What Writers Read…
The Masked Rider: Cycling In West Africa
© Neil Peart 2004
Publisher: New Press
13 chapters with maps and photos
ISBN 1-55022 667-3
$22.95 Cdn $18.95 U.S.D
Good travel writing takes the reader inside the mind of the writer, and Neil Peart (drummer with the Canadian rock group, Rush) does this better than most. Along with four companions, he joins a cycling tour around the little-known West African country of Cameroon. Their month-long odyssey leads them along rutted, rocky roads and trails, a “super-highway” to nowhere, and through dusty villages of thatch-roofed huts, where they overnighted in shabby hotels which often partly function as bordellos.
Peart is an experienced cyclist with a special fondness for Africa. His previous travel book, Ghost Rider; Travels on the Healing Road, 2002, was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize.
Calling Africa a “network of illusions” and a “double-faced mask,” Peart especially wanted to learn more about its people by looking behind the mask of sub-Saharan Africa. And so, he signed up with a tour organization called Bicycle Africa for a month-long tour called “Cameroon; Country of Contrasts”. Tour leader, David, the tour company’s founder, described Cameroon as “the most difficult bicycle tour on the market,” words which became more and more evident to Peart as he and his companions rolled along.
His journey also allowed the drummer to learn more about himself. Although “masked “might just as easily refer to his need to don a face mask along the dusty roads to Cameroon, his other “mask” was the one he used to disguise his own feelings about his fellow cyclists. When he reveals obvious feelings of irritation to one of them, he confesses that “my mask must have slipped; my expression must have displayed my annoyance.”
His other companions are identified by their first names only… Annie, Leonard and Elsa. Elsa was a determined 60-year-who continued to have difficulty keeping up with the small group but nonetheless did complete the grueling tour.
Peart brings readers into his head to experience the noise from the bars inside the hotels as he tried to sleep, relentless hordes of mosquitoes, taunts from ragged villagers, and the repetitive questioning at military checkpoints where language barriers proved part of the challenge (Cameroon is a French-speaking country, although many speak only local languages). The readers join him in punishing pedalling under the searing heat from the midday sun. Accommodations often featured dingy common toilets where running water was not always reliable.
Not all of the journey was done by bicycle. With the first portion of the tour in the southern portion of Cameroon completed, the five bundled their bikes onto a crowded bus to the country’s capital, Yaoundé, from where the route proceeded by a twelve-hour train ride to more dusty trails in the country’s northern reaches.
Hot and cramped, the local Japanese-made minibuses; known as “coasters” (a bus taking the coastal route) were built to accommodate eighteen passengers but had nearly twice that number crammed into them. With the tortuous conditions of the road, a blown tire was inevitable and when the spare proved useless the passengers were left stranded on a hot and dusty plain, waiting to eventually borrow a tire from a passing truck.
Peart too is a knowledgeable naturalist and ably identifies the many plant and animal species he encounters on the journey. Peart’s route leads along dusty and rutted roads through bamboo forests and tall grass savannahs. Along the trail he identifies various species of songbirds and hawks as well.
Welcome relief from the dingy hotels came in the form of a monastery in the middle of the bush. Throughout his description of this visit he takes the reader back to his younger childhood when he would question the values of organized religion, especially that of religious schools where the students were kept behind chain link fences. Raised in the more liberal United Church of Canada, Peart enquires as to the need for those students to be protected from “us.” Their stay at the monastery was in one of a collection of wooden outbuildings beside the main building which housed the nuns and dining room. They participated in vespers with the sisters as well.
He contrasts the relative comfort of the monastery with staying in a village compound named Gouave, which consisted of a dozen thatch huts. While the group found the inhabitants welcoming enough, they ended up sleeping on the ground watching the brilliant stars, as meteors and even a satellite, sailed overhead.
While the tour routes had been planned in advance, conflicts arose when the tour leader chose to make a side trip to a village where the women wear calabashes on their heads, which Peart likened to green football helmets. This trail proved little more than a footpath whose main purpose, Peart observed, could be determined by the reek of human feces coming from it. Guided by a local man, they followed the trail to a stunning viewpoint from which their view extended across a wide to where the guide proclaimed it overlooked Nigeria.
Then a dispute erupted over which of diverging paths would lead them to their next scheduled stop, Peart and another of the group headed off on their own. While attempting to return to the main road, Peart realizes that he was not where he thought he was supposed to be and, using his broken French, tried vainly to get directions. This path proved nearly impassible as he encountered a troop of baboons. “Massing for attack,” he thought warily. Eventually the road came to an unexpected end and Peart eventually was able to reunite with the rest of his cycling companions.
The final leg was to cross the border into Chad where their odyssey would end in flights home. In Peart’s case, his was to Paris where he would reunite with his wife.
But Africa wasn’t done with him yet. Bureaucratic obstacles to getting a visa to enter Chad meant a gut-wrenching last night in Africa, compounded by a bout of stomach cramps. Still the group needed to endure more bureaucratic obstacles involving forms for the bicycles and more visits to government offices.
