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Jordan Salama, a 2019 Princeton University graduate and journalist, comes by his travel instincts honestly. His great-great-great-grandfather led a thousand camels along the Silk Road to trade goods in Iraq, Syria and Iran; his great-grandfather, a Syrian Jewish immigrant to Argentina, rode on horseback through the Andes as an itinerant salesman; and his father became a physician in Buenos Aires before migrating to New York City. Their stories, passed down through generations of a family that spoke "a spellbinding mix of English, Spanish, and Arabic," have inspired Salama's own explorations, including the one he describes in Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena.

The Magdalena River, which is over 900 miles long and Colombia's principal waterway, links the country's diverse interior to the Caribbean Sea. It has long been a vital transportation mainstay, used and abused by the Colombian government, global industry, paramilitaries, guerillas, migrants, fishers and environmentalists alike. In 2016 the government signed a wobbly peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and other guerilla armies, but the river's future viability remains as unclear as its sediment-stacked waters. Salama is intent on learning everything he can, while he still can, about this endangered, legendary river that threads its way through Colombia's history and people.

The Magdalena is central to many tales, both in fiction, as in the novels of Colombia's revered author Gabriel García Márquez, and in the true stories Salama hears as he follows the river's course from beginning to end. The people he meets and travels with share their experiences—from a jeweler selling silver filigree flowers, to a teacher delivering books to rural children via his two donkeys (Alfa and Beto), to the ill-fated anthropologist and activist Luis Manuel Salamanca, to Alvarito, the village kite master. They are, Salama writes, "ordinary people working tirelessly to preserve the natural/cultural treasures of a country much maligned by war," and their fates are interwoven with the Magdalena.

Then there are the runaway hippopotamuses. Imported from Africa for the private zoo of notorious drug king Pablo Escobar, the hippos fled after Escobar's murder in 1993 and now make the Magdalena and its tributaries their home. They have multiplied and spread over the past three decades, and they will pursue and attack any intruders. As Salama ventures deeper into Colombia, he can't wait to find them.

By the time Salama ends his riveting journey, scrambling across the treacherous rocks where the Magdalena River meets the Caribbean Sea, he has already enticed readers to follow him on his next one.

Jordan Salama is intent on learning everything he can about the legendary Magdalena River, which threads its way through Colombia’s history and people.

Early in Pravda Ha Ha, author Rory MacLean notes that “we all like a good story. We all need a narrative for our lives. The most potent stories give us an idea or individual to believe in, as well as someone to blame when things go wrong.” This thesis sits at the core of MacLean’s book, which otherwise defies categorization. Part travel journal, part oral history and part political treatise, Pravda Ha Ha ultimately raises more questions about its subject matter than it answers. But the idea that people of all backgrounds use storytelling to bind communities together and tear them apart is a steady throughline in MacLean’s work. Interestingly, MacLean suggests that he uses narrative for this purpose, too.

Pravda Ha Ha is MacLean’s account of a recent journey across Eastern Europe—from Moscow to Berlin and ultimately back to his native Britain—which mirrored a similar trip he took from Berlin to Moscow back in 1989 as an idealistic young writer. That original trip follows him like a grim shadow throughout the book. The optimistic ideals of liberalism and democracy that inspired him in 1989 seem to wither in the face of the current bleak realities of Eastern Europe. MacLean observes with sorrow and considerable anger the greed and corruption that have taken over the countries he once traveled across as a hopeful young man. In doing so, he asks us to consider how idealism and hope are sometimes not enough, especially in the face of powerful, wealthy interests.

If this all sounds a little dense and bleak, be assured that it doesn’t come across as such. MacLean’s book is immensely readable. The history and politics of Eastern Europe are tackled here with humor and dry wit. MacLean is not writing a textbook but rather a series of richly detailed anecdotes about his experiences. This is perhaps the major fault of the book: MacLean assumes that his experiences of Eastern Europe are universal. His experience of Russia, for example, as solely corrupt and hopeless may not necessarily be fair to the people who actually make their lives there.

