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Volume 12, 2008

  
   Volume 5, December 2004

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P. J. Wells, Dynamite, Dysentery & Black Jack: An irreverent travelogue by someone who was occasionally impressed and frequently not concentrating (Bucharest: Lulu.com, 2006. £15.50 paperback). Pp. 338. ISBN: 978-1-4116-7692-3.

 

Like the book says, don’t worry if your trip will work out.

Just go. (Lonely Planet)

 

 

There is indeed something charming concerning the atavistic impulse of young middle-class Brits in this over-mediated “global village” age of post-modernity to boldly and bodily transverse the remnants of their lost empire in mock “Grand Tour” style (replete with the expected hardships of the toilet, stomach and other school-boy horrors), perhaps hoping by so doing to escape the manufactured limits of bourgeois respectability extant in dull-modern Britain, and sometimes (as a bonus) gaining some added life-wisdom on the way. At the very least, they do come away from their travels with a reservoir of ‘civilizing’ material from which to artfully draw and deploy fitting bon mots at cocktail parties, so de rigueur in their (most assuredly) brilliant careers in years to come. And, if they are at all well-posed with the mind or pen, they will also (most undoubtedly) keep a (mental or actual) journal to go along with the certain panoply of pictures,[i] so to have, if only unconsciously, “something over” their inarticulate compatriot Butlin-camp boobs who simply take cheap package holidays abroad to buy indescribably kitsch souvenirs and find infamous props for their insufferable snaps of “significant others” going along for the ride. In the mock-comic travelogue tradition of Tim Moore[ii] (and in a global anticipation of his The Grand Tour: The European Adventure of a Continental Drifter [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001]), Peter Wells[iii] enacts the “duality” of Alan Watts’ philosophical description, when he is not practicing “stream of consciousness” typing cum writing.[iv]

          Beginning his world journey in Harare, Zimbabwe, Wells “first self” happily experiences the comfort of a Western-style “elite” bar he was led to by a local guide, superior in his mind to “sensitive” Lonely Planet tourists, but his “other self” also simultaneously questions the critical appropriateness of this felt response:

 

I felt a bit of a fraud in such obvious western decadence, in the middle of a Third World country. Any real traveller would surely turn their nose up at such obvious displays of wealth and indulgence. Surely I should be back in the hostel counting up the cents for my next train ticket, cooking Knor[r] soup and rice, and bumming fags of other people. But hell, this was my trip, and at the end of the day I was actually tasting the life of (albeit a select group) of Harareans, which I wouldn’t get counting head lice and pubic hairs in the shower back with Adrian and his soul mates at The Number Seven Inn. (35)

 

          Traveling then to Bulawayo, declining an impromptu invitation to travel to “Vic Falls” by “more experienced” expats (“I declined, somewhat reluctantly, as they seemed like a fun bunch, but it did seem stupid to have come all this way and to miss Bulawayo for the sake of a Nissan Sunny”), Wells took to his own bodily and mental moods, wondering about competing philosophies of tourism as he walked:

 

I know what I’m interested in, and as far as I’m concerned, just because a museum is considered unmissable by somebody else, doesn’t mean I can’t give it a miss. It is however a little alarming just how blasť you can become about certain tourist attractions and high points if you are not careful. I can recall a friend of mine who spent a month long trip through Italy, which she dubbed the “ABC Tour”, simply because on every other corner was “Another Bloody Church”. I didn’t want to be a moronic traveller, but everything, as they say, in moderation. (42)

 

          After taking his time in Bulawayo, including a somewhat dangerous walking safari in the local wildlife park (of which the guidebook said “suitable for walkers,” advice he wanted angrily to cross out after his too-close experience with the animal kingdom there), Wells did travel to Victoria Falls (“There seemed little point in delaying my visit to the falls, which was after all partly the reason I had chosen to start my world trip in Zimbabwe”), taking in the views there with a mixture of wonder and worldliness, a feeling later amplified by meeting both the famous composer John Williams and a self-impoverished medical aid worker, Brian, “both dedicated to their work; both successful and admirable; yet one was staying in Zimbabwe’s most expensive hotel, while the other slept twenty to a barrack in the sweltering jungle. The Janus view of life in Africa.” (60)

          Journeying then to Livingstone, Zambia, Wells finds a slow-moving town hosting a depressed side-street “bar” of out-of-work local men, attempting to drink away externally caused internal sorrows. In an acute observation drawing from his serious (if often unacknowledged) Murdochian empathic seeing sense, Wells concludes:

