Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Jim Eagles: A country's soul exposed

How do you capture the soul of a country in a book? Not easy, maybe impossible. But some travel books certainly convey some of the flavour of what it is like to be in a foreign land.

Australian journalist Tim Elliott got close to the essence of Spain by studying bullfighting - even though he found it vaguely repugnant.

English Francofile Louise Luiggi discovers the heart of Corsica is in its food - even though she doesn't really like living there.

Kira Salak comes close to the spirit of Africa by journeying to the mythical city of Timbuktu - though it turns out to be hardly worth visiting.

What these three marvellous stories have in common is a delight in the cultures and people of the places they are writing about.

And that, surely, is the essence of what it takes to be a successful travel writer - and traveller.

Spain by the horns
by Tim Elliott.
Random House, $29.99

Aussie journalist Tim Elliott has always been fascinated by things Spanish but his day-to-day life involves writing real estate copy for a Sydney newspaper. Then a meeting with an exiled Spanish bullfighter, who practises his matadorial moves on Manly Beach, inspires him to go to Spain to write a book.

But what should his theme be? His bullfighting friend convinces him to base it around the life of rockstar bullfighter Jesulin de Ubrique. "Si, si," he says, "if you want to write a book about Spain, Jesulin is your man."

So Elliott leaves wife, child, job and mortgage in Sydney and heads for Spain - luckily he learned to speak Spanish in South America - in pursuit of the great bullfighter and the meaning of Spain.

It proves a difficult quest. Like many stars Jesulin is protected by a wall of managers who give the Australian interloper the brush-off.

Some bullfighting experts are equally unhelpful, though others are happy to sharetheir knowledge. But Elliott persists. He goes to a bullfight and is embarrassed to find himself excited by the bloody spectacle.

He tracks down the matador's fan club, shares a drink with its ageing members and discovers that Jesulin has never gone there.

He checks out the bullfighting school where Jesulin learned his trade and finds not everyone likes the star's style. And he visits cities and towns important in the great bullfighter's life, but the man himself proves elusive.

Eventually, against all odds, he manages to meet Jesulin ... and finds himself face-to-face with a dull, monosyllabic youth with nothing much to say.

Suddenly, this modern day Don Quixote realises he has achieved his aim and is free to return home to his family. The Jesulin he was chasing may have proved to be a mere windmill but, in the course of pursuing him, he has discovered warm, wonderful, colourful, exciting, unique Spain.

It is a delightful story and a great introduction for anyone intending to visit Spain, even if you don't plan to go to a bullfight.

Come to my table
by Louise Luiggi.
Portrait, $29.95

When an Englishwoman marries a Corsican in France she finds herself suffocating in the restricted lifestyle his family expect to her lead.

Eventually, she persuades him to return to Britain with her but now it is her husband who is unhappy.

To save her marriage, Louise Luiggi decides to provide a French oasis in the middle of Nottingham, a seemingly impossible task given the conservatism of the English, but against all the odds she succeeds.

Her shop French Living provides an interest and an occupation for husband Stephane and, as it turns out, for herself as well.

Luiggi's addiction to France began during family holidays to Normandy. In her late teens she becomes an au pair in Paris and is captivated by her employer's ability to make delicious meals from the simplest of ingredients. Then she meets Stephane and is even more captivated.

She finds life in a Corsican family is not all great eating and smooth sailing. But visits to the island over the years gradually allow her to come to understand the way of life.

Her descriptions of the scenery alone are enough to inspire a visit. And then there's the food which, she discovers, tastes just as good cooked outside of France.

Just in case you want to find out for yourself, the story is interspersed with delicious French recipes and ideas. It's a delectable combination.

The cruellest journey
by Kira Salak
Bantam, $27.99

Paddling an inflatable kayak into one of the most dangerous parts of Africa, on the trail of an explorer whose journey ended in an unmarked grave, sounds like a recipe for disaster.

But then, by her own admission, Kira Salak has never felt comfortable with a cosy, predictable life.

So she takes her tiny craft to the Malian town of Old Segou, from where 206 years before British explorer Mungo Park left on his ill-fated attempt to reach the legendary city of Timbuktu, and boldly sets a course down the great Niger River. In the course of her 900km journey, Salak strikes plenty of discomfort and danger - storms and food-poisoning, hippos and bandits - but she also encounters hospitable people, stunning scenery and fascinating wildlife.

It is a remarkable story - though I'm not sure it quite lives up to its name as The Cruellest Journey - but what makes this book special is not the level of privation Salak endures but the quality of her writing, her obvious empathy with people of different cultures and the depth of her thinking about what she is experiencing.

At the end of her journey she discovers, like others before her, that the Timbuktu of legend was lost about 600 years ago and what remains today is a dirty, dusty, disappointing township.

But that doesn't matter, as Salak concludes. What matters is what the journey has taught her about Africa, and most importantly about herself.

Destination Southern Lakes New Zealand
by Gillian and Darryl Torckler,
Reed Children's Books, $17.99

An entertaining and imaginative look at one of our most popular tourist destinations from the point of view of the kids.

It is primarily aimed at young visitors coming from overseas so has a lot of information you would hope New Zealand children would already be aware of: there are three main islands, we call "cookies" "biscuits", or that Maori got here first but Dutch explorer Abel Tasman gave the country its name.

It also has many interesting stories and snippets of information that are likely to appeal to any visitors of whatever age or nationality: the legend of how Lake Wakatipu was created, the story of the grand old TS Earnslaw, or a good summary of the 1860s gold rush.

If you're heading south with the family it would be a useful resource to have in the glovebox.

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