Thursday, December 18, 2008

Across the world, By Any Means

The name Charley Boorman looked familiar when I saw it on the book By Any Means (which Outlook Traveler sent across for review) but it took a Google search to figure out why. I didn’t know about Boorman’s work as an adventurer and TV series host, but I saw him as a child/adolescent actor in three films made by his father, the director John Boorman: Deliverance, Excalibur and The Emerald Forest. Once the connection was made, an old memory returned to me: a striking shot from The Emerald Forest, a fine “eco-adventure” set in the Brazilian rainforest, about an American dam engineer whose little son is abducted by a local tribe. Charley played the grown-up version of the boy and the scene in question is his first appearance in the film, a dramatic moment where he encounters his biological father again after a decade; you can see a bit of it in this trailer on YouTube. (I remember the scene well, because its tone and effect were similar to the moment in John Ford’s The Searchers where Ethan sees his grown-up niece – kidnapped by Indians years earlier – for the first time.)

Back to the present. Boorman is a motorbike enthusiast and his expeditions with the actor Ewan McGregor have been made into books and documentary series under the titles Long Way Round and Long Way Down. The idea for a new series arose when Boorman, while planning a trip to Australia to participate in another safari, realised that he wasn’t enthused by the thought of simply jumping onto a plane and flying from Ireland to Australia. “How about this,” says his friend Russ Malkin, “We go to Australia by any means we can other than taking a plane from Heathrow. We pick a route and cross each country, each piece of water, using a different form of transport. We jump on trains and old buses: we hitch a ride with some long-distance lorry rider somewhere.”

As it happened, Boorman and Malkin ended up experiencing many more forms of transport than these. Their journey from Wicklow, Ireland to Wollongong, Australia spanned more than 20,000 miles and took them through 25 countries over a period of three months (April-July this year). It also involved a staggering 112 different forms of transport, including a 12-foot Laser dinghy that took them across the English Channel; a tractor in Iran; a Delhi auto-rickshaw (which he describes as a “Bajaj tuk-tuk” in the book); an elephant in Nepal; a bamboo train in Vietnam; and, just to add a dash of luxury, the Orient Express from Paris to Venice.

The book version of By Any Means, though detailed and competently written, is very much a companion piece to the BBC TV series that emerged from Charley and Russ’s travels. There’s something superfluous about it, especially if you have access to the series. (Note: there are clips available on YouTube.) It doesn’t quite work as a travel book; it’s too rushed for that. At one point Boorman writes “On this trip the journey is the real destination”, but he might more accurately have said “On this trip the itinerary is the real point.” One gets the sense that this book is entirely fueled by the novelty of the concept: traveling through all these countries in all these different ways. At times it reads like a diary record of Charley and Russ’s attempts to meet this or that deadline, to get from a station to a port on time and to smoothen out last-minute visa hassles, all the while keeping their fingers crossed when they hear news about a natural calamity or political tensions in a country they are about to visit. The actual schedule (rather than the time spent in a particular place) is so much the point here that though we’re told, for instance, that they were in Dubai for a few days, we don’t get even a paragraph about what they did there; instead the book fast-forwards to the container ship that will take them across the Arabian Sea to their next port of call, Mumbai. (On the other hand, we do get whole paragraphs about mundane details such as when Charley very briefly loses a key in his Orient Express cabin.)

The few observations about the countries they pass through (“visit” would be overstating it) are fleeting and not particularly insightful. We learn that Tehran has a few women cab-drivers and that Charley and Russ had a conversation with one of them. (“Thank you so much, Fariba,” Charley tells her earnestly at the end of the ride, “You’re an amazing driver and what you’re doing for women is terrific. That’s the safest I’ve felt so far in Iran. Thank you.”) There’s a visit to a large Mumbai slum (Dharavi, though it isn’t named in the book). Boorman observes wisely at one point that “I’ve been to a few places around the world and I’ve noticed that the less people have, the happier they are to share.” When the boys pick up a passenger named Farti while driving a large van through Turkey, they make gentle digs at his name (while simultaneously apologising for their lack of cultural sensitivity) – on paper this doesn’t seem particularly offensive, but when you watch the relevant clip Charley and Russ look like a pair of frat-boys.

It would be well-nigh impossible for a book like this not to have a few interesting bits – I liked the Cambodia and Vietnam sections – but as a whole it isn’t worth the price (Rs 650 for the India edition, the cover of which shows an Indian tractor, an Indian ramshackle truck, an elephant and a Delhi auto-rickshaw). Watch the series instead. Or even better, watch John Boorman’s Deliverance.

(The official By Any Means website is here, with photos and videos from the trip.)

1 comment:

  1. I can't imagine going through "25 countries over a period of three months." It sounds like they had quite the adventure. I bet they will want to revisit some of the places because they went through them so fast.

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