A Literary Jaunt around Ireland…

I didn’t set out to take a literary tour of Ireland but, being the country that it is, words and writers will cross your path no matter the purpose or direction of your travel. I took a wee roadtrip with friends last week, and it was a feast of a literary journey.

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In county Donegal, we passed through the seaside town of Bundoran.

I recently re-read The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe, a darkly funny and haunting novel. In it, the tragic protagonist, Francie Brady, travels to Bundoran, to a guesthouse where his younger mother and father took a holiday and where he naively imagines they were once happy.

It’s a devastating but tremendous read – I highly recommend it. These guesthouses along the seafront were exactly as I imagined them in the story.

Bundoran, Co. Donegal

Travelling south to Galway, we drove through Drumcliffe in Co. Sligo and stopped by the church-grounds and graveyard where WB Yeats is buried. We stood by the grave and I did my best deep, trembling recitation of The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Yeats' Grave, Co. Sligo.

Later that day, we reached Galway which is the gateway to the Aran Islands. There’s an ATM on Inis Mór these days but, to a passing traveller, it seems little has changed since JM Synge wrote an account of his life on the The Aran Islands – with its “low stone walls and small, flat fields of naked rock.”
Thatched Cottage, Aran Islands

Onwards to my hometown of Dublin, it was great to reconnect with the old familiar places like the Saturday book market in Temple Bar Square and enjoy a beautiful brunch at the bookshop & restaurant ‘The Winding Stair’.

Saturday Book Market on Temple Bar Square

The Winding Stair Bookshop & Restaurant

We then took a literary pub crawl, following the old haunts of Joyce and Beckett, Wilde and Behan, and too many more to mention here. There was a time when I purposely avoided reading Irish the great Irish writers, favouring fresh and foreign voices and – god forbid – a woman writer or two. But in recent years my interests have returned to that rich and impressive heritage and I was invigorated to wander in the city and its history.

I was happy, too, to be back on the city campus of Trinity College where I did my Masters. I always appreciated its beauty and am proud to have studied there but I’m embarrassed to say that, in all my time there, I never made time to visit the Book of Kells or the Long Room in the Old Library. It was always something I kept meaning to get around to… and it was certainly worth the wait and the long line.

One of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. I hope to return some day and stay a little longer – both to the library and another journey home.

The Long Room, the Old Library, Trinity College.

The Long Room.

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Catch 22 in Laos.

catch-22

(noun)

A problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem. 

ORIGIN 1970s: title of a novel by Joseph Heller (1961), in which the main character feigns madness in order to avoid dangerous combat missions, but his desire to avoid them is taken to prove his sanity.
Travelling through Laos the past few days, I’ve been thinking about Catch 22 which I read a few weeks ago and loved. I began it while trekking in Nepal and finished it in a hammock in Thailand though so, while it certainly captured the dark absurdities and nightmarish nonsense of men and war, I was more entertained than challenged by it. Books and words can go so far in depicting the horrors of reality but nothing compares to encountering reality up close and towering meters above you.
War isn’t something that most travellers encounter or think about on a trip; we certainly haven’t, though one rages on in India’s Kashmir and the Nepali Civil War is but six years over. In Laos it is different; the legacies and consequences of war are visible and everywhere. It makes for sobering ‘tourism’ but it’s necessary to “go there” so to speak. We came to the town of Phonsavhan to visit the ancient and mysterious ‘Plain of Jars‘ but it is the issue of war, it’s longterm consequences and cruel ‘Catch 22s’ that have been the most interesting and worthwhile part of the visit for me.

Laos’ Cruel Catch 22

Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. Between 1964 and 1973, 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on the country, 80 million of which failed to detonate and remain a real and dire threat to the poor and ordinary people of Laos. Though organizations like the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) are working hard to remove and safely detonate the unexploded ordnance that litters 25% of Lao villages, it is estimated that it will take 150 to 200 years to clear the country of UXO.

In the meantime, as in the past thirty-five years, the people of Laos suffer the cruelest Catch 22 which prevents them from breaking free from the cycle of poverty.

