A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about books

Traveling with Purpose & Panache

Lessons from the Greasy Rider & via Getting Stoned with Savages


Visit The NGO List, my new labor of love, built to connect international volunteers and grassroots NGOs from around the world:

Make no mistake, I like to tell myself in fits of reflection, one learns lots from books but just as much from experience, from going out into the world and doing, grabbing the good of what there is to be grabbed. This month’s contributions to the blogs de book reviews are two fine providers of both of these lessons, and not just that, these are two divinely entertaining specimens.


Inspired (as I can relate) by a very conscientious wife and perhaps a sense of mischief (also, relatable), Greg Melville sets off on an innovative and groundbreaking adventure across the continental US: He and his sidekick, an old college buddy called Iggy, are going to be the first men ever to traverse the country by car without buying gasoline. It’s not exactly On the Road. It’s not exactly Travels with Charley. But, it’s a hell of an interesting adventure.

Unlike other road trip memoirs, Melville’s is unique in that, more than a search for the nostalgic American identity, he and Iggy are getting there as fast as possible, hoping to avoid dive diners with that much-beloved small-town charm, and driving towards the future. The two characters play off each other so well, just like buddies will do, rather tirelessly annoying and challenging one another but stepping up when the time is right.

The result: Iggy challenges Greg to go beyond just the symbolic French fry car trip and investigate several green-themed items, which provide some fantastic detours from the main narrative, including trips to Al Gore’s house (in search for the greenest house in the US) and a visit to Arkansas and Texas to find out about Wal-Mart’s green initiative.

As for me, I moved through this one quickly. I love the idea, the mix of travel and social conscientiousness with Greg and Iggy’s somewhat opposed personalities but shared background. I was reminded how important the trip is, and I was reminded why the trip isn’t enough. Like the Greasy Rider, we as people, as travelers, and as writers must accept the challenge to investigate beyond point a to point b, to move ourselves mentally as well as physically. And, keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing isn’t a bad idea, either.


J. Maarten Troost becomes the first author to appear in this blog twice. A follow up to his very funny (and different) bestseller, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, this book starts with Troost bored of the D.C. corporate life, missing the simplicity, even the diet of rotten fish and threat of lurking sharks, of living on an isolated atoll in the South Pacific. His wife, Sylvia (the girlfriend he’d followed to Kiribati in his first book), who works with development organizations, finds the solution: Another new job in the South Pacific.

This time Troost knows exactly what he’s getting into: a land where cannibalism has been practiced for centuries, where volcanoes are gurgling molten lava and burping ash, where cyclones decimate cities, where young boys chew the root of pepper shrub to produce a saliva-based intoxicating drink called kava, where life is different and maybe easier than on Kiribati but is still filled with all the things that go along with a life abroad.

For me, from a writing perspective, this book is much better than the first. Troost feels in control of his rants and language, his observations still ring hilariously true but more like an investigation on which we are invited along. And, it’s fun. Knowing that this trip was supposed to produce adventures for a new book, he goes out of his way to pursue whatever seems interesting, things we all (or, at least me) want to do but sometimes just don’t manage to.


I dig these books, and I’m excited about the idea of traveling with purpose and panache, especially knowing that my own trip is coming up soon. In support of The NGO List and our own seemingly unquenchable sense of adventure, Emma and I will be setting off this November, from Guatemala to Patagonia by May, with plans to volunteer and check out cool projects doing good things in the world and linger in places that suit us. I can only hope for the wherewithal and drive (literally and figuratively) these two authors had. Some great writing coming from it would just be gravy.

