The Globe 100 books of 2020 is coming out Friday, Dec. 4. Until then we’ll be publishing conversations between authors about the different genres on the list, starting with Ann Cleeves and Louise Penny talking about mysteries. Coming up: Margaret Atwood and Ian Williams recall the poems they first read and wrote, Marissa Stapley and Jennifer Robson escape with some good fiction, and more.
The Globe Up Close podcast episode about the Globe 100 is now available. The Globe’s Western arts correspondent Marsha Lederman, features editor Dawn Calleja, writer and critic Emily Donaldson and books editor Judith Pereira shared details of their conversations with some of the country’s leading authors about the books that got them through 2020, how the pandemic will shape the literary world and their thoughts about genre.
Through travel writing, we come to know ourselves as much as the people we purport to write about. Bruce Kirkby and Wade Davis, venerable practitioners of the art, know this better than anyone. Kirkby, whose CV includes the television show Big Crazy Family Adventure, as well as two previous travel memoirs, has a new book out, Blue Sky Kingdom, about travelling to a remote Buddhist monastery with his wife and children. Davis’s 1985 book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, solidified his reputation as an adventurer. He was explorer-in-residence at the National Geographical Society for more than a decade. His newest is Magdalena: River of Dreams. Emily Donaldson spoke to the pair about the places they love, travel in the age of Instagram and the joys of serendipity.
ED: Can you talk about your connection to the places you wrote about, Zanskar and Colombia?
BK: I’d been to the Himalaya many times and always felt great comfort in the presence of the Sherpa people. I suspect it has something to do with Buddhism: I’d always had an interest in the monasteries and the shadowy figures in them. So when I started to realize how distracted I was becoming, that I was looking at my phone more than my kids, in what some might call a slight overreaction, my wife and I decided to go live in a monastery in the Himalaya.
WD: Travellers often become enchanted with the first foreign land that captures their hearts and gives them licence to be free. For me, that was Colombia. And it came about because I had a determined mother who earned enough as an elementary-school teacher to send me to join a group being taken by a language teacher to Cali. Many of the older boys suffered from what Colombians call mamitis, or homesickness. By contrast, I felt I’d finally found home. There was just something about the countryside, the passion of the people, their understanding of the frailty of the human spirit. My book attempts to tell the truth about Colombia: That it’s not a place of violence, that it’s the greatest centre of biodiversity in the world. That it’s home to a people who just happen to live in a place where heaven and earth converge on a regular basis to reveal glimpses of the divine.
BK: My book isn’t an attempt to right a wrong, but I do see Zanskar as a metaphor for many remote global cultures. Here’s this little lifeboat in the Himalaya with a 1,000-year-old tradition and the floodwaters are rising on the outside. When they flood over, it’s going to bring all kinds of things important to the Zanskaris: health care, education. But all these amazing things they’ve developed will also be lost in these floodwaters. The Zanskaris’ whole culture is built around groups of families bonded together, who help each other at harvest, and who also cradle each other through life, from birth to marriage and sickness and death.
WD: What I like about Bruce’s writing is that it’s not focused on self. His eyes are always looking out like a sage’s, full of wonder. The use of the word “I” has increased by orders of magnitude in the last generation of works of literary non-fiction, but an obsession with self is, for a travel writer, what false heroics are for the adventurer or explorer. I don’t really think of myself as a travel writer. I try to keep myself completely out of the narrative. My research over five years was more the sociology of serendipity: I’d come into some small place somewhere in the valley, which is enormous, and wait around until I found someone who had something to say that the world needed to hear.
The whole idea of travel is that it’s a pilgrimage where the goal isn’t a destination but a state of mind.
BK: I really like that idea of a pilgrimage. And I’ve always taken pictures of other things, but we’re also seeing changes in travel with the ubiquity of the camera. ... Rather than the experience being what matters, it’s documenting your presence on a daily basis and posting it somewhere.
WD: When you’d go off on a trip in the era of film, even if you were a professional you might have 60 to 100 rolls of film. If you were a National Geographic photographer, you might have 300. But now ... I did a trip where one passenger on a Lindblad [ship] took 23,000 images in two weeks!
