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Archive for the ‘Travel Books’ Category

Last night, while reading David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, I came across his essay “Six to Eight Black Men,” a travel essay about the Netherlands’ version of the Santa Claus story. Not only was it hilarious, it was the best piece of travel writing I’ve read in a while. I think travel writers can get too bogged down in the magnitude of their experiences and they forget that the most interesting stories about their time abroad can be the conversation they had with a local on their walk to the train station. It’s important to keep in mind that most of an individual’s travel experience is a very personal experience and not everything is going to resonate with an audience in the same way it did with the traveler. Rather than wax poetic about his experience admiring The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, Sedaris selects an incident from his travels that conveys the real value and rewards of travel.

Firearms aren’t really an issue in Europe, so when traveling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. “What do your roosters say?” is a good icebreaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation. In Germany, where dogs bark “vow vow” and both the frog and the duck say “quack,” the rooster greets the dawn with a hearty “kik-a-riki.” Greek roosters crow “kiri-a-kee,” and in France they scream “coco-rico,” which sounds like one of those horrible premixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says “cock-a-doodle-doo,” my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.” (Sedaris, 158)

[On the difference between American and Dutch Christmas stories…] “We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, “Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you into a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just preten ot kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.”

This is the reward for living in the Netherlands. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution—so what’s not to love about being Dutch?” (Sedaris, 163)

–Sedaris, David. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. New York: Back Bay, 2005.

Click here to listen to Sedaris narrating the full essay which originally appeared in Esquire Magazine.

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My pre-trip reading list for Barcelona…

Barcelona, the Great Enchantress, by Robert Hughes

This book is part of National Geographic’s Directions series which publishes travel writing that weaves together a powerful sense-of-place, personal memoir, and historical perspective by “some of the world’s most prominent and highly regarded literary figures.”  Susanna Moore’s book, I Myself Have Seen It, that I read in Hawaii earlier this year, is from this same series. Hughes’ book covers the history of his own relationship with the city starting in 1966, while incorporating the city’s larger history from its beginnings as an outpost of the Roman Empire to its modern identity as one of the foremost artistic and cultural meccas of Europe, featuring some of Barcelona’s foremost historical figures along the way.

Iberia, by James A. Michener

Another epic novel by the incomparable Michener, Iberia explores the history, culture, and lives of the people of a nation that became the author’s second home. Each chapter is centered around a different city or geographic locale ad its impact on Spain’s identity and place in history. Chapter ten is specifically about Barcelona.

Spain: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edt. Peter Bush and Lisa Dillman

More from one of the best series for travel literature out there today, Whereabouts Press presents Spain: A Traveler’s Literary Companion featuring writing, arranged geographically, from some of its natives best-loved literary figures. The section on Barcelona includes four stories from authors such as Juan Marsé and Carme Riera.

 

 

Spain in Mind: An Anthology, edt. Alice Leccese Powers

Spain in Mind is an anthology featuring reflections and writings on Spain from some of history’s most famous authors including Langston Hughes, Lord Byron, and Ernest Hemingway. “…the glimpses of another world in Spain in Mind will enchant you.” [from the back cover]

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

A post-WWII novel about an antiquarian book dealer in Barcelona who stumbles upon a mystery that leads him into “one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets–an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.”

Don’t these sound great? I can’t wait to get started!

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(–title from Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s song, “Hawai’i 78”)

Before I left for what would be my third trip to O’ahu, I read Susanna Moore’s book (one part historical summary, one part memoir) about the islands, I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai’i. Moore’s chapters about her own experience growing up in Hawai’i in the decades after World War II were full of vivid imagery of the islands and its people as well as potent scenes of childhood that often sounded familiar. I imagined my own Tybee Island plus the addition of proud, Polynesian locals—a tropical paradise, Rogers and Hammerstein’s Bali Hai meets the back-river… Unfortunately when I got to O’ahu I realized that things had changed drastically over the past fifty years…

My boyfriend and I stayed at the Park Shore Hotel at the end of the main strip of Kalakaua Avenue. Our room’s balcony had views of Malama Bay, Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, and Queen Kapiolani Regional Park. In the mornings when we sat on our balcony with our backs to the rest of Waikiki, we could see the flamingos over at the Honolulu Zoo and hear the monk seals barking at the aquarium. The beach across the street from our hotel had about a tenth of the population of the more popular beach in front of the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki’s center, and it made the place seem almost peaceful. If we had spent all of our days sunning on that beach or snorkeling in the immediate waters of the bay (of which we did plenty), and had neither curiosity, nor the need to eat, we may never have discovered the proper tourist catastrophe that is Waikiki Beach.