 

Of what I had seen of Livingstone, I was becoming more aware of the frustration and despair associated with much of the continent. These were people who could find no way out. Their government could do nothing to help, as they themselves are caught up in a vicious circle and the stranglehold of the international institutions, which refuse to grant development loans until old debts are paid (debts which continue to grow as infrastructure and the commercial base declines). The international community is not interested in Zambia. It was once one of the world’s leading producers of copper, thanks to natural resources in the western part of the county, but when these mines dried up, so did Western commitment. (63)

 

          But Africa was not only depressing to Wells, it was also invigorating, as when he traveled to the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania. Waiting for a flight to Kenya (his next African stop), he was “taken in” by an idealism that grows on one who sees too much dirt and despair too soon:

 

With every restaurant and cafe I discovered, the food seemed to get better. Even the fresh fruit in the roadside market, with its piles of mangoes and melons piled up like soup tins in a supermarket, seemed more ripe and pungent than the week before. It is a pity you can’t take smells and tastes home with you, for they are often the things that bring back memories best of all. (96)

 

Upon departing some hours later, on the plane Wells reflects, “Glancing back at Zanzibar from my window seat for the last time, I again regretted having to leave. Paradise found and lost” (97).

          Wells’ next continent was Asia, and specifically India, a dualistic, starkly polarized place where sanitation, transport and hotels gave him the most trouble.[v] Seeking to appear calm while waiting for the police to arrive at a corrupt desk manager’s call (when disputing an overcharged stay), Wells casually looked over a news item of a (too soon to expand) terrorist wave:

 

Momentarily I was intrigued by a map on page two of the Bombay Times. A better map than the one in my book, I tried to work out where my Amityville hotel was. At first I didn’t register the newsworthy reason for the map, and then slowly I was drawn to the red flashes that appeared all over it. The caption under the map read: “13 Bombs Explode in Bombay Friday. 27 Dead. Tamil Tigers Accept Responsibility”. The report continued with the exact locations and times of the explosions. . . . Shit. (126-27)[vi]

 

Wells’ strenuous, yet ineffectual efforts to avoid dirt, dysentery (the second word in his title), bothersome rickshaw drivers, corrupt officials, et al., lead him to happily forsake Bombay and, soon, much of India. When an Indian train passenger pointed to a filthy and huge slum there with a hit of ‘slumdog’ pride, Wells knew his time to leave had surely come, a feeling compounded by an “imagined history” of industrializing 18th-19th century England: “It was simply just too depressing and big a problem to even begin to rationalise. I looked at the time on my watch, but for once didn’t see the time, only an expensive diving watch – brightly coloured and clean. I was not travelling across time zones – I was travelling back in time” (128). The polarity of which Watts spoke was most concretely revealed when Wells went to visit the famed Taj Mahal.[vii]

          Perhaps Wells’ most difficult time, both in body (now suffering from the feared dysentery) and spirit (wrestling with culturally conditioned polarities of dirt and cleanliness) came when he saw how the poverty-stricken society in Indian slums see (and use) excrement. Remarking on his seminal rickshaw-in-traffic ‘experience’ in Varanasi (near the famed Ganges River), Wells recounts, “a beautiful tall woman in full dazzling sari, was guiding a small herd of oxen shepherd like down the main street. Following just a few metres behind, every so often she stopped in her tracks (and thus stopping us in ours) to scoop up another freshly jettisoned, shiny pool of cow dung with her hands and wallop it into a shit hod tin dish she balanced on her head” (161) for later depositing on a fuel pile. When he follows her to the holy Ganges River, Wells sees her buy a roll and then happily sharing it with friends, mindless of the sanitary issues involved. Moving from the personal to the social realms via this trope of ‘holy shit,’[viii] Wells then reflects on a seemingly simple (yet socially utopian) solution to third-world poverty and disease, sensibly right out of the “Godliness is next to cleanliness” Protestant playbook:

 

I decided that there is one thing that would save the lives of millions, and improve the productivity of a constantly sick population in India. Soap. Plain soap; not expensive Body Shop scented stuff – just plain old soap. If instead of spending its aid money on vaccines and short term cures against the illnesses that still plague the country, the government provided every household with a bar of soap and instructions to use it, a preventative program might for once be set in motion for a sustainable healthy populace. (162)

 

