Tikal and Guatemala

Jaguar Highway SignArguably, Tikal is the premiere Mayan site of Mesoamerica, due to the sheer numbers of monumental buildings. It, frankly, trumps every other site, including Copan, which we visited in 2012 and reported on for RoadWorks. A lengthy history from at least 500 BCE to 1200 CE is largely responsible for Tikal’s staying power. (It might have lasted longer if they had adopted a one-child policy.)

turkeys   The approach to the national park is fairly long, dotted with pictograph warning signs along the route: Jaguar, serpents, Pixote (aka Coatamundi), turkeys. Seriously. And at the entrance, an Ocellated turkey did make an appearance.

Further on the entrance road, traveled by foot, the cohunes tree (also known as horse balls tree for obviCohones Treeous reasons) was populated by Spider Monkeys having a snack. Keep your hats on! These cheeky devils are known for throwing dead limbs and fruit at passersby.

The actual temples and palaces are breathtaking, rising out of the jungle unexpectedly. About 200 steps take tourists to the upper reaches of Temple Four. Equally interesting is the varied bird life: Copper-colored woodpeckers; Crested Guan; Slatey Teal Trogon.

temple TikalWould Stairs to top of Temple IVthat the books available about Tikal were so interesting. Michael Coe, an anthropologist at Yale, has published without doubt the most about the Maya, including the very readable The Maya (8th edition) and Breaking the Maya Code, the detective story of how the glyphs were finally figured out. Popol Vuh, a series of Mayan stories, is the original literature of Guatemala and one of the most significant works in all of the Americas.

For fiction, there really is only Daniel Peters’ lengthy 1983 novel, Tikal. The author of Incas and The Luck of Huemac explores the last days of the Maya when it becomes exceedingly clear that they can no longer live in Tikal, where people have denuded the jungle through overpopulations. It is the only game in town, really, in terms of fiction that has been through an editorial process, and by that I mean, other works that are self-published. The upside is that this historical fiction should take travelers through the complete trip due to its 422 pages. Unfortunately, it has to be lugged, as there does not appear to be an e-book version.

Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1984) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967, and his Men of Maize (1949) functions as the best read for those on the Mayan trail. This epic focuses on the European takeover and conquest but contains elements of magical realism in which characters assume folk legend status when killed or taken on the form of their animal guardian spirit. It is not a light read. It has a bimodal distribution on GoodReads: readers either love it for its poetic, dreamlike quality or are confounded as they cannot figure out what is going on. For those interested in more contemporary politics, Asturias’ The President (El Señor Presidente), written in 1946, is said to be a better read in its original language.

Short story writer Augusto Monterosso (1921-2003) does have work in e-book format, The Black Sheep and Other Fables; his work has been compared to Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain for its humor and satire. The fables can be dramatically short, just a few lines, paragraphs, or pages. Some reviewers find them exquisite, remarkable in their economy. Although it doesn’t focus on the local landscape, it can be a fun, if brief, read for travelers.

Reading Montana

wmt_mapAny trip to Montana means finding an unread Ivan Doig title, and there on my shelves was one just waiting: The Eleventh Man (2009). Unusual for Doig’s novels, this one is based not only in Montana but around the globe as its protagonist, Ben Reinking, war correspondent tracks his former football teammates as a special assignment during World War II. This means the reader gets insight into the fighting in the Pacific theatre and Europe as well as the defense along the Northwest Coast.

His primary base though is an airfield in Great Falls, Montana where women pilots—WASPs—fly P-39 planes that will be transferred to Russian pilots as part of the US Lend-Lease Program to help its allies on the Eastern Front. Predictably, Ben falls for the lead pilot, Cass Standish, whose husband is stationed in the Pacific. They have a passionate romance, and it’s never clear which man she will eventually choose.

Doig’s premise for the plot derives from a factoid that Montana lost more soldiers in the war than the law of averages predicted, and in fact, all of the players from one of Montana State University’s football teams perished. The fictional version is Treasure State’s “Supreme Team,” who was unbeaten in their senior year of 1941. Ben follows each of the players, who are developed for the most part rather superficially.

While I was reading this novel, I had a lot of “I didn’t know that” moments, particularly about the WASPs and conscientious objectors, and I can trust the facts in a work of fiction by Doig as he has a PhD in History and takes care with his research.

The bartender, Tom Harry of Medicine Lodge, who serves Ben drinks and loans him a Packard and gas coupons, is a minor character in The Eleventh Man but featured in The Bartender’s Tale. Harry also worked as a bartender in the novel Bucking the Sun, which focuses on the construction of the Fort Peck Dam. Revisiting characters is a hallmark of Doig’s work, most recently true with the three-book series that features Morrie Morgan: The Whistling Season, Work Song, and the soon to appear Sweet Thunder. Morrie really stole the show in the first novel and moved center stage for the second, which is located in Butte. I must admit that I pass Butte as quickly as possible when driving I-15 to northern Montana; its pit mining has left a horrific scar on the land.

