Book Reviews

The Best Travelers’ Tales 2004 edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger, and Sean O’Reilly

Travelers’ Tales Guides, San Francisco

Today’s travel literature tends to be about peoples rather than places. Writers are joyful, not jaundiced. At least this is the case for The Best Travelers’ Tales 2004: True Stories from Around the World, a collection of witty, wistful journeys by those who wander the world’s waysides. The editors selected a global potpourri of fine writing. One cringes as a young American in a remote corner of Costa Rica’s northwest coast comes face to face with its deadliest snake, a six-foot fer-de-lance. Borrowing a local’s machete, our executioner prepares to guillotine this serpiente coiled in his cabin’s overhang, until his neighbor, an over six-foot Russian alcoholic bodybuilder, insists on rescuing nature’s creature. Yuri announces: "Snake deserves freedom, not death." Glasnost for the scaly ones! The resident Cro-Magnon saves his comrade, himself, and the snake. And that is just the first story.

Ever sat on a hotel lawn in New Delhi and had your ears cleaned by a playful Hindu grandfather armed with Q-tip-like swabs tucked under his turban and carrying references from Brooklyn, Dallas, and Tokyo? Wonder what it would be like to be helped in northeastern Zaire by a kind Tutsi businessman who loans you his spare tire when yours went bust on a jungle highway after a gentle group of Hutus fixed your broken wheel assembly? You make it to Rwanda’s Mountains of the Moon; a year later the Hutus butcher the Tutsis in Rwanda and the surviving Tutsis come back for revenge.

Stories short and long pour forth. An early side of elderly pensioner finds his last perch as the Bird King of Buenos Aires. Vietnamese girl cousins, ten-year-old streetwise sellers of baubles, bangles, and beads, win every heart with their inherent goodness. Surviving a Laotian bus crash is one thing, getting to a Thai hospital with a broken back is another. Having a family spat over marrying a non-Catholic hurts until the son who stayed takes the son who strayed back to their deceased Dad’s Irish roots in Killarney, where they trek the heights of the Kerry Way. Escaping currency police in Dar es Salaam is not easy, nor is sharing a Paris laundromat with a helpful Serb whose hometown of Belgrade is then being bombed by your country’s NATO aircraft. One has to jump ship to get a homemade meal along the banks of Burma’s Irrawaddy, then arm-wrestle the hosts and recite Kipling. This book is a grand read.

Reviewed by Patrick Hatcher