Since 1971, I’ve experienced many long distance road trips across and into the three countries of North America. Does it take special stamina to travel on the the vast road and rail networks of Canada, Mexico and the United States of America? After reading American Day by Day, it sounds like travel by train or bus in the U.S. is more difficult now. Passenger rail systems in the U.S. and Mexico have been gutted.
A few dozen months ago, in a New York Times interview, Paul Theroux mentioned several celebrity authors who cruised the blue highways of the U.S.A. — Steinbeck, Nabokov, Scott and Zelda — but overlooked the North American travels of French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.
The European feminist landed at LaGuardia Airport in January, 1947 and during four months, criss-crossed the USA by train, car and bus. Her goal was to meet American students, especially women.
America Day by Day is her fascinating account of meetings with students at elite US colleges. She was keen to sit down with young women at Vassar, Radcliffe, Berkeley, and the other top universities. Photos of the sleek de Beauvoir in conversation with college gals swathed in rumpled ankle-length flared skirts and thickly rolled white socks offers a superficial window to the sartorial differences of the French grande dame and care-free students.
There were other gaps. She thought American college students were uninformed, quite innocent of global politics, the impact of WWII, or the realities of life. The students she met were intellectually and politically tame, but they had similar taste in music and entertainment. For diversion, with students and literary friends, she would hunt for city jazz clubs and bars where she could talk to African-Americans.
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.
Britain ruled India as the British Raj from 1858 to 1947. Before that, the East India Company — an English trading corporation — operated and functioned as de facto government in India – from 1757 to 1858. England wasn’t the only European country operating trading enterprises in India. The history of India’s quest for freedom arises from nearly 200 years of English governance of an ancient country and its peoples.
White Mughals delves into the lives of individual European commercial and military officers with vivid portraits of their careers, families and relationships with Indian people–lords and ladies, local servants and British staff. During such a long occupation, many English mated and married Hindi women. Their children became part of another layer of dynastic control or rebellion.
One such affair of the heart took place in early 1800s in Hyderabad between James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-Nissa Begum. Kirkpatrick had previously served in Carolina and owned a plantation there, plus an estate Hollidale near Bromley in Kent. The descriptions of daily life in the couple’s household in India are sensuously memorable.
The history may leave a sour taste for Indians and English alike. An illustrative aspect of the era demonstrates cultural sharing and learning among the cultures. The exhibition at the Asia Society Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857 includes works by Mughal court painters and a few paintings produced for Delhi-based Raj figures such as William Fraser, James Skinner and Thomas Metcalfe.
A traveler may acquire insight into the emotions and endurance of people on all sides of this historical era.
White Mughals, Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India
It’s hard to put down this unusual biographical narrative by a Korean War veteran and POW who elected to settle in China after the war rather than return to the low horizons available to African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era South.
Twelve years later, after earning a degree at Beijing University, working for years as a translator for the government publishing enterprise, and developing sincere friendships with Chinese colleagues, Clarence Adams left China during the Cultural Revolution when intellectuals, teachers and writers were attacked by gangs of Chinese youths encouraged by Chairman Mao to make a “permanent revolution.”
He returned to the United States in 1966 and may as well have stepped barefoot into a minefield. In the U.S. some media outlets distorted his actions and played to the quick prejudices of the public confused by rapid social change and the numbing carnage of the Viet-Nam War. Adams and the twenty other American POWs who had elected not to return to the United States after the end of the Korean War had already been tried and condemned as traitors by the media and popular opinion, even though the treaty that ended the war included a clause permitting prisoners of war to choose any country for repatriation. Adams returns to this point throughout the book. He explains that by staying in China after release from the war prisoner camps, he was given the opportunity for education and professional experience that would not be open to him in the United States at that time.
Adams grew up in a clearly defined segregated South in a Memphis family used to dealing with the harsh economic and political realities of segregation and discrimination. He learned to hustle for extra tips at a hotel job by playing up to people’s need to feel important. Then came the call for soldiers to fight in Korea.
Though the segregated military was supposed to be a thing of the past by 1948, it took years for the entrenched military to change. Various encounters in the military underlined the defacto segregation in the North that led Malcolm X to this statement: “The Mason Dixon line begins at the Canadian border.”
The Chinese entered the Korean War, surprising US troops fed on Thanksgiving turkey and incomplete information from their US superiors. Adams observes a black regiment providing cover for white troops escaping enemy fire, leaving no cover for the African- American soldiers. This event distilled into Adams’ a life long protest: though blacks in America lived in a climate of distain, were denied equal opportunity and basic human rights, they were shipped off to fight America’s wars.
