Every unhappy journey is unique in its unhappiness, but each one, in a way, is also alike: terrible to endure, laughable to recall, wonderful to recount. In "Travels With Myself and Another," Martha Gellhorn, novelist, war correspondent and incorrigible itinerant, recounts "horror" journeys made in China, the Caribbean, East and West Africa, and the Soviet Union.
The titular "Another" on these travels is an assortment of droll characters, each a natural Alphonse to Gellhorn's Gaston, a costar in her farcical, off-the-wall (if not off-the-map) adventures. In China, it is U.C. (Unwilling Companion), a stateside friend whose initial unwillingness turns into surprising good humor, even when he sees people cleaning their ears in public, poking away at them "with the detached expression . . . of people peeing in a swimming pool." Nor is he fazed by the undersized horses assigned to carry them through the interior (the horses were "lucky as he could ride and walk at the same time so the horse would really have six legs"). When the horse eventually gives out, he picks it up and starts to walk with it, to the sidesplitting amusement of a coolie.
But clearly the star of the China experience is Mr. Ma, the interpreter and guide, equally incompetent in either capacity, round-faced and radiant with foolishness:
"Mr. Ma, what trees are those?" "Ordinary trees."
"What do those boats carry, Mr. Ma?" "Cargo, more or less."
"Why do they burn off those hills, Mr. Ma?" "To get rid of the tigers." 'Tigers, Mr. Ma" "Yes, many more or less. You see, tigers eat some kind of tender little roots and sweet grasses, and when it is all burned, they get hungry and go away."
As it turns out, Mr. Ma is fully capable of being specific. Reporting a story of Japanese atrocities, he tells of eight village virgins who despite fierce resistance were "nuded and very seriously raped."
Journey after journey, the author betrays a happy talent for acquiring singularly useless guides. In Surinam, it is Harold the black city slicker, wearing "such dark glasses he looked eyeless, and a red bow tie and a sweat-stained crushed Homburg hat" who accompanies her on the near-fatal farce of the Saramooca river journey -- a journey undertaken in a hollowed-out tree trunk paddled by three Bush Negroes resplendent in loin cloths and knitting needles in their hair.
In Waza, West Africa, the guide is Ali, almost outdoing Mr. Ma in vagueness. ("What are those birds, Ali?" "Birds." "And those anthills?" "They have always been like that," explains Ali.) Things get worse in the bush: "I heard in the grass to my left a lion . . . I was badly shocked and whispered to Ali, 'Un lion.' 'Oui,' he said. 'Oui?' 'Where?' when referring to a lion is not the sort of question you expect from a game park guide."
Finally, there is Joshua, a Kikuyu Presbyterian who offers his services as a driver, but who in 2,000 miles through East Africa never once takes the wheel. Instead he sits in the passenger seat of the Land Rover, dangling his feet out the open door, sipping tea from a tiny tea cup, crooked finger and all. Joshua is worse than a back-seat driver: "a front seat groaner and gasper." Soon he begins to come apart from the hardships of dusty roads, tse-tse flies, maps that are more "wistful estimates than statements of fact," roaming wildlife (one sign says, "Elephants Have Right of Way"), and the constant fear of getting lost in the heart of darkness. Every now and then he cries out, "How far now, Memsaab, how far?"
These unsentimental journeys are reported with a kind of breezy intolerance, revealing an eye for low comedy and high jinx, an ear for quaint speech, and a nose for human inequalities. There is a feel for Grand Guignol: lepers dancing the twist in Yaounde; an argument among the French community there whether or not a gorilla had deflowered and killed a girl; a demonstration, somewhere on a godforsaken road in darkest Uganda, by Africans waving placards saying, "Down With the Pope."
But at the end of these journeys, having feasted on the foolishness of the author's traveling companions, the reader is left with some relief at not being one of them. It is better to be regaled by an eccentric, opinionated globetrotter than to fall off the map with one.