With hours to spare Peart was finally seated in the airport waiting room. Here he speculated out loud to his companion as to whether they might finally make it. To which his companion replied that he wouldn’t be reassured until he heard the landing gear go up. Later on board, a relieved Peart writes:” a vibrating whirr shook the floor beneath my feet, and the landing gear retracted with a solid satisfying thunk.”
Arriving in Paris, Peart concludes his journey by admitting that “I had never been happier to get anywhere in my life, even home.
Mountain Streams In Prose
James Lee Burke
Review edition ©2021 (originally published ©2001)
Simon and Schuster Inc.
$23.00 CDN/$17 USD
One modern writer who is a big influence on me is the American crime novelist, James Lee Burke. His 2001 book, Bitterroot, one of Burke’s Billy Bob Holland franchise novels, is making a return appearance in my bedside table batter’s box.
Bitterroot opens with the story of Billy Bob Holland’s friend, “Doc” Tobin Voss. The former Marine medic and special operations soldier survived Vietnam to come home to a country he did not recognize and could not love. A mining company is using cyanide and other dangerous chemicals to leach precious metals out of the ore they extract from the local ground. The chemicals are polluting the local rivers and killing the environment. Doc and Billy Bob gird themselves in environmentalist armor, which sets the overall theme for the book.
Along the way Burke introduces the reader to some his incredible pantheon of characters.
If you haven’t read his work, start with the Dave Robicheaux books. At last count there have been more than twenty-five of these with at least a dozen novels in the Billy Bob Holland series. The characterizations of the main and minor protagonists, along with the various nefarious antagonists, are as full-bodied as if born on the half shell of a New Orleans oyster.
Interestingly, Burke incorporates living people, like his adopted daughter Alafair, into some of his plots. There is also a certain amount of mysticism in his work as he consults with long dead, fictional friends like L.Q.Navarro, Confederate generals or the ghosts of victims of heinous crimes.
Finally, there are his bad guys. Even Batman doesn’t have to contend with such a tribe of evil miscreants. One of the worst of these is Wyatt Dixon.
An occasional rodeo clown, Dixon is an ex-con and generally all-round evil gent with seemingly super strength. With the likes of him roaming America’s precincts it’s no wonder Americans are scared shitless of clowns. Dixon is the proto-psycho evil actor.
Plotlines are carried along by renegade militias for hire working on behalf of the mining company; a ne’er-do-well second-generation Mafioso who shared Vietnam with Doc Voss; an award-winning mystery writer who commits mass murder; and an AIDs infected henchman.
Bitterroot’s plot clips along at an untrammelled pace. Each scene in the story is woven together seamlessly and the geography becomes a character all on its own. But an inordinate amount of violence, as with all of Burke’s work, drives the tale.
As I read Burke’s books, I have to regularly set them down to remind myself that this is fiction not real life. The violence and the characters’ obsession with guns are simply part of the overall American fantasy. If you’re ticklish about violence, I would recommend reading this on a sunny day overlooking a beautiful lake and not in your bed with a north wind howling and flexing your home’s roof. Spoiler alert, Burke’s work, like that of Cormac McCarthy isn’t for everyone. To get around the violence, you have to keep reminding yourself, “it’s only a story… it’s only a story.”
So why read Burke?
Hemingway once said he writes for people who read without moving their lips and nowhere in current popular literature is this more accurate than with James Lee Burke.
Burke is not one of those writers beloved by literary Presbyterians. His prose is too lush and descriptive for their self-imposed shriving. Often, he defies the modern dictum of “show don’t tell”. When it’s necessary he tells us in an elegant vocabulary that many of today’s editors are trying to extirpate. Rather than becoming a movie treatment hoping to cash in on a Hollywood deal, Bitterroot is one of those novels meant to kick-start the reader’s own mental cinema with indelible imagery.
“Temple and Lucas and I walked outside under a turquoise sky that was turning yellow with dust. The streets were empty, the air close with the smell of impending rain and a hot odor blowing from the stockyards west of town. We walked past a movie theater called the Luna, its marquee blank, its thick glass doors chain-locked. At the end of the main street a long string of grain cars sat idly on a railway track. The only sounds we heard were a shutter banging and a jukebox playing inside a stucco tavern.”
The flow of Burke’s prose is like that of a great trout river. It flows through deep pools laden with complex themes, then burbles along over shallow and evident gravel beds before crashing with hellacious fury into the boulders of the book’s action.
He knows the wherefor of which he speaks, and I often find myself comparing my own personal experiences with those he creates.
Take his love of fly fishing for trout. If you have ever cast a weight-forward wet fly line with a Woolly Bugger at the end of your leader, you immediately recognize and place yourself in the experience of setting off on a cool morning to hunt (trout fishing is more hunting than lazy worm drifting hoping for luck) cutthroat trout in a mountain river.
“The wooded hills above the Blackfoot River where Doc had bought his home were still dark at 7 a.m., the moon like a sliver of crusted ice above a steep-sided rock canyon that rose to a plateau covered with ponderosa. The river seemed to glow with a black, metallic light and steam boiled out of the falls in the channels and off the boulders that were exposed to the current… I picked up my fly rod and net and canvas creel from the porch of Doc’s house and walked down the path toward the riverbank.”
