We’re just about done with January 2013, and I still haven’t had any free time to write about my three-week holiday back in October-November 2012 (well, except for this one)… until now. Better late than never, right?
Besides getting the R&R I deserve and testing my limits once again, my second solo Southeast Asia backpacking trip gave me the opportunity to do something I haven’t done in a while: read. I pore over a lot of articles and printouts every day due to work and personal interests, but I certainly haven’t read any of my books from cover to cover in years.
The problem with packing light is that after the bare necessities, you really don’t have room for much else. I had no choice but to go for the smallest book I could find in my shelf; I figured I could just buy a larger backpack en route, as well as more physical books. (Hah. Yeah, right.) By the time I returned to Manila in early November, I was still using that small Jansport bag, but it was thisclose to bursting at the seams with the many things I acquired on the road, which included more books from Bangkok, Yangon and Saigon. I’m sorry; I just couldn’t help it. 😉
Upon closer inspection, I realized that, like in 2010, the books I brought along, read and bought during my trip had some things in common. For instance, the three books in this blog entry delve into the dark or hidden sides of certain places, and like me, the characters went on both literal and figurative journeys.
These books also kept me company during lulls in my own three-week solo journey. I read in bed as I tried to get over the day’s events (and my excitement for the next day in an unfamiliar city). I read while getting severely sunburned on the beach − rotisserie is the first word that comes to mind. I read in between and during flights, and sometimes, while taking public transport. I read while waiting for my food to be served. I read while checking in at my hostels. I read everywhere I went, and whenever I wanted. I’d say I spent half the trip meeting new people, making friends, taking photos, observing and exploring; and half of it alone and with my head down as I wrote and read.
(I don’t really know who first said that reading is another form of travel, but I agree with that statement, and it’s amusing to think that I was reading these books while traveling. 😉)
Ladies and gents, let’s go for a ride with three authors: Chuck Palahniuk, Rattawut Lapcharoensap and Andrew Blackwell. Our destinations: Hell; Thailand; and specific areas in Ukraine, Canada, Texas, the Pacific Ocean, South America, China, and India that give environmentalists the chills.
Click the links below or keep scrolling down:
- Damned by Chuck Palahniuk
- Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
- Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places, Andrew Blackwell
Little girl lost − and found
Chuck Palahniuk’s protagonist in his 2011 novel Damned is an unusual one. Madison “Maddy” Spencer is the 13-year-old daughter of two Hollywood power players with questionable parenting skills. Little Maddy is a quick thinker, has a sharp tongue, is very observant, is capable of adjusting to unique situations, and has a good sense of style, among other traits.
Oh, and she’s also dead, her soul will be in Hell for all of eternity, and she has no idea how she ended up there. Awesome.
Just 247 pages “long”, Damned is a quick and very entertaining read. It took me just three days or so to finish it, and that’s with a lot of distractions. And, as mentioned above, it’s the only book I brought with me from Manila. Turned out to be an awesome choice. It had me laughing and reacting at random moments, eliciting looks of surprise from fellow tourists and hostel staff. That awesome illustration of Satan on the cover also got me a fair amount of stares and head-to-toe looks. You don’t know what you’re missing, folks.
Palahniuk uses short chapters to push the story along − which is hilarious, sad and reflective at various points. I loved Maddy’s brief notes to Satan at the beginning of every chapter, too − apparently, “Are You There, Satan? It’s Me, Madison” is a Judy Blume reference.
Many of the sentences also reminded me of my priorities and how I looked at the world when I was 13. I guess it’s the first instance of travel that I’ve seen in the book: it made me go back to those years in my life, years that are now loooooong gone, but always cringe-worthy.
There are other instances of time travel throughout the novel. In notable chapters, Maddy tells readers all about her far-from-ordinary teenage life, the one she unexpectedly left behind. This includes descriptions of her family’s homes around the world (and the strange and cruel ways her mother would use these homes’ surveillance systems), her experiences with her family members and adopted siblings (including Goran), and the way she was treated by her female classmates at a Swiss boarding school. Except for the “homes around the world” part, I think people can relate to the familial and educational experiences quite well, particularly those who were loners and/or were bullied during those pivotal years. The desire to love, be loved, and fit in can be understood by anyone who has ever gone through puberty and lived in a whacked-out home environment.
In every journey, the people you meet and get introduced to are as important as the journey itself. As Maddy ventures into the different levels and areas of Hell, she builds up a long list of friends and allies. First up are her new friends: the blonde beauty Babette, the punk rocker Archer, the nerd Leonard (no, not the one from The Big Bang Theory!), and the letterman jacket-wearing athlete Patterson. First impressions don’t really last in Maddy’s case, as she eventually sees Babette as a close friend, Archer proved to be a worthy cohort, and her little crush on Leonard was nothing compared to her feelings for her adopted brother and “ex-boyfriend”, Goran.
She also makes things easier for some of Hell’s later arrivals, like the dying elderly folks that Maddy has called and encouraged while at her telemarketing job. They eventually made their way to Hell, and are quite happy to be there, and not just because they helped boost Maddy’s “damnation” numbers for the month.