For more writing and ramblings, visit Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad--more blogs, articles, and more:

Posted by jonathonengels 08:06 Archived in Guatemala Tagged me travel books living ngo writing expat Comments (0)

From Afghanistan to Quasi-Vegan in Just Three Books

The Places in Between (Rory Stuart), The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India (Rory MacLean), & Eating Animals (Jonathan Safran Foer)


I’ve been waiting for my new crop of Better World Books books to arrive, and in the meantime, I’ve nursed from the last dregs of those I have. This week’s installment of thoughts on travel literature includes The Places in Between, an amazing journey on foot across Afghanistan; The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, a road trip along the old intrepid traveler trail between Istanbul and, umm…India; and Eating Animals, a very sobering look at factory farming and alternative reasons (beyond not wanting to kill animals) for being—at the very least—a responsible meat-eater. It’s been a rather serious path, but one that ultimately left me feeling rewarded, a little more enlightened, and a lot more inclined to live more adventurously. Let us begin.


The Places in Between, Rory Stewart

This book intimidated the hell out of me, which is why it was the last of my last order for me to pick up. It seemed to promise such serious, hard-to-read stuff, a la The Kite Runner. I tend to find myself more often swerving towards the more light-hearted reads of the travel world and endeavoring into the serious stuff with a sense of responsibility. Whatever the case, I finished somewhat interested in visiting Afghanistan and, in the same breath, happy I’m too far away and fund-depleted for such ill-advised adventuring.

Rory Stewart, having had to cut Afghanistan out of his walk across Asia, excitedly backtracks when the country is again opened to tourism. Despite everyone doubting his ability to make across the country, especially to do so on foot without being killed or kidnapped, he does so, and his adventure puts him into close contact with soldiers, former Taliban leaders, and possible wolf attacks. Stewart’s writing made me sympathize, envy, and respect him. His descriptions of the people he meets feel incredibly honest, unflinching in the face of fear, honestly but carefully reactive in the face of appall.
Despite a heavy subject, the book never felt exhausting to read but rather an answer to curiosities I didn’t know I had.


The Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, Rory MacLean

In the sixties, backpacking came into its own. Hundreds of thousands of travelers set out of trips seeking instant karma and reenactments of dharma. Rory (how on earth did I manage to read two authors named Rory this time!) MacLean presents an amazing premise: Travel this trail again and meet people who have remained along the route, aged hippies who’ve never pushed on, inspired Iranians who left the countries for free love and returned for roots of culture, the drivers and handlers and hostel-owners. What we get is an appropriate far-out mix of Allen Ginsberg, ex-military stragglers, and ever the in between.

What I really like about this book is its unlikely but completely accurate collection of characters you meet along the “trail”, be it the hippie trail from Istanbul to India or the north-to-south route from Patagonia to Alaska. I tend to too often lump travelers into being more similar than we are, but MacLean provides a real look at the eclectic array of intrepids out there, completely different souls on a similar wavelength. It’s an interesting thing to see your own versions of these characters in the people around you, in the homes of your pasts.

Anywhere you go, the book suggests to me, has people with incredibly heart-breaking, interesting lives to share with you, and they are all worth knowing.

*My one complaint was this one was that sometimes the “trip” was a bit too much, as if the writer became too distracted by being mystical and mythical. The stories that are more grounded in reality work much better for me, which meant enduring a bit of odd storytelling in Istanbul.

Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

That afternoon, I’d had some heart-warming moments touring a turtle hatchery and animal conservation facility, CECON, where I got to bury turtle eggs and release a baby olive ridley sea turtle into the Pacific. They were moments that linger. After dinner at our hostel, scanning the book exchange, I spotted Eating Animals, which I’d been wanting to read for over a year.

Within twenty minutes of picking it up, I regretted it. I put the book down, if only for a minute, to mutter a “son of a bitch” before reading on. I’m no stranger to the horrors of animals in the food industry. I’ve seen a collection of online videos, watched the appropriate documentaries, and read tough stuff like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. For whatever reason, maybe the image of that little turtle climbing around in my hand, I knew this time was different.

I’ve been vegetarian for nearly a decade now, unwavering in meaty communities—Russia, Turkey, Guatemala, Louisiana—around the world. I began the book almost as another pat on the back for sacrificing on behalf of the good cause. I stood confident in my oft-repeated doctrine of “If I can’t kill it myself, I don’t eat it”. Seriously, what was there to be afraid of? I’d already taken the plunge and was living an easy meat-free existence.