I much prefer the more pastoral Montana trilogy, which includes my favorite novel of all time, Dancing at the Rascal Fair. Its companions are the notable English Creek and the less interesting Ride with Me, Mariah Montana. Although Rascal Fair was published after English Creek, chronologically, it begins the series with two Scottish immigrants arriving in Montana in the late 19th century. English Creek picks up the next generation of McCaskill and Barclay families and features Jick, an endearing fourteen year old, and finally Mariah Montana finds a much older Jick riding along while his daughter covers the state’s centennial. Personally, I find the older the setting, the better the novel, but Mariah offers a great tour of “the last best place.”

Because my trip led me to Helena, Doig’s Prairie Nocturne was a good choice, focusing on singer Susan Duff, who first appeared in Rascal Fair. She is given the unlikely assignment of voice lessons for a black chauffeur in 1920s Montana.  But the setting also includes the Harlem Renaissance.

Western Montana also figures in Mountain Time, less of a favorite, given its contemporary setting, but interesting for its inclusion of Bob Marshall, an outdoorsman for whom the Bob Marshall Wilderness is named—a stunning geographic area that is most likely accessible via a pack or backpack trip. The Two Medicine Country, which includes Gros Ventre, the town Doig uses most often fictionally, encompasses the Dupuyer or Choteau of his youth. This is definitely Big Sky Country, and Doig is at his best evoking that landscape.

Bullhead Lake, Glacier Country

Bullhead Lake, Glacier Country


Refrigerator Canyon, near Helena


Avalanche Creek Gorge

Choteau, Montana

Choteau, Montana

In addition to a goodly number of novels, Doig has written two memoirs, This House of Sky and Heart Earth, the former his first book and a finalist for the National Book Award. It is hands down one of most lyrical books I’ve ever read. That said, I realize that some readers find Doig’s prose a bit dense or too purple prose with description that distracts. I admire the care with which he constructs his narratives and grimace only on occasion with a phrase that has perhaps reached too far.

Given the focus of this trip—Montana—I’d be remiss not to include Norman Maclean’s wonderful story, A River Runs Through It (1976), that matches Doig’s work in lyricism. Maclean grew up in Missoula although the film version of the novella seems to be set nearer to Bozeman along the Gallatin River. But on this trip, I was thinking more of the posthumously published book, Young Men and Fire (1992), which details the tragic loss of 13 firefighters who perished in a blow-up at Mann Gulch near Helena. We hiked Refrigerator Canyon, not far from this area, which also includes the funky “town” of York, named for the black man who accompanied the Lewis & Clark Expedition. (Try the burgers at the local bar situated along the Missouri River, which features a York candy as a take-away.) A blow-up fire is also an important part of Doig’s English Creek. One of the firefighters at Mann Gulch set what is thought to be the first escape fire—lighting a fire and then lying down in the burnt area, hoping that the main fire would burn around him. It worked for him.

This 1949 tragedy was surpassed while we were on the road by the one in Yarnell,Arizona in which 19 Granite Mountain firefighters perished.  One hopes that their story is told as eloquently as Maclean did for those in the Mann Gulch disaster.

The Syringa Tree: Another To Kill a Mockingbird-like Novel for South Africa

Pamela Gien’s novel, The Syringa Tree (2007), began life as a one-person play, which won an Obie Award. The narrator, who is six, opens the story in 1963. She lives with her family in Johannesburg, where her father is a physician. As with other South African novels, this one, too, features a native nanny, Salamina, who is Xhosa, and beloved by Elizabeth—“Lizzy.”  The little girl has a perennial problem with wetting her pants, which drives her mother crazy. The family is considered strange for these parts, the father Jewish and the mother Catholic. They find refuge at Clova, a farm in the country owned by her grandparents. The narrative follows two families, one white and one black, over the generations.

This memory style novel covers the same ground as so many South African novel: the naïve narrator trying to come to grips with Apartheid and the seemingly senseless rules and regulations that separate races.


Gien wrote and performed in the play, which evokes the memories of the young girl and in which she takes on about two dozen roles filling out the other characters. It sounds like a tour de force. Some productions of it in the States have used multiple actors.

The novel is rather dense for its first 100 pages, and other readers have noted, “just stick with it” as it is worthwhile and very touching.

Given the looming passing of former President Mandela, I was particularly struck by a passage early in the novel in which one of the doctor’s patients decries the cheeky native who insists on being called “Mister” instead of his first name, Nelson. He appears in court dressed in animal skins, his tribal dress, as Lizzy’s father explains to her. The grandfather adds, “They won’t rest until they’ve bloody locked them all up, Isaac. Where the hell they’re going to put them, I have no idea.”

