The next time you find a cockroach the size of an armored personnel carrier doing maneuvers in your chicken tandoori, or watch every suitcase in the known universe except your own ride around and around and around on a baggage carrousel at 4 a.m., or hear your tour guide say, "Unfortunately, it seems the Monet exhibit is closed on Mondays; however, luckily, my wife's cousin owns a marvelous cafe' not three blocks from here," do not become angry, do not despair. Simply step back, get out a copy of an excellent book about a truly horrific journey and read a while: Your own travails will soon seem inconsequential, lighter than air.
Some recommended titles: Slavomir Rawicz's "The Long Walk," Apsley Cherry-Garrard's "The Worst Journey in the World," C.M. Doughty's "Arabia Deserta," Eric Newby's "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush," Hamish MacInnes' "Climb to the Lost World," Sir Richard Burton's "First Footsteps in East Africa," Mike Martin's "Afghanistan: Inside a Rebel Stronghold."
These poor characters really had it bad, but for the most part never lost their senses of wonder or humor: freeze-dried, parboiled, starved and drenched, menaced by homicidal locals, beset by 10-inch bird-eating spiders, seven-foot Bushmasters and abominable snowmen, they kept looking, and learning, to the bitter end.
Most unrelentingly hilarious of these classic bad-trip books is Hamish MacInnes' "Climb to the Lost World." I bought my very, very used second-hand copy, a 1976 Penguin paperback, in 1979 in Katmandu for 20 rupees (around $1.50), and though I have to carry its disintegrating pages around in a plastic sandwich bag, it is still one of the prizes of my travel library. The book tells the story of a 1974 climbing expedition to the Roraima Plateau, an eerie rock battlement on the Venezuela-Guyana border that was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle's novel "The Lost World." The climbers were MacInnes, Joe Brown, Mo Anthoine and Don Whillans, four of the grand old "hard men" of British mountaineering. They were accompanied by a film crew, Guyanese scientists and officials, and Indian guides and porters. The book is one long, chaotic tapestry of rain, muck, "creepy-crawlies" (MacInnes' term for snakes, spiders, scorpions, et. al.), bad food, no food, misadventure, misfortune and comic horror, as a few choice excerpts illustrate:
"Bugger it," -- I had stumbled on a root which, like a thousand others, was looped in a snare and hidden by bamboo. I had fallen forward but, with a reflex action, had grasped a tree trunk about four inches in diameter. Long, black spikes, covering it, pierced my hand and broke off; blood poured from the wounds. This was my first encounter with the prickly palm, Astocaryum, as nasty a tree as ever grew.
"Well, I suppose that makes life fairly simple," observed Gordon, hanging out his newly-laundered shirt. "We've started a dirty underpants competition -- but only between Neil, Alex and myself. Climbers are not allowed to compete."
"Don couldn't enter anyway," I replied, casually crushing a large poisonous centipede. "He doesn't wear them . . ."
"How the hell a nation could inflict this bloody stuff on the rest of the world is beyond my comprehension," muttered Don in disgust. "Just imagine, at the base of the Lost World and we still get it!" It was the second morning we had submitted to thick, lumpy porridge for breakfast, and I was finding it more and more difficult to defend our national dish.
On the climb itself, which proved to be extremely hazardous because of loose rock and vegetation and incessant rain, the climbers were also faced by large, hostile spiders and scorpions:
"Saw a couple of nasty-looking spiders here just now," said Joe. "Got red arses like circus clowns."
"I saw a big bird-eating spider at the bottom of the steep mud face," Mike added as he clipped some karabiners on to his harness. "It didn't seem too friendly."
Suddenly a spider appeared, a tarantula rearing up on its hind legs in its fighting stance, right in front of my bloody face! I jumped off my etrier and swung off the peg. Whilst hanging like that, I pulled out my hammer from the holster and twatted it one. The whole business upset me as I thought, "They're going to be all over this bloody terrace above me."
Despite many near-disasters, the expedition finally succeeded in scaling Roraima's great northern wall; no one was bitten by the "creepy-crawlies," though there were many near-misses.
Burton's two-volume work "First Footsteps in East Africa" is the story of the author's 1854-55 journey, in which he was disguised as an Arab merchant, to the then-forbidden city of Harar, in present-day Ethiopia; I have the lovely 1894 Memorial Edition of this one, the complete bibliopposite of the shabby MacInnes tome.
Burton's writing is intensely scholarly and much more elegant than MacInnes,' but it has that same charming and peculiarly English trait: the ability to be simultaneously fascinated and amused by the places and people one encounters.
Burton began his journey at the British protectorate of Aden, sailing with three Bedouin companions across the western end of the Indian Ocean to the coast of Somalia; from there, after a month at the port city of Zayla, Burton and company traveled by camel across harsh deserts full of feuding tribes to Harar. Burton was an indefatigable investigator, and "First Footsteps" delves in detail into everything from Arabic puns to the formula for Somali arrow-poison to the use of the stimulant snuff kat by the Adenese natives. Woven through the narrative of the trip and the blocks of encyclopedic information are the author's wry comments on everything he found amusing, especially the dangers and discomforts of the journey. Take, for instance, Burton's sarcastic comments about the Somali tribesmen's reactions to his pale skin:
This fairness, and the Arab dress, made me at different times the ruler of Aden, the chief of Zayla, the Hajj's son, a boy, an old woman, a man painted white, a warrior in silver armour, a merchant, a pilgrim, a hedgepriest, Ahmad the Indian, a Turk, an Egyptian, a Frenchman, a Banyan, a shariff, and lastly a Calamity sent down from heaven to weary out the lives of the Somal . . . each fresh theory was received by my companions with roars of laughter.
