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Book Reviews

Golden Goa

by Grant Buday

Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey

by Alison Wearing

Sand Dance: By Camel Across Arabia’s Great Southern Desert

by Bruce Kirkby

Whatever our reasons for setting off on a trip, most of us discover new perspectives and explore our own identities while travelling. We do take ourselves with us, as Plato said, wherever we go. We may travel to breathe new life into our hearts after a divorce, or simply to bring some stimulation into lives dulled by routine. We may find that we are changed by contact with a foreign culture, or awakened to some undiscovered aspect of ourselves.

Three new books by Canadian authors describe journeys to a variety of places undertaken for a variety of reasons. The most literary of these is Bruce Kirkby’s Sand Dance: By Camel Across Arabia’s Great Southern Desert. Kirkby’s extraordinary book about a pilgrimage across the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert, really belongs to the genre of spiritual autobiography. It’s beautifully written and stirring.

Browsing through a bookstore one evening, Kirkby happened to notice Wilfred Thesiger’s classic travel memoir Arabian Sands. The book became a catalyst for Kirkby, who’d been searching, with two friends, for a desert to cross. “Not just any desert. There was something intangible we sought, something beyond the physical challenge of crossing barren and desolate wastes,” he writes.

The three decided to do what everyone who knew the desert and Bedouin ways told them would be impossible – to cross the Empty Quarter, from Muscat in Oman to Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates, by camel. Despite extreme difficulties, they managed to pull it off, retracing over a period of a few months the route taken more than 50 years ago by Thesiger, whom Kirkby acknowledges as the “last of the great explorers.”

The journey, however, was filled with frustrations. Getting visas was an ordeal, and a source of concern, since time was limited – the trip had to be completed before the start of the hot season. Bedouin guides, now used to such modern conveniences as land cruisers and cell phones, were reluctant to join the expedition. Even choosing camels wasn’t easy, as many of today’s animals lack the stamina to cross vast expanses of desert. Kirkby and his friends quarrelled, disagreeing on how the Bedouin guides should be managed and which directions to take. They braved storms that left everything, including the insides of their eyelids and their mouths, coated with a layer of sand. At such times, eating and drinking were out of the question.

Kirkby writes passionately about the desert and a dying way of life. For the author, the expedition was as much about the mind and heart as it was an adventure: “I felt the journey had meaning, and was not just a stunt or invented hardship…. Alone in the desert we would be forced to rely on ourselves, and each other, leaving behind for a short time the crutches of our modern life. To me there was an unquantifiable, almost intangible value in accepting and facing that struggle.”

Did the trip change them? Absolutely. Even in small ways. Charmingly, after retiring home to Canada, Kirkby found himself eating with his hands and instinctively leaning in to rub noses with male friends as a sign of greeting. Although the friends experienced plenty of tense moments over the months they travelled together, the bonds among them grew stronger as they neared Abu Dhabi. “Words were unnecessary,” writes Kirkby. “We always seemed to know what the others were thinking.” It’s an experience Kirkby says he’s unlikely to repeat in his lifetime.

Alison Wearing encounters perils of a different nature in Iran. A seasoned traveller, Wearing fears nothing and takes an interest in everything. She enjoys travelling solo, but admits at the outset of Honeymoon in Purdah that this is impossible for a woman visiting an Islamic country.

So Wearing recruited her roommate, and together they set off for Iran, pretending to be husband and wife. Contrary to their expectations and the widely held North American notion that Iranians are deeply mistrustful of Westerners, the people they met were gentle and welcoming, filling the pair’s hands and pockets with food and insisting on taking them out for dinner or touring. Everyone, says Wearing, seemed anxious that the two take home favourable impressions of Iran. The author was asked repeatedly how she liked her hejab and chador, the black covering she wore on top of all her clothing. Many expressed concern, too, about the portrayal of Iranian society in the Hollywood film Not Without My Daughter. Insisting the film was a tissue of lies, they assured Wearing that women are not abused or threatened in Iranian society, and in fact are treated more respectfully than their counterparts in the West.

Parts of the trip were fraught with tension. In Rasht, a city on the Caspian Sea coast, the pair unwittingly commited a faux pas by photographing a funeral procession of black-clad men chanting, “Khomeini is our leader!” and, “Death to America!” Wearing and her companion were taken immediately to the police station, where their camera was inspected with great suspicion. Then, in a bizarre twist, the police became friendly, offered the couple tea, asked how their honeymoon was going, and bought them a new roll of film before wishing them on their way.

Despite such serious moments and discussions with locals about pre- versus post-revolutionary life in Iran, Wearing doesn’t let her story bog down. She infuses her narrative with youthful exuberance, tempered slightly with moments of soul-searching. A criticism: Wearing relies too much on dialogue and reveals little about her own internal journey. The result is that readers may be left wanting to know more about Wearing herself and the effect the trip had on her.

Readers who don’t like rats may have a tough time with Golden Goa, B.C. writer Grant Buday’s book about India. In five trips to the Asian subcontinent between 1978 and 1998 (once to get away from it all after his divorce), Buday finds them everywhere – including in his hotel room on the night he first arrives.

Buday is the author of the 1997 novel White Lung, and he brings his storyteller’s skill to Golden Goa, paralleling the travels of Portuguese poet Luis de Camoens, who spent almost two decades in India during the 1500s escaping a broken heart.

Buday concentrates on describing the country, the standard of living, and the people. His tone is non-judgmental, even
when faced with unpleasant characters, and he suffers little despair as a traveller until the end of his account. In many ways his style is reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s wise-cracking perceptions of people and places. Buday is self-deprecating, too, and cynical about Indian ashrams, many of which are populated with less-than-holy characters.

There is little in Buday’s writing to indicate the purpose of his travel, or even that he knows what it is. At the end, he admits to feeling worn down from his journeys, but that’s about all we learn. The book ends abruptly, a victim perhaps of Buday’s exhaustion, and the reader may be left wondering what the point of it all was.