However, this might also be a lesson of the book. Memory, MacLean suggests, goes a terribly long way to shape the way we view the world around us. In other words, memory becomes narrative, and narrative becomes the deciding factor in who writes history, and how. Pravda Ha Ha, in this way, is less a history of Eastern Europe than it is a history of Rory MacLean, and there are certainly worse histories you could read.

Rory MacLean’s immensely readable, humorous account joins two parallel journeys across Eastern Europe—one in 1989 and one in 2019.

The road trip. The Wright Brothers. What could be more American?

How about putting the two together?

Husband-and-wife team James Fallows and Deborah Fallows did just that, flying their small, single-engine propeller plane back and forth and up and down the United States over five years and 100,000 miles, a journey they document in Our Towns. When the couple set out in 2012, they expected to find problems and poverty, and they did. But as they continued to set down in a wide variety of cities, towns and backyards, they were also struck by the resilient spirits of the people.

The chronological approach to this narrative can be frustrating at first—readers may wish the authors had reported on the towns by topic or by geography, rather than traveling from South Dakota to Maine in the first year, then starting over in South Carolina the next. In the end, though, being able to make discoveries with the Fallows as they go from place to place is part of the book’s charm. On any given page, you might find yourself wandering the halls of an innovative community college in Mississippi or sharing a beer with millennials at a bar in San Bernardino, California. In between stops, the Fallows’ bird’s-eye view reveals the visual contours of the country, from street grids to agricultural feedlots to collections of backyard swimming pools.

Co-authoring a travel memoir can be tricky, but the Fallows team pulls it off like the professionals they are. James has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic for over 30 years, and Deborah is the author of Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language. In alternating sections, each writer demonstrates certain strengths—Deborah, with her eye for local color, will make you smell the potluck Easter banquet they happen on in Georgia, while James will show you around the remains of the Mack Trucks plant in Allenstown, Pennsylvania. Together, they paint a rich picture of a complex country in this finely detailed love letter to America.

The road trip. The Wright Brothers. What could be more American? How about putting the two together?

In The Last Wild Men of Borneo, author Carl Hoffman (Savage Harvest) tells the alternating stories of two bold and fearless men: Bruno Manser from Switzerland and American Michael Palmieri. Comparing and contrasting the two, Hoffman compellingly explains what drove them to seek a life of daring exploration.

Both traveled to a variety of intriguing locales, including Beirut, Kabul and Thailand, and they eventually ended up in tropical Borneo, the world’s third largest island. Home to parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and the tiny sultanate of Brunei, Borneo’s terrain is not the lush jungle typically associated with a hot, steamy climate, but rather an “ancient primary landscape of hardwood trees soaring one hundred feet tall.” Both Manser and Palmieri were drawn to the beauty and mystery of this unusual island, particularly the sacred cultures of its people and “romantic notions of their power.”

Although the two men were different in almost every way, in Palmieri’s words, they were “both obsessed.” Manser ventured deep into the dense rainforest and essentially went native, living among the Penan people and leading a fight against the logging and mining companies destroying the pristine forest. Palmieri also journeyed far into the rugged terrain, ultimately becoming a tribal art dealer and collector. They were each trying to save this land and its culture in their own way. But while Palmieri ended up with a comfortable lifestyle, Manser mysteriously disappeared without a trace in 2000.

Hoffman charts the engrossing backstory of both men, and through meticulous research, interviews and personal visits, he paints a vivid character portrait of the two adventurers while detailing the incredible splendor of the unique region. The Last Wild Men of Borneo is an exciting tale of Borneo’s rich history and two modern-day treasure hunters who followed their dreams.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In The Last Wild Men of Borneo, author Carl Hoffman (Savage Harvest) tells the alternating stories of two bold and fearless men: Bruno Manser from Switzerland and American Michael Palmieri. Comparing and contrasting the two, Hoffman compellingly explains what drove them to seek a life of daring exploration.