Burton goes on to comment with dour humor on the amorality of the Somalis, especially the Eesa tribe:
"Traitorous as an Eesa," is a proverb at Zayla, where the people tell you that these Bedouin with the left hand offer a bowl of milk, and stab with the right. "Conscience," I may observe, does not exist in Eastern Africa, and "Repentance" expresses regret for missed opportunities of mortal crime.
But it is as a recorder of facts that Burton really shines; take, for instance, this excerpt from a footnote on the subject of serpents and other poisonous creatures:
Snakes are rare in the cities, but abound in the wilds of Eastern Africa, and are dangerous to night travellers, though seldom seen by day. To kill a serpent is considered by the Bedouin almost as meritorious as to slay an Infidel. The Somal have many names for the reptile tribe. The Subhanyo, a kind of whipsnake, and a large yellow rock snake called Got, are little feared. The Abesi (in Arabic Al-Hayyah -- the Cobra) is so venomous that it kills the camel . . . Serpents in Somaliland are the subject of many superstitions. One horn of the Cerastes, for instance, contains a deadly poison: the other, pounded and drawn across the eye, makes a man a seer and reveals to him the treasures of the earth. There is a flying snake which hoards precious stones, and is attended by a hundred guards . . .
Mike Martin is yet another fine English travel writer. His 1984 book "Afghanistan: Inside a Rebel Stronghold" combines war reportage and personal travelogue, recounting the epic, often touching and sometimes perversely hilarious story of Martin's four-month, 800-mile trek across Afghanistan's battlefields in 1983.
I have been to Afghanistan five times, thrice before the war and twice during, and Martin succeeds in describing the country and its people with an acuity and sensitivity that is remarkable. This narrative of the author and his guerrilla and peasant companions under Soviet artillery bombardment sums up the Afghan character better than several chapter's worth of sociology or ethnography (Martin has already written of how the Afghans instinctively pick the sweetest grapes, while he always seems to pick sour ones):
"Run, Inglestan," cried the men and we poured through the gaps in the courtyard wall. We had barely made the perimeter of the village when the first shells exploded close behind. We dived for cover. Then we were up and running, adrenalin coursing through the body, across an onion field where we threw ourselves to the ground every few meters.
"Hey Mista, have one piaz," called a cheerful character who tossed me an onion. "It is good for you to eat." More shells hit the village which was now obscured by a pall of smoke.
Now we were wedged into the farmer's little bunker, sodden with sweat and warding off the thirst with grapes. I took my turn and went to gather some more bunches, this time from the same place as Abdul Ghafoor had collected some. "Mista, mista," cried the men in horror as they spat the fruit onto the floor.
They were sour.
Martin's was a hard, drastic journey -- bombardments, bombings, ambushes, food shortages, infected blisters, icy rivers to cross, fevers, delirium, night marches -- but he never loses his enthusiasm, or his keen eye:
"Islam can defeat anything," said the farmer while his sons brought dishes of plums and mulberries to the spot in the orchard where we sat. It was not the voice of bravado, but of faith. . . . A rancorous old man . . . rested his long grey beard on the palm of his hand as if he was about to fire it at me. The crotchety old xenophobe accused the West of decadence and the Muslim countries bar Afghanistan and Iran of corruption.
It was a grim eighteen-hour journey but there were bright moments: a breakfast of apples and bread in a bitterly cold valley while we chanted phrases to hurry the sun over the snowy peaks; a hair-raising lift in an ancient German army truck; a group of Mujahiddin who ran through a field of yellow flowers to greet us after the painful descent from the mountains.
Even Martin's snapshot-quality black-and-white photographs have a certain raw power that many more technically polished photo studies of Afghanistan lack: a swift white river, rushing between wind-battered trees; a guerrilla commander posing serenely, perched on an unexploded Soviet bomb; a gray-bearded jovial Tagob peasant gesturing expansively at his orchard; sweet corn drying on the flat roof of a hut in the high mountains . . .
And the others: Rawicz's "The Long Walk" is the story of a forced march, circa 1946, by a band of escapees from a Soviet forced-labor camp, all the way from the Siberian Arctic, around Lake Baikal, across the Gobi Desert, Sinkiang and Tibet, into India; it is no great shakes as literature but has to be one of the great travel yarns of all time.
*Cherry-Garrard's "The Worst Journey in the World" tells of Scott's ill-fated 1910-13 South Pole expedition; it is lyrical, grueling and not the least bit funny.
*"Arabia Deserta" is another British Empire "Let's Dress Up as a Native and Visit the Forbidden City" epic, with the city in this case being Mecca itself. Lovely book.
*Newby's "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" is the first-person tale of two Englishmen who went trekking and mountain-climbing in Nuristan, the wildest wilds of eastern Afghanistan, back in the 1950s: at least one laugh on every page, and exciting and informative to boot.
There are other good books on hard trips, too: Newby's "Slowly Down the Ganges," about a trip down India's great river by glorified rowboat; "News From Tartary," Peter Fleming's unbelievable 1930s equestrian hegira from Peking to northern Pakistan; Joshua Slocum's "Sailing Alone Around the World," the first solo circumnavigation of the globe; and whole obscure genres, like Basho and the other Japanese tramp-poets, or the British Second World War accounts of escaping from German POW camps (P.R. Reid's "The Colditz Story" is the undisputed classic) . . .
If there is anything almost as good as hardcore traveling, it is reading about it, whether you do so with your feet up in front of the television, or in a stormbound tent or a nomad yurt while on some mad adventure of your own.