Too bad every teacher in the rich hemisphere can’t hustle the class off to Africa for a semester on wheels.
It takes an unusual teacher to lead students on trips that extend for a semester in places on the fringe of the average college attendee’s comfort zone.
The author is that exceptional type, an English professor specializing in African studies and African literature at Doane College in Nebraska. She leads small groups of college students on enriching study tours through southern and eastern Africa. Betty Levitov skillfully shares the experiences gleaned during several teaching tours in Africa focused on cross-cultural communication and experiences. The narrative usually unfolds in the present tense giving immediacy and connection to the characters.
The Africa Semester sounds like a great idea and Dr. Levitov’s lighthearted motherly presentation should put at ease the parents or guardians of prospective exchange students. Even if the students aren’t headed for Africa, this book offers travelers handy advice for how to get along in challenging circumstances and how to interact with people from other cultural and economic backgrounds.
University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2007, 184 pages.
Here’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed — a terrific read, a thrilling trip, adventurous women — what more could one want! For this life-long voyager, it offered an historical version of my own round-the-world trips. You don’t have to be a traveler to get a kick out of reading about two enterprising women journalists and their historic global circumnavigation in opposite directions.
Eighty Days takes its title from Jules Verne‘s serialized novel Around the World in Eighty Days, published in book form in 1873.
But — this Eighty Days is not fiction.
FLASH Update: Nellie Bly’s route retraced 125 years later on Nellie Bly in the Sky
Eighty Days opens in mid November, 1889 when 25-year-old journalist Nellie Bly is waving farewell to chilly, wet New York City from the deck of the steamship Augusta Victoria. The book tracks her biggest story — a solo global circuit and intrepid race against time — eastward across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and Asia. The author introduces us to Nellie Bly’s character and achievements as a pioneering investigative reporter adept at “stunt journalism“. She posed as a factory worker. She exposed baby-selling scams. She got herself locked up in an asylum for the insane for nearly two weeks by acting bizarrely so she would be incarcerated as mentally disturbed. Her reports sparked a grand jury investigation of public hospitals for women where conditions were unsanitary and cruel.
Nellie Bly was not a novice traveler. She had lived in Mexico with her mother for company, writing articles about bullfights, coffin manufacturers, political graft and cultural oddities. Proof of her travel saavy was the single small handbag she carried as luggage, now displayed in the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, a competing publication sweet-talked another woman to race around the globe in the other direction, westward across the continent and the Pacific Ocean, committing her to return to New York City before Bly. Elizabeth Bisland, a gently-bred Louisianan, was an accomplished literary essayist and poet, 28 years old in 1889 when the around her world trip began a few hours after Nellie Bly sailed away.
During her years as a magazine essayist and community group leader in New Orleans she had forged a life-long friendship with the acclaimed author Lafcadio Hearn, but she hadn’t traveled beyond the southern and eastern states. In New York City, Bisland was a serious professional writer, stylish and well-dressed, the toast of the New York literary scene of the day. Photographs in the book show a pristine beauty. She traveled with several trunks filled with clothes and accessories for the climate changes anticipated during nearly three months at sea and on the road.
Matthew Goodman does a brilliant job of explaining the travel infrastructure of the 1890s — grand hotels, steamships, comfortable railway carriages in the USA and the rudimentary, poorly heated rail cars in Europe and beyond. The British Empire made such a journey possible with its tightly scheduled steamships moving mail, people and supplies to the colonies with refueling stops strung around the world. At that time, the sun never set on the British empire.
As any true traveler knows, the people in a place show the real story. Goodman explores the city streets, ports, lodgings, restaurants and markets, writing historically accurate scenes of faraway places. Prejudice, injustice and the downtrodden lives of the world’s workers are exposed. Too many travel narratives shy away from tough realities, presenting a distorted rosy view of places tourists pass through insulated by money and tour guides. At sea, headed for China, Bisland writes about the human cargo of Chinese railroad workers forced out of the USA some of them ill and half-dead. Bly made a point of going ashore whenever possible to poke around street markets, ride in human-powered pedicabs or watch port operations and refueling.
Thanks to the British Empire, English was spoken just about everywhere the women put ashore as well as at the telegraph stations . Logistics were complicated to arrange without telephones, mobile phones or online travel sites. For me, an attractive feature of the book is following their route on the maps, noting transport connections and wondering if any of those elegant old hotels remain. I’ve had the pleasure of staying in one or two very vintage hotels in Asia, but renovations might be overly elaborate and erase historical character.
Still, their journeys were not luxury tours hopping from one British outpost to another. Annoyances ranged from extreme temperatures, weather delays, dramatic storms at sea, fickle health, loneliness, intruding gawkers and local reporters in search of a story. Nellie reinforced her pre-existing negative opinion of the snobby Brits and Elizabeth learned that she liked to travel, despite a tipsy stomach.
Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly used telegraph messages to communicate their progress which the newspapers used to pump reader interest and increase circulation. One paper ran a contest with a free trip for the winner who could guess Bly’s completion date. It was a neck-to-neck race in opposite directions and I won’t spoil the suspense unfolding during their around-the-world journeys by spilling the beans about the final days and the unusual trajectory of their lives afterwards.
