Reviewed by Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963-65)
Travels abroad tend to inspire Peace Corps Volunteers, some (many) of whom have gone on to become noted writers. You can count National Book Award winner Bob Shacochis among them. He started out in the 1970s posted in the Caribbean (Grenada), and since then he has crisscrossed the globe seeking challenging stories to write — fiction and non-fiction, novels and essays, praiseworthy literary reportage, and adventurous travelers’ tales.
The first story in Kingdoms in the Air: Dispatches from the Far Away takes up almost half the book. It is set in the Land of Lo (Lo-Manthang to its inhabitants), the high, uppermost part of Mustang District in north-central Nepal, crammed right up next to Tibet (China’s Xizang) on the cusp of the Tibetan plateau. Lo is both bleak and arid, situated north of the main axis of the Himalayas in the rain shadow of the world’s highest peaks. It’s a place that is more culturally and linguistically Tibetan than Nepalese, with an antiquity of some consequence. Even its recent history is intriguing, with Tibetan guerilla fighters supplied by the CIA fighting the Chinese in the 1960s and early 1970s, and spin-offs from a bloody Nepalese-Maoist uprising sweeping north from the mid-hills during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Shacochis traveled to Lo with Thomas Laird, a noted photojournalist, and the first foreigner to have lived in the near-medieval Kingdom of Mustang before it opened up to the outside world. On this journey, Laird was intent on completing documentation of the startlingly harsh beauty, its picturesque cultural landscapes and, especially, its crumbling religious edifices. Bob Shacochis and his wife are Laird’s guests in what becomes, at the heart of the story, a personal saga centered on Laird’s determination to access and photograph what remains of ancient Lo, past and present, at times obstructed by suspicious locals and visiting restoration architects who come to odds over conflicting agendas and contrary personalities.
What strikes the reader in this and the other stories in the book is Shacochis’s richly descriptive narrative. He first draws us into the arduous journey to Lo from the edge of dusty Jomsom, the district town. “The road out of town,” he begins, “is lively, an Old West mix of animals, villagers, and pilgrims — horses and mule trains, goats and shepherds, solitary dhzos like shaggy Texas longhorns, self-involved schoolchildren, porters hauling lumber north into the desert, shopkeepers on their stoops, orange-robed sadhus off to Muktinath, a toylike Chinese tractor hauling a wagonload of laborers.” Then, over many days we follow the trekking party as they alternately walk and ride horseback through an unforgiving landscape to the ancient walled settlement of Lo, home to the respected King of Mustang.
After the story of Lo, in the remaining 12 tales in the book we visit other exotic places, including Cuba, Haiti and Grenada in the Caribbean (with which the author is intimately familiar), and on to Siberia, Christmas Island, Mozambique, and Turkey (Mt Arafat).
He also introduces us to Gringolandia, which is inundated by crazy American tourists, about whom he has definite opinions. It’s global but not on a map, he writes in a piece entitled “In deepest Gringolandia.” Then with a critical-cynical eye the self-defined bourgeois tourist and maverick travel writer goes on to describe it as a place or places where too many North Americans spend their vacations at “fun-in-the-sun destinations,” in the mountains or along the coasts “of what we call the Third World or the developing world or the postcolonial world — the hot, dark-skinned nations that still bear the shape of Empire’s boots across their sweaty backsides.” It’s where “the Kiplings and Conrads once poked around” and now myriad white folks pay big bucks on excursions “into the mythological but much diluted, faraway but perfectly scrubbed heart of darkness.” And they take North America with them “in varying degrees, yes, ugly or beautiful, but North America nevertheless.”
Shacochis has seen it all, and while his short essay on the tourists of Gringolandia sounds disheartening, it’s not, for he is always insightful and entertaining, the sort of writer who illustrates his travels and travails in words so graphic and clear that you’ll be sitting straight up in your chair in anticipation of what comes next.
Kingdoms in the Air reveals the adventurous soul of this noted Peace Corps writer. It’s a well-recommended collection of tales.
Reviewer Dr. Don Messerschmidt is an anthropologist and writer who first went to Nepal as a Peace Corps community development worker, then stayed on to teach, write and advise on rural development works. He’s the author of several books and many magazine articles on Nepal, and is currently working on the biography of a noted Nepalese writer and adventurer. Don also writes a monthly column in a Nepalese magazine on culture, history, the arts, books, and adventure travel (at www.ecs.com.np), does reviews for the Portland Book Review (of Portland, Oregon), and periodically leads tours and treks in the Nepal and Bhutan Himalayas. Since the massive Nepal earthquake of April 2015, he has gone back three times to assist in recovery efforts. When he’s not roaming the Himalayas he lives in Vancouver, Washington (USA) with his wife Kareen, near their son, daughter and grandson.