(Note to self: Don’t ever tell telemarketers to “Go to Hell!” because, shit, according to Palahniuk, they’re already there!)
Let’s not forget about the demons. Maddy would become acquainted with them throughout the book: they keep the underground empire going and make it excruciating for residents in many ways. Who the hell knew that Hell functions pretty much like a corporation, and has porn and telemarketing divisions; that dandruff, clipped nails and semen also have a place in the underground world; that demons can be bribed using candy and are pretty annoyed with slow Internet connections (plus use dot matrix printers!); or that you can be damned over seemingly harmless things?
Yep. We’re all doomed.
So we’re done with time travel, and newfound friends. More clear and direct examples of our travel theme can be found in the last few chapters. Like the aforementioned Spencer homes around the world, or that time Maddy took a chauffeured car to Hell and fell asleep before she got there. Yeah. Sounds like almost every road trip I ever took with the family. 😛 I kid, I kid.
Another example: every Holloween, Hell’s denizens get a day-long pass to Earth and mingle with the living. Of course, Maddy and her crew went up to the surface for the day − and our heroine got the opportunity to exact revenge on three “Twatty Twatlanders”. You gotta make the most out of your trip, you know.
Here’s the next aspect of travel that I saw in the book: those who wander, with or without a plan in hand, often think of themselves as going through “uncharted” territory, and taking part in pretty new and unconventional stuff that would impress the folks back home. That may be true most of the time: you’re doing things you’ve never done before, and the place you’re exploring right now is “uncharted” in your own little version of the world.
But if you really think about it, you’re just one among the many who have written the same chapters into their lives, but with different elements. You think you’re channeling Magellan or Earhart or other real explorers, but if you think about it, you’re just going the same way as everyone else. You share the same options as other travelers, and are limited by the laws and constraints of your destination(s).
Maddy wound up in Hell with the rest of the damned. The world she explores is the same one seen (or conjured) by so many others. And it turns out that (SPOILER ALERT!) her entire “script” was written by Satan himself (a.k.a. her uniformed chauffeur)… and readers can safely assume that he did the same thing for everyone else.
Well, Maddy still has an awesome story, and she (well, Palahniuk) told it in a way that can’t be done by the other “damned” souls. She saw Hell, conquered it (the parts with Hitler et al., I found really weird), and changed the way things are done in there; and (I hope) continues to buck the norm.
A traveler’s unique background, view and interpretation will make a trip more worthwhile − and turn a standard story into a quirky and delightful one. I highly recommend this book; you should go to Hell with Maddy Spencer. (Wait, that didn’t sound right…)
Seven stops in Thailand
When you’re on the road, a book title like Sightseeing will definitely get your attention, and succeed in holding it for a considerable amount of time. Sightseeing called out to me just a few minutes after I started going around the Books Kinokuniya mega-branch in Siam Paragon, and it’s the only book that left with me after close to two hours of browsing. I thought the stories were awesome, and the cover’s pretty and resonant. Sold!
Speaking of the cover… it shows an unknown man sitting on a bench and poring over a tourist map in front of what looks like the outside walls of Wat Pho. It can also make one imagine old and weathered neighborhood sidewalk “gurus” dispensing cute anecdotes and Lonely Planet-style lists of dos and don’ts. I think many of the folks at the Mandalay City Hotel (where I stayed during my five days in Upper Myanmar) thought I was just reading a travel guide while waiting for my food orders. 😜
Author Rattawut Lapcharoensap stays true to his novel’s title in several ways. Sightseeing provides an unconventional view of Thailand and its people via seven stories. The settings for Lapcharoensap’s stories include the “Island”, the fictional Café Lovely at Bangkok’s (real) Min Buri district, Wat Krathum Sua Pla in Bangkok’s Prawet (in the book, it’s Pravet) district, the Chatuchak Weekend Market all the way up in Mo Chit, Trawen Island, and a housing development in an unnamed location. With the exception of the Chatuchak market, these are (real and imagined) areas that don’t really make it into tourist guidebooks and travel articles − and provide fitting settings for the author’s multilayered characters. You see things you don’t normally see, or aren’t supposed to see at all.
(I guess it also helped somewhat that I visited Bangkok and Chatuchak before I started reading the book. There were some things I could relate to, like the author’s description of the big city, how to ride motos, the sea of people in the market, etc.)
As for story topics, the ones in this book can be quite tricky for any author in any genre to handle: interracial relationships; a crazy night at a brothel; the bond between brothers, friends, and parents and their children; getting drafted (or passed over) for military duty, and the secrets that must be kept from those you care for; prejudice; migration; insecurities; the struggles of the working class; gambling; hope. The characters may be in generally unfamiliar places in Thailand, but the journeys they go on will bring about readers’ own happy memories − or downright painful and traumatic ones. That “so many feels” meme comes to mind. 😜
Three of these stories had the greatest impact on me: the short story whose title also serves as the book title, Don’t Let Me Die in This Place, and (the longest in the collection with 19 sections) Cockfighter. The eponymous story was centered around the rush for parent and child to relate to one another and embark on one last trip together before a vital sense organ fails. The second story employs a disabled American senior citizen as the narrator, and shows his struggles upon his relocation to Bangkok to be cared for by his son and the son’s Thai wife and kids. The third is a classic good vs. evil tale, with the story unfolding around local cockfighting and the many community and familial battles that come with it. (There’s a male Filipino character in it, too.)
