventure has been completely worth it.

Beautiful And Bizarre Bookstores Of The World

bookstores
Wherever I travel, I always find myself drawn to bookstores. They’re a pleasant comfort zone when far from home. I love hunting for local authors and books of local interest while chatting with the people who frequent these places. I’ve found that bibliophiles are pretty much the same whether they’re American, Ethiopian, Arab, Tibetan or whatever.

One bookstore I haven’t shopped in (but would love to) is the Shah Mohammed Book Company, the subject of the famous “Bookseller of Kabul.” Yes, books and adventure travel go together, as Peretz Partensky showed when he took this photo. I’ve been to plenty of other bookstores in out of the way places, though, and enjoyed them all, like the dusty bookshop in Harar that saved me with some timely Tolstoy when I’d run out of things to read, or the Tibetan bookshop in McLeod Ganj where the owner holds forth on Asian politics. Whenever I’m in a bookstore, I feel at home.

Of course, I also frequent bookstores when I really am home. One favorite here in Santander in northern Spain is Librería Gil. Like all good indie bookshops, it has a knowledgeable staff and a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. The kids’ section is well stocked and as soon as we enter my son grabs a book and plops down in the little red plastic chair in the corner, only to emerge when we tell him we’re leaving. The bookstore hosts lots of readings and even had a guest appearance by Geronimo Stilton, a time-traveling mouse detective who is hugely popular with Spanish kids.

Upstairs is a large exhibition space filled with customers’ photos of bookstores around the world. Some are old, some are ultra-modern, and then there’s that one in Indonesia that’s floating on a barge. The best of the ever-growing collection are being turned into posters and make for a fun viewing. You can see the world of readers all in one room. It inspired me to scour the web to bring you a gallery of beautiful and odd bookstores from all around the world.

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Do you have a favorite bookstore I missed? Tell us about it in the comments section. To navigate the world of books, there’s a handy online Bookstore Guide that has plenty of good, detailed reviews of stores in more than a hundred cities, mostly in Europe. They’re always looking for new additions, so tell them too!
bookstores
[Photos by Sean McLachlan featuring some of the posters in the exhibition]

Travel Read: The Coffee Story

coffeeAs a writer, I read many books by authors I know. As a traveler, I read lots of books set in places I’ve been. The Coffee Story by Peter Salmon gave me the rare chance to read a book about a place I love written by someone I met there.

For the record, I don’t review books by friends because that’s both unprofessional and unwise. Peter isn’t a friend except in the Facebook sense of “I got drunk with this guy once and have his email address”.

I met Peter while I was living in Harar, Ethiopia. Peter’s novel is set in Harar in the 1930s and just weeks before it was published he visited for the first time. That’s right, he visited Harar after he wrote the book.

To 99.9% of his readership that doesn’t matter since they’ve never been to Harar. I have and it did. The book is laden with mistakes. For example, Peter has Harar surrounded by jungle when in fact it’s surrounded by rocky hills and cultivated fields, and where the hell did the Jain community come from? He also uses the G-word for the Oromo. While I suppose this epithet would have been in common usage among whites living in Ethiopia in the 1930s, it will do nothing to endear him to Ethiopian readers.

But this isn’t really a story about Harar, or indeed about coffee. These are simply backdrops with which to tell the story of Theodore Everett, heir to a huge coffee business, now dying of cancer. Most of the action takes place 70 years before, when he’s a kid on his father’s plantation in Harar, where the best coffee in the world comes from. Ignored by his greedy and abusive father, Theodore falls under the sway of an Ethiopian Marxist and other locals, as well as a mysterious white girl who emerges from the jungle one day.

Theodore tells us right off that he’s “not given to suspense” and a terrible showdown is inevitable between the Marxist and his father. To steal the title of a wonderful film, there will be blood. It’s a tribute to Salmon’s excellent storytelling that the final showdown, when it comes, is nevertheless laden with suspense. We have an inkling of what’s going to happen all along, but like two cars veering towards a head-on collision, it’s terrible to see them hit.

