Tag Archives: adventure

Travel Classic Two: Bruce Chatwin

Cerro Tennerife Patagonia

Cerro Tennerife Patagonia

Destination: Chile and Argentina, South America

Book: In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin uses one of the most engaging opening lines found in travel literature, or any other kind of literature, for that matter, to start In Patagonia (1977).

The classic of travel books begins , “In my grandmother’s dining room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin.”

When he asked about the strange object, he was told it was a brontosaurus that had lived in Patagonia in South America, “at the far end of the world.”  The hairy piece of skin becomes what Alfred Hitchcock called “the Magilla”–the object around which the drama builds. As he searches for the true story of the piece of skin, Chatwin develops a fascination for Patagonia which inevitably leads him to the far end of the world.

Chatwin tells stories in every paragraph, practically in every sentence.  He has the gift of looking at things in a skewed fashion and seeing them in completely new ways. “About fifty million years ago, when continents were wandering about…” he says. He leaves a museum, “reeling under the blows of Linnaean Latin.”

As he works his way south through Argentina and Chile, Chatwin meets with many people whose stories surprise and entertain the reader.  He also tells anecdotes about people who were once here, from Butch Cassidy and his gang to Darwin and his gang. Even Edgar Allen Poe plays a bit part in a story about the real life origins of his story Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. It is surprising the far-reaching impact of this remote place. But particularly, he is interested in the story of Charley Milward, a distant relative who found that piece of skin that was unfortuitously discarded, and of course must be rediscovered–or at least replaced.

Sometimes the journey, mostly on foot and hitch hiking on various decrepit vehicles, is very difficult. Sometimes it is very dangerous, as when a drunken sheepherder plays with his knife and wonders aloud what it would do the a gringo.  But regardless of whether you have the stamina to follow his route on the ground (and numerous travel agents stand ready to help you these days), In Patagonia provides a grand tour to take through reading a great piece of travel literature.

Photo by “Florasol” from Flickr, under Creative Commons License

Have you read it? Are you two for two this week? Or are you making a list? Share, please, we’re dying to know.

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Filed under Argentina, Books, Chile, South America

Classic Travel Lit: Eric Newby

Afghanistan Mountains

Afghanistan Mountains--Not the ones climbed by Newby

Destination: Afghanistan

Book: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

Newby’s work is on everybody’s list of travel literature not to be missed. I read a 1999 edition of the book, and the link here takes you to a Lonely Planet reprint.  The original 1973 edition is out of print. Newby also wins praise for the book, Love and War in the Apennines,  about his war time experience in Italy.

The self-effacing Newby tells his story in the framework of a humble ill-prepared would-be adventurer (himself) who joins a much more experienced friend in an exploration of northern Afghanistan.  During the trek described in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1973), they will be following the path of Alexander the Great, and they will see reminders of Tamerlaine’s journey through the same mountain passes.  This expedition takes place in the late 1950’s when very few outsiders had ventured into the area and relative peace prevailed, except for age-old grudges between tribes and cold war nervousness. Today, Al Quaida hides in this rough country which still cannot be reached by motor roads.

Newby and his friend Hugh, who turns out not to have the great expertise Newby thought he possessed, survive the fool-hardy adventure by sheer stiff-upper-lip fortitude.  One of the joys of the book is the subtle unmasking of Hugh, the alleged expert in expeditions, and the wry repartee between the two friends.

Being products of the British education system, they bring a knowledge of history and more than average language fluency to the task.  Living as they do at the tail end of England’s glory days as master of a far-flung Empire, they have a sense of built-in superiority over other races and cultures.  Their attitude toward the natives reeks of a kind of master-slave sensibility.

The British traditions of forebearance of hardship, however, keep them going as they sleep on bare, rocky ground, endure meals of packaged Irish stew and helpings of jam, and constantly suffer from dysentery that forces them to duck behind the nearest rock. They sustain the hardship,  knowing they are going where few have gone before and seeing amazing landsapes and interesting cultures.

Newby supplements the narrative with diversion of history–both of the native people and of explorers who trekked this way before.  He reproduces dialogue and captures word pictures of the passing scenes.

With Afghanistan once again at the top of American attention and our generally abysmal ignorance of geography, this book provides useful background. If, on the other hand, you are of the opinion that people who try to climb up sheer rock walls for fun have a screw loose, you probably should read something else.

Photograph by Alan Cordova, from Flickr, Creative Commons license

By the way, what book do you think these explorers took along to read (and re-read many times, it turned out)? The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. Which brings up an interesting question. If you were venturing into the unknown, what would you take along to read?

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Filed under Afghanistan, Books