Tag Archives: travel memoir

A Long Journey Through Life and Overland to the Antarctic

The Black Penguin by Andrew Evans

This fascinating memoir can be read two ways.  It gives us a marvelously detailed picture of an overland journey from Washington D.C. to the Antarctic.  But it is also a part of a series called “Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies”, published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Naturally, for A Traveler’s Library, I am inclined to focus on the journey. However, the author’s personal story is undeniably riveting.  Both succeed because of his complete honesty and his ability to observe details of life while he is living it. (If you’ve never tried it, you may not realize how difficult it is to pull that off.)

The title and cover photo emphasize the Antarctic and the  black penguin, a rare bird that doesn’t fit in with the tuxedo-clad King and tiny Adélie penguins crowding the icy land. That unique all-black bird makes an appropriate metaphor for Andrew Evans, who grew up as a devout Mormon, but was expelled from his beloved church because he is gay. First they tried to reform him, and he tried to conform, but he could not change any more than the melanistic penguin could choose to look like his brothers. Although Andrew Evans has found a partner he loves and a satisfying life, there is still a hole where  the routines and rules and rituals of the church used to be.

However, if you are looking at this as the memoir of a travel writer, the cover and title are somewhat misleading. The book is not about the Antarctic. The continent stirred the curiosity of the young, geography-obssessed boy and became a lifelong dream. Now it is the goal of the journey but does not take center stage until the very end of the book.

As travel literature, the fascination of The Black Penguin lies in the difficulties Evans has undertaken by choosing to travel only by bus all the way12,000 miles through the Southern USA, Central America and South America.  He has already achieved the travel writer’s Holy Grail–an assignment from Keith Bellows at National Geographic Magazine.  When Bellows asked if it was even possible to travel all the way by bus, Evans fudged the truth and answered with an enthusiastic ‘yes.’

Maybe not.

But the rides on buses varying from sleek, modern air-conditioned marvels to Central American “chicken buses” provide a different view of the countryside along the way, and allow Evans to introduce us to an array of interesting characters. The long bus ride also provides the writer ample opportunity to ponder his life and gracefully weave thoughts about Andrew Evans, former Mormon and gay man into the story of Andrew Evans, travel writer on an adventure.

There is plenty of danger along the way, from anticipated highway robbers and drug cartels to washed out roads along dangerous cliffs, car ferries turned back by wild seas. Evans presents these dangers with skillful suspense. At the end, the suspense builds on the time honored question of time. Will he get to the port in time to board the National Geographic exploration ship that will take him to his destination?

The writing is skillful. The story is compelling and well worth your time.

The Blind Masseuse

Costa Rica Travel Memoir: The Blind MasseuseDestination: Costa Rica and other countries

Book: The Blind Masseuse by Alden Jones (NEW November 2013)


From time to time someone asks me if I can recommend a book that focuses on Costa Rica.  In nearly five years now, I have not come across any books other than guidebooks that feature that traveler-magnet country.  However, at last, a book at least partly about experiences in Costa Rica. And an excellent book it is.

Costa Rica village
Costa Rica village

In The Blind Masseuse, Alden Jones writes about long stretches of living in countries and cultures not her own.  She is particularly drawn to Central and South America, so it starts with Costa Rica, includes Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba and then a more fleeting glimpse of Cambodia and Burma and Egypt.

Like most travel memoirs, the book tells us as much, if not more, about the author than the countries she is visiting. Unlike most travel memoirs, The Blind Masseuse is thoughtful and literate, leaving you with much to think about.

The title of the first chapter clearly sets out her thesis for the book.  The title is, The Charm of the Unfamiliar, and she begins, not with boring us with travel philosophy cliches, but with the concrete description of her reaction to bumping into a cow on a small village street.

The buzzing in my head was the feeling of exoticism.  It was the delight of having something bizarre or unfamiliar happen, and knowing that, from thej point of view of anyone inside those concrete houses I passed, it was absolutely unremarkable.  It was bizarre only because of cultural context. ..These moments of absurdity made me feel so alive I almost felt high.

What a crystalline  explanation that is of the addictive quality of travel. I think every travel has felt that way some time. Or if they are so unaware that they missed the moment, we pity them.

Throughout the book, she relates the stories of what happens as she enters different cultures. It is a very personal and intimate book, with the usual number of romances that pepper memoirs of young-ish women on the road and ends in the classic style with a marriage. But at the same time, the stories illustrate principles universal to  travelers as well as little tidbits of information about each country she visits.

Flaubert Book Cover
She frames her own story with thoughts about Gustave Flaubert’s writing about his visit to Egypt. Flaubert did not write for publication. As Jones puts it

An editor named Francis Steegmuller ransacked your files [letters] and decided it would be a good idea to take these pages and bind them together as a book.  He called it Flaubert in Egypt.

Jones’ “Letter to Flaubert” could be a stand-alone essay, and perhaps that is how it started out.  It ponders why people travel, how it affects the traveler and the place traveled to. She relates to Flaubert as a scholar who has studied his work, and as a writer, who like Flaubert has suffered rejection and found subjects beyond her grasp. She compares the rigors of travel and the true separation from the familiar that travelers suffered much more than travelers today.

I found the book enticing reading, but one sentence continues to haunt me. “If you want the delight of the unfamiliar you leave yourself enough time between trips to activate the added kick of nostalgia when you return. ”

I know exactly that feeling. It is why, although I generally choose to go to as many new places as possible, I continue to yearn to return to Greece, and although I had never put it in words, I know it is that combination of experiencing the unfamiliar, and remembering my own prior visits that makes it so special.

Several of the chapters in this book appeared in periodicals and were listed in “Best American Travel Writing” in 2000,2004,2005,2007 and 2010.

Tell me–do you believe it is important to return to a place to fully appreciate it?

Note: The publisher provided the book for review, a standard practice which does not affect my opinion.  The picture at the top is form Flickr, used with Creative Commons license. Click on the photo form more info.  I am an Amazon affiliate, and the books mentioned here are linked to Amazon. When you shop at Amazon through my links it costs you no more, but helps support A Traveler’s Library. THANK YOU. 

The Meanest Road Trip–Siberia

Destination: Siberia, Russia

Book: White Fever by Jacek Hug0-Bader, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (published in Polish in 2009, but NEW in English translation, 2012)

Despite the fact that Jacek Hugo-Bader writes the kind of travelogue that makes you feel that you’re right there with him, and have met a constellation of interesting (if sometimes revolting) people, White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia, definitely did not tempt me to follow in his footsteps. Continue reading The Meanest Road Trip–Siberia