Robben Island is where they put them–Mandela spending 18 of his years in prison there. It is now a popular tourist site with former prisoners conducting the tours. Half a world away in Washington, DC, an exhibition of the Robben Island Shakespeare reminds one of how important books and reading are to people. This particular copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, covered with Diwali cards, was allowed in the one-book-per-prisoner rule when its owner insisted it was his Hindu Bible. Over the course of his internment, he shared Shakespeare with the other prisoners, 34 of them choosing a particular passage by which to sign his name. Notably, its owner chose the highly appropriate lines from The Tempest, in which Caliban says, “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother.”

Mandela chose these lines from Julius Caesar:

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.”

A series of sketches by Mandela, made in the early 2000s, reflects on his prison life and accompanies the exhibition.

This is an apt time in history to reflect on the enormous influence one person can have to do good.

Near the end of The Syringa Tree Mandela rises like Lazarus from his tomb. Her father sends the adult Lizzy, living in Pasadena, the newspaper with its bold headline, “Vote, the Beloved Country.”


Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country

The Writer’s Almanac is a wonderful daily round-up of literary happenings by date plus a single poem—sponsored by The Poetry Foundation. I like to start my day by listening to Garrison Keillor’s sonorous voice. When I heard this entry on January 11, I knew I had to save it for my upcoming trip to South Africa.

It’s the birthday of novelist Alan Paton (books by this author), born in the province of Natal, South Africa (1903). He’s best known for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), which he wrote after working for 25 years as a public servant and educator.

He was the son of English settlers in South Africa. After graduating from college, he took a job as a teacher in a Zulu school. He had long wanted to be a writer, and wrote two failed novels about his experiences in the Zulu community before deciding that he needed to put writing on hold and get involved in the fight against apartheid.

He went to Johannesburg and got a job transforming a reformatory from a prison into an educational institution. He became

known among the residents of the reformatory as the man who pulled out the barbed wire and planted geraniums. He became one of the foremost authorities on penal systems in South Africa, and he began giving talks on the subject. After World War II, he decided to go on a world tour of penal institutions, to learn as much as he could about improving those in his own country.

It was only after he’d left South Africa that he realized he could no longer put off writing fiction. One evening in Norway, sitting in front of a cathedral at twilight, he found himself longing for home, and when he got back to his hotel room he started writing his novel Cry, the Beloved Country, about a Zulu pastor in search of his son, who has murdered a white man. He finished the novel in three months, writing in a series of hotel rooms. When it was published in 1948, it became an international best-seller. It’s the best-selling novel in South African history and still sells about 100,000 copies a year.

copyright: The Poetry Foundation
National broadcasts of The Writer’s Almanac are supported by The Poetry Foundation, celebrating 100 years of Poetry magazine in 2012

The Writer’s Almanac is produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American

Public Media.

Given its popularity, most readers are probably already familiar with this landmark novel that tells the story of two men, one of them a poor black priest and the other the wealthy landowner in the community. They come together tragically when their two sons have a fatal encounter.

For those r

eaders unfamiliar with the story, it may seem reminiscent of the film Dead Man Walking, which relates the story of a nun who ministers to a condemned prisoner but also invokes the heartbreak of his two victims. Or it may be seen as similar to Ernest J. GainesA Lesson Before Dying, about a condemned man who finds redemption through becoming literate.

The message of the novel is contained in the writings of the landowner’s son, who is an advocate for the Natives of South Africa; his essay show clearly the causes for violent actions that leave Johannesburg terrorized and locked behind gated communities. The novel itself is lyrical with loving descriptions of the countryside and realistic depictions of the city. A bus boycott is in effect when the priest travels to Johannesburg—much like the boycott in the Southern USA when black travelers walked great distances to protest.

Cape Point Trail

Cape Point Trail

As the Almanac entry suggests, the story behind the novel is fascinating in itself, a book written in a short time to great triumph. Paton uses the same structure to begin part one—which introduces the priest—as he does in part two to depict the landowner, demonstrating how each is a part of the land. Cry, South A

frica. Cry the Beloved Country. Although this 1949 novel is a powerful statement for desegregation and humane treatment of all, in one sense, it failed, as apartheid persisted for many more years.

A Detective Story in the South African Veldt

Cover of "A Beautiful Place to Die: A Nov...

Cover via Amazon

The veldt in South Africa can be lovely, as noted in A Beautiful Place to Die (2009), Malla Nunn’s first entry in her Emmanuel Cooper detective series. While I gave a thumbs down to the detective mystery by James McClure, The Gooseberry Fool, I had a difficult time tearing myself away from the pages of Nunn’s novel.

It opens with the murder of an Afrikaan police captain, found floating in a stream with two bullet wounds.