Lapcharoensap’s seven stories take up 247 pages − coincidentally, the same page count as my compact paperback version of Damned. When you’re done reading this short story collection, I bet you’ll want more of what he’s got. I certainly do.
“Catch me ridin’ dirty”
Back in Q3 2012, I was scanning my Twitter feed, looking for good online short- and long-form reads. Yep, it was one of those quiet, chillax nights at home. That particular night in August, I spotted a tweet from the Lonely Planet account containing a link to LP writer Anita Isalska’s review of Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places.
Oooooh. Chernobyl. Adventures. Pollution. Travel. I’m hooked. I knew mucking about on Twitter that night would lead to something good. 😉
So I bought the e-book, started reading it… and eventually stopped midway. Not that the content is boring; in fact, I think it’s the opposite. It’s yet another example of “I have so many deadlines, I have to do this and that, I’ll read it later, yadda yadda yadda”. I finally finished reading Visit Sunny Chernobyl… during my flights from Yangon to Bangkok and Bangkok to Saigon, so yes, it’s valid for inclusion in this bulk review.
Andrew Blackwell gives us a straight-up travel book (and then some) with Visit Sunny Chernobyl…, and it’s certainly unlike any I’ve ever read. The most obvious difference is that the author (willingly) went to seven places that don’t quite guarantee public safety or offer the standard pretty sights. In fact, the places he went to are commonly associated with environmental hazard signs or travel bans, and/or considered environmental anomalies. This straying from the norm and exploration of the uncommon earns Blackwell his (self-coined) “pollution tourist” label.
And he went to some really unconventional, dirty and deadly places. First up is the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster that led to immense human, financial and environmental costs. Chapter 2 is devoted to Fort McMurray in Canada, where oil reigns supreme and everyone seems to be involved in the oil sands business. The author’s third destination still concerns the oil industry, but he moved south to Port Arthur, Texas, and shifted his attention to the oil refineries in the area. After that, he took to the sea with the crew of Project Kaisei to see the Pacific Garbage Patch. From the Pacific Ocean, Blackwell ventured into Santarém, Brazil, and the Amazon rainforest to check out the deforestation and soy farms. When he was done with that, he moved on to Guiyu and Linfen, China, for the e-waste workshops and coal industry, respectively. The author’s last stop was the shit-filled and endlessly detoured Yamuna River, and the nearby towns in India.
Seven chapters, seven destinations, seven industries. It can be a real pain in the ass to explain to readers the basics of each industry and the many environmental issues that arose, but I think Blackwell did it really well. It’s not easy to describe things like nuclear power, oil processing or soy production for laymen (especially those who lose interest easily and lack the necessary attention span), but he provided enough information in each chapter with the right words to properly frame what he saw and experienced. Blackwell also has a witty, sarcastic, and engaging writing style; it kept me turning pages, laughing at jokes, and highlighting many one-liners. Awesome job, sir.
As mentioned earlier, a person’s travels is also given life and depth by the people he/she meets and encounters. There are a lot of fun and interesting people in Visit Sunny Chernobyl…, among them tour guides/companions Dennis, Gil, Cecily, Sunil and the Kaisei crew; Blackwell’s hosts in each destination; the people he interviewed to get a better picture of the area and their industries; and Blackwell’s friend Adam, who kept him company in the Amazon after the former’s heart got broken.
Speaking of love, the author threw this into the mix, too, making the story even more personal: when this book began in Chernobyl, he was in a relationship with a woman he calls the Doctor. (No, none of the Doctor Who reincarnations.) At Port McArthur, he was a newly-engaged fella. But by the time he reached South America, Blackwell was single and all le sad. The succeeding chapters saw him coming to terms with the breakup and saying goodbye to the Doctor (via e-mail, but hey, it’s still goodbye).
“So many feels.” 😔
Back to the book. What really sets Visit Sunny Chernobyl… apart from other environment and pollution-centered books is that Blackwell sees beauty in even the crappiest of settings, and during times when it is truly difficult to notice anything other than what’s in front of him. It underscores that one thing has several meanings and varying significance for different people. Don’t think that Blackwell is a member of the “wreck the Earth and then take over another planet when we’re done” movement (if there’s even one); his mindset is that in order to understand how Earth functions and serves its inhabitants, we must also see its “bad” side and how it reacts to man-made circumstances. He went overboard with the contrasts at times, but I didn’t mind that much.
The main point of the book opposes the “perfect”, unspoiled, unpolluted world that most environmentalists envision. Blackwell and others contend that as long as humans are part of the equation, our world won’t be restored to that perfect state, or ever come close to it. Our best bet is to live with what we have, and go for realistic methods.
You’ll find a series of sentences that (I think) best state his point in Chapter 5. Better yet, read the whole thing. You’ll thank me later.