December 24, 2010

Island of the Human Heart

This travel book by a young Canadian woman named Laurie Gough is a sizzling and thought-provoking read. It's mostly about some months she spent on the Fijiian Island of Taveuni, but she intersperses the Taveuni chapters with descriptions of her other travels to places like Malaysia, New Zealand and Italy.

She travels all over the world for years, doing odd jobs (teaching English, working in restaurants) to pay her way and going home at times in between. This woman is fearless and almost infinitely tolerant of inconveniences, a thing I find fascinating because I'm the opposite (in the inconvenience department.) She sleeps rolled up tightly in a rug from which there is no escape until someone unrolls you in the morning. She sleeps in the same bed with a mumbling old grandmother and travels on hot trains where she's delighted to have a cooling spray on her face when she leans out of the window until she notices later that mothers hold their babies out the window to pee.

As a risk-taker, Gough gets into trouble from time to time. I was mesmerized by her various encounters with what she characterizes as Evil. My friend Florentine recently wrote in a paper about travel: "What one 'sees' is never just about the discovery of the foreign, but always also about homegrown fears and fantasies – so much so that travel literature has been characterized as 'a particularly authentic way of self description.'"
Gough doesn't shy away from such self description. Although she considers Taveuni as close to paradise as she can imagine, her values on such things as women's rights and telling the truth clash with those of the Islanders and eventually lead to her being asked to leave the island, at about same time as she's ready to leave.

She ends the book with an important thought about making the most of today: "Life isn't a prelude to something bigger. There is no prelude. Just life itself - right here."

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