Real Influences: Travel Writing

While reading Douglas Botting’s 2000 bio of Gerald Durrell I came upon these lines: “Young men woke up to find that the world was once again their oyster, and not just a place you went on a troopship. At almost the same time that the Durrell brothers’ two books werepublished [1953] a galaxy of talened travel writers, including Laurens van der Post, Gavin Maxwell, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Norman Lewis*, were also bringing out new books, while one- off new accounts of new worlds conquered or explored, such as Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World, Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet and John Hunt’s The Conquest of Everest— all published in this same annus mirabilis of 1953– were in large demand.”

These were my stars. Childhood influences were Kipling, and the American naturalists like William Beebe; the only nominal kids’ books I read were White’s The Sword and the Stone and “dog novels”, about which I will post later. “Adult” influences that I read much later and still admire include Hemingway and near- contemporaries like Tom McGuane.

But those guys were my gold standard, as I suspect they were and are for, again, contemporaries like the late Bruce Chatwin and Redmond O’Hanlon (he is often dismissed as a “mere” humorist– go read that five- star book and tell me that is so).

I still admire them; even wrote the intro for this re- issue. And while I would hesitate to compare myself to the masters of travel, one perceptive critic, John Derbyshire, has at least noted the debt correctly. From the Washington Times, on Eagle Dreams:

“This is a very striking and unusual book, sufficiently so that I imagine the people responsible for awarding it a Dewey Decimal number, in order to properly shelve it in libraries, must have engaged in some head-scratching.

“Is Eagle Dreams_sport, travel, or zoology? You will have to make up your
own mind. I have put it among my travel books, along with Paul Theroux, Eric Newby and Robert Byron; and I believe that those distinguished persons would welcome Stephen Bodio into their company as an equal. He writes as they did, of strange things in remote places, described in a plain, unaffected style, spiced with humor, recondite knowledge, and the fatalism of the seasoned traveler. Towards the peoples he encounters the author is sympathetic without ever being sentimental, and there is a hint of melancholy as he shows us, inching upwards in the distance, the waters of
modernity that will eventually engulf a way of life that has persisted for millennia.”

I should add that this is the best or at least most perceptive review I have ever had, and it was from before I corresponded with John; in fact it lead to our correspondence.

Of course, though he called it “Aquila Non Capit Muscas”, the editors retitled it “A Kazakh Sport’s Lasting Allure”. Sigh.

All of those writers are gone now but Leigh- Fermor, in his nineties, dreaming away on his isle off the coast of Greece, still working on his third volume of his “walk” trilogy like some combination of old Odysseus and Circe…

(By the way, in his Amazon review of the Durrell bio that started this thread, old friend Greg McNamee seems to think that “his work is not widely read today”. As his work brings up 416 results on Amazon, many in print, and there was just a new adaptation of “My Family and Other Animals”, I respectfully disagree.)

*I link to only one Norman Lewis because unlike other writers here there seems to be more than one writer of that name.

Another Travel Essay..

… from Phillip Grayson, who will soon be reporting from Poland.

The Number 1 Most Secret Best Part of Istanbul

The first thing one should do on arriving in Istanbul is hop in a cab and head to your hotel in Taksim, the downtown heart of cosmopolitan Istanbul. There are cheaper hotels in the center of the tourist district, and you’ll probably want to stay there the bulk of your trip, but on this first night in town you need to go all the way into the belly of the beast.
Taksim itself is nice enough, crawling with shops and well-stocked with an endless supply of basically-pretty-similar bars and restaurants, but that’s all beside the point. Before you even arrive there, the best part of your visit may well have already taken place.
The airport is on the outskirts of the European side of the city, and the road that winds from it to your overpriced hotel will take you along the seaside for several miles, giving you plenty of time to take in the manicured parks that line the shore and the warships, freighters and cruise ships that commiserate in the harbor, as well as schizophrenic piecemeal architecture that defines the majority of the city, houses cobbled together and repaired as they required it, and not a bit more. An apartment building, for example, may date back to the mid-70s for the first two or three floors, and then have a few more above them about a decade younger, with a single wall that came in after the earthquake and a brand spankin’ new roof. You’ll also get a chance to see a few of the “historical” wooden houses of Istanbul, dilapidated and slowly collapsing, these cannot be torn down, so even later, as you cruise down the Bosphorus toward the Black Sea, you’ll see a couple stuck in amidst the modern mansions in a sort of scaled-up version of these cut-and-paste apartments in the suburbs.
You’ll turn away from the seaside just before you begin approaching the Bosphorus, which separates Europe from Asia Minor, guarded over by Topkapı palace and a few thousand tourists. Instead you move straight toward the Golden Horn, the inlet that runs into the European side of the city, and which, as you cross it, will be lined with Mosques, filled with jellyfish and a few fountains, and crossed over by two long bridges full of fishermen. Before you even get there though, with an almost alarming suddenness and grandeur, as you emerge from an underpass, an Ancient Roman aqueduct reminds you that, for all the natural beauty you’ve seen and will see, this is a human city, fought over and fortified and overpopulated and restructured in sometimes amazing ways to perfect it away from whatever nature’s original intent might have been.
On the other side of the Golden Horn you ascend one of the seven hills the city was built on (and what is it with building cities on seven hill?) and get the best possible view of Istanbul, looking over the sprawling, undulating city, either decked out in a million lights of surprisingly varied colors, or scorched by the sun to something so perfectly exotic and massive as to make reality seem just a little less stable.
Immediately after this world-class tableau, on the right, is a street and runs away from you and is filled, completely, top to bottom, end to end, with nothing but chandeliers, small chandeliers, big chandeliers, gigantic chandeliers, cheap chandeliers, expensive chandeliers, a chandelier to suit any mood, budget and home, believe you me, all lit and undeniable and designed, it would seem, to shatter your newly enfragiled sense of reality. It could well be the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen the Grand Bazaar).
With that pesky sense of equilibrium out of the way, you’re now in Taksim, whose main road, ostensibly pedestrian despite the dozens of cars and motorcycles honking their way through the thronged crowds, is said to see almost a million sets of feet every day. There are McDonalds and Pizza Huts and Burger Kings aplenty, but you’ll want to try some authentic Turkish cuisine, but beware, because Turkish food is Greek food without pork or sauces, and your already repeatedly affronted, oh so delicate sense of reality might not be able to fight of the sense that there is much better Turkish food in America than there is in Turkey. Try not to think about it too much. Keep your wits about you and step back out into flood of humanity that is I_tiklal Sokak remembering these last few things: the men arm in arm are not gay, it is not rude to walk (or drive) directly into someone without apology or hesitation, you don’t want to buy perfume off the street, and once your luggage has been successfully lost, the best part of your trip is over, you will never be this disoriented again, so you might as well take a nap.