In An American Dream, Adams writes of harrowing scenes of capture by Chinese troops, the march on iced roads to prison Camp 5 near Pyuktong and the near-starvation of the captured Americans. His narrative includes acts of kindness by the Chinese captors, but Adams is politically aware and knows that getting out alive will require communicating with the army prison officials. During the march to their permanent prison Adams couldn’t keep up with the main column of prisoners. Weak POWs who lagged behind were being shot, so Adams bargained for his life, begging to be allowed to start out early on the march and continue slowly to the next night’s camp behind the main column. He lost toes on one foot; he didn’t sleep, but he made it to the camp. Though afraid he might be branded a collaborator, months later, Adams stepped forward when the Chinese asked for representatives from the prisoner ranks to work with them to improve camp conditions.
After the war, Adams and 20 other American POWs (three African-Americans including Adams) elected to settle in China, some, like Adams, were placed in university degree programs, others were given factory jobs. All, according to Adams just wanted a better life than what they knew would be waiting for them back in the US. Vilified by the press, the 21 American POWs had varying degrees of success in China. Adams explains his choice: “I might not have known what China was really like before going there, but I certainly knew what life was like for blacks in America, and especially in Memphis.” (P.64)
Adams married a Chinese woman, they had two children, and he finished university and worked as a translator for the Foreign Language Press. During the Vietnam War Adams spoke on Radio Hanoi appealing to black American soldiers to think about their position in the war, suggesting they should be fighting for their own civil rights back home. The broadcast to American soldiers in Vietnam was used as grounds for a summons to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which dropped the charges after questioning Adams for a week in camera.
After 12 years in China, Adams decided to return to his homeland. The Cultural Revolution had begun with unprovoked attacks on westerners, beatings and incarceration of educated people and intellectuals, not to mention, widespread destruction of art and cultural artifacts. When his employer told him to leave the Foreign Language Press and work in a distant factory, Adams knew his run of good relations with the Communist government was over.
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 fromJules Verne‘s serialized novelAround the World in Eighty Days, published in book form in 1873.
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
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 wasproduced by Elizabeth Taylor’s beloved husband Mike Todd, who died in an aircraft accident 18 months later.
A Land Without Time ~ A Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan by John Sumser
Oh mercy me, not another Peace Corps narrative, was my knee-jerk thought. Instead, flipping open the book with a seductive title — A Land Without Time, I was enthralled immediately by John Sumser’s funny, self-aware memoir of working as a volunteer teacher in Afghanistan during the run-up to the 1979 Soviet-led invasion and coup. For those who slept through the past six administrations, the Soviets made the same mistake as Prince George Bush who led the USA into the futile rock pile of Afghanistan in the early 21st century, perhaps in a fantasy of imperial fervor, misunderstanding that the British Empire had actually not succeeded there in the 19th century, nor the Soviets, nor anybody else. It was deja mess all over again.
Though a packet of years have slipped by, Sumser inhabits the voice of the young volunteer he was and infuses the story with the perspective of a canny adult living in the political world post-911. He starts off edgy with a chip on the shoulder attitude towards some of the other Americans in country and wastes no time trying to make Afghani friends. Of course, he met only Afghani men because the women, then as now, were shrouded in chadors and denied social interaction.
Sumser understood his role as a volunteer, to live within the culture, not try to change it or insult people. This makes for some funny encounters and as the author spins out his story, he presents an increasingly wiser voice. Honest about his fears, he tells of living on watermelon and orange soda until mustering the courage to eat in local dives and teashops. He knows that his presence is inexplicable to an Afghani. Why would an American leave prosperous family and comfortable home to live as a poorly paid volunteer teacher in Afghanistan? Surely the volunteers must be spies. Insights about cultural differences won in late 1970’s by Peace Corps volunteers could have served this century’s beleaguered invaders.
At one point he’s passed a paper sack made of an old magazine page containing sugared almonds. Sumser notices a photo of Bertrand Russell on the magazine page. Sumser exclaims that he ‘knows’ Russell. During the ensuing discussion, the Afghanis determine that Russell is dead and that Sumser never actually met him or shared tea with him. While these men sit in characteristic silence etching the differences in their cultures, Sumser ponders that he knows more about Russell’s life story, his ideas and impact on academia — more about a dead man he’s never actually met — than he knows of any Afghani including the companions in the tea shop. To know an Afghani, you needed to be one.
There’s useful advice for travelers. In one scene while instructing an Afghani houseman who refuses to boil
water for 20 minutes to sterilize drinking water against the invisible bugs the Afghani man doesn’t believe are in the water, someone tells the man that the holy book advises Americans to boil drinking water for 20 minutes. That bit of cross-cultural fiction is understood by the devout Afghani who then agrees to boil the water for the specified time. These and other scenes make this book useful for travelers contemplating hard-seat travel in barren lands.
I read this tightly written and well-edited book start to finish, non-stop. For this serious consumer of travel writing, it was a grand read– laced with humor, tension, adventure, insight, landscapes and sharply defined characters. I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing the white-knuckle finale of Sumser’s story.
Maybe the secret to writing a great Peace Corps narrative, or any travel story, is to let enough time go by to mature the writer and distill the events with notes of history, wisdom and cultural insight.