Sand River (from the air)

Sand River (from the air)

The time is September, 1952. The National Party and its laws separating the races are gaining traction with Afrikaans citizens filling municipal positions and a new Security Branch that is as ruthless as the Nazi SS division gaining power.

The shambok, a whip made of rhino hide, becomes the preferred instrument of punishment for the police and is a presence in all of the South African novels that I read. But Police Captain Pretorius, the victim, is somehow different. His counterpart, the Zulu constable, Shabalala, was his childhood friend, and the two of them are lightning fast runners, who know the paths of the community and the extensive landscape of the veldt. The paths—known by the derogatory term kaffir paths—play an important role as a Peeping Tom uses them prior to murder to spy on “coloured women.”

Emmanuel realizes his precarious situation immediately: the murder of a police captain is a major concern and should have warranted an investigative team, not just one detective. The sons of the captain are not at all happy that an outsider is interfering and assume that their father’s murderer is a native. Reluctantly, they allow the body to be taken to the local hospital for a quick review—but no autopsy—which is where Emmanuel meets two resolute Catholic sisters who inform him that the one doctor is away but that the “old Jew” who runs the store has medical skills. Enter Zweigman, a reluctant but obviously talented physician, whose presence in Jacob’s Rest is mysterious. Emmanuel gets to know many of the community members as he tracks seemingly disparate clues to find the killer. The captain’s wife, for instance, is a fiery Christian, who intends her youngest son, Louis, to become a preacher, unlike his brawny older brothers.

Complicating the situation, Security Branch men arrive on the scene, their one goal to find a native man linked to Communism and ensure that he confesses to the crime. No person of color is really safe from these henchmen or any other whites. The color lines are drawn exactly, even when sexual attraction may cross it. The Anglo characters include Elliott King, who is setting up a private reserve for safaris having acquired the Captain’s historic farm. Add a pornographer to the mix, and the result is a complex mystery that Emmanuel may or may not entangle by the book’s end—if he doesn’t run afoul of the Security Branch goons. To be honest, the actual mystery is not necessarily untangled at novel’s end, but it’s still a good read.

Is pissing on a person a recurring motif in South African literature? This is the second novel I read for my book list in which the protagonist suffers this indignity, Emmanuel cursing an “inbred country Dutchman.” This book is dedicated “For the Ancestors.” I have a sense that the Afrikaans population will be paying for their South African separatist policies for a long time in the literature of the country.

Sunset in South Africa

Sunset in South Africa

A Beautiful Place to Die reminds us that editor Maxwell Perkins told Alan Paton that one of the most important characters in Cry, the Beloved Country was the land of South Africa itself. I’m looking forward to reading more Emmanuel Cooper stories: Let the Dead Lie (2010) and Blessed are the Dead  (2012).

South Africa’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Cover of "The Power of One"

Cover of The Power of One

Standard in any USA curriculum is Harper Lee’s beautiful coming of age novel To Kill a Mockingbird, featuring the quintessential naïve narrator, Scott Finch, who relates the painful details of a Southern society defined by race and class. South Africa has its own version of this story in Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One (1989), which features the equally enduring Peekay, whom readers come to know during his fifth year through his seventeenth. As with Scout, Peekay is an observer to a world marred by racism and violence, but also punctuated with moments of pure wonder.

Readers never truly know Peekay’s real name. He adopts a version of his boarding school nickname Pisskopf as a badge of honor when he survives his year away from home and hearth when just kindergarten age as the sole English boy in a school of Afrikaners. Given that it is only the 1930s, the memory of defeat by the Anglos in the Boer War is still fresh in his schoolmates’ minds. To give them their due, the Anglos found victory through creating what were termed the first concentration camps, filled with the women and children of the Boer families. Plague and disease killed a good many of them, and the next generation of boys never forgot them or the grandparents who died in the war. The Afrikaners left the coast and burrowed into the interior, establishing farms. The result for the small English boy is hazing at the hands of his older classmates, one particularly loathsome, The Judge, who orchestrates late night shower punishments where Peekay is pissed on–hence the nickname.

Peekay is sent to this school when his mother, as fragile emotionally as her mother had been before her, has a breakdown. Somehow during that year she “finds Christ,” and is “cured” under the spell of an evangelical group, but it does mean that the lad can escape the school, its hazing, and complicit teachers. The traumatic year is followed by the discovery of a neighbor, “Doc,” a German musician-botanist and former professor, who becomes his teacher and mentor. Although Peekay attends a regular school—and is promoted several grades—his primary education comes from this sad and rather mysterious gentleman with whom he roams the hills, seeking out interesting cactus and succulents for Doc’s garden and learning their Latin names.

