Bruce Bonta

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

In addition to being a peace scholar, my father is a voracious reader of travel books. Almost every night before going to bed, he reads a chapter or two from whatever travel book he’s engrossed in at the moment – there’s nothing better for putting himself in the proper frame of mind for sleep, he says. Over the years he has read hundreds of the things, so I figured it would be fun to get an annotated list of his all-time favorites. Here’s what he came up with.

Some of my favorite travel books describe the social and cultural conditions of places that later break into the headlines. The fighting in Kosovo and Albania? Find out about feuding in the area a century earlier in High Albania by Edith Durham. Why were the Mujahideen in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province so successful in killing the American SEALS a few weeks ago? Read George Scott Robertson’s account about the fighting qualities of the mountain people in that particular section of the country. Why do the nomadic people of Darfur and the settled villagers fight and kill? Find clues in Michael Asher’s book on the deserts of Sudan. Not all great travel books presage later fighting, of course, though they should give a strong feeling for people and places around the world. A few favorite travel books:

Accounts about Africa

In Search of the Forty Days Road, by Michael Asher (Longman, 1984).
The Forty Days Road, the name for a semi-mythical desert track, provided a convenient excuse for Asher to buy a camel in a Khartoum market and start exploring the deserts of the Darfur region of Sudan. He had an amazing ability to fit in with the desert tribes and move around with them on his camel. The relationships of the semi-nomadic peoples with one another and with the more settled peoples of Sudan, one of the themes of the book, provide an insight into the continuing tragic situation that envelopes Darfur today. Asher’s subsequent books about the desert are effective also.

Travels in Ethiopia, by David Buxton (Praeger, 1967).
Buxton describes his travels to many parts of Ethiopia with sensitivity and grace. He lived in the country for three years in the 1940s; his writing and his sharp black and white photos provide a compelling picture of a very poor country with a fabulous history.

Some Great books on Asia

Hunza, Lost Kingdom of the Himalayas, by John Clark (Funk & Wagnalls, 1956).
Aside from the silly sub-title (Hunza is neither lost nor is it in the Himalayas–it’s in the Karakoram Range), Clark provides an engrossing account of his year (1950) among the villagers in an inaccessible valley of northern Pakistan. His reason for moving to Hunza? He wants to combat the advance of communism by teaching woodworking to village boys. A geology professor at Princeton with some medical training, when he isn’t working with his students, he treats villagers for various illnesses and explores the geology of the mountains. As he builds his programs, he overcomes the hostility of officialdom in Pakistan, the selfishness of the Mir who autocratically rules Hunza, and the initial suspicions of the villagers. The book is a forerunner of the Peace Corps concept by a man who is middle-aged, highly motivated, and very well trained for his tasks.

Danziger’s Travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers, by Jeff Danziger (Grafton Books, 1987).
Danziger is an excellent writer who exhibits a remarkable ability to talk his way past officials, endure unbelievable hardships, and whack along through fascinating places in Asia, from Turkey to China. One of the most memorable sections is his description of the war in Afghanistan against the Russians in the mid-1980s. Danziger was in Herat, watching from his hiding place as the MIGs swooped over the city dropping bombs. He had to move with the Mujahideen across the country at a strenuous pace, running up and down and up and down high mountains, striving to keep up with the fighters. Probably the best of the “following the Silk Road�? travel books, the account may lack the depth of some of the others on this list–Danziger describes his travels rather than his life in a particular area–but it’s really a great read.

My Journey to Lhasa, by Alexandra David-Neel (Harper, 1927).
David-Neel, a French woman with a life-long fascination for Tibet, became the first traveler in the 20th century to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa. Traveling with her adopted son, a young Buddhist monk, she disguised herself as an elderly Tibetan woman when they entered Tibet from southwestern China, traveled as much as possible on remote roads, let her “son�? do all the talking, avoided communities where they might be challenged, and successfully made it over the mountains and into Lhasa. It was a breath-taking journey for a woman in her 50s. Her follow-up books on Tibet, especially Magic and Mystery in Tibet, are also worth reading.

Káfirs of the Hindu-Kush, by George Scott Robertson (Lawrence & Bullen, 1900).
In the late 19th century, Robertson decided to travel from northern British India across the Indus River into the mountains of what was then called Kafirstan and is now called the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. The Kafirs, so-called because they had resisted conversion to Islam until the mid-19th century, were famed for raiding and terrorizing villages near and far and murdering the inhabitants. A few decades earlier, when the Emir of Kabul finally conquered them and converted them to Islam, they became fanatical about their new faith–but they retained the ferocity of their ways. Robertson describes both the hostilities he faced in the villages where he visited and lived and the raiding, terrorizing expeditions that his friends and neighbors carried out. Anyone who believes that Osama bin Laden may be hiding out in South Waziristan, or the other mountainous areas along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, should read this book about the special fighting culture of Kunar Province. It’s a perfect fit for the top Al-Qaeda folks.

Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, by Colin Thubron (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987).
Thubron is a fine travel writer, primarily because he learns languages before venturing out into a new country. He learned Arabic before traveling around the Middle East nearly 40 years ago, then learned Chinese before wandering around China to see how it was doing after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Then he learned Russian in order to travel in Siberia and the newly independent Central Asian Republics after the end of the Soviet empire. This account of China is a personal favorite, perhaps because of his honest and friendly approach to the people and places he visits.

Travels in Central Asia, by �?rmin Vámbéry (Harper, 1865).
Vámbéry was one of the most intrepid travelers of modern times. A Hungarian scholar who was fluent in numerous Asian languages, he disguised himself as a Hajji who was returning from Mecca and was able to join a caravan of other returning hajjis in a journey from Tehran into what is now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. He visited the independent Kingdoms of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand (Russia had not conquered those areas yet), before circling back toward Europe through Herat in western Afghanistan. The King of Khiva at the time was notorious for vicious treatment of his subjects, visitors, foreign emissaries, and especially non-believers. Had Vámbéry’s disguise been challenged, he would have been quickly killed. His observations on the countries he crossed and the fabled central Asian cities he visited are riveting.

A Couple Others

Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, by Isabella Bird (Murray, 1890).
Bird was crossing the Pacific in the 1870s when her boat was unable to leave the Sandwich Islands, now the Hawaiian Islands. Forced to remain there by the circumstances, she made friends easily, lived with various people on different islands, and traveled into all sorts of remarkable natural places. She climbed massive volcanoes on the big island of Hawaii, rode horses to scenic natural places, and hiked into remote spots. A remarkable, intrepid, spirited person, her other books, particularly her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, are also engaging reading.

High Albania, by (Mary) Edith Durham (Beacon Press, 1987 reprint of 1909 edition).
On her doctor’s orders, Durham traveled down the Adriatic for her health about 100 years ago, but she ignored the warnings of dangers and journeyed inland to visit the mountains and villages of Albania and the former Yugoslavia. During her numerous trips in the Balkans, she not only learned the languages, she also gained the trust of the people and traveled easily as a lone woman. The kindly villagers would host her at length, reluctant to see her finally move on since her very presence afforded the village a measure of protection from the intentions of enemies. Her hosts would take her almost to the top of the ridge and point the way, but they could not accompany her into the next village–due to the ever-present memories of ancient feuds. Nonetheless, her love for the Albanian people comes out clearly in this wonderful book.

—Bruce Bonta