Our Roving Correspondent

Phil Grayson is stopping through Magdalena en route to Poland from his last job in Istanbul. I am hoping he will be posting himself soon from Poland, with his own password, but he has given me several travel essays to entertain you meanwhile. Here is the first.

It’s Vrahati Time!

A ways west of Athens is Corinth, and a ways west of Corinth is Vrahati. A little Peloponnesian village on the coast of the Gulf of Corinth, Vrahati has everything you could want in a vacation spot, beautiful vistas, perfect, warm, crystal clear water, loud nightclubs, and umbrellas and lounge chairs set up all along the beach, free for anyone to use, built on the assumption that if you swim and sit out in the boiling Greek summer long enough you’ll pop in to get a soda or beer or something from the café behind you. It has Greek girls, tall and dark and having smoked themselves into a beach-ready thinness, it has cheap wine, great food, and friendly people. Everything, with the exception of hotels.
As far as I could discern, there is one four-star hotel somewhere in Vrahati unseen by me, nothing at all below that, and with beach-camping forbidden by Greek law, it puts the frugal yet law-abiding traveler in a bit of a bind.
As a result, Vrahati is mainly a destination for Greeks, who keep their summerhouses there. This makes it a nice refuge from the tourist traps and conmen of Athens, an escape from post-Olympics inflation, and generally a nice, laid-back way to take in the ease and love of life that you came to Greece for.
One glorious manifestation of this is the siesta. Wake up at dawn, eat breakfast for a few hours, sit around having coffee, shooting the breeze, maybe go for a dip to beat the midday heat, have lunch for a few hours, then crawl into a cool dark room and sleep through the prohibitive heat of the afternoon. The siesta chases off the heat stroke, digests the pig or two you’ve eaten at lunch, and, when everything in town closes down until 4 or 5 in the afternoon, enforces leisure and patience, at least until your body falls (as it will easily fall) into the proper rhythm. The best thing about the siesta, though, is the nighttime. Rolling out of bed around Quittin’ Time, USA has a way of making a man willing and able to stay out all night, wreaking all manner of havoc on the good people of Vrahati, his own body, and the laws of both god and man. And that, my friend, is what vacation is all about. Just ask the bars that open, open!, at 1 am.
All of which brings us back to our original problem, the terrible dearth of hotels. One can nap the afternoon away on the beach, somehow as long as you’re running the risk of skin cancer it doesn’t count as camping, but sooner or later a man has to sleep. Really sleep. On a bed.
Of course, you could bus it back to Corinth and environs, plenty of reasonable accommodations there. Otherwise you could head on further down the coast to any of the other perfect beaches that fill the peninsula, some even with sand in place of the smooth stones that make the beach in Vrahati and most of the rest of Peloponnesia. But those both sound an awful lot like giving up, letting this cold world get the best of you once again, surrendering this little slice of heaven to a bunch of rich foreigners (at least they would be foreigners in America), admitting defeat. And there’s no reason for that when you’re one of the only foreigners in town and the Greek habit of being incredibly hospitable fits together so well with the American habit of abusing the hospitality of others. I discovered this on accident one night, trying desperately, Greek-English dictionary furiously churning, to convince a group of Greek girls to let me sleep with them. Something must have been lost in translation, but I spent the rest of the week napping on the beach and sleeping on their couch. So I implore you, good reader, pack your sunscreen and your puppy dog eyes, and hit up the unsuspecting little town of Vrahati, Greece.