Thursday, May 22, 2008

Globe-trotting with Michael Palin (travel books part 2)

Palin, Michael.
Around the World in 80 days: Companion to the PBS Series. San Francisco: KQED Books, 1995.

Pole to Pole With Michael Palin: North to South by Camel, River Raft, and Balloon. San Francisco; Emeryville, CA: KQED Books, 1995.

Full Circle: One Man's Journey by Air, Train, Boat and Occasionally Very Sore Feet Around the 50,000 Miles of the Pacific Rim. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Sahara. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2003.

Himalaya. St. Martin's Press, 2004.

Web site (where you can even read each book, though I recommend the print instead):
One great thing about this website: you can follow the route for each of his journeys, by clicking on the journey name in the upper right corner. In the middle of the next page, there will be a link to facts and a "route map."

Yep, it's THAT Michael Palin, former member of Monty Python and one of the stars of A Fish Called Wanda. In the last decade and a half, Palin's been taking long journeys around the globe, accompanied by a BBC camera crew and a great still photographer, Basil Rao. The series (with the same names as the books, above) have appeared on PBS and the Travel Channel in the U.S. I never manage to catch an entire series when it's on tv--not reading TV Guide religiously enough, I guess. I skipped Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure, but I've read all the other books up through Himalaya.

I'd recommend both watching the series and reading the books. While Basil Rao's photos in the books are beautiful, you see more in the series, and you see the motions, hear the sounds. The books, though, are NOT just the scripts written down. They're more like diaries, so you get more insight on the ins and outs of filming. Plus, you get the stories, observations, and descriptions of Palin, with the dry wit and the compassion that you hear in the series.

I think Palin does a good job of balancing wit and respect. I rarely feel that he's having fun at others' expense. Rather, he's willing to let others have fun at his expense. He's game to try just about anything locals (or his camera crew) throw at him. He's sensitive to the material poverty of the countries he goes through (not that all the countries he travels through are economically poor) and the divide between rich and poor. He's appreciative of the wonders he sees, and the kindnesses that are shown him.

On his journeys, Palin hits the major sights you'd expect, and many, many others. Some of the places he visits rarely have outside visitors. At many of the places there's a local or long-time resident accompanying him. He visits famous people--he even had an audience with the Dalai Lama--but he interacts with lots of ordinary people as well. Oh, and he's often taking some odd form of transportation--tagging along on a camel train, sailing on a dhow off the coast of India. He's never shown flying, unless it's a sightseeing flight.

He's often visiting countries that are politically volatile (in the Himalaya trip, some of his party were kidnapped; I didn't know about the conflict in western Sahel till I read Saraha).

Around the World in 80 Days is my least favorite book--it's still good, but most of this trip takes place on water. It's fun to learn about some of the naval customs. As for the route he takes, he tries as much as possible to follow the route in the famous Jules Verne book.

Sahara was the hardest book for me to read, because it deals the most with the gap between rich and poor. It really made me think about how much stuff I have, and how little other people have.

In Pole to Pole he follows, as closely as possible, the 30th longitude, through Europe and Africa, hopping over to the South America for a short stop before ending in Antarctica. In Full Circle, he visits the countries of the Pacific Rim.

I recently finished Himalaya, so that sticks out most in my mind, and is my current favorite. It starts in Pakistan and ends not in the mountains, but in Bangladesh, at the mouth of the Ganges River.

I don't think I'm doing these books justice. They're funny, entertaining, awe-inspiring, and occasionally thought-provoking. I learn a little bit about history, geography, and culture with each one--enough to whet my appetite for more.