So much potential farmland is littered with unexploded bombs, making families afraid to expand the spaces where they could till and plant. Those who take the chance risk unearthing and detonating buried bombs: hundreds of people – many of them young children – lose lives and limbs every year and every day in simple acts of survival like planting crops and collecting water. Often, families can’t plant enough food to survive the whole year, forcing them to look for alternative – and dangerous – ways to make money. The main ‘alternative’ is the excavation, for sale, of scrap metal from the very same bombs that lie buried in the fields and forests of rural Laos.

This illegal sale and trade of scrap metal is a high-risk business – and only barely lucrative – but a sadly viable option for families who literally have no alternative: which ever choice they make, it is intrinsically tied to the unpredictable treachery hidden within the earth. Survival depends on the same corrupted land that threatens their very existence; it is a terrible situation and it is difficult to see a way out of it.

Heller’s novel is often hilarious in its depiction of the illogical immoralities of war but it would take a writer of strange powers to tell the story of Laos in anything but grave and humorless terms. There is nothing funny about this Catch 22.

But!

There is Hope and You Can Help

Donate to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG)

Petition the US government to assign more funding to clusterbomb removal.

Take action to ban the use of cluster munitions.

We Help War Victims helps to save the lives and limbs of people affected by the consequences of war.

Visit Laos! It’s a wonderful country, we love it here. There is sadness but there is also profound kindness and warmth and a resilience that is as beautiful as its landscape.

Women’s Travel Diaries & Hints to Lady Travellers.

Travel is awesome. Women are awesome. Agreed.

Though it is still rare for women to be mentioned in the the same breath as your James Cooks or your Mark Twains, most of us with an interest in travel writing will have heard of female adventurers like Freya Stark, Alexandra David-Neél and Dervla Murphy.

Not everyone who travels writes to an audience, however, and many extraordinary journeys by ‘ordinary’ folks are largely lost to us.

So I was excited to come across a wonderful resource from Duke University Libraries: a digital collection of Women’s Travel Diaries, conserving more than one hundred journals written by British and American women and detailing journeys to India and Africa, Europe, the West Indies and the Middle East. It’s a great find.

Studies in Travel Writing is another good resource and the generally wonderful ‘Project Gutenburg’ also has a handful of women’s travel journals and books that can be downloaded or read online, including a 19th century voyage to Brazil and an early 20th century journal of a nurse working in the trenches and field hospitals of France in WWI. Fascinating!

Last year the Royal Geographic Society reprinted Hints to Lady Travellersoriginally published in 1889 to encourage and advise Victorian women in a time when independent travel was becoming more acceptable but was still quite unknown territory.

It seems a darling little book but with advise such as wearing skirts above your ankles when mountain climbing so as not to sully your petticoats, and the practicalities of having your maid travel in the same carriage as you, it’s not quite in the same realm as David-Neél who travelled across forbidden Tibet disguised as a beggar or Dervla Murphy’s trouser-wearing escapades across India on a bicycle.

Still, the more women who break out of their relative comfort-zones and see the world the better. It doesn’t really matter how you go, just go!

Where I Read

I’ve heard of armchair travelers but on my real travels through India I rarely find myself reading in so homely or anchored a spot. Gone are the days of hot chocolate, pajamas and a comfy couch – these days I’ll be found reading Rushdie on a bustling railway platform or dipping into Dalrymple on a rickety ten-hour bus-ride where the driver speeds so dangerously I wonder if I’ll live to the end of the last chapter.

I love that a single novel can travel many miles with me before I reach its final pages, that I’ve begun a book on some sunny beach in Karnataka and ended it in the bitter reaches of the India Pakistan border. I love that I carried a copy of The History of Walking while I was actually walking through southern India and was able to pass it on to a guy we met on Om Beach who was writing a book about his walk from Canada to Mexico – the serendipity of it all!

This year is as much about where I read as what I’ve been reading so I sat down this morning and wrote the first of, I hope, many and far-flung accounts of Where I Read. If you’re reading from an armchair at home then I hope you enjoy traveling along with me. And if you’re reading in any weird and wonderful places yourself do let me know, I’d love to hear about it!

The stories; the places:

Crime and Punishment on an Indian Sleeper Train

Plodding swiftly through the dry Deccan plateau – yes, plodding swiftly: my train speeds toward Amritsar a thousand miles north but it plods and lumbers, or so it seems to me – the parched, cracked navel of India makes everything seems so slow, thirsty, interminable. At first I am encouraged by brief glimpses of pink petals on some thorny tree but eventually I seek out another landscape inside my book.