This past November, my wife Emma upped the ante on her vegetarianism by giving up milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt, and all those great dairy treats—ice cream—we veggies hold dear. Hey! We still have pizza, fried egg sandwiches, and the occasional gelato, so life can’t be so bad. I resisted the change, clinched a little firmer onto my smoked Gouda. I understood why she was doing it but wanted no part.

In fact, we’d had lunch at a nearby restaurant that day, and I’d already selected my breakfast for the next morning: chilaquiles—a delicious Mexican speciality with crispy tortillas simmered in a red pepper sauce, covered in fresh cheese, side of beans, two fried eggs oozing from atop the mountain. Dinner that night had just been a precursor, biding my time for morning. Then, I found Eat Animals and read my way right out of it.


For the next twenty-four hours, the book rarely saw a tabletop. As I waited for my breakfast, minus eggs and cheese and sour cream, I plowed on.
Beside the pool with my mayo-free vegetable sandwich and beer, I waded through page after page. On the shuttle ride home, cramped between bags and passengers, I only grew stronger in my resolve: Being vegetarian—not eating animals—simply wasn’t enough.

What makes Eating Animals so powerful for me was that, unlike those other aforementioned objections to the food stuff, Jonathon Safran Foer was not out to slander. The premise of the book is vegetarian father—Foer—exploring the idea of feeding his child meat. In fact, he seems to chase every lead to make it okay, from discussing the nostalgia of traditions—Thanksgiving, his grandmother chicken and carrots—to visiting the most ethically minded animal farmers out there.

I’ve explained my vegetarianism hundreds of times over the last few years, but this book changed all of my logic. Foer’s most compelling arguments, the ones that ultimately stuck me with a choice, have nothing to do with animal rights. Rather, his data on the other implications, environmental damage and world hunger, brought about by factory farming are so disturbing I just can’t…not even if I really, really want a cheese and mushroom omelet.

He points out that the ethical choice of vegetarianism (or quasi-veganism—I will eat cheese or eggs under very specific circumstances where I absolutely know it didn’t come from factory farming)…the ethical choice of vegetarianism has become less and less about whether or not you agree with eating animals. The choice to do so these days means so much more, means supporting something with irrefutably evil ties. So, I’m left with pretty much no cheese now, no yogurt, and so on, just praying he never decides to investigate beer.

Posted by jonathonengels 14:38 Archived in Guatemala Tagged animals books farm expat Comments (0)

Reading to My Heart’s Content:

Books from Across the World


  • Two new articles were published this week: One--Fighting over Dokdo--discusses a little island of contention between Korea and Japan and the other celebrates one of the top spots in Turkey, an amazing desert--Goreme--I'd not heard of before living there in 2010.


I will start by noting the wondrous site which supplied the books (free postage to Guatemala) to be briefly reviewed in the following post. Better World Books: Not only are you saint to the expat in need of something better than James Patterson’s best-selling action novels, but you also raise funds for literacy, donate books, and encourage recycled/used book conglomerates. Kudos!

After my seven used books arrived at the Antigua post office some two months after ordering them, my intellectual life has gotten a lot better. No longer am I watching reruns of Big Bang Theory over breakfast. Lately I’ve been waking up slowly, curled on the sofa with fresh reading, and learning a lot about the world, the world of writing, and perhaps being worldly.

When I first began writing about what I’m reading, I imagined myself reaching back into the annals of what I’ve read throughout my life (or at least my travel reading life). Never did I expect to have gotten through so many books in a month that I’d triple-up on a blog post. Nevertheless, I fear I’ll forget the impact each of these three most recent selections made on me, so I will not delay and I will strive to be brief.

The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival among America's Great White Sharks (Susan Casey)

I couldn’t wait to start this one. I’m without a doubt one of those people who’d make note of “shark week” on The Discovery Channel and try to catch every episode. My wife periodically buys me stuffed sharks, I scuba-dived in a shark tank in Korea, and now that I don’t have Discovery Channel (they have dropped the “The”) it isn’t unheard of for me to download shark shows. Suffice it to say, I liked this book before I read it.