A gifted learner, Peekay speaks English, Afrikaans, Zulu, and Shangaan, the latter two local tribal languages. His beloved Nanny, a native, is torn away from him when she refuses to “come to Jesus.” She is also responsible for bringing a local shaman to Peekay to help him conquer bedwetting. Peekay never forgives his mother for turning away Nanny, who has been more a mother to him than his biological mother.

Another major influence on Peekay is a train conductor he meets en route from the Afrikaans school to his new home. Hoppie Groenewald seems to divine that the little boy has had a difficult year at the school and treats him with respect, even having the lad accompany him to a boxing match between trains that features Hoppie and a much heavier opponent. In the brief 24 hours that Peekay spends with this man, yet another important mentor, he learns about “the power of one” and acquires a burning desire to be the welterweight champion of the world, a goal that stays with him throughout the novel.

Peekay gets the chance to have boxing lessons from the warders—guards—at the prison that is established in their town, and which has an unlikely inmate, Doc, who failed to register as an “alien” at the beginning of World War II. Peekay’s pluck get him admitted to the prison on a regular basis, where he rises through diligence to become a very fine boxer, even though only 11 years of age.

It is here that the Tom Robinson of Mockingbird, an innocent unfairly condemned, is found in the character of Geel Piet, a native prisoner, who is an excellent coach. Peekay grows to love him, too, and even the Afrikaans boxing trainers admire his skill. When he is tortured and killed by a sadistic guard (and, frankly, even the likable prison staff members are racists), Geel is found by Peekay, yet another cruel lesson on growing up. Keep in mind that at this time in history, South Africa’s ruling party is Anglo; it won’t be until after WWII that the National Party comes to power and apartheid is instituted.

The novel follows Peekay’s success in both boxing ring and classroom as he wins a scholarship to a prestigious boys’ school and falls in with his first same-age chum, Morrie (called Hymie in the South African version), who is rich and Jewish. Again, Peekay is tutored in life skills that benefit him. That last “book” of the novel sees Peekay in an unlikely setting, working in a mine—by choice—and at first, this turn in the plot does not make sense, but it is important in wrapping up Peekay’s story.

A film version of the novel was produced in 1992 (John Avildsen, director), and is notable for its plot changes, including a girlfriend for Peekay, as well as the dramatic introduction of the current reigning James Bond, Daniel Craig.

When I quizzed the Anglo safari guides about The Power of One, they were uniformly enthusiastic about it being a “good read,” some of them having read it during school days. I concur. This version of the book numbers slightly over 500 pages; there is a “young adult” version of the book at 387 pages. That condensed version might be appropriate for, say, a 6th grader or advanced younger reader, but most children have proven with the Harry Potter series that a lengthy book is not insurmountable. Peekay’s overwhelming interest in boxing may seem at odds with his scholastic brilliance to some readers, and there are some graphic details, particularly in the treatment of Africans.

The sequel to this novel is Tandia (1992), which focuses initially on a mixed race young woman who is brutalized by the South African police. Eventually, she meets Peekay and his friend Morrie/Hymie at Oxford. Courtenay (1933-2012) was a prolific and popular writer, who moved to Australia, where he is considered one of its best authors.

Without a doubt, Peekay’s story was the most enjoyable entry in my Road Works list for South Africa. The Power of One demonstrates without question the power of words.

On Safari

On Safari


Elephant in the bush

In Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the guide, Wilson, carries with him a doublewide cot for “windfalls,” the odd wife that would like to bed him—as Mrs. Macomber does.  According to Paul Theroux in Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town (2003), the tracker-guides often feel stalked themselves by female guests, some pursuing them for a one night stand while others are so besotted with the bush that they dream of living out their lives on constant safari.

Theroux gets it right about the new luxury safaris that are about taking photographs rather than trophies. Tourists are after the Big Five—elephants, rhino, water buffalo, lions, and leopards—for the perfect shot, that is the perfect picture. Photographers compete to see who has the longest lens, the fastest rapid snaps. This is all done from the relative comfort of sturdy Land Rovers that seat about six people in tiered seats with the ranger guide driving and the tracker perched precariously at the front of the vehicle in a specially outfitted chair. The forward seat not only allows spotting of animals and birds but also gives a better vantage point to instruct the driver on avoiding stumps that could cripple a vehicle when they’ve gone off track and into the bush to chase a trio of wild dogs. I can say that with certainly as that’s exactly what we did, thorny branches brushing perilously close to the clients, something like Mr. Toad’s wild ride. In fact, I’d recommend that the must pack list for safaris include not only the requisite sunglasses but also clear safety glasses for dusk or dawn driving when the wind can burn or those thorns seem intimidating.