In Shoba Narayan’s delightful memoir, The Milk Lady of Bangalore, she recalls moving from America to India and the many joys she found there—the most unexpected being cows. In India, where cows are considered holy, bovines roam the street, and Narayan forges a friendship with the woman who sells fresh milk across from her home. In this Q&A, Narayan tells us about her bovine infatuation, surprising uses for cow dung and her career back-up plan.

Sarala, your milk lady, believes that “more than any creature, cows are connected to humans.” Another person told you that “cows are the most evolved animal, after humans.” What are your thoughts on these statements?
I started as a skeptic. I would roll my eyes at these statements and then try to figure out what the agenda was. I think those of us city-dwellers who have lost our connection to nature—the birds, bees and, ahem, bovines that surround us—are depriving ourselves of a vital link that is part of our evolution and ecology. Such statements reveal the connection that people like Sarala have maintained with all species great and small. Their lives are the richer for it. I am now trying to emulate and engineer such connections. It is easier to do in India.

You write that if anyone had suggested that youd be writing about cows, you would have yelled “Get out!” in an Elaine-Jerry Seinfeld kind or way. Now you're in love with them. Did you pick cows as a subject, or did they pick you?
Cows picked me. I used to see them all over the place in India. I didn’t realize then that they would arrive at my doorstep. The story too, unspooled over 10 years. Like the slow and sensuous gait of a cow, this was a tale that took its own time to come to life.

Unlike your previous book, the recipe-filled Monsoon Diary, this book contains only one recipe: for panchagavya, a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, yogurt, bananas and other ingredients. You describe an incredible number of uses for cow dung and cow urine, including urine as an elixir, which you tasted. Do you recommend it?
Look, I know that you guys are now rolling your eyes like I once did. Do I believe in esoteric alternative remedies that most people would mock? Yes. Do I imbibe cow urine tablets on a daily basis? No. Do I realize that this situation is ripe for satire? Yes. Do I add panchagavya to the manure for my garden? Most definitely. And I grow wonderful heirloom tomatoes, purple eggplant, beans, pumpkin, basil and tons of herbs. So there you have it.

You grew up in India, where cows are holy. Then you immigrated to America for college and journalism school, and eventually returned to India with your husband and two daughters. How has your view of cows changed throughout these transitions?
Well, it is hard to find a live cow walking the streets in the U.S. So my interest in cows remained dormant while I lived stateside. It was hibernating perhaps. When I returned to India, my interest renewed with fresh zeal because I saw cows as animals I had grown up with but also as symbols of Indian culture and the Indian ethos where fantasy and reality seem to blend in kaleidoscopic color.

What does your family think about your cow adventures? Are they as fond as cows as you are?
My husband tolerates it. My kids openly laugh at me while (I hope) secretly being proud of my peculiarities. My parents and in-laws who belong to the earlier generation of Indians heartily approve. My aunts and uncles use me as an example when they talk to their own children who are now in America. “Look at Shoba. See how connected she has become to her Indian roots,” they will say. My cousins all resent me for becoming an Indian role model in a way that they simply cannot emulate. I mean, how can you sit in Buffalo, New York, and compete for family approval with a cousin who has gone and bought a cow?

“The reason I want to buy milk from a cow,” you explain, “is because I am trying to recapture the simple times of my childhood, particularly after the intricate dance that I have undertaken for the last twenty years as an immigrant in America.” Can you explain how it feels for you to taste a glass of fresh, raw milk, and how it helps you reconnect with your native country?
I hate to burst this bubble, but I don’t drink raw milk. Years in America have made me a tad cautious. So all milk in my house, even my cow’s milk, is subject to strict standards of, shall we say, sanitation. We double-boil it and use it to set yogurt. For my everyday milk for coffee, I am, as I say in the book, still using pasteurized milk.

That said, I touch every passing cow. I am not queasy about dung. I don’t mind squatting on the sidewalk to milk a cow. These are the ways in which I reconnect with my culture.