{Scott snorkeling}

{Scott’s snorkeling pictures}

{the Waikiki Aquarium}

{my favorites were the giant clams!}

At first, walking along Kalakaua or Kuhio Avenues is simultaneously overwhelming and disappointing. My own understanding of “the myth of Hawai’i”, inspired mostly by historical accounts of Hawai’i or 50’s and 60’s films that take place there, set me up for my disappointment. Reading Moore’s book and the first three chapters of Michener’s Hawaii didn’t help either.

Being among the people of Waikiki is the equivalent of sinking your arm into a barrel of cast-off, carnival prizes. A single block will invariably contain a combination of beefy American and glittering Japanese tourists, raggedy locals, and the ever-present homeless. At night this assortment is additionally peppered with over-eager street-performers, six-foot-tall prostitutes, and peddlers of hemp jewelry, woven palm-leaf hats and baskets, painting prints, and plumeria leis. It is not so far a stretch to consider Waikiki a modern-day Tortuga—something only the presence of a handful of five-star hotels attempt to defy. The final product is at first abrasive and appalling, but once you are willing to accept it for what it is, the experience becomes vastly amusing and even a little charming—you know, in a seedy kind of way…

{I love Scott’s double-exposure night-time shots of palm trees and the ocean}

{amazing octopus bracelet in a jewelry shop on the first floor of the Outrigger Hotel}

For dinner our first night, my boyfriend and I went to the famous Duke’s Canoe Club Restaurant on the first floor of the Outrigger Waikiki Hotel. (It’s extremely touristy, but the low-lighting atmosphere helps alleviate the feeling of being too much in a crowd). We had been there the year before—I had ordered the Crab and Macadamia Nut Wontons, which were surprisingly bland, and my boyfriend had had the Kona Style Grilled Filet (which the kitchen had some trouble getting to be medium-rare…), while the salad bar had been mostly edible but uninteresting. The reason we even went back this time was to have some of what the restaurant is truly, and rightfully, famous for: the Kimo’s Original Hula Pie—a reason in itself to go to Duke’s when you’re in Hawai’i.  (I particularly got a kick out of the caption beneath the listing of the “hula pie” on the menu: “This is what the sailors swam ashore for in Lahaina”.)

The rest of the week we had some trouble finding good restaurants, and were so unlucky as to have absolutely zero good experiences with any truly “Hawaiian”-inspired dishes. The tourist industry has thoroughly corrupted. We did however find a decent Italian place and a great Vietnamese place. The Italian place made a fine risotto and had a small but good wine selection, and the Vietnamese place was one of the best I’ve ever been to outside of Vietnam. I’m sure there has to be some great restaurants in and around Honolulu; I suppose we just guessed wrong during the week we were there…

{the best meal we had in Waikiki: at Pho Old Saigon}

On our second-to-last day we drove around the east and north coasts of the island, taking a combination of back-roads and highways until we got to Kamehameha Highway which took us along the coast up around to the North Shore. This drive put all the contradictions of the island into sharp focus. One minute we’re driving past white, sandy beaches and water so blue and clear I can see sea turtles bobbing in the surf, and the next we’re passing village communities made up of trailers and tin-roofed shanties surrounding by weed-choked, chain-link fencing. Fragrant forests full of tall, silver-barked trees give way to ancient, rolling lava-fields hemmed in by jagged cliff-faces, and around the bend is a row of hedge-hidden, multi-million dollar mansions lining some beach long out of sight. The villages all had Hawaiian names, the gated communities did not. And in my mind, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s song, “Hawai’i 78″—a lament for the land and its people (“…and saw highways on their sacred grounds…”)—played over and over again…

On the North Shore we passed through another very touristy, but less overwhelming and rather cute area called Haleiwa—this did remind me a little bit of Tybee. There we stopped at a restaurant called Haleiwa Joe’s for late afternoon macadamia nut ice-cream sundaes and a Keoki coffee (coffee with Kahlua, dark creme de cacao and brandy). Apparently Haleiwa is a popular surfer’s destination and “cultural hub” of the North Shore. I glimpsed a lot of interesting- and cute-looking shops and restaurants that I’d like to explore. I think if we go back to O’ahu—though I’d much rather explore the other islands—we’d try to stay in Haleiwa instead of near Honolulu.

{ordering ice cream and coffee at Haleiwa Joe’s}

In her book, Susanna Moore makes an observation about the nature of even the 1960’s Hawaiian tourist that was the beginning of the bastardization of Hawaiian culture that the tourist industry on O’ahu is today:

I sometimes worried about the tourists. I did not understand why they had come so far, excluded as they were from the secret and mythical world that I knew, and I was made anxious by the ease with which they were satisfied—a boat ride around Pearl Harbor to look at the sunken warships and the Kodak Hula Show with dancers in cellophane skirts seemed to suffice. It was the first time that I was to be confused by the difference between what people were willing to accept and what more there was for the taking.” (126)

I have to believe there is more to Hawaiian culture and tourism than raggedy, stoned surfers and Germaine’s Luau. Since trips to Hawai’i seem to have become an annual tradition for my boyfriend and me, I am determined to do a more in-depth exploration of my country’s 50th state and its rich Polynesian heritage during my trips from now-on, likely leaving Waikiki alone.