Our prep list for safari included recommended gratuities for the various staff. I estimated that we’d need about 4000 rand for our eight days on safari, but my husband said that was too much as there could not possibly be a butler as listed among the staff. But when we flew in by small plane to the airstrip near Kirkman’s Camp and were greeted by the receptionist, we were also introduced to our butler. Theroux points out, “Hemingway’s gun bearers had morphed into Jeeves-like butler and game spotters.” Dark Star Safari’s last several chapters are particularly relevant to our travels. The history of the camp where we are lodged is addressed in his chapter on Mala Mala, a private game reserve whose owner figured a better economy was based on tourists rather than hunters. He purchased the former cattle ranch that became Kirkman’s Kamp, the old farmhouse turned into a comfortable lodge area with Paul’s Pub being the center of attention at the end of the day as guides tally their day’s sightings of animals and birds on the chalk board lists. Guests are housed in comfortable cottages that look over the Sand River and are free to roam to the boundaries of the Camp—but not beyond—during the day, and at night, security guards escort guests even the short distance between room and dinner. With good cause. A hippo grazed on the lawn on two evenings—the animal most likely to inflict casualties. The Vervet monkeys with their signature blue balls were merely nuisances, trying to steal food when a guest’s back is turned. On the other hand, on our last night at camp, we arrived from the dusk game drive to find a hyena on the lawn, the sneaky critter having gone into the lodge and stolen bar food—although passing up on the Tom Collins.


Coffee Break on Morning Game Drive

Theroux describes a typical day’s agenda in a luxury safari camp, and it is about the same as our experience:

  • 5:30 am wake up knock by the guide
  • coffee and tea at the lodge
  • 6:00 am departure on game drive before the sun is up
  • About three hours on the actual drive with a “coffee break” near the end—featuring Amarula liqueur in the hot chocolate or coffee
  • Return to camp at 9 am for breakfast—a buffet plus hot meals to order (on one morning, two Land Rover groups are treated to breakfast in the bush, a cook out with all the trimmings)
  • Rest of a nature walk with a guide
  • 1:00 lunch with a chalk board outlining a three-course menu: corn coconut soup; coriander fish cakes or chickpea burger; classic Caesar salad, roasted beet salad; honey-cinnamon roasted nectarines with homemade ice cream
  • Rest, swim in the infinity pool, have a massage, stroll the grounds looking at the Vervet monkeys, watching a herd of elephants saunter along on the river bank opposite.
  • High tea before the game drive.
  • 3:00 pm game drive with a cocktail stop—with the guides bringing out a collapsible table, complete with linen tablecloth, and a selection of drinks, including the classic gin & tonic.
  • 6:00 return to lodge for the gathering in the pub to compare notes
  • 7:00 pm dinner, which is with your Land Rover group every other night and may include singing and dancing by locals plus staff. For those traveling solo, a staff member is always on hand so no one has to dine alone.
  • More swapping of tales post-dinner but generally early to bed.

And what do guests see? As with Theroux’s safari, we saw water buffalo with the Ox Picker atop them in a mutually beneficial relationship as the birds plucked off insects that were knocked off trees when the animals went under branches. Naturally, the Big Five are desirable, but the giraffes browsing on trees, the herd of zebra, the striped Kudhu, the funky warthog also bring a thrill to the viewers. Our guide, a PhD in Poo, a Doctor of Dung-ology, was able to locate many of our sightings through reading scat or tracks.

In the down time between activities, guests may indulge in reading, and Theroux receives recommendations from Nadine Gordimer and her friends when he visits her in Johannesburg.

  • Govan Mbeki, The Peasants’ Revolt
  • Huge Lewin, Bandiet
  • Zakes Mda, Ways of Dying
  • Albie Sachs, The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter

Theroux carries with him, though, for emergency readings Montaigne’s Essays, a good recommendation that a traveler should always pack prepared with at least one back-up reading that doesn’t rely on e-format.


Sunset in the bush

And speaking of recommendations, I don’t think I can recommend James McClure’s detective series featuring Kramer and Zondi. Published in the 1970s, the narratives feature racist and derogatory language, perhaps meant to appall, but nevertheless disturbing. The Gooseberry Fool, in spite of my real like of this fruit, actually refers to a chaperone. I had hoped for an escapist read, but this one allowed no easy gratification. The primary benefit was a listing of other books in country-based series at the back of the volume. Much better to pick up Theroux’s wonderful account of his travels from the top to the bottom of an intriguing continent.

Into South Africa


Trail between Cape Point and Cape Good Hope

In 1948, President Truman gave the order to de-segregate U.S. Armed Forces; meanwhile, South Africa instituted Apartheid. South Africa, particularly the Cape Town area, is stunningly beautiful, but its almost 50 year history of segregating races and giving preference to whites—English and Afrikaans primarily—hangs like a cloud. I’m reminded of how I feel when I travel to Germany or to Dallas—holding both of those places guilty for past sins.

