A couple of years ago Gavin Young boarded a ship in the Greek port of Piraeus: "It was a simple idea: take a series of ships of many sizes and kinds; go where they lead for a few months; see what happens." His destination was China; his hope was to travel there entirely by sea, and then -- but of course -- to write a book about the journey.
Young survived the seven-month trip, and "Halfway Around the World" is the result: a slow book to China. Comparisons with Paul Theroux's "The Great Railway Bazaar" are inevitable and mandatory, and they do not favor Young. Both books are about trips from Europe to the Far East, both have to do with the solitariness of travel, and both involve marginal, outmoded means of getting there. But Young's book is oddly strained and lifeless, as compared with Theroux's, and it seems to go on forever; a fundamental rule of travel writing is that the book should not be as long as the journey.
Yet "Halfway Around the World" is not without its charms; it is likely to please readers who are addicted to travel writing. If Young violates one basic rule of the genre, he satisfies others: He takes the reader to exotic and faraway places; he offers enough tension and ennui to remind the reader that prolonged travel can be dangerous and/or boring; he keeps the reader interested in the seemingly simple yet eternally aggravating problem of getting from Point A to Point B.
From Piraeus to Canton, the trip involved 23 different vessels; it also, to Young's great disappointment, involved a couple of planes and trains. Travel by ship, like travel by train, isn't what it used to be just a quarter-century ago; in fact, Young discovered, it is "moribund." Throughout his journey, the mere question of where his next ride was coming from was a persistent, nagging problem; at times he spent days, even weeks, waiting in port for a ship -- any ship.
On a handful of occasions he found himself aboard moderately comfortable and efficient vessels. But for the most part his ships ranged from bearable to dreadful to intolerable. At times the company was worse than the ship:
"It is no exaggeration to say that the vessel swarmed with the most wretched of Mr. Sadat's subjects as bad meat swarms with maggots. There were scores of them, and they lined the stern rail five deep, wild of hair and scarred of face, to watch developments on the shore. They milled about, shouting inanely and obscenely, in the echoing steel belly of the ship. . . . Some were drunk and lay muttering in a clanking nest of beer cans. Others were either congenitally moronic or drugged. On the fetid lower decks they lay in accumulations of fruit peel, cigarette butts, gobbets of phlegm, twists of foul paper, streams and puddles of dark, unidentifiable liquid and a stench of urine and bodies. Once the ship reached the sea and began to roll, they lay in their own vomit as well."
Young's attitude toward the people of Asia and Africa is by no means as contemptuous and condescending as that passage suggests. To the contrary, he has a deep sympathy for the men and women who desperately want to improve their lives and who yearn for Europe or America, the "little fish trying to swim westward." Of one young Pakistani he writes:
"Whether or not he was conscious of it from minute to minute, Walid's every waking moment was part of a war to keep his head above the stagnant surface of a dead-end life, to avoid drowning in a Sargasso Sea of faceless, penurious humanity. This struggle to keep alive the hope of enjoying a mere shadow of the affluent life European workers are blessed with -- and find inadequate -- was not something he could ever resign from. If only the peoples of America and Europe, and those of Africa, Asia and Latin America could change places for a week -- for a single day! But would it do any good?"
Young's affinity for the deprived and hopeless people of the Third World is admirable; so too is his gratitude for the help he received from a number of people, gratitude that he expresses openly and warmly.
The fact is that he often needed help. Getting on board a boat -- even the lowliest Asian "country boat" -- was frequently a matter of knowing the right person in the right place. Many ports were closed or difficult to reach because of the interminable strikes that plague Asia; in others he found himself hog-tied by Arab or Asian bureaucracy. It helped to have friends.
When he was finally aboard, Young usually had to put up with primitive accommodations, an utter absence of privacy, and occasional danger -- usually from the weather, but at one point from Philippine insurgents who boarded the small craft in which he was crossing the Sulu Sea. That he made it from Greece to China alive and without serious injury is, considering the nature of his journey, something of a miracle.
What is odd about "Halfway Around the World" is that Young, a good writer, had plenty of excitement and still managed to make a dull book of it. One reason no doubt is that he, unlike Theroux, has little talent or instinct for serendipity; even when he does chance upon something unusual or amusing, its flair eludes him. Frequently he seems more concerned with pressing his trip to its conclusion than with enjoying the sheer surprise and adventure of it, denying himself what Theroux calls "the lazy indulgence of travel for its own sake." A pity for Young, and for the reader.