While there’s no sense of place beyond a stereotypical “deepest, darkest Africa” worthy of some old Tarzan flick, most characters are brilliantly drawn and often hilarious, and the prose loops and curls in on itself. Like many old men, Theodore repeats himself constantly. This gets a bit irritating but the characters and narrative tension kept me turning pages. The prose is rich (bonus points for using “flibbertigibbet”) and the characters spring to life the first sentence they’re introduced.

I give this book three out of five stars. Sorry Peter, I know it’s my round, but while you’re an excellent stylist and a sharp wit, the whole thing veers a wee bit too close to neocolonialism. You put Harar in a jungle because Africa’s all jungle, right? The Ethiopians all sound like Europeans with a bit of earthy spiritualism thrown in for color, and the only female Ethiopian character is oversexed and two-dimensional. Although she’s sleeping with the underaged protagonist, Theodore’s One True Love is the only white girl he meets in Africa. And the blackface scene made me embarrassed even though I wasn’t the one who wrote it.

There’s an old adage among writers: stick with what you know. Set your next novel in England or Australia and you’ll write a masterpiece.

Books! Travelers share what to read on the road

book, books
There’s nothing like a trip for catching up on your reading. Even if you’ve filled your schedule with dawn-to-dusk sightseeing, there are still quiet moments at the hotel or by the pool, not to mention those long flights. So what’s best to read while traveling? On Saturday I’m heading to Harar, Ethiopia, for two months, so this has been on my mind. I asked a bunch of seasoned travelers what’s in their pack. Their suggestions fall into several overlapping categories.

Disposable
Most agree it’s best to bring books you don’t feel the need to bring back. Not only does this give you a chance to pick up something unexpected at a book exchange, it also frees up space for souvenirs. You can also give reading material away, as Catherine Bodry explains, “I always treat myself to magazines at the airport (People, Runners World, Oxygen, Nat Geo Traveler, etc.) and I usually stockpile a few issues of the New Yorker from the weeks prior to a trip. They also make great gifts if I’m headed to a censored country like China!”

Entertaining
Some people go for light, unchallenging reads. Annie Scott Riley says, “I’ll finish anything I’m already reading; usually fiction, but anything I start on vacation has to be just for fun. For example, the Chelsea Handler books, anything Dave Barry, Chuck Klosterman. I guess I like some pop culture commentary to assess what I’m getting away from.”

Educational
Many well-heeled travelers bring books that teach them about the places they’ll see. Mike Barish says, “While in Hawaii earlier this month, I read Blue Latitudes about Cook’s voyages in the Pacific Islands.” Laurel Kallenbach says, “It can be nice to read Yeats in Ireland, Shakespeare in England. I lived for a few weeks in the French village of Ferney-Voltaire, so I read Voltaire’s Candide there–and then toured the author’s castle.”

Variety
Many people like to have a variety of books. Mary Jo Manzanares finds her ereader handy. “Before leaving I load it up with a bunch of books from a variety of genres, then I can pick and choose what to ready while on the road. I like a variety of reading–something light for the airplane or on the beach (a mystery or chick lit), something historical when I’m on site, and I can also read blogs, magazines, and newspapers on it as well. Last year while staying in the middle of a vineyard in Tuscany I saw that one of my favorite authors had just released his new book–just a minute later I was able to download and read it. Best of all, I can take all this reading with me and take up no space at all.”Small
With ever-increasing baggage fees, it’s best to bring something small. I prefer mass-market paperbacks, leaving the hefty hardbacks at home. Like Manzanares, Gadling cruise correspondent Chris Owen saves space with ebooks. “On cruises, we read a book a day so long sailings required separate luggage just for the books. iPads changed all that, especially now that our local public library offers books online too.”