          Fleeing bothersome India, Wells makes an unplanned side trip to Nepal and Katmandu, seeking to get control of his dysentery with a pharmacy of pills while running into three European backpack expats living the life of Enlightenment, with the aid of mountain climbs to Everest and cheap buys. After a spell of staying with them and being (partially contentedly) involved in their concerns, he nonetheless concludes:

 

The twilight zone was becoming a reality. I decided that, shits or no shits, I had to get the hell out of beautiful Kathmandu before I too became victim of ‘the madness’ that was forcing two people up the toughest mountain in the world and another to fly over it. One day longer and I could easily have found myself teaming up with an occult wandering-circus-trainer convinced that it was God’s will that I open the first Dunkin’ Doughnuts in Tibet. I had to leave; and soon. (192)

         

          Wells’ next stop was the ‘expected’ China trip,[ix] where, via another flight of bureaucratic tourist planning fantasy, he encounters, in a fashion, Roger Moore as “007” at the Forbidden Palace as his tape-recorded guide. At the end of his time in the most populated country with a longish history to boot, China stoutly remained an enigma to Wells: “Every other country I have visited, even for a very short time, I have always come home thinking that I had an angle at least on where they were coming from – albeit stilted or blinkered. With China I felt like I had never really been there; like I had spent twenty-one days browsing through a pictorial handbook” (238).

          As for the third term in the title (“black jack”), Wells had a chance of playing it in the role of a trained card shark in Penang, Malaysia, a life-chance he almost took up with the sharpies that had marked and nabbed him for the role. He fantasized, “No, this time I was going to try my luck, I might come away rich or I might not, it didn’t matter,” yet, in fact, his ‘proper’ British side saved him from a (life) time of iniquity. Moving eastward towards the end of his ‘irresponsible,’ and timeless travels and to ‘responsible’ Master’s study in Florida, Wells has a more-understood, if at times perplexing, stay in Australia (the perplexing arising largely from experiences marked by unexpected intrusions upon expected British-ness in a country marked by many wild spaces and unpredictable, but nonetheless alluring, people.

          Coming ever closer to America, Wells is mostly ‘turned-off’ by Honolulu, even if the waves and climate are accommodating. One possible aspect of this effect is that he chances to arrive while contrived and colossal US Independence Day celebrations are underway, which, by their overbearing nature, serve to polarize him against them:

 

It was a baptism of Americana that almost made me gag. OK everyone, I get the picture - you can stop now. It was like an episode of The Truman Show. Even the hostel guests were behaving like extras on Beverly Hills 90210. Girls from Preston mysteriously started to put their hair up in ponytails and tie their t-shirts in a knot at the navel. Blokes from Ilford started rapping with each other and “chugging” beers – chugging beers in brown paper bags that is. This was a most bizarre revelation for me…. Singing the Star Spangled Banner with a load of Aussie larger louts clutching jiffy bags was more than I could bear. Forced entertainment, forced American patriotism and enough burgers to feed the Gettysburg address. Welcome to the land of the Free. (306-08)

 

Finally arriving in San Francisco, Wells meets the surreal-ness of The Truman Show in ‘reality,’ facing an unwelcoming, certainly humorless, US immigration official with a conceptual problem of understanding the physical polarities inherent in world travel, i.e., that if one can go in one direction towards a destination, one can just as well go in the other, and yet end up there just the same. Upon presenting his passport, he gets an absurdist drilling:

 

“Why did you come this way?”

“I’ve just come from Hawaii.”

“I know. Why?”

“Because that’s where I was before I came here.”

“Why did you go to Hawaii?”

To get laid, find witchcraft and gun down hostellers having fun at intersections.

“To see Hawaii.”

“You are from England right?”

“Yes.”

“So how come you[’re] entering the US in San Francisco?”

“Because I’ve been on a trip that took me east and so I’ve arrived here on the west coast.”

I was mustering all the restraint I could by this point.

“Why if you are coming to study in Florida did you come into San Francisco?”

He continued to examine my documents (which included an invitation from the Dean of Studies at FSU). He was utterly confused. He went on to ask me about every place I had been to before.

“Why did you go to India?”

“Because I wanted to”

“Why did you go to China?”

“Because I wanted to”

“Why did you make this trip?”

