A tale of two flowers

Here’s an excerpt from, A Tale of Two Flowers, an essay I recently wrote for Caribbean Beat, Caribbean Airlines’ in-flight magazine:

“In the Caribbean, we often take the flowers for granted. They seem to be always there: hibiscus, bougainvillea, or frangipani blending incongruously into the tropical landscape. I only realised how much I missed them during the long, bleak winter months I spent teaching English in Japan.

The Japanese are obsessed with hana or flowers. Although cherry blossoms can be found in many temperate regions of the world, they tend to be synonymous with the land of the rising sun. Every spring, hanami or cherry blossom viewing becomes a national ritual, and an almost religious experience. In almost every newspaper or website, you will find meteorological reports tracking the sakura zensen or cherry blossom front across the Japanese islands, starting in Okinawa to the south and ending in Hokkaido to the north.”

To read more, please click here!

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, written by Dominican American author Junot Diaz, is set in the DR (Dominican Republic) and New Jersey, United States. It starts off telling the story of uber-nerd/Dominican with no game Oscar but soon delves into his entire family history.

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What I liked

I get why this novel got the Pulitzer: a mix of high and low brow culture, a history lesson on the Trujillo regime told with Marquez style magic realism and a heavy dose of Caribbean folklore, with overarching themes of escape, migration, and diaspora. I appreciated the stories of the women in Oscar’s family, especially Lola’s and Beli’s. I also fell in love with La Inca, the grandmother/great aunt who really tried her best to rein in every errant remaining member of the Cabral clan. I also loved the idea of the Mongoose (don’t want to give everything away!).

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What I didn’t like

I found the gaming/comic book/anime/LOTR/D&D/Spanglish/Dominican Spanish references inscrutable and frustrating because I had to interrupt my reading to translate them. I did not appreciate reading most of the narrative’s historical context in the tiny print of footnotes. Most importantly, I thoroughly disliked Oscar and found it hard to empathize with him. I also found the male narrator irritating at times, especially because his voice is riddled with machismo and sexual references: chulo, cono, culo, cuero, popóla, puta, ripio, toto etc.

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Final analysis

It’s an engaging family saga story that becomes a lot more comprehensible if you have Google and Urban Dictionary next to you.

Have you ever read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Yay or nay?

Review: Marco Polo Didn’t Go There

“It is the expectation itself that robs a bit of authenticity from the destinations we seek out.”

– Rolf Potts

One of the best ways you can travel meaningfully is by reading travel fiction/non-fiction on the country/countries you intend to visit.

I got interested in Rolf Potts when I heard he was the “Jack Kerouac for the internet age” and had written an essential travel book called Vagabonding. Truth be told, I didn’t find Vagabonding very helpful but I picked up his collection of 20 short stories to see whether it would change my mind. The book spans his real-life adventures in several countries and arguably his most famous piece, Storming the Beach, is about planning how to storm the movie of the same name on location in Phi Phi Leh, Thailand.

Some of the stories show how the best stories come from being open to the road like Road Roulette or from misadventures like Turkish Knockout, Be Your Own Donkey, and Up Cambodia without a phrasebook. I especially liked the shattering of preconceptions in Tantric Sex for Dilettantes.  It was also nice to see a travel story on Grenada: Seven (or So) Sins on the Isle of Spice although it wasn’t as juicy as the others.

What I liked most about his stories were the endnotes. Here, Potts explained why he had to write his story in a certain way or leave out certain details for his narrative arc. I think this shines a light on how writers have to create a story from the tangled strands of a real lived experience.  The endnotes also sometimes explained his motivations for writing the story. It felt very behind the scenes and I totally loved it.

Verdict: great read!

Have you ever read Marco Polo Didn’t Go There? What did you think about it?

7 books set in India

Even before I traveled to India a couple years ago, I loved reading fiction written by Indian authors. I admired their writing style, often so magical or lyrical that it totally transported me to a country I initially never really cared to visit. If you’re thinking of taking a meaningful trip to the subcontinent or just trying to expand your reading list, here are 7 books about India I really enjoyed reading. Only one (An Area of Darkness) is written by a non-Indian author but I think his insights about the country, its people, and its culture are still worthwhile.

1. An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul

This is a travelogue written by Trinidadian author, Naipaul, on his first visit to India in the 1960s. It captures his contradictory feelings about the homeland of his ancestors. In fact, it’s part of a trilogy of books Naipaul wrote about the subcontinent.

“It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad. And it is well that they have no sense of history, for how then would they be able to continue to squat amid their ruins, and which Indian would be able to read the history of his country for the last thousand years without anger and pain? It is better to retreat into fantasy and fatalism, to trust to the stars in which the fortunes of all are written.” 

2. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

This Booker Prize winner was written in 1980 and details the transition of India from British colonialism to independence and partition. It’s told with a heavy dose of magic realism, similar to the craft of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each “I”, everyone of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.”

3. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Published in 2006, this is the second novel of Kiran Desai (also the daughter of another famous Indian author on this list). It explores the immigrant’s experience from India to the US as well as the realities of those left behind.

“This way of leaving your family for work had condemned them over several generations to have their hearts always in other places, their minds thinking about people elsewhere; they could never be in a single existence at one time. How wonderful it was going to be to have things otherwise.”

4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

This was the author’s first and highly acclaimed novel that reveals the dark secrets of a Christian family in Kerala. It’s highly descriptive and sometimes controversial.

“Looking back now, to Rahel it seemed as though this difficulty that their family had with classification ran much deeper than the jam-jelly question.

Perhaps Ammu, Estha and she were the worst transgressors. But it wasn’t just them. It was the others too. They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly.” 

5. Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa

This is a fantastic introduction to the heart-rending consequences of the partition of India in 1947, as seen through the eyes of a Parsee girl.

“There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is?
I ask Cousin.
‘Rubbish,’ he says, ‘no one’s going to break India. It’s not made of glass!”

6. Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai

This novel is set in Old Delhi and demonstrates the tension between members who left and who stayed behind in the family home.

“It seemed to her that the dullness and the boredom of her childhood, her youth, were stored here in the room under the worn dusty red rugs, in the bloated brassware, amongst the dried grasses in the swollen vases, behind the yellowed photographs in the oval frames-everything, everything that she had so hated as a child and that was still preserved here as if this were the storeroom of some dull, uninviting provincial museum.” 

7. Malgudi Days by RK Narayan

This is a collection of sharp and often hilarious short stories set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi written by one of India’s most influential 20th-century authors. VS Naipaul has also shared his early admiration for Narayan.

“Half of the enchantment of the place was due to the fact that it did not have the benefit of municipal lighting.”

How many have you read? What did I miss? Share in the comments below!

5 books that inspired me to travel

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of travel fiction/non-fiction but there are some books that remain dear to me. Some I read during my formative years before I was old enough or could afford to travel abroad. I read two of them while I was at university and they inspired me to push the boundaries of my travel experience further.

If you look closely at the header photo, you’ll only notice four of the books I mention below. That’s because I failed to keep the original copy of the fifth and never got around to buying another to replace it. In spite of this, the story is still in my heart. Here are the 5 books that inspired me to travel abroad and changed the course of my life.

1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Say what you want but fantasy fiction is the ultimate escapist’s tool. After reading about the adventures of Lucy, Susan, Peter, and Edmund, I yearned to find my own magical wardrobe that would transport me from my hot little island to cold climates with lots of snow, fauns, and talking animals. I also secretly wanted to try Turkish Delight, Edmund’s Achilles heel.

“Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. “Why, it is just like branches of trees!” exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.”

2. Men and Gods by Rex Warner

While growing up, I enjoyed reading about ancient Greek mythology. In Men and Gods, I especially loved the stories about Perseus, Ceres and Proserpine, and Daedalus and Icarus. These tales transported me to a realm where anything could happen. I especially admired the powerful female goddesses like Diana and loved that not all the stories had happy endings, just like in real life.

“My advice to you, Icarus,’ he said, ‘is to fly at a moderate height. If you go too low, the sea-water will weigh the feathers down; if you go too high, the heat of the sun will melt the wax. So you must fly neither too high nor too low. The best thing is to follow me.”

3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Although Jane Eyre is one of my top books of all time, it was the other Bronte sister’s Wuthering Heights that made me ache for England and her moody moors. This was the first story I read that delved into the complexities of anti-heroic protagonists like Heathcliff and really captured the connection between character and landscape in a vivid way.

“Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.”

4. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I know it sounds like a cliché but this book really got me excited about independent travel. I read it just before I set off on an overland trip across Egypt and Jordan and despite the circumspect behavior of some of the characters, I really enjoyed how Kerouac translated his open-hearted attitude to life in his stream-of-consciousness writing style.

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”

“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

5. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

This was one of the books that really made me fall in love with the writer’s perception of her home country. Not the dusty, Taj Mahal version of the subcontinent but the fecund, South Indian part of it. Although it’s largely a tragic story, I wanted to live in Kerala just to try Mammachi’s illegal banana jam and watch the Kathakali dancers do their epic performances.

“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst…But by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. “

What books inspired your wanderlust? Share in the comments below!