That, however, is not to say it wasn’t fantastic on its own merits. Susan Casey is a first-class adventurer, researcher, and writer. This book, largely centered on and around the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, weaves just the right amount of facts, history, action, and honesty to make even the ninetieth shark sighting exciting. Plus, she doesn’t rise into hoity-toity-ness and deny us of the gruesome details of attacks, both on humans and animals.

On the writing side of things, there was plenty to take from this book. The breadth of her research is incredible, and not just about sharks: Even though it was the Great Whites that’d gotten me aboard this little vessel, the history of the Farallon Islands, the biographies of the scientists that live there, and her life aboard a rickety yacht in famously shark-infested waters all felt relevant and interesting. I really want to learn how to distill facts so fully and seamlessly.

Reading Advice: Do a subject search for a book written about something you love to learn about. Too often I found myself seeking out classics or authors I felt I was supposed to read. I always grind through those books, but give me something on sharks: two days and it was done.


God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre (Richard Grant)

Balls. It takes a pretty pert set of nads to undergo a project like this. The Sierra Madre is known as one of the world’s most dangerous places, both remote in an un-touristed and inaccessible way and in a full of drug lords, murderous bastards, and banditos way. Nonetheless, Richard Grant, taken with the place for reasons only foolhardy adventurers can attest to, decides to cross it. A couple years back I wanted to drive down to Guatemala from States but got talked down.

I’ve come to appreciate this kind of book lately. Writers who attempt such ill-advised feats tend to do so with a fairly clear sense of humor about it. Responsibly, Grant works hard to prepare himself for each new endeavor, including learning to ride a horse before he goes, but he also purposely puts himself out there for the experience. I won’t say he’s fearless, but he’s certainly willing to scare the shit out of himself. Most of us, including me, could use a bit of that.

As a traveler, it makes me think of self-imposed limitations. I really like this sort proposition travel (and the consequential book to follow), willing one’s self to rise above a challenge, akin to running a marathon or finishing a bottle of whisky. I admire taking simply moving and making it into a goal-oriented adventure, accomplishing something. Traveling can be so much more than going places, and travel writing so beyond quaint things and sun-soaked details.

Reading Advice: Look for a book that’s about something you wouldn’t mind doing. I don’t know that I’ll be going to the Sierra Madre anytime soon, but I’ll definitely be giving myself such proposition challenges on upcoming travels. It’s nice to feel inspired.

Travel as a Political Act (Rick Steves)

Traveling has undoubtedly changed me politically. Before I left the States, I’d never boycotted anything, didn’t what NGO stood for, had only ever volunteered as a homework assignment and believed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had been going on for centuries. I grew up the Deep South with a family whose livelihood centered pretty squarely on Exxon. In college, my leanings slowly turned tree-friendly, but none of it really affected my life one way or another.


My new awareness has, at times, stymied folks on my visits back “home”. And, I can’t fault them: It was me who changed. Suddenly, I can’t shop at Wal-Mart, don’t eat McDonald’s (or meat), won’t drink Coca-Cola products, would never go to Starbucks, and the list has grown each time they see me. I must seem like a self-righteous prick. For that reason, and lacking the eloquence to present my findings, I’ve done little in the way of explaining these changes.

Rick Steves nails it. To my chagrin, he promptly announces himself as a Lutheran and America-loving white guy (I’d more or less guessed this from his picture), but it was I who turned out to be the stereotyping a-hole. Steves presents an amazing collection of insightful and mild (note: not just mildly insightful) essays about politically-charged countries and conflicts, and he manages to capture what it is to be truly changed by going somewhere. I enjoyed it such that I actually plan to read this book again.

Reading Advice: Read to change and/or clear your thoughts. Watch a movie or TV show for bland entertainment. I actually bought this book expecting strong lefty politics, a little back-patting for myself, and came across something that was much more rewarding. I’d love for my family and friends to read this as I feel they’d understand the expat version of me better. I know I now do.