Not that Dostoyevsky’s Russia is so very different from India: I have witnessed streets and rooms like those of Raskolnikov’s St. Petersburg – the scaffolding, the bricks, the dust, the unbearable stench, the rags, the multitudes…

I am a third of the way through. A drunk man has been trampled by a horse, two old women murdered with an axe, an orphaned boy cries “Run like billy-o” and Raskolnikov says: “That’s enough. Begone mirages, begone affected terrors, begone apparitions! There’s a life to be lived.” I read until day becomes dusk and Porfiry Petrovich says with a giggle tee-hee: “My dear fellow! Why it’s from you, from you yourself that I’ve learned it all.”

I lay my book down and withdraw from this fabricated world for the final moments of the real one as the sun slips behind a dry horizon and a farmer whips his goatherd homewards…

“Chai! Chai! Chai! Masala tea, chai!” The raspy cry of a chai-wallah roaming the aisles with his canteen and paper cups rouses me at dawn. In the night, the train rocked me back and forth and broke my rest as it hurtled through the northern plains. I wake up in a new world, a different India of misty fields of mustard seed and people cowering in the cold. There are goats on the tracks and human shit. Seven scraggy children jump up and down on a cold tin roof while pigs snuffle and root in mountains of waste that are the gardens of the places where people live. They are not waiting for a train. They are not going anywhere.

In the toilets, I squat to pee and stare bleary-eyed through the hole at the tracks below. The India-Pakistan border is yet a day away. How much of it can I bear to spend staring into the mire of this poor humanity? I escape to the pages of my book to find it is no better in there. Nikolai is down on his knees confessing to a crime he did not commit and sweet Sonya, poverty’s whore, is telling Raskolnikov: “You must accept suffering and redeem yourself by it.”

And though she may be right for he has surely sinned, I find myself unconvinced and seething at religion and history and cultural legacy and all those myths that tell us we must accept suffering, that we are redeemed by it, that it is the will of a divinity whose mysteries we are too base and ignorant to understand. And these myths, these holy lies, they keep us dumb and compliant and they are the reason, the true reason, for these tent towns by the railways lines. Dostoyevsky knew it in 1865 when he wrote the devastating Crime and Punishment and I see it still today, I see it from my window on a sleeper train in India.

And I cannot escape the fact that I am on one side of the window and they are on the other; that they are going nowhere while I travel anywhere I please; that I’m not only traveling in this world but have the pleasure and privilege to break free from it and lie low inside the pages of another. And though I have committed no crime, I understand, like Nikolai, that in some strange and convoluted way I am part of it all and the sin is also mine…

The day I did something I said that I would do.

Last January, right here, I said I would read one hundred books.

(Not to mention that every minute of every hour of every day since I was seventeen I have said that I will write one).

I told myself I’d be fluent in Spanish by now, that I would know how to sew my own clothes and knit and bake a cake and swim.

I tell myself I will drink more water and eat more kale and volunteer and learn one new thing every day every day.

That I won’t worry so much or care how I look.

That I will sleep less; do more; play piano.

I don’t know what happens….

Me, I guess.

So.

Imagine my surprise when I said that I was going to walk from the southern tip of India one thousand miles north… and I did.

This is me. The day I did something I said I was going to do.

 

Thank you so much to everyone who cheered me along and followed the journey on loafe – it really did mean so much. In fact, I think saying it out loud and to so many people was part of the reason I got up and walked on those days I didn’t want to.

It’s not about self-promotion or even being held accountable so much as reifying the claims we make. When our wishes are only whispers in our heart it’s so easy to ignore the niggling voice that says: “You’re not doing it. You’re not doing the things you said you’d do. This is your one chance at life and you’re wasting it.”

So.

This year I am going to write a book.

You may never see it of course; publishing is another story. But I am going to write like I walked. One step at a time through the pain and heat, awaiting that sweet breeze and sunset that makes it so leap-in-the-air worthwhile.

 

The ache in your bones tells you you’re alive, and with a vengeance…

In Rabindranath Tagore’s He (Shey), He temporarily loses his body when he falls into Telenipara Ghat. His joy upon being reunited with his flesh and bones:

I remembered I was invited to a meal at Pupu-didi’s. I didn’t have the money for the train fare, so I set out on foot.

