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Amuse Bouches of Travel writing (James Dorsey’s Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails)

17th October 2014

Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails by James Dorsey.

South East Asia, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Timbuktu, Africa, Cairo, Peru, Greece, Grand Bahama (and yes, Ernest Hemingway does get a brief look-in) and more…..

For me, travel is a way to learn and experience. Ultimately I was drawn to leave the beaten path in search of truly different ways of life”.

IMG_2674James Dorsey is a dedicated traveller who has 44 countries under his belt at the time of writing. He is someone who knows what it is to travel. He knows how to get under the skin of a country and get close to the variety of cultures and people that exist around our wonderful globe.

Short and peppy chapters are devoted to each locale that he has chosen to visit, and his stories are as varied in experience and storyline as the earth has colours beneath his feet. The black and white photos show him, his companions and the people he meets in a variety of poses and traditional costume, fabulous faces that express lives lived, terrains that are taxing, and exoticism that is beyond the reach of many.

It is hard to convey the full range of experience that Dorsey assembles in his book, so I have cherry picked just a few of the places he visited that appealed to me.

He travels the Mekong to Cambodia and sets about exploring Beng Melea which is only 65km East of Siem Reap. It is the ‘ancient soul of Cambodia‘, temple ruins fighting for survival against the tendrils of the jungle. A quiet and dignified site that contrasts with the neon brashness that now colours Angkor Wat. He later meets Akira who was orphaned and then trained by the Khmer Rouge to lay land mines – today, they are still a huge issue and Akira now works in the jungle finding them and then detonating these ‘perfect soldiers’ Pol Pot’s epithet for these killing machines.

Moving on to China he is faced with an array of dietary challenges from baked baby sparrow to boiled rabbit embryo, as well as the stunning sites of the Terracotta Army and the Three Gorges Dam. Poverty, Buddhism and class issues all come into his orbit and he approaches the people and cultures he meets with sensitivity and insight. This continues as he moves on to Africa. Here is voice changes in that there is more depth and history and a fullness in prose. The immutable Saharan landscape rolls along as Dorsey travels in the company of the Tuaregs and encounters Whirling Dervishes, journeying on to Timbuktu.

As the author says nothing, could be as “far away as Timbuktu“. He ponders the derivation of the name, whether it means woman with a big navel or a big lump (take your pick), or whether it simply means a depression between sand dunes. Today it is a ‘low, brown city, mostly hidden under a layer of sand. But that is a disservice to the color brown. It is a brown filtered through blowing sand and baked by a relentless sun. It is a brown full of mountain purple and sunset yellow.’ From this brief sentence the reader can glean how lyrical some of the author’s prose can be.

The chapters are full of encounters and observations, whether he is musing about the camel, who can drink 100 gallons of water in 10 minutes; or exploring the lives of the Maasai warriors, and how they might tackle the killing of a lion; meeting a pigeon fancier in Cairo and smoking khat in Ethiopia; recounting the role of the guinea pig in Peru, whether it is a tasty dish to eat or used to diagnose illness (yes really).

He truly does espouse the idea that “Travel does not always begin with the boarding of an airplane, but rather at the moment one opens the mind to new possibilities”. This comes through very strongly in his writing and this book is a whistlestop tour around the world, that will inspire and challenge. And if this book takes you to places you could not, or would not go, then, in the author’s eyes, it is a success. Which indeed it is.

The multiple locations brought together do offer a multifaceted overview, but as the book draws to the end, the choice of locale begins to feel a little random. Consolidation and focus on the main areas of Asia and Africa, which apparently are the author’s principle interest areas, might have felt more cohesive, as the section ‘Tales from Elsewhere’ featuring Peru, Grand Bahama, Greece and Russia feels like a bit of a tag on.

 Tina for the TripFiction Team

You can find out more about James Dorsey on his blog.

The book is published by Vagabundo Magazine and it is their first venture into publishing.  Founded by Brendan Van Son in 2011 the magazine is a fabulous way to travel the world, and you can subscribe here. Follow both via social media:

Vagabundo Magazine and Brendan van Son on Twitter

Vagabundo Magazine and Brendan van Son on Facebook

And of course you can hook up with us at TripFiction via TwitterFacebook and Pinterest and when we have some interesting photos we can sometimes be found over on Instagram too.




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