Well, folks, I hope one of these latest books appeals to you and that you promptly buy it and buy it from Better World Books at that. I certainly enjoyed reading them, and I look forward to telling about the other good stuff I’ve got on the go. Until then…

Posted by jonathonengels 08:50 Archived in Guatemala Tagged me books expat Comments (0)

The Traveler Beyond Me

Thoughts on Tim Cahill’s Hold the Enlightenment


A New Publication on Transitions Abroad: Teach English in Guatemala


As a reader, one of the most inspiring things to me is to find an author that seems so beyond me as a writer, a sort of icon upon which to emulate. I remember this feeling when I first discovered Kurt Vonnegut, gobbling up near half a dozen books in a couple of weeks. The simplicity of insights, the simplicity yet punch of his sentences, enchanted me. I was dying to think that way, to imagine worlds so succinct in their reflection of our own. I’ve never come close.

In this year’s exploration of travel writers, I’ve had a similar experience with Tim Cahill. Cahill is a decent enough writer, no Vonnegut we’ll say, but what I came to admire in him was his prowess as a traveler. Reading one of Cahill’s classics (He’s been around for decades), Hold the Enlightenment, I was struck by how differently two people of similar tastes—Tim and me—can travel: Somehow he manages to get himself involved in these missions where the destination is an afterthought.

Sometimes, I get caught up in my own experience as a globe trotter, losing myself in the list of countries I’ve lived in, seen, and bookmarked for later reference in chronicling. I know about street food in Thailand, hiking on the Great Wall of China, snorkeling Shark and Ray Alley in Belize…but I tend to travel to a place much more than with a specific purpose. The latter of the two seems to yield the sort of wild adventures that I only get by chance and bad luck.

Hold the Enlightenment, however, is a series of tales of high jinks. Cahill is one of those people, at least via his stories, that seems to sniff out mischief, from seeking out the last tiger in Turkey (“The Search for the Caspian Tiger”) to putting himself through a yoga retreat (“Hold the Enlightenment”) to swimming with great white sharks in “Swimming with Great White Sharks”. Wherever he is, it seems more about the adventure than the place. And, that’s a place I’ve not yet reached.


I suppose at some point, say over thirty years into the biz, you’ve been around more than once and the draw of ticking another beach, ruin, or world wonder off the list just isn’t important. As pleasing as his stories are, full of research and interesting facts and crazy characters, it’s the thought of having the gall that often drives me through them and on to the next one. I still try to stay out of trouble while traveling, but Uncle Tim just puts on a helmet and runs toward it.

However, as the cliché goes, there’s always someone who’s seen and done more. Even Cahill gets to meet his match. In “The World’s Most Dangerous Friend”, Cahill travels with Robert Young Pelton, bestselling author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, a guidebook for the kamikaze traveler. Pelton takes Cahill on a hilarious press trip turned to ill-advised mission to interview guerrillas in the jungles of Columbia. Cahill is out-of-his-depths from day one.

This adventure into the world of travel writers has been mostly about me learning the craft, the journalistic values of successful authors. Though Tim Cahill certainly has merits as a penman, what I took away from his book were new ideas on the craft of traveling. It’s been a long time since my vagabonding ego got slapped with “you’re just not adventurous enough”. It’s been an inspiring feeling and one that I hope I can harness better than I did Vonnegut’s short sentences.

Posted by jonathonengels 13:18 Archived in Guatemala Tagged books expat Comments (0)


Jonathon's January Author


The new year has begun, and in the spirit of fresh starts, I’m revamping my approach to blogging: The initiation comes in the form of Pico Iyer, a beloved travel writer respected for his ability to pull something interesting out of everything. I hope to do the same when, in the first week of each month, I share with my comparatively small audience thoughts on a travel book.