“Because I could.” (312)

 

          In summation, if one wants to share a “wild and strange story” with a world traveler “to unheard places” who understands the polarity extant betwixt cultures, consciousness and cant, one could do much worse than read this uniquely remembered journal, disregarding its mock-ironic title, authorial voice, and even mock-elite layout and editing “lapses.”[x] Worthy pluses are richly descriptive passages recalling lovely pre-terrorist Bali and lively pre-Katrina New Orleans. Which brings one to the “dynamite” in the title: At the end of Wells’ trip, the first bombing of the World Trade Center marked (albeit then largely unacknowledged) a newly more-dangerous world, one that would be less welcoming to intrepid “slacker” travelers with nothing to do but observe (whilst not concentrating upon) anything useful.[xi] “My stomach groaned again,” Wells concludes, “Dynamite, dysentery and Black Jack. The story of my trip” (334). It too, in part, can be part of your life experience via this enticing read.
 

ERIC GILDER

Lucian Blaga University, Sibiu

 

Notes


[i] Different from most travel authors, Wells, according to his thoughtful postscript, wrote his remembrances down strictly as such, ten years after the fact, without notes – the photos he had, but his attention to them once they were taken, was scant indeed. His creative method drawing from a picture-perfect memory gives a positive spin to the usual writer’s put-down of chroniclers: “That’s not writing. That’s typing.” The only shortcoming to the book is the lack of some “snaps” that would pass the writer’s high taste.

[ii] Who derived his travelogue method from Thomas Coryate (1577-1617) and his Coryats Crudities. As Grace Kerina has noted in the blog “Highly Sensitive Power” (http://www.highlysensitivepower.com/2008/08/books-tim-moore-travel-writing/), “British writer Tim Moore has charmed me thoroughly. He writes irreverent, utterly hilarious travel memoirs with the twist that he’s frequently and unabashedly incompetent at what he sets out to do.” Without doubt, by his own admission, Wells is his esteemed peer in the genre.

[iii] Now an eminently respectable programme specialist at CEPES-UNESCO in Bucharest, these writings represent the author’s lesser experiences when he was traveling “between studies” in 1993-94.

[iv] Alan Watts in The Two Hands of God: The Myths of Polarity (New York: Macmillan, 1969), describes the “myth of polarity” as the make of false distinctions of black/white thinking, a product of our culturally specific education, with each culture holding to different constructs of black/white, good/bad, clean/dirty, etc. One of the benefits of travel is that it allows “the innocent abroad” to see the fluidity, if not the falsity of such specific judgments being transformed into universals. As Wells remarks in the book’s subtitle, he is precisely one who benefited by being “occasionally impressed and frequently not concentrating.” He could thus “save” the gestalt of his worldly experiences by not being overly distracted by (i.e., by “losing”) irrelevant details of his journeys.

[v] Perhaps it is not ironic that Watts’ primary insights came from his close study of Asiatic (Indian) philosophies.

[vi] Wells later recalls his parents and family being distraught over hearing of the bombings and fearing he could have been killed or inquired thereby.

[vii] “It is ironic that the lasting memory of this man a hundred years later should be the shining white marble epitaph he built for his wife. And that in fact his vision, created under hardship and bloodshed should be the lasting memory of so many tourists to India” (154).

[viii] The reviewer is reminded of the “demonic trinity” of Kenneth Burke, which includes the disgusting cum sacred item, transposed within the polarity noted by Watts.

[ix] The reviewer recalls a sardonic cartoon by William Hamilton of the New Yorker magazine in the mid-1970s (when China trips were popular among the “smart” set): Two society hostesses are telling each other: “Now we know, never invite two China trips to the same [dinner] party.”

[x] As noted in the “Forewarning” which stands in place of a “proper” Foreword, Wells says we should not be reading this “drivel.” Readers cannot say they were not warned, if their scholarly senses are scandalized, for he does state:

 

Before you publish a book you are supposed to have it edited, proof-read, re-edited, approved by MI6 and the Royal Household. I couldn’t be bothered. As a consequence what follows is riddled with typos, spelling errors (which I think are correct, thanks to a 1970’s experiment in primary school phonetics), factual errors, tedious details and lies. When the book goes into its 15th edition and the movie rights are bought by Danny Boyle, I may tweak the odd phrasal verb. Failing that, it remains as is. (14)

 

Don’t follow this mock “advice” (i.e., be as open as Watts thinking of his polarities) and one will surely benefit from the time spent. Better a self-deprecating “incorrect” literary friend than a pompously correct one (at least at disconcerting “times like these” when “experts” are clearly fooled and fooling entities).

[xi] A feel that well resonates with the theme of (British alternative music band) Blur’s signature 1993 album, “Modern Life is Rubbish” and 1994 album “Dookie” by American punk rock music group, Green Day.

 

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