Ox Travels: Meetings with Remarkable Travel Writers
Surreal encounters that open an unexpected window on to the world
Sunday 22 May 2011
Travel books are a chore for many readers.
There are rewards for trekking through tomes by Colin Thubron or Wilfred Thesiger, but for some these books are a bit of a commitment, not least since they don't pack neatly into a suitcase.
Cue Ox Travels, a paperback published in aid of Oxfam that puts work from 36 contemporary travel writers together in fewer than 500 pages, taking readers from Sri Lanka to Spain, Ireland to India and beyond.Nearly all the pieces were originated for this collection and there's an avuncular introduction from Michael Palin. Most pieces are by very British writers; some are established – Thubron, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Rory Stewart – and a few are newbies such as Shehan Karunatilaka.
"I accept that the point of the journey is the journey. And that being in a hurry doesn't get you there any faster," writes Karunatilaka near the end of his sceptical piece about a Buddhist pilgrimage. Following this principal, you might think that the short essay or story could leave you wanting, but like Granta's great travel and reportage anthologies, this is a collection of sharp tales which take you straight to the point of a place – albeit often viewed in a sideways glance.
Writers were asked to recall a significant encounter – an unforgettable experience that shaped them. It might have been a tedious device but instead it reveals the spirit of a place, as reflected by someone the writer has met – even if often that person is someone of few utterances. In the case of Dervla Murphy, it isn't a person at all but a black and tan dog of dubious breeding called Tashi.
At its best, reading Ox Travels is like landing somewhere you haven't been for a while and remembering how much you love the place. I hadn't read anything by Jason Webster since his 2003 book Duende, which recounted an Iberian odyssey into the heart of flamenco. As with so many of these stories, this Anglo-American's description of a bullfight was a vivid reminder of how much I love travelling safely on the back of someone else's intimate words.
In most cases, the adapted stories (there are six of them) are no less riveting second time around. William Dalrymple's "The Nun's Tale" (taken from his 2009 book Nine Lives) is the saddest, most maddening story of Mataji, a Jainist nun who walks India barefoot towards the ultimate sacrifice. It's as complete a narrative as you could ever hope to find in a couple of thousand words. Others are the literary equivalent of a glance out of a train window. There is a fable-like piece about a Korean monk from Paul Theroux; a fireside tale about were-tigers (as in werewolves) from Ruth Padel; and a nascent romance from Sara Wheeler. Lloyd Jones recounts his time at Captain Scott's camp in Antarctica, the magnitude of this icy museum eclipsed by the singular horror of Jones's witnessing an Adélie penguin chick being mauled by a predatory skua bird.
Often these tales are not pretty, but they do feel true. Sonia Faleiro gives a bald account of a conversation she had on a plane with an Indian maid returning from work in the Gulf, that is rendered in scant adjectives yet gives a brutal insight into life on the road for many migrant workers.
Like any great trip, these tales are often surreal and perhaps take you to places you weren't sure you had any interest in. Yet they leave you moved, long after you've stopped travelling.
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