When last I visited the States, I ordered about half a dozen selections from authors whose names had cropped up time and again, some known for their daring, others their humor, as well as Pico, who seemed to be known simply as a great writer, somewhat un-categorically. Somewhere I can recall reading a description of Pico Iyer’s panache in which he is put in a country café of some abandoned highway and comes out with a story—a travel story.

Perusing through his list on Amazon, my expectations were summed up to one title that had appeared again and again on the webzines, blogs, and personal pages where I’d been educating myself on the craft: Video Night in Katmandu. While the book sounded good enough—it is the most popular selection by one of the most popular travel writers—there was something about it, perhaps its esteem, perhaps the way its name conjured up memories of watching DVDs at Korean nori bangs, that put me into the mindset of wanting something different.

I flipped through rather aimlessly amongst his titles—Sun After Dark, The Lady and the Monk, and Tropical Classical—any of which might have done the job just fine. After all, my goal was simple: get a good sampling of Pico’s work. However, just as I’d begun to resolve myself to settling, all of them relatively interesting but no title that just enthralled me, I found a book that made my ears point a little: The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Though not one with a particular interest in global religious figures and, like many, particularly turned off when celebrities become too involved in waxing political about situations, something in me wanted to know exactly who the Dalai Lama was, what he was getting up to in his daily life, and why and how he’d garnered such a favored position in the global community.

My knowledge going into this book was the general locale of Tibet on a map, that the Dalai Lama didn’t live there due to some skirmishes with the Chinese government, the Himalayas, teaching peace, Buddhism—a collection of random thoughts. I hadn’t (still haven’t) even seen Seven Years in Tibet, but I’d once seen an interview in which the Dalai seemed much more jovial—almost a practical joker—than one would expect from such a reverent figure. Seeing the Dalai Lama crack a couple of friendly insults at his interviewer had been enough, I suppose, to make me want more.

What I didn’t know going into the book was that Pico Iyer, beyond being an author of reverence himself, had a rather unusual relationship with the Dalai Lama: His father had been a personal friend, dating back to when the Dalai first arrived in India, having narrowly escaped the Chinese army and braved the peeks of the Himalayas. It was as if Pico had spent a lifetime preparing to write this book, getting to know his subject.

In general, the Dalai Lama wasn’t entirely different from what I expected. He is a man who gets up at four every morning to meditate for hours. He is an advocate for peace, tolerance, patience, and understanding. He holds incredible position (literally, god-like for Tibetans). He has immense power (preventing young militants from fighting the Chinese). He influences the world at large (the book is framed with the Dalai acceptance of a Nobel Peace Prize). The scaffolding of who the Dalai is to us all is reconstructed in the book.

However, where Pico Iyer’s talents come into play is his ability to relay the Dalia’s interactions with people, his reactions to people, painting a more rounded picture of the human being as opposed to his credentials. The book looks at the Dalai from several angles: as the idol, as a man with a family, as a monk, as a question mark in a world curious to be enlightened, as an optimist and leader who is often left contemplative by his own stances and hopes. He is humble, friendly, fallible, obliging, and self-deprecating without losing mindfulness of his station on the globe.

Of course, discussing the Dalia Lama, his country and religion and message, inevitably leads into rather deep and harrowing moments of language. Concepts can be swift, simple, and dare I say Zen-like; however, expounding on such thoughts, reflecting on their meaning in the webbed wide world, is a dangerous proposition for any writer. Even the great Pico, I think, at times falls prey to getting overly poetic and profound on certain subjects, perhaps spinning his wheels over ideas that are less interesting than the portrait he was piecing together.

Still, I came away wanting to know more about it all, not from any lacking of The Open Road but by the constraints of keeping the book palatable, rewarding, and focused. I’d recommend this one, but in the same breath, I’d warn that it’s not a fluffy, quick read. Pico Iyer a serious writer who packs sentences with meaning and takes on difficult ideas. At times, I’d sneak every free moment to get in another section, and just as often, I found myself stepping away for a rejuvenating breath.

Ultimately, my first book by Pico has warranted the next.

Posted by jonathonengels 05:57 Archived in Guatemala Tagged books Comments (1)

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