Footprints across the world

It is almost Epiphany so I make no excuse for including in this post a much loved children’s book called The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke.
scan0001Cleverly combining the Story of the Magi with another passage from St Matthew’s Gospel, this enchanting book tells children about generosity.

Artaban had been looking out for the Star that would lead him to find the new King, and he and his friends – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar agree to meet at the Temple in Babylon as soon as the star appears. Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar bring along gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh. Artaban brings three beautiful jewels – a sapphire, a ruby and an oriental pearl. As soon as he sees the star he rushes to meet his companions in Babylon, but on the way he is waylaid by a stranger in difficulty, carrying him to an oasis, he leaves him with some herbal remedies; when the man recovers consciousness he asks Artaban where he is going and in answer to his quest he tells him that in his Book it tells of a Messiah to be born in Bethlehem. Artaban continues to Babylon, but his travelling companions have already left, so he sells his sapphire in return for a camel and some provision travels by himself to Bethlehem – but he is too late and his friends have departed but so have the Holy Family; meanwhile Herod’s centurions arrive – by bribing one with the ruby he saves the life of one of the innocent babies.

He moves on to Egypt, but searches in vain for the King and he is getting old, making his way to Jerusalem when he hears that there is to be an execution of a man claiming to be King of the Jews, he thinks maybe this is the king he has been searching for all his life, perhaps he can save his life with this pearl of great price that he has carried for thirty three years – but on the way he find a young woman being carried off to slavery, she begs him to help her and with some reluctance he hands over the pearl. Just at that moment there is a sudden earthquake and the noise of thunder and Artaban falls to the ground and over the thunder he hears a quiet voice saying:

“you have been a good and faithful servant. I was hungry and you fed me. I was naked and you brought me clothes. I was in prison and you visited me. Come now to the rest I have prepared for you”. Artaban is puzzled and whispers with the last of his strength “when did I do these things for you?” and the Voice answered, “Whenever you helped on of my people in need, you helped Me”.

While my copy may have mildly saccharine illustrations, it is nevertheless a beautiful story.

But all that is a digression. This post is mostly about travel biographies. scan0003

In his follow up to Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee recounts his travels from the Cotswold village where he grew up, to London and on to Spain. He chose Spain because he knew some of the language, more precisely he knew the Spanish for “Can you give me a drink of water”, though as he set out he was not really aware of how life-saving that sentence would prove to be.

As I Walked Out One Summer Morning takes us all the way to London, on foot via Salisbury and then the coast because Laurie had never seen the sea, a diversion that added at least one hundred miles to his journey. Having bummed around in London earning money on a building site, when that job ended and with a small amount of money and his violin Laurie Lee took the boat to Vigo in Galicia and walked, playing and bumming across the whole of Spain. On at least two occasions he needed to ask for water, as like all foolish Englishmen he had walked in the midday sun. After an hallucinating walk in a violent heat that seemed to bruise the earth, Laurie arrives parched and dehydrated at a village inn.

The rest of the day was a blur. I remember seeing the spire of a church rising from the plain like the jet of a fountain. Then there was a shower of eucalyptus trees brushing against the roadside tavern, and I was at a bar calling for bottles of pop.
“No, no! you mustn’t drink. You will fall down dead.” The woman threw up her hands at the sight of me, then turned, alarmed to shout at a couple of well-dressed gentlemen eating radishes at a table in the corner.
The older man bowed, “Aléman? Français? The lady is right – you are too hot for drinking”
“He will drop at our feet. Just look at his face.” Everybody tutted and shook their heads.
I could only stand there croaking, desperate with thirst. Somebody gave me ice to suck. Then I was told to rest and cool off…

Something of the same happens when he is going to Toledo, on this occasion he collapses and is carried to the shade of the horse trough, he recovers in the cool of the evening in its green, mossy dampness as the moon rises, whereupon, it being Spain he goes off in search of food and somewhere to sleep.

Laurie Lee has a poet’s eye and language, so as he wanders through the country the reader gets a full dose of vibrant colours, smells, sounds and the changing nature of the Spanish countryside. After wandering about for just over a year, Laurie Lee is on the southern Mediterranean coast when the Civil War breaks out and he is rescued by the British Navy. Returning to England, he cannot finish there and returns to Spain via France and crosses the Pyrenees. This is told in the final part of the trilogy A Moment of War.
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Another peripatetic journey, not unlike As I Walked Out, though twelve days not twelve months, is RL Stevenson‘s famous story of his Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Setting out from Le Monastier in September to walk in the Cevennes seems like a recipe for disaster. Armed only with a sleeping ‘sack’, provisions and Modestine the donkey, RLS “went forth from the stable door as an ox goeth to the slaughter.”

Modestine must by now be the most famous literary donkey in the world. She was difficult, recalcitrant and yet faithful and many were the adventures that they would have together.

For twelve days we had been fast companions; we had travelled upwards of a hundred and twenty miles, crossed several respectable ridges, and jogged along with our six legs by many a rocky and many a boggy by-road. After the first day, although sometimes I was hurt and distant in manner, I still kept my patience; and as for her, poor soul! she had come to regard me as a god. She loved to eat out of my hand. She was patient, elegant in form, the colour of an ideal mouse, and inimitably small. Her faults were those of her race and sex; her virtues were her own.

scan0004Another journey on another continent is the adventures of my daughter-in-law who travelled alone through Pakistan, up the river Indus to its sources in Afghanistan and Tibet. In Empires of the Indus, Alice Albinia uses her writing skills to bring a series of places and characters fully to life. Her temerity, tenacity and resourcefulness bring to this adventure much to admire. As a country that is once again, sadly, in the news it seems like a good moment to recommend it again. Pakistan seems to be going through a particularly bloody and tortuous period; but historically it is a rich landscape both of settlement and conquest, and now environmentally challenged with the changing climate.

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