Peace Corps Writers
Review
 

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Writing the Journey
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Writing the Journey
Essays, Stories, and Poems on Travel

edited by David Espey (Morocco 1962–64)
Longman
July, 2004
448 pages
$49.40

Snakebird
Reviewed by Jason Boog (Guatemala 2000–02)
 

ON MY WAY HOME from Peace Corps Guatemala in December 2002, I crashed through Mexico to enjoy my last few weeks in CentralPrinter friendly version America. Without a guidebook or a travel agent, I zigzagged across the Chiapas border, crossed the desert to Oaxaca, and ended my Latin American adventure in the fantasyland of Cancun.
     David Espey’s new travel writing textbook, Writing the Journey: Essays, Stories, and Poems on Travel, includes a D.H. Lawrence meditation on Mexico that took me back to those sorely-missed days: “Only that which is utterly intangible, matters. The contact, the spark of exchange. That which can never be fastened upon, forever gone, forever coming, never to be detained: the spark of contact.” Lawrence’s 70-year old collage of indigenous culture and desert sprawl (even then smudged by tourism), reminded me how much I enjoyed the “inexplicable” nature of my travels. The rows of Cancun condos, like mammoth cruise ships planted sideways into the soft sand beaches, sapped all the unexpectedness out of traveling.
     Espey’s anthology does an admirable job of collecting writers that capture the crazy trajectory of the travel genre for college students, sticking British colonial-era dispatches beside the multicultural buffet that readers enjoy today. At the same time, this impressive array of writers suffers from too much analysis. Editorial commentary punctuates each thematically organized section, painstakingly explaining what the various selections mean — diluting Lawrence’s “spark” of wonder that all Volunteers remember.
     The collection first unearths glittering images of travel experiences, from Jack Kerouac’s ecstatic cheer of “Whooee” in On the Road, to Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in Questions of Travel. Bishop describes a waterfall in Brazil, giving a melancholy reply to the tumbling joy of Kerouac: “the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops / makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion . . . those mile-long, shiny tearstains.” Despite all the scholarly notes and discussion guides in the collection, readers should just explore it for themselves — deft passages stick out every couple pages, a travel writer’s workshop that anyone can appreciate.
     Three Peace Corps Volunteers stand out in the volume, including English professor Peter Chilson (Niger 1985–87). Writing about African chicken-buses, he records the magical “relief of finding yourself alive at the end of a journey . . . The road is boredom, joy, and terror punctuated by heat in the air and under your feet.” Overbearing editing aside, both readers and writers will leave with a delectable taste of authentic travel.
     Novelist Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65) is the most revered Peace Corps writer represented in the collection. Theroux meditates on maps from the safety of his home, remembering his time in Africa and Central America — the experiences that fueled a half-century of novels. He studied a map while writing The Mosquito Coast, “to reassure myself that my fictional settlements really existed.” That contradiction will ring true for many returned Volunteers. Memories of travel are a kind of fiction, evolving with time and distance.

     Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985–87) remembers the generosity of his African village, and drops his callous American attitude during an excerpt from The Ponds of Kalambayi. Sometimes, heartwarming lessons like this encourage cheesy prose, but Tidwell’s “mad showdown between a crapping foreigner and crowing bag lady” sets a tough and dirty standard for Peace Corps memoirs.
     Despite dazzling descriptions of travel and odes to wanderlust, this collection constantly questions the ideas of travel. The anger of suppressed cultures howls in pieces by writers like Jamaica Kincaid, bell hooks, and Malcolm X — bashing the Western urge to subordinate the foreign cultures. Kincaid berates Caribbean tourists in an excerpt from her indispensable book, A Small Place, speaking on behalf of the citizens on the island of Antigua: “They do not like you. They do not like me! That thought never actually occurs to you [tourists].”
     The book also features an impressive historical scope. Mark Twain’s acidic critique of the budding tourist industry in The Innocents Abroad can still make readers giggle. Espey neatly dovetails that piece with P.J. O’Rourke’s contemporary response: “The tourism ethic seems to have spread like one of the new sexual diseases.” These two masters of satire find common ground, as Twain’s prissy tourists and O’Rourke’s bored suburbanites are both clueless about the village-life outside their cruise ship.
     Besides tourist spots, selections also enter forbidding spaces like Antarctica or the Australian Outback. Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s memory of Captain Robert Scott’s doomed Antarctic mission counterpoints Sara Wheeler’s account of a similar expedition almost a century later. Cherry-Garrard’s harrowing account of frozen death finds a new context with Wheeler’s punchy prose: “Men had been quarrelling over Antarctica since it emerged from the southern mists, perceiving it as another trophy, a particularly meaty beast to be clubbed to death outside the cave.”
     This anthology abounds with little gems like these — small books that aren’t regularly stocked at mega-bookstores. While all the Great Writers make appearances (from a twisty piece of imagination from Salman Rushdie to a chunk of George Orwell’s classic Down and Out in Paris and London), this anthology serves a redemptive function: exposing readers to lesser-known writers like Rudolfo Anaya, Harry Dean, or Erika Warmbrunn. In the competitive world of travel writing, Cancun and the Yucatan for Dummies 2005 Edition will always push the more substantial books off the shelf.
     Angela Carter is my favorite author included in the collection, an unequaled fabulist who died too young. Espey’s textbook excerpts a magical piece from her Black Venus story collection. Here Carter contributes her own fable to Scheherazade’s thousand and one tales — a doomed love affair between a tyrant’s wife and an architect. Just before his untimely execution, the lover “grew wings and flew away to Persia.”
     Wandering through mossy temples in Chiapas region of Mexico, I felt a bit of that mythic magic. Staring up at the same Mayan murals and getting lost in crumbled city mazes, I saw the “utterly intangible” memory of an ancient place that Lawrence described in his essay. From small villages to castles in Asia, Angela Carter infused her settings with that wonder. While Espey’s comments can’t teach readers how to understand that quality, his well-chosen selections help readers recognize and appreciate wonder in all their future travels.
 
Jason Boog joined Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature. After returning to the States, he completed the graduate journalism program at New York University. His work has appeared in Newsday,Therevealer.org, and Inthefray.com. He can be contacted at jasonboog@hotmail.com.
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