So what’s in my pack?
English language books are in limited supply where I’m going, and many tend to be foreign imports at Western prices, so I’m bringing a two-month supply. They are:

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad: A thick, fast-paced classic in a mass market edition that I can leave behind. I can always find another copy.

Eating the Flowers of Paradise: A Journey through the Drug Fields of Ethiopia and Yemen by Kevin Rushby: A fascinating study of qat, the drug of choice in the Horn of Africa. It’s impossible to understand the culture without understanding qat.

The Bible: I’m an agnostic, but as a professional historian I can’t ignore one of the most influential books ever written. I haven’t read it for more than a decade so it’s due for a reread, especially since I’ll be spending most of my time in a Muslim town. Muslims read the Bible too, and I just reread the Koran last year.

Thus Spake Prophet Muhammad: These selections from the Hadith are in a tiny little edition I picked up in India. It can’t hurt to brush up on my knowledge of Islam if I’m going to live in a Muslim town.

Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre: Hararis are a philosophical bunch, and I rarely pick up this sort of heavy reading when I’m at home working. I’m sure someone over there will want it when I’m done.

The Best Stories and Tales of Leo Tolstoy: This is actually an Ethiopian edition I picked up when I was last in Harar. I’m nearly done with it but I want to give it to a friend.

Articles about Harari history and culture: I printed some of these out and have dozens of them on a thumb drive if I want to print out any at an Internet cafe. I also made copies onto two CDs for some Harari friends.

Amharic dictionary and phrasebook

Brandt Guide to Ethiopia

What do you bring to read on the road? Share your bookish habits in the comments section!

Travel Read: Culture Smart! Ethiopia

I’m headed to Ethiopia soon and I’m busy reading everything I can get my hands on about the country. Thus I eagerly picked up a copy of Culture Smart! Ethiopia. The Culture Smart! series offers insights into the customs and cultures of dozens of different countries. As a first-timer to sub-Saharan Africa I hoped to get lots of insight into a very different world.

Sadly, I didn’t.

The book’s main problem is its brevity–168 small-format, illustrated pages. This means pretty much every section is superficial. For example, in the “Ethiopia’s Cultures” section, the Amhara, Gurage, Oromo, and Tigray, making up two-thirds of Ethiopia’s 79 million people, get one paragraph each. The rest of the country’s numerous and varied cultures are lumped into a single short paragraph. In these thumbnail sketches we’re treated to such statements as, “Gurage people are traders and know the value of money.” Perhaps this is true for a large number of individuals, but it’s simplistic to the point of stereotyping.

The space problem is made worse through frequent repetition and bland statements. In the two-page section on children we learn that parents want them to be educated and will send them to private school if they can afford it, hardly a startling revelation. What we don’t learn is how to interact with children. Do we shake their hand? Kiss them? Tousle their hair? All of these actions are acceptable in some cultures and considered odd or even insulting in others. Is it OK to play with them? Bring them gifts if their parents invite us to their homes? Are boys and girls treated differently? Behaving correctly with children is one of the best ways to do well in a foreign culture, and messing this up is one of the easiest ways to cause offense.

The book is made worse by occasional mistakes and typos. The Italians didn’t “misinterpret” the 1889 Treaty of Wuchale, leading to the Battle of Adwa in 1896, they deliberately mistranslated it in an attempt to gain control over Ethiopia’s foreign affairs. And titling the section on Eritrea “A Thorn in Ethiopia’s Side” is unnecessarily provocative and ignores the numerous periods when the two regions have been united.

Other sections can be quite good despite the space constraints. The sections on driving and doing business in Ethiopia provide a useful primer. Also, there’s enough basic information in the book as a whole that someone who hasn’t done any other reading would find it of value. So if you’re only going to read one book besides your guidebook, you might want to give this a try. But if you’re serious about being “culture smart”, you’ll be reading a lot more than that.

Have you used a Culture Smart! guide? Tell us what you think of them in the comments section.