Eighty Days was released in paperback on March 11, 2014. It’s a great book for book club discussion groups too. Read my interview with Matthew Goodman at AdventureTravelWriter.org
- Ballantine Books
- ISBN: 978-0-345-52727 eBook: 978-0-804-17644-6
- Paperback edition, 2014. $16.00
- Includes: Index, Bibliography, Photographs, Maps and a guide for reading groups
Some readers may remember the 1956 Technicolor film with David Niven in the title role and a legacy of five Academy Awards. The film Around the World in Eighty Days was produced by Elizabeth Taylor’s beloved husband Mike Todd, who died in an aircraft accident 18 months later.
John Hanson Mitchell
ISBN: 1-58243-136-1, 280 pages
Who wouldn’t enjoy following the sun through Europe to end on Summer Solstice in Scotland? That’s the premise for the author’s bicycle journey from Cadiz, Spain to Callanish, Scotland. is to follow the sun, a passionate interest of The author is passionate about connecting with people and explores the differences among cultures as well as the universal binding qualities of humanity. The trip took place a while ago, during the early years of the Common Market. Considering one of the finest travel books ever — Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “Between the Woods and the Water” — was written decades after the experience, I fully embraced the timelessness of this enjoyable narrative where spirit transcends distance.
The author is well integrated in local habits, traveling as a slow-moving cyclist on a Peugeot clunker. He mentions being thanked for American assistance to Europe during WWII — that’s because even now in the 21st century, European folks of a certain age often insert a thanks for Liberation Day in conversations with visiting Americans.
The reader wheels along with the author. And it’s a great ride. Mitchell artfully describes landscape, the curious characters and the local cuisine. He never misses a human interest story and samples the local plonk, usually with a talkative companion.
Interwoven with the journey narrative are tidy summaries of historical or scientific detours relevant to the place, climate or festivals encountered by the author. Religious cults, folktales, myth, pilgrimage routes and culinary lore expand the thread of Hansen’s journey. He arrives in Scotland for the summer solstice.
En route, we learn of the westerly winds that permitted Christopher Columbus to push further west off the “edge of the known earth” and eventually sight the islands we know as the West Indies. This provides a segue into the solar influenced civilizations of the new world. Ever mindful of the sun, Mitchell discusses bird and animal behavior related to the sun and solar eclipses. We hear about the religious and intellectual growth of Spain during the enlightened years of Muslim rule prior to. He touches on bullfights and the Mithraic cult of the bull and sun, early Christian rituals, Greek myth, harvesting grapes and how to cut peat. All of it is fascinating material, lucidly presented. Alas, the book lacks an index.
Several times Mitchell mentions sojourns in Spain and France prior to this bike pilgrimage, so we can assume he knows the languages, always useful for independent travelers. Either he diligently recorded his previous travels, or he plays with memory. It would be useful to know whether he kept a diary at the time to assist memory and report past conversations verbatim. Many travel writers do this. For example, “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water,” describe Patrick Leigh Fermor’s walk across Europe at age 18; he wrote these books as a mature adult and occasionally quotes the people he met years earlier, but makes it clear that he was using detailed diaries as a source.
Mitchell acknowledges contributions from friends he met up with during the journey. While I believe it is possible for a writer to have vibrant memories of significant journeys and other experiences in life, it seems only fair to let readers know about invented dialogue based on memory. Then we’re more likely to accept that every encounter really took place and wasn’t a mirage or convenient authorial invention.
–L. Peat O’Neil
She wrote Pyrenees Pilgrimage about a solo walk across France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the
Camino of St. Jacques de Compostella that extends across all of Europe and into Spain. She is also the author of Travel Writing – See the World, Sell the Story.
Ariel Glucklich‘s stories lead one into the next, step by step. Like climbing a hill, the dance of life and human thoughts, there’s a path to the light through the dark, on and on around the great metaphorical wheel. In this particular story, P. L. Shivaram, retired librarian for the Karnataka Power Thermal Corporation Ltd., leads the reluctant pilgrim, a biologist recovering from a long illness, up Chamundi Hill. The librarian nudges, explains and entertains during the long climb. The American pilgrim listens and comes to terms with various types of pain in his life. The hill serves as symbol and fact: representative of life’s path and a real homage site that people climb barefoot to honor the deities. Each twist of the route upwards offers the storyteller another opening to tell a Hindu parable. The pilgrim spills his share of stories too, balancing the librarian’s narrative of mythology with obtainable lessons gleaned from the shocks of an examined life. This charmed book could be Aesop’s fables – Indian style — with a week of dandy bedtime stories for grownups.
HarperCollins, 2003, ISBN 0-06-050894-9, Cloth bound, 246 pages
A slightly different version of this review appeared in The Bloomsbury Review, Celebrating and Serving Literature since 1980.
This is the kind of evolving focus that I enjoy hearing about. Moving onward and through one’s life, noticing the points and hidden messages along the way.
Speech distills the elements of living the self-defined life . Lived thus far ~~ who knows what comes next!.