I was never really much into reading travelogues. But, thanks to a friend, I discovered the genre recently and was lucky enough to get my hands on some really different styles. It’s been great fun and learning, browsing through all these different styles of writing, each connecting to me in a different way, each touching my mind differently, each showing me a different country, a different zone, a different reality, a different magic.
Firstly, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. Now this is one lady who can connect massively to her reader. She is passionate, she is crazy and she is a story teller. Cheryl starts by telling the reader about her childhood, not really very luxurious but a happy one. The figure of her mother looms large in the childhood episodes, the horse-loving spunky mom who tries to give a decent upbringing to her three children despite the not-so-decent living that she makes. When Cheryl loses her mom to a heart wrenching fight against cancer, she doesn’t have it in her to go on. She goes on a self-destructing spree, divorcing her husband, getting into drugs, putting up with junkies…the whole works. She also takes on a new name “Strayed” because well, she knows that she did. And then one day, picks up a book on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) just because she kinda likes the cover? Well, the guide book tells her that the trail is NOT for novices, but for some reason she decides to try it. She saves some money, says her goodbyes and finally goes hiking which is “just a bit of walking, isn’t it?” The PCT starts at the Mexican border of the US and ends at the Canadian border and moves through forests, hilly zones, snowy terrains and rattle snake infested areas. Not for your average novice, as Cheryl realizes after starting on it. Cheryl has some fairly romantic ideas about how she’ll feel one with nature and cry her heart out for her mom every night before sleeping. As things go, all she does every night is groan over aching feet, a bruised back and sleep like a log. There’s no place for tears because there’s no place in her mind for her mom. The forest trains her to focus on the trail at hand, to think about the next move and to pretty much leave the past behind her. Cheryl carries some books to read on the trail but soon learns to burn the read up pages every night because its an unnecessary burden. She meets a few people on the trail; strangers who have a kind word, who understand her desire to be alone and are yet willing to give her a pat on the back when needed. Its therapeutic, her journey and the reader literally sees the Sierra Nevada and feels its raw beauty through her eyes, gasps as a bear saunters into the trail and enjoys the quiet feeling of accomplishment when Cheryl completes the trail despite all odds. Reading the book was walking the trail and healing with Cheryl. Cathartic.
Now, as fate should have it, the book I picked up immediately post- Wild was the “Lost Continent” by Bill Bryson. My son was eyeing me with great anxiety because after having seen me sniffling red-eyed through the entire Cheryl episode, he couldn’t quite handle seeing mom breaking out into fits of uncontrolled laughter every 3 minutes. Bryson is madly, madly funny and gives you outstandingly witty commentary on nearly all the states of the USA that he travelled to on the roads. As it happens, Bryson was born in Iowa and literally “fled” to the UK to escape the dullness of it all once grown up. His father, who stayed in Iowa all his life dies and now Bryson feels like taking a trip back to Iowa, just to re-visit all the old haunts his dad had taken him to and to see whether the US has changed at all. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Even if the tone of this seems to be nostalgia, the genre is pure and simple humor. His account of how his dad used to drive all the kids to the grandparents and how the grandparents used to be always stationed at the same position at the gate making him wonder if they are only there when the kids arrive or whether they generally stay by the gate all the time, the bad baking and superb gossip skills of granny, the bad driving skills of papa dearest, how dad used to never know how to take the road straight to the mall or the circus and so used to drive the car and the kids insane by approaching the circus from every which side except the right one..there is never a dull moment. Loss of a parent is where both the books start; but their approach is so delightfully different that I was entranced. In fact, I read these two books back to back without really meaning to, but I would recommend that you plan and read these in this fashion.
And then there’s the “Kon Tiki”by Thor Heyerdahl. Genre scientific expedition. This is again another ball game altogether. In the 1950s, American anthropologists believed that human settlements found on the Polynesian Islands came in from the Australian side and could be Aborigines, who sailed in from Australia and settled on the islands. However, Heyerdahl thought otherwise. He stayed on the islands for 4 years and came up with the conclusion that these people had very intricate similarities to the Peruvian civilizations and hence must have sailed from Peru, from the Latin American end. His hypothesis was pooh-poohed badly by the Americans and a senior scientist said in jest that unless he could put a raft on the waters from Peru and sail to Polynesia, no one was going to believe in his hypothesis. Heyerdahl however now had got the definitive way to prove his hypothesis right. So he starts looking for the right crew, researches on how the Indians used to build rafts, goes into the forests hunting for suitable wood, gets rations from the US navy…the book moves between archaeology, anthropology, botany, ship building, history, civilization and the art of survival under the most trying circumstances. Whew!
Three travelogues, each with its own distinctive style and sub-genre. Highly recommend all three books, folks, if you haven’t seen them already!