People are always asking how to create a connection with someone you meet on a trip, and it’s never bravado, it’s always basic good manners. The same way you’d be welcomed into someone’s home at Thanksgiving in Canada: self-deprecating humour, a willingness to sleep where you’re asked to sleep. How do you announce to an Indigenous group in the Amazon that you’re there to study their marital relations? I mean, if someone turned up at our doorstep like that on Christmas, we’d call the police!
Travelling with children is a passport to connectivity. So Bruce, going sincerely as a pilgrim, in a sense in pursuit of the dharma, would make sense to people in the Himalaya.
BK: In Buenos Aires we couldn’t even get to a café without high-schoolers, construction workers and businessmen asking to hold our eight-month-old son! Children are this incredible bridge, particularly for mothers. Though if you get on a plane in North America with a baby, people are pulling out their garlic and silver crosses and just hoping you’re not in their aisle ...
ED: Bruce, your son Bodi is on the autism spectrum. As the parent of an autistic son myself I’m intimately acquainted with the challenges of travel, which is inherently unpredictable ...
BK: And yet despite the uncertainty of travel there’s a tremendous regularity to it. Travel and wilderness expeditions are a balm for Bodi, because so much of the noise of the modern world is removed, and he has the continuous attention of his parents. So, counterintuitively, it’s incredibly beneficial for him and our family.
ED: You both mentioned photography’s effect on travel. How about internet itself? It sometimes feels like there isn’t a place on Earth that hasn’t been Instagrammed to death.
WD: Where the internet’s been amazing for me is as a research tool. When I was writing a book on Everest and I wanted to know what the light was like on Lhotse at a particular time of the day I could just ask. The internet has also been empowering for Indigenous people. You’ve got the Kayapo in Brazil sharing their troubles with the Penan in Borneo who then get in touch with the Tibetans. But I’ve also spoken and written about surveillance capitalism, which has become a haunting threat to democracy.
BK: The internet has shrunk the world and robbed it further of diversity. I don’t think we’re going to put that genie back in the bottle. But we can go to places like Zanskar to find some disconnection. That won’t last forever.
ED: How about globalization? How has it affected these very remote areas?
BK: In Zanskar children are now going to private schools, which bodes well for their future, but it also means families no longer [have the labour to] harvest their land. So they’re selling it to multinationals; precious soil is being lost. Parents are selling Coke and Ichiban noodles in roadside shacks to the long-distance truckers now coming into the valley.
WD: We have this idea that these cultures are quaint and colourful but destined to fade away, but nothing could be further from the truth. Lakota didn’t stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow for the rifle any more than Canadian farmers stopped being Canadian when they gave up the horse and buggy for the automobile. It’s not change or technology that threatens the integrity of culture, it’s power. In every case these are dynamic, living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces, be they ideological or industrial. But the optimistic thing is that if human beings can be the agents of cultural destruction, they also can be facilitators of cultural survival.
BK: Seeing these changes moving through remote places and landscapes – and I’m not a leftist revolutionary here – makes clear that the free-market economy doesn’t value community, time, love and respect for children and elders.
WD: I agree. The whole era of European colonialism created this evolutionary scheme that places us at the apex. This has been shattered by anthropology. We know we’re all cut from the same genetic cloth. Race is a social cultural fiction. The Victorian idea that we went from the savage to the barbarian to the civilized of Europe is absolute nonsense. Every culture has something to say, each deserves to be heard.
ED: What do you most want readers to know about these places? Any misconceptions you want to dispel?
DW: The filter we have about Colombians is narcos. And yet despite 50 years of imposed conflict, they’ve maintained a civil society, grown their economy, greened their cities and sought more restitution with Indigenous peoples than any nation on earth, including Canada. We have to go beyond the clichés to see how remarkable what Colombia has achieved is. The Americans have been tearing families apart at the Mexican border, and yet in that same period the Colombians have, without a hint of hesitation, absorbed the biggest humanitarian crisis in the history of Latin America: 1.8 million Venezuelans who have come across the border and been welcomed, housed, fed, given medical care, their kids placed in schools. That tells you about the essence of the Colombian people.
BK: In a time like the one we’re facing right now, there’s much the Zanskaris can teach us. Not just in terms of overcoming challenges, but in finding meaningful opportunities to interact with our family, elders, community. If anything comes out of the current moment, I hope it’s a re-evaluation of some of these patterns of time and connection and community that we’ve let slip in North America, but that we now have the opportunity to consider a little more deeply.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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