If you are an independent traveler who relishes solitude yet occasionally wishes for another person's voice and vision, you need to pop this tiny volume into your luggage. Donald Richie's newest book is the perfect accompaniment to any journey, whether it's still in the planning stages, is already on the open road, or is never to go beyond the expanses of a cozy armchair.
A man who left the United States to live most of his life in Japan, Richie is well aware of the privileges and limitations that come with spending short periods of time in other countries. Travel, he points out, "is freedom from captivity." Yet when travelers are in places where they cannot speak the language, it also can turn them into "no one at all."
This liability of being no one brings its own form of liberation. Without the demands of customary human interaction, travelers can become cameras, having no responsibilities except to absorb, consider and record everything that they have come to see. And that is where the challenge lies--suddenly the world is transformed into a blur of beauty and amazement, and describing it turns into a vocabulary test. Travel journals, despite the best of intentions, run the risk of becoming repositories for those desperate sentences that are usually found on the backs of postcards--unless the person writing is Donald Richie.
This man doesn't leave his knowledge and experience at home when he goes exploring, and never fails to bring originality of perspective and of language to the places that he visits. Pointing out that there is a vast difference between visiting a destination that's so far along the road less traveled that it is rarely ever heard of, and going somewhere that is so famous that a visitor has a connection with it long before actually being there, Richie revels in experiencing the places he goes to, and then recreating that experience for his readers. For him, viewing the Great Pyramids or the splendors of Cambodia's temples is an adventure as fresh and untarnished as going to Bhutan or Mongolia.
In Egypt, "in the cold shadow of Cheops" on the Geza plateau, he finds a profile from an ancient bas-relief on the face of the camel driver who is his guide, and a direct line is drawn from the present to the past, with its men who built pyramids with stones "as big as a Toyota." At Angkor, while trying to understand the extent of the entire area, he realizes it is roughly the same size as inner Washington D.C. and suddenly imagines the ruins of that modern capital being toured in the same way that Angkor is now, by tourists wandering through it in a daze of awe and ignorance. In India he sees the future of the world, "when further billions are born and have nowhere to go," and then recognizes in the erotic temple carvings of Khajuraho that sheer joy of "this beautiful, irresistible urge" that will soon overcrowd the planet.
As well as examining destinations, Richie takes a close look at the act of travel, and at those who pursue it. "Why," he asks himself while lying on an idyllic Krabi beach, "are tourists so horny?" He decides that for people who are in "a new environment, cut from the past and plunked into an alien present," often without language and the power that it confers, sex helps to reestablish a "sense of self." While his readers may or may not agree with him, he certainly does give everyone something to ponder.
As he does when recounting a conversation in Japan about the art of using lacquer, where he is told by "a portly gentleman" that there is no more lacquer because it can't be made by robots. "They're all around--young robots. They can't read anything but comic books and they perm their hair and they can't think. Robots already--that's what they are." And then, Richie says, "we drink our tea in that agreeable silence left when undoubted truths have been voiced."
May we all have the pleasure of drinking our own tea, or beer, or Scotch in that agreeable silence that comes when traveling with Donald Richie.