Has Sarala read your book or articles that you’ve written about her?
Well, she doesn’t read English. But she knows about all my articles and my book because my newspaper sent a photographer to shoot her and her family for some columns I wrote about her in India. So every time one was published, I would walk across the street, where she milks her cows, and show her the piece. She would glance at her photo and nod her approval but it was not a big deal to her.

Sarala seems to have acted as a personal tour guide when you moved back to India, showing you so much about your new home, its people and ways. You write touchingly about your relationship and also mention how financial inequities at times made you feel uncomfortable around her as well as others. Are you still living in India, and do you plan to stay?
Yes, and yes. Still living in India. Plan to stay. For now. We have developed deep connections here to our large and extended family. My daughter goes to college in Pittsburgh, so we come back every year to visit. We go to New York, D.C., Florida and Pittsburgh—all places we have friends and family. I imagine that we might eventually spend time in California because my daughter studies engineering and, who knows, she may end up in Silicon Valley. We loved our 20 years in America and we could see moving back, but that won’t likely be for at least another few years.

You came to own a cow during the process of writing this book, which you donated to Sarala. Can you give us an update on Anantha, the cow that you and your husband named after his sister?
She is still around. Cows are often roaming untethered in Bangalore, so I meet Anantha on the streets sometimes and I speak with Sarala about her. I worry about her getting hit on the road. But life in India is all about relationships and most people quickly develop a keen sense of the balance between attachment and detachment. So I try to stay close with my cow but not too close.

You write that your life goal is to be a stand-up comic. How’s that going?
Not very well, I am afraid. I am taking classes with Second City, Chicago, but online classes can only help you so much. Now that would bring me back to America in a heartbeat: To study comedy for a year would be a dream. And it is easier to do in the States. I did a comedy Masterclass with Steven Martin online. All my classmates kept writing about their gigs in their posts. I don’t have a single gig in India.

You never planned to write cows until one “literally walked up to me.” What’s next? Have you bumped into anything new?
Hahahaha. Nice one. You know, that is such a nice line that I don’t want to add anything to it. Let me wait for the next story to bump into me. I can’t imagine what it will be.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Milk Lady of Bangalore.

In this Q&A, The Milk Lady of Bangalore author Shoba Narayan tells us about her bovine infatuation, surprising uses for cow dung and her career back-up plan.  

“It’s true that at first I laughed at drinking cow urine but feed me a good story and I can believe anything,” writes author Shoba Narayan. Indeed, she feeds readers a good story in her udderly delightful The Milk Lady of Bangalore.

When Narayan, her husband and their two daughters moved from New York City back to the couple’s native India, Narayan was no doubt looking for something to write about. She found it right in the elevator of her new apartment building: a cow riding up to the third floor for a housewarming ceremony, led by its owner, Sarala, a woman who sold raw milk. Hindus consider cows sacred, and India has what Narayan calls a “cow obsession.” Soon this obsession rubs off on her, turning her into “an evangelist for fresh cow’s milk.”

Sarala led the author straight into a herd of often funny and always fascinating bovine adventures, including drinking cow urine (supposedly a curative), mixing a cow dung-yogurt concoction as fertilizer, falling in love with a red cow with “eyes the size of oval macaroons” and even briefly owning a cow before donating it to Sarala.

There’s plenty of heart and soul in this book as Narayan takes readers on a unique tour of her Indian neighborhood, where there’s never a dull moment. Narayan is an astute observer, particularly of herself, noting: “The reason I want to buy milk from a cow is because I am trying to recapture the simple times of my childhood, particularly after the intricate dance that I have undertaken for the last twenty years as an immigrant in America. Milk is my way of reconnecting with the patch of earth that I call home.”

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Shoba Narayan for The Milk Lady of Bangalore.

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

“It’s true that at first I laughed at drinking cow urine but feed me a good story and I can believe anything,” writes author Shoba Narayan. Indeed, she feeds readers a good story in her udderly delightful The Milk Lady of Bangalore.

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