Book Title: The Valley of the Assassins And Other Persian Travels
Author: Freya Stark
Promotional Blurb: Hailed as a classic upon its first publication in 1934, The Valleys of the Assassins firmly established Freya Stark as one of her generation’s most intrepid explorers. The book chronicles her travels into Luristan, the mountainous terrain nestled between Iraq and present-day Iran, often with only a single guide and on a shoestring budget.
Stark writes engagingly of the nomadic peoples who inhabit the region’s valleys and brings to life the stories of the ancient kingdoms of the Middle East, including that of the Lords of Alamut, a band of hashish-eating terrorists whose stronghold in the Elburz Mountains Stark was the first to document for the Royal Geographical Society.
Book Title: The Lost Continent. Travels in Small-Town America
Author: Bill Bryson
Promotional Blurb:‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to’
And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn’t hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14 000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instead, his search led him to Anywhere, USA; a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by lookalike people with a penchant for synthetic fibres. He discovered a continent that was doubly lost; lost to itself because blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a stranger in his own land. (Source: http://www.penguin.co.uk)
Book Title: The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow. A Mirror Odyssey from North Wales to the Black Sea
Author: AJ Mackinnon
Promotional Blurb: A couple of quiet weeks sailing the River Severn was the intention. Somehow things got out of hand – a year later I had reached Romania and was still going…
Truly hilarious books are rare. Even rarer are those based on real events. Join A.J. Mackinnon, your charming and eccentric guide, on an amazing voyage in a boat called Jack de Crow.
Equipped with his cheerful optimism and a pith helmet, this Australian Odysseus in a dinghy travels from the borders of North Wales to the Black Sea – 4,900 kilometres over salt and fresh water, under sail, at the oars, or at the end of a tow-rope – through twelve countries, 282 locks and numerous trials and adventures, including an encounter with Balkan pirates. Along the way he experiences the kindness of strangers, gets very lost, and perfects the art of slow travel.
Promotional Blurb: ‘When a Gandhi dies, nobody is safe.’ An assassination, a romance. A hijacking, several nuclear explosions and a religious experience … just some of the ingredients in the latest tour de force from the bestselling author of the Carpet Wars. In the searing summer of 2004, Christopher Kremmer returns to India, a country in the grip of enormous and sometimes violent change. As a young reporter in the 1990s, he first encountered this ancient and complex civilisation. Now, embarking on a yatra, or pilgrimage, he travels the dangerous frontier where religion and politics face off. Tracking down the players in a decisive decade, he takes us inside the enigmatic Gandhi dynasty, and introduces an operatic cast of political Brahmins, ‘cyber coolies’, low-caste messiahs and wrestling priests. A sprawling portrait of India at the crossroads, Inhaling the Mahatma is also an intensely personal story about coming to terms with a dazzlingly different culture, as the author’s fate is entwined with a cosmopolitan Hindu family of Old Delhi, and a guru who might just change his life.
Topic: Walking a Camino from Granada in Southern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.
Her Promotional Blurb: “I WILL WALK OFF YOUR SINS: Pilgrim seeks sinners for mutually beneficial arrangement. Seven Deadlies a specialty.
With these words Ailsa Piper’s journey begins. Less than a month later she finds herself hiking through olive groves and under translucent pink blossoms, making her way from the legendary city of Granada, towards the cliffs at Finisterre in the far north-west of Spain.
On her back she carries an unusual cargo – a load of sins. In the tradition of medieval believers who paid others to carry their sins to holy places, and so buy forgiveness, Ailsa’s friends and colleagues donated sins in order to fund her quest. She’s received anger and envy, pride and lust, among many.
Through glorious villages and inspiring landscapes, miracles find her. Matrons stuff gifts of homemade sausages into her pack. Angels in both name and nature ease her path. Sins find her too. Those in her pack and many others tempt her throughout her journey. And she falls in love: with kindness, with strangers, and with Spain”.
My Thoughts: I had known about this book for a number of years, and I finally got around to reading it in early 2015. This was a really bad idea as all it did was reignite my wanderlust. As if I need any encouragement!
Australian woman, Ailsa Piper, first walked the Camino Frances and then came up with the plan that, like in the days of old, she would offer to carry the sins of other people for a fee. This gave her a way to fund her trip plus a novel angle to develop a story and ultimately this book. Clever thinking.
It was wonderful to read about the early part of her walk, the first 400km before arriving in Merida. It appeared to be very similar to the Via de la Plata but with slightly differing landscape. It was then equally enjoyable to read of her experiences once she joined the Via, especially when she wrote about places I also walked through in September 2014.
I know I am picky but a couple of times I noticed she got the towns of this path out of order. Perhaps Ailsa wasn’t expecting that a portion of her reading audience would be experienced walkers or familiar with this part of Spain. For accuracy, you would have thought she would have checked her map and then simply rejigged her paragraphs. But maybe I am just being too pedantic, especially if it doesn’t detract from the story.
The thing I really liked was the fact that Ailsa walked a lot of the 1400-odd kilometres on her own. She discusses this in detail and shared how it opened her up to a whole range of different experiences as well as meeting new people.
It inspired me to do my next camino (the Camino Portuguese in May/June 2016) solo. Yes, like Ailsa there were times when I was a bit antsy/afraid and lonely, but I think the opportunity to reflect, and the complete flexibility of walking solo, far outweighed those small downsides. (See my post under the Two Feet heading for my discussions of the pros and cons).
This is an easy read and truly captures the sights and sounds of southern Spain. If you enjoy vicarious travel and have no intention of ever walking a camino then this is the book for you.
The way she has structured the book means you get a clear picture of her experience – both good and bad – but also some insight into the people for whom she is carrying the sins. Periodically throughout the book she checks-ins with the sinners back in Australia, and spookily, their lives as changing the closer she gets to Santiago. A nice bit of serendipity or poetic/writer’s licence? Who’s to say.
Author bio: Ailsa Piper is a writer, director, teacher and actor. She has been nominated for Green Room Awards as both an actor and director. Her play, Small Mercies, was joint winner of the Patrick White Playwrights Award in 2001. She is director of LuminoUS, which investigates and illuminates classic texts through detailed work with actors and light. She is yet to win an award for walking. (Source: Melbourne University Press).