The very effort of walking was such an unimaginable comfort. My ecstasy soon had me drenched in perspiration. I took one step after another, and chanted to myself, “I’m not stopping, I’m not stopping, I’m going on an on.”

I’ve never walked with such verve in my life. Dada, you’ve got an entire body ensconced in that armchair of yours – you don’t know the happiness of tiring yourself out. The ache in your bones tells you you’re alive, and with a vengeance – beyond all doubt or question.

This part of the story is on my mind this morning as Ian walks to the next town without me. I will follow him by bus this afternoon but sadly cannot join him on account of one banjaxed shin. It’s the first time in hundreds of miles and hours that we won’t walk together; it was a difficult decision and I shed a small tear this morning as he toddled out of town without me.

The body is a mercurial machine. We walked 38km on Saturday and it was brutal but I felt incredible at the end of the day – strong and able and alive. Weary as I was, it was curiously pleasurable to wash my socks in the sink in preparation for the next day, that next day that pushed tired muscles too fast and too far – I’ve been limping and wincing ever since. Things change fast when you’re travelling slow…

Hopefully I’ll be back on the road tomorrow; for now I’m waiting on a bus to Mulke, thinking about the unimaginable comfort that walking has been to me… and the ache in my bones that tells me I’m alive and with a vengeance…

‘He (Shey)’ by Rabindranath Tagore

God, in his wisdom, has created millions and billions of people, but the expectations of those people are far from satisfied. They say ‘Now we want to create people of our own.’ So as the gods played with their living dolls, people began to play with their living dolls, dolls they had created themselves. Then children clamoured, ‘Tell us a story,’ meaning ‘Make people out of words.’

I never had a grandfather, they sadly died too soon. I used to have a daydream that JD Salinger was my granddad – I liked to think of being the grandchild of a recluse in the woods, telling his tales to me alone.

So I was envious when I picked up a copy of He (Shey) and saw that it was written by the Bengalese writer to satisfy his nine year old granddaughter’s demand for stories. Reading it, I was captivated as Nandini surely was but pleased to find it is not ‘simply’ a children’s book. It may have begun as such but, as the author wrote in a letter to Balaichand Mukhopadhyay, it developed into something more mature than dismissive critics at the time concluded:

They do not realize how the story has grown like its author –from aush to aman, from aman to chaitali.

(Yeah, I had to look it up too. Aush is the monsoon crop of rice and aman is the winter crop; the richest and most important crop of the harvesting year is chaitali.)

Like Alices’s Adventures in Wonderland, Tagore’s stories are whimsical, playful surreal and satirical – caricaturing Hindu deities and mythology as well as social structures under the Raj. He plays on words and alternate meaning, probing the nature of language and meaning-making and man’s need to fabricate reality. ‘Shey’ is the Bengali third-person pronoun ‘He’ and He – the mischievous hero of the stories – is constituted entirely of words so that Tagore “can do what I like with him, without fear of tripping on any awkward questions.”

This He of ours is rare in the extreme – a man in a million. He has an unequalled gift for inventing untruths. It’s my great good fortune to have found such a person to help me make my impossible tales. I sometimes present this native of Make-Believe-and-Wonder Land before Pupu-didi – her eyes grow round with pleasure when she sees him. In her delight, she stuffs him with specially ordered jalebis. He loves jalebis with a passion, and chamcham sold in Sikdarpara Lane. Pupu-didi asks him, ‘Where do you live?’ He replies, ‘In Which Town, down Question-Mark Alley.’

I love this book, it was such a sweet find in a small town in central Kerala. I’d never heard of Rabindranath Tagore before which is to my shame as the prolific writer was a Nobel prize winner and the recipient of a knighthood which he later renounced following the British massacre of peaceful protesters in 1919.

He (Shey) will interest anyone who is curious about Indian literature but the beautiful translation has a broader appeal and will delight fans of Lewis Carroll, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, or those of us who continue to nurture the child inside us.

Reading Midnight’s Children in the Country of Their Birth: India.

I imagined long days of walking followed by idle evenings of reading before bed: my ideal holiday. Certain parts of that sentence have come true: the reality has been long days of walking followed by evenings occupied with popping blisters, washing my sweaty socks in the sink and a cursory calorie intake before collapsing, shattered, into a bed in a room of varying degrees of comfort, cleanliness and insect-population.