*   *   *

Links to sites or addresses for places and things mentioned in this article, as well as other things I did or recommend to do on O’ahu…

I Myself Have Seen It, Susanna Moore—you can probably skip the first 120 pages though; also her bibliography is a good place to find extra reading on Hawai’i—I especially want to check out Jack London’s Tales of Hawai’i and David W. Forbe’s Encounters with Paradise

Hawaii, James A. Michener—epic, sometimes slow, but always great novel—classic Michener…

Park Shore Hotel—3-star hotel, reasonable prices and excellent location… you know, if you insist on staying in Waikiki…

Diamond Head

Honolulu Zoo

Waikiki Aquarium—pretty cool to visit before or after snorkeling in the Hawaiian waters and seeing the wildlife first-hand—my favorites are the giant clams…

Duke’s Canoe Club Restaurant and Bar, Waikiki—tourist hot-spot, popular night-spot–go for the hula pie!

Bene Pesce—2310 Kuhio Avenue; 808.922.2288—enjoyable Italian food in a calm, bistro-style restaurant…

Pho Old Saigon—2270 Kuhio Avenue; 808.922.2668—delicious and authentic Vietnamese food…

88 Tees—2168 Kalakaua Avenue; 808.922.8832—Vintage shop with fun, cheap to moderately priced clothing at a huge variety…

Muse by Rimo—2310 Kuhio Avenue Suite #127; 808.926.9777—Cute, bohemian boutique store…

Haleiwa—popular surf town on the North Shore…

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole—iconic Hawaiian musician…

Haleiwa Joe’s—restaurant on the North Shore…

Dole Plantation

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban; all editing done by Kelly.]

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As August trucks on, I’m getting more and more excited for my next trips. September is going to be my month in sun with two trips to gorgeous, tropical destinations: Hawai’i and Fiji! I’ve just finished getting together my reading list of books inspired by these places…

 

Hawai’i:

+ Hawaii: a novel, by James A. Michener

+ I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai’i, by Susanna Moore—memoir of an American writer who grew up in Hawai’I; an entry in the National Geographic series that publishes author’s reminiscences about a specific area of the world.

+ The George Eliot Murders, by Edith Skom—literate and entertaining murder mystery set at the Royal Aloha Hotel in Honolulu.

 

Fiji:

+ On Fiji Islands, by Ronald Wright—personal memoir & travelogue

+ Return to Paradise, by James A. Michener—sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Tales of the South Pacific

+ Maya, Jostein Gaarder—by the author of Sophie’s World

+ The Sailmaker’s Daughter, by Stephanie Johnson—set in early 20th century colonial Fiji

 

Et cetera:

+ Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz—A New York Times Bestseller

+ Tales of the South Pacific, by James A. Michener—Pulitzer Prize winning book & basis for Rogers & Hammerstein musical & movie, The South Pacific

 

Does anyone have any additional suggestions for Hawai’i- and Fiji-inspired literature?

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While I was in Prague this summer, I read Milan Kundera’s magnificent and heartbreaking novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The story takes place in Prague in 1968, during the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet occupation. Tomáš, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz are the four characters through whose lives, loves, and losses the insignificance of life and the fate of the individual are examined.

What better place to lose oneself in one of Kundera’s passionate novels than in Prague, where the author attended university and the setting for most of his books. From the top of Petřín hill to the old castle grounds at Vyšehrad perched above the Vltava River, the city of Prague encapsulates a beauty, mystery, and romance reflected in the poignant and sometimes surreal writing of Milan Kundera.

{View of Prague Castle from Petřín hill}

{Petřín hill}

{View from Petřín hill with Prague castle in the distance}

{View of the Vltava, Prague castle, and Petřín hill from Vyšehrad castle}

{View from Vyšehrad castle}

Recently, while browsing through Free People’s blog, BLDG 25, I stumbled upon some posts from their Book Club series featuring Unbearable Lightness of Being pairing favorite quotes with images that evoke the sentiment of the novel. Here are some of my favorites…

“chance and chance alone has a message for us. everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. only chance can speak to us. we read its message much as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the bottom of a cup.”

“while people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs…but if they meet when they are older, their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them.”

“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.”

“…and finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.  they are the dreamers.”

See more of Free People’s favorite quotes from the book here, here, and here.

[Images by Kelly Overvold, from amazon.com, and from blog.freepeople.com.]

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