What caused me to trot Bitterroot out again is Burke’s terrific sense of place and ability to place the reader in his territory, but I could be equally happy reviewing any of his books using this criterion.
As a writer what I love about Burke is his steadfast defiance of writing conventions to produce exciting works that are a joy to read on so many levels. Give him a try. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia
There’s an interesting phenomenon that used to occur when maps of the world were being created. Mapmakers, setting out to portray the global land mass, invariably tended to view the location where they were standing (or sitting) as the most dominant feature in the cartographic landscape. For centuries Europe was always larger in relation to the rest of the world because Europeans were the planet’s leading cartographers. As science followed the European population in its move westward, the United States suddenly became a whole lot bigger. Now that we can look down from space, we see geography in its true, relative proportions. The same holds true for “discoveries” made by different peoples. Whenever historians assess the importance of these discoveries, their importance depends on which cultural shore they’re standing on.
In her book, Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, Christina Thompson understands this and tries to move the European mind to the shores of the Pacific Ocean in her attempt to explain one of the greatest, unsung events in the history of humankind.
Someplace around 20,000 years ago, people set out on their first important voyage. Not from Europe to North America or Africa, but from someplace in Indonesia to Australia. Since then the people of Southeast Asia have been venturing into the Pacific to spread a distinct population across the ocean’s basin – the largest realm on the planet. But for some reason, the Pacific never entered Western consciousness until profit entered the picture.
Despite Thor Heyerdahl’s, now discredited, effort to prove the Pacific Basin was settled from South America, archaeological and anthropological evidence confirms that the ocean islands were settled from west to east from Indonesia about (according to ethnographers) 100 or 200 A.D. The Māori’s arrived in New Zealand late, sometime around 1,400 A.D.
Linguists have now found common roots throughout the region in the Austronesian language group. This collection of languages encompasses the islands of the South Pacific as well as Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula.
It’s just in the last 150 years that we’ve been trying to unravel the sequence of events that carried the Polynesians from island-to-island and almost to the shores of South America.
Early Euro-explorers like Cook, Leeuwin and Tasmin weren’t big on learning the histories of the people they were attempting to colonize. They were traversing the biggest body of water in the world driven by trade winds and profit. Basically, they wanted gold, silver, spices, slaves and land.
Thompson does an excellent job of explaining this. In an early chapter, “Barely An Island At All” Thompson explores the importance of the trade winds on spreading people south and east. In other chapters, she introduces the reader to some of the region’s more fascinating indigenous characters like the highly intelligent and ever patient Tupaia who served as Cook’s mentor and navigator in his 18th century survey and 20th century Māori ethnologist Peter Buck.
Making her points based on the historical timeline, she brings these people to the fore, tying together the common cultural epiphanies which traverse both cultural and racial lines.
The question still hanging in the air is: Why should we care about the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific? I think the answer is that this was one of humankind’s most important and least known movements. Discovering this past would enhance our larger human story.
In constructing her book, the author begins by detailing the history of European contact – which shouldn’t be confused with the overall history of the Pacific. Then, gently, she expands on the idea of how voyaging spread people from island to island by citing archaeological finds – like Lapita pottery shards excavated on the islands of Watom and Tongatapu. Europeans had not seen indigenous ceramics up until that point and didn’t think they were a marker of Polynesian culture. Yet this clay work with intricate designs was locally created and not imported from the Asian mainland or the far east of South America.
By the mid-nineteenth century, there were some serious students of Polynesian history among the European population of the basin. Abraham Fornander’s An Account of the Polynesian Race, was an excellent and well-meaning attempt to set things down.
Working from oral histories, Fornander encountered all the usual problems found with verbal resource material. Story lines fluctuated from storyteller-to-storyteller. The names of important people and deities often changed from island-to-island while dates were shrouded with metaphorical references.
It wasn’t only the cultural norms of the Polynesians that made accurate information problematic. Western historians tried to think their way through the timeline rather than searching for better fact-based evidence. This led to numerous inaccurate theories like Heyerdahl’s. This happens time-and-again with history. “I think, therefore I am right,” might be useful in a beerhall discussion, but not in an investigation.
Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, is well-written, flowing articulately. It should be on the bookshelf of anyone who loves language. There’s no sense that Thompson was rushing to get it all down and off to the printer. Her vocabulary is expansive and her prose elegant. Reading it is like wandering through the islands of Polynesia themselves. Just when you’ve lost sight of land another even more interesting story heaves into view from below the horizon.
I first became fascinated with the Polynesian story when I stayed at a friend’s home in Sydney. One of the books on her shelf was David Lewis’ We the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific. From my first reading I was hooked and disappointed my Canadian schooling never mentioned the Polynesian diffusion and only addressed the Pacific in terms of Magellan, Cook and what heroic navigators they were.
You’ve got to be an anthropology nerd like me to really enjoy this book, but if you are, it is a worthwhile investment in time and money. All I can say is that someplace on my bedside table there is room for Christina Thompson’s other book, Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.