In two months of travelling through India, I have finished reading just two books – both of which I began at home before leaving. I read The Age of Kali while Ian read Midnight’s Children then we switched and spent our long walking days comparing thoughts and opinions and: “Have you reached the part where…?”

Midnight’s Children is seven hundred pages of ‘have you reached the part where?’ We both unanimously, unconditionally, loved it. It is one of the most remarkable achievements in literature and storytelling I have ever experienced and both elements are key: not only is the novel an accomplished work of art but its use of an Indian oral tradition and the unique voice of its protagonist, Saleem Sinai, makes it feel as though you’re an awestruck child sitting at the feet of a master storyteller who existed long before you and the beginning of the world.

The tale of two children switched at birth upon the stroke of midnight, whose personal lives mirror and guide the course of the newly independent India’s history, is a tall one: complex and intricate, fantastical, mythological and magical – yet grounded in a very real and often grim reality of true events. It is often described as an example of magic-realism in the vein of One Hundred Years of Solitude but part of me thinks it happened just so. The novel helped me to make sense (a little sense) of this elaborate land and, conversely, India has helped to make sense of the novel: each has lent context and understanding to the other.

Of course, I’ll never understand it all – not India nor the novel, that much I have come to understand. Their histories are so long, elaborate and not my own. Still, I like to walk the long roads, seeing those people and places that could be characters in a Rushdie novel; or reading something in the book and thinking “I’ve been there! I’ve passed that place.” To read a book in the country of its origin, to see the places described in its pages, adds such depth and appreciation to the experience.

From Mumbai’s land-giving tetrapods to the saffron-robed gent on a bench that could be Saleem’s own sadhu; from the ancient and the new that perch upon the other to the old dog that could be the pet abandoned by a djinn-posessed father of a child who is not his own; from the ever-present image of Ganesh who reminds me of the boy with a nose for pickles and people’s deepest thoughts to the curious, intelligent, optimistic children we see every day who could be the children of midnight for all I know. It wouldn’t surprise me. Not now, having been where I’ve been, seeing what I’ve seen.

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

Last night’s farewell with friends was the first that felt like a true bon voyage. ‘Til then, we were saying so-long goodbye adieu, not certain that we meant it. It’s happening, though; we’re leaving. I’m waiting for a knock on the door from fedex with our passports and pretty Indian visas. Not all visas are pretty but surely the Indian visa must be pretty – look at the lettering on this map! It’s deliciously, nerve-wrackingly, beautifully unintelligible.

Last week, Noirin sent a lovely little card which contained these thoughts on travelling by Cesare Pavese:

Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.

Trust and Being Off-Balance. This is what I’m most afraid of and this is what I most want. When my visa application was slightly delayed, I doubted and fretted, needlessly in retrospect (always in retrospect, I’m so very brave in retrospect). My fears always stem from uncertainty and a perceived lack of control. It’s rarely the thing itself that scares me when I’m (also rarely) faced with it. It’s the unknowing moments before: the limbo of it all.

I don’t know how to be completely other than who I am but I like the word Ian used when we lay in bed and exchanged apprehensions: Mitigate. I am going to try to mitigate my Self. And I’m going to memorise these quotes I love and repeat them like a mantra whenever I am too much like a Deborah.

See you in India everyone. Wish me luck!

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step – Lao Tzu.

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page – St. Augustine.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover – Mark Twain.

Literary Journey.

Hypothesis

Travel around the world via a bookshelf.

Apparatus

You will need a bookshelf containing books, as well as a pen and paper to keep track of your journey.

Method(s)

Choose a book from the bookshelf and commence reading. Continue reading until a foreign country is mentioned in the text. Then choose a second book that’s somehow related to that country and begin reading again. Repeat until you have either returned to your point of origin or have completed one circumnavigation of the globe (or a dead-end).

An alternative, and perhaps more conventional, approach to this experiment is to read each book from cover to cover. To create an itinerary, simply choose your destination – the Middle East for example – and start tripping around the region via its literature.

For serious literary frequent-flyer miles, start with an author from your country, then read a book by someone from a neighbouring country and continue until you make your way around the globe. Note: this long-distance read will require around 196 books.

 

*from Experiment 24 in The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel.