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Traveling with Purpose & Panache

Lessons from the Greasy Rider & via Getting Stoned with Savages

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

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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.

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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.

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

Reading to My Heart’s Content:

Books from Across the World

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  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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