The theme of race relations pervades the literature of South Africa. When I was compiling my list of Road Works Books for this trip, I kept thinking—surely there might be some escapist fiction for a “beach” read for at least one selection. It did not seem so. Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer focuses consistently on race relations; similarly J. M. Coetzee, the only novelist to have won the Booker Prize twice, uses this theme. And why not. Conflict is at the heart of good fiction and apartheid provides plenty of that. (I’m keenly aware that the United States has its own shameful history in terms of civil and equal rights.)

This is my working list of titles for the trip:

South Africa: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Isabel Balseiro and Tobias Hecht (2009)

The Power of One, Bryce Courtenay (1989)

The Syringa Tree, Pamela Gien

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, Paul Theroux

The Gooseberry Fool, James McClure (a detective series featuring Kramer and Zondi)

A Beautiful Place to Die: An Emmanuel Cooper Mystery, Malia Nunn

Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton

 A visit to Kalk Bay Bookstore—a truly fine bookstore—revealed that the wealth of South African literature is not very well represented on USA Amazon. Finuala Dowling, for instance, who is a poet and fiction writer, has a recent novel Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart (2011); Andre Brink’s Philida, long-listed for the Booker Prize, looks to be quite good—about a slave in 1830s South Africa who seeks her freedom; The Institute of Taxi Poetry by Imraan Coovadia,  a funny satire; Coconut by Kopana Matiwa won the Europe Book Award in 2007; The Smell of Apples by Mark Behr is yet another recent title; Deon Meyer’s mystery series, originally written in Afrikaans, joins other series such as those written by Jassy Mackenzie. J. M. Coetzee has many titles on the shelves, perhaps his best for travel reading being his memoir Boyhood. 


Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town

While an anthology is my least favorite way to discover the literature of a country, Whereabouts Press, located in Berkeley, provides the best I’ve encountered and allowed me insight into the overall country as this traveler’s literary companion is divided by region. My favorite discovery in this volume is author Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) whose “1899” selection comes from her novel The Story of an African Farm. This remains a highly-readable narrative, heart-breaking even, of a woman who experiences loss consistently through her life, including the Anglo-Boer War. She might be termed the Isak Dinesen of South Africa. So revered is she that a literary prize for new and emerging talent is named in her honor, Finuala Dowling being a recent winner. With South Africa’s current motto, “Diverse People Unite,” in a country where 11 official languages make that somewhat difficult, it’s hoped that the unifying spirit that Nelson Mandela embraced will truly last. It is certainly a beautiful landscape in which to pursue such a worthy goal.


Penguins on Parade at nature reserve in suburbia

Harvey Girl Plays Nancy Drew

Call the marketing department! Rarely has a novel been so badly named as Seashells in the Desert, a 2011 historical mystery by Susan Tornga. There’s actually a good audience for fiction focused on the Harvey Girls, but it would be rather difficult to find this one, given its title, which refers to a rather meaningless episode in the novel. In fact, the emphasis on seashells leads the reader to believe that they may be important to the plot. Not so. In spite of a rather lame title, this is a good read for those interested in the Harvey Girls phenomenon, particularly for those traveling to Winslow, Arizona, where the novel is set–although the 1895 Harvey House of the novel was replaced in 1930 by an extraordinary hotel designed by Mary Colter: La Posada, a destination in itself.

La Posada Entry (Winslow AZ)

The narrator, Tessa Crane, is an early Nancy Drew, who stumbles into a murder mystery when a young woman who arrives on the eastbound train from San Francisco makes a scene in the dining room and is later found dead. Clues suggest that she was taking care of “past business,” but what is the secret that takes not only her life but also that of old Doctor Benton? Tessa is determined to find out and also help the unjustly jailed brother of her roommate, Lupe Castillo, Joaquin, who may have had an intimate relationship with the dead woman several years earlier when she lived in Winslow. Prejudice against Mexicans such as Lupe and Joaquin is a problem as they are deemed guilty immediately by many townspeople and even Tessa’s sister Harvey girls.

Not the most adept detective, Tessa botches several encounters with potential informants. Of course, by novel’s end, she has solved the case. Along the way, there is historical information about cattle ranching, Fort Apache, and Fred Harvey and his innovative hiring of educated young women to staff his western hotels and dining rooms along the Santa Fe railway. Seashells in the Desert is yet another self-published novel, testament to the increasing number of authors whose works are reaching readers through e-books.

El Tovar, the grande dame of lodging, at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

For anyone traveling in the Southwest, reading about Fred Harvey and his Harvey Girls is intrinsically interesting. Several books, in fact, focus on how Harvey influenced the development of the West—primarily through reliable dining but also through arts, archaeology, culture, and history. While many know the Harvey Girls through the 1946 film of the same name—a Judy Garland vehicle—one of the lesser known aspects is the “Southwest Indian Detour Couriers,” a fascinating group of college-educated women, bilingual in English and Spanish, who served as guides for tours that provided a more intensive and up-close look at Pueblo culture. These women trained intensively before heading out on tours, wearing jaunty hats, velveteen blouses, tan skirts, and a lot of Navajo jewelry (pictured in the History Room of Bright Angel Lodge at the South Rim of Grand Canyon). Diane H. Thomas describes these tours in her The Southwestern Indian Detours: The Story of the Fred Harvey/Santa Fe Railway Experiment in “Detourism” (1978). Truly, Fred Harvey provided employment (and adventure) opportunities for young women at the turn of the 20thcentury.

Harvey Courier Outfit (History Room of Bright Angel Lodge)

To read more about these fascinating characters, try these titles:


Harvey Girl, Sheila Wood Foard (2006)—set in New Mexico and the Grand Canyon; suitable for young readers

When Molly Was a Harvey Girl, Frances M. Wood (2010)—set in Raton, NM; suitable for young readers


The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West, Lesley Poling-Kempes (1994)

Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West–One Meal at a Time, Stephen Fried (2011)

Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest, Richard Melzer (2008): a photographic history

The Harvey House Cookbook: Memories of Dining along the Santa Fe Railway, George H. Foster and Peter Weiglin, 2006: includes vintage recipes. For a contemporary version see the cookbook La Posada’s Turquoise Room Cookbook by John Sharpe (or even better, eat there).

Inventing the Southwest: The Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art, Kathleen F. Howard and Diana Pardue, 1996. This one tells the more unflattering tale of how Harvey influenced Native American art to be “acceptable” to an American buying public.

Riordan Mansion (State Park, Flagstaff)

A personal note: Staying in El Tovar, a Harvey House on Grand Canyon’s South Rim, is part of a quest to visit each of the legendary Great Lodges of the West by Christine Barnes (1997). We’ve only one left, and pursuing this goal over several years has been a real pleasure. El Tovar was designed by Charles Whittlesey, who is also architect for the wonderful Riordan Mansion in Flagstaff, Arizona, now a state park. The more famous architect of the Southwest is, naturally, Mary Colter. Her buildings at the Grand Canyon are legendary, but we were even more pleased to discover La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, a hotel that has been reborn since its 1997 acquisition by a visionary couple.

A Ghost Story in the Ghost Town of Jerome, Arizona

Cover of "Shadows in Jerome"

Cover of Shadows in Jerome

Without a doubt, Curtis D. Vick’s Shadows in Jerome (2003) is a terrific read for acquiring a sense of place and history. Jerome, Arizona is a popular tourist destination, a town that plummeted from a population high of 15,000 in its copper-mining heyday to a low of 50. It was reborn with the help of artists who re-populated the mountainside city. Vick gets the details of the current town and its history right.

A couple—a freelance photographer who has picked up in his travels a young woman who likes the feel of wind in her hair—enter Jerome in their Volkswagen convertible “Bug,” and intend to settle for a month while he takes pictures of the interesting buildings and places and she works as a waitress. Mike meets a retired photographer at the local bar, Cyrus, who takes him under his wing and provides an opportunity for the two of them to review history and stories of the “ghost town.” Ghost is the key word here, for unbeknownst to the trio, the ghost of Madeleine Morgan haunts one of the old houses, tortured by the untimely death of her younger sister Angie in an accident when the car she was driving missed a curve on the dangerous roads of Jerome. Was it truly an accident?

The two stories in the novel—the contemporary one and the one set in the early part of the 20th century—intertwine, even to the point of Madeline and Mike having a sexual encounter. In fact, there are fairly graphic sexual scenes in the novel as well as horror. All of the characters are in some turmoil. Will they find peace at the end? Or will Mike and Julia be victims of an agonized and vengeful spirit.

The town of Jerome rests on the steep hillside of Mingus Mountain; sometimes, it didn’t rest at all as the dynamiting of the open pit copper mine sent some buildings—like the jail—more than 200 feet down the hillside. Tourists visiting the ghost town will definitely exercise their calf muscles walking up and down steep stairs that connect the streets. Houses and stores may have a front entrance on one street and a basement entrance on a lower street. The road—Highway 89A—which winds from Jerome to the territorial capital of Prescott is breathtaking, sometimes literally for those who are acrophobic.

The state historical park of Jerome focuses on the mine itself, but in the “up” town area, shops, restaurants, and wineries dominate. In fact, it was at the window of a closed bookstore that I discovered Shadows in Jerome and ordered it for my Kindle. As is so often the case with self-published novels, a good editor would have been helpful. Vick has another Arizona novel, The Outdweller, set in the Superstition Mountains. For readers who prefer their history in a package of fiction, it would be hard to go wrong with Shadows in Jerome.