Book Review: Tea Time with Terrorists

Tea Time with Terrorists: A Motorcycle Journey Into The Heart Of Sri Lanka’s Civil War
by: Mark Stephen Meadows

     Here is a subject and country you don’t often see written about or traveled around. Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, definitely has a good reason for such a lack of written experience, having been in the midst of a decades long civil war and considered one of the poorest nations in the world, as well as being known as the home of modern terrorism. Mark takes full advantage of this “blank palette” of the world and creates an informative, insightful, sometimes surprising, often quite dangerous, fascinating and humorous look at this island nation that so many know so little about, let alone even knowing where it is located on the map.

     In Mark’s own words, he “sets out to find and report the most subjective and inaccurate news I can”, having the thought that stories we have to tell are more true, less accurate, as compared to stories you see on the news, which are more accurate, less true. 

     Mark starts his journey in the south and works his way north to Jaffna. Along the way he starts to understand this “Galapagos of Terrorism”. He puts a face to some of the most wanted terrorists in the world, literally also, with pictures throughout, and sets out to show what real terrorists are like. I gotta give him credit, he interviews some real heavy hitters here, and really gets into the political side and true nature and thinking of some of the oldest and most experienced terrorists in the world. These are the guys who invented the singular suicide bombing, The Tamil Tigers. Not just one organization is here though, you also have: EROS, ELO, ENDLP,ENLF, EPRLF, EPDP, LTTE, PLA, JVP, SLFP, TLO, TSL, TELF …to name just a few. Group upon group formed to exact revenge on the former only to lead to the formation of the next who wants revenge on the latter. Mark explains their weapons, their methodology and their thinking as he makes his way north. In-between he tells the tale of his journey, of elephants, of temples, of the people in the middle.

     The book starts out brilliantly, and then heads into the interviews, which admittedly almost loses me, especially after my last book (see review before this one), but Mark brings it back to memoir just in time and ends the book even more brilliantly than he started it. In between this brilliance he teaches the reader quite a bit about terrorists, and shows some of the softer sides of these people, as well some of the darker sides of such a long war. I think the thing that impressed me the most was how he brought everything together at the end. From the story of how to catch an elephant to the story of men training in Palestine, he brings everything together and provides reason for each and every little story he tells. At times, I think he loses his focus throughout, only to actually see that he brings whole picture together at the end. Very impressive. I really didn’t see it coming but give him all the more credit for it.

     The book turns into quite a good memoir and gives quite a lesson on the history of Sri Lanka, as well as an insight into why that history has been so unstable. Honestly, it’s the best piece of literature I have read on Sri Lanka, by far. The only caveat being that there really isn’t much out there, which almost lends more respect to Mark for traveling through such a country where very few outsiders dare to go, with good reason. Mark also has, and points out, some very insightful views of the world and its thinking on terrorism, and provides a very open minded perspective on the worlds dealing with these issues today, which at times are most often helping, not hurting these organizations.

Bottom Line:
…if you’re at all interested in Sri Lanka: Highly Recommended

…if you’re interested in, well, what the hell these terrorists are thinking, or terrorism in general: the Highest Recommendation I can possibly give
…if you’re looking for a good, original, travel memoir type read but not really particular to Sri Lanka: Recommended but with reservations – the interviews

     It’s a great book and very well written, no doubt. Tea Time with Terrorists is not a lovey dovey kind of read, as one would imagine. It is, for the most part, what the title says, with a look into the country, the countryside, the history, the customs and its people throughout. Although I mention politics and history throughout this review, it’s definitely not a political or historical type book, but more memoir and personal experience type read. Even if you’re not interested in what a terrorist thinks, as I’m certainly not, it still is very interesting. It’s a good, at many times great, book, and if nothing else, very original.

     Help me keep traveling, reviewing, and taking pictures. If you want to buy this book, or any other book through Amazon, than click and buy through the photo above. Thank you!!! John


Book Review: The Black Nile

The Black Nile: One Man’s Amazing Journey Through Peace And War On The World’s Longest River
by: Dan Morrison

     Every once in a while a book comes along that just looks like it would be perfect for your type of preferred reading. One of those “gotta have now” type books. A book that you are actually excited to read. I thought that Dan Morrison presented me one of these opportunities in the form of “The Black Nile”. A book about one man’s trip down the Nile from its source at Lake Victoria in Uganda, all the way to its terminus at the Mediterranean. A travel memoir I can relate too, having travelled the Nile from the Mediterranean to Lake Tana in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, I feel the book fell way short of my expectations and was quite a disappointment throughout.

     To start, there really is no “Black Nile”. A great title though, referring more to the current situation of the people living along the river today, presented in a nice twisting of words. Unfortunately, I feel a lot of the spunk and quick wit of the book stops right there.

     For those not familiar, a little geography here: The Blue Nile actually comes out of Lake Victoria in Uganda. The White Nile comes out of Lake Tana in Ethiopia. Both of these converge in Khartoum, Sudan to form what is just called “The Nile” from Khartoum to Cairo and beyond. Dan travelled the length of the Blue Nile. The Nile also travels from south to north, confusing things a bit more, before terminating in the Mediterranean Sea.  

     Dan, an aspiring journalist, and a buddy from home, start out in Uganda planning the trip, gathering supplies and information, and start making their way down the Nile to Sudan. A decent beginning actually. A lot of day-to-day happenings and a good boat ride up the river. At about the halfway point through Uganda though, the trip becomes less of a river type journey and starts to feel more like a disastrous ride from point to point, mostly in taxis, and not river taxis. As Dan gets to Sudan and his buddy has to leave for home, the journey, and book itself, become less and less of a river trip and more like a bunch of interviews with locals with a short boat ride here, a long taxi ride there, and a few donkey cart rides in-between. The travel memoir turns into a try at journalism along the more dangerous parts of the Nile. Unfortunately it doesn’t hit the mark. Dan starts focusing on minute interviews and really falls short here, in my opinion, with men who maybe used to have a lot to do with the shaping of Sudan, but don’t really seem to have much to say and don’t seem the men to be interviewing for a good interesting read on the situation in Sudan. He starts to focus on dams built on the river, or still in construction, and really begins to emphasize some modern social and economic issues with the river as of today, which isn’t a bad thing, but not in the repertoire of what I like to read about really, and not what the book was advertised as, or at least from the advertising I saw, or thought I saw.

     The book turns more into an economic look at the river today, with a bit of history mixed in, and goes on and on with the interviews of local people, which, honestly, made it really hard to even finish the book because, being brutally honest, the interviews were with a bunch of guys I never heard of talking about issues that, at most times, seem trifle compared to the bigger picture of the problems in the area. Not only that, but they were, at most times, just plain boring. I did finish the book though, and it picked up in the last twenty or thirty pages, when Dan reached Egypt, but all in all, I didn’t like it.

     For me, this was more of a book about Sudan, with Egypt and Uganda as “bookends”, being around 75% the former and 5 and 20% the latter. I’ve travelled through Sudan, love Sudan, and visited many of the places Dan did in the book, but that said, it didn’t really inspire my imagination or stir the memories I have from the country, river and this area of the world. I have to say that I came away thinking this book was just an afterthought from a poorly planned trip that was supposed to be a journalistic news story that was a decade too late. It doesn’t really convince at either or much else really. Honestly, at the end, I even feel Dan lost the whole premise of the trip he started, and turned it into a drab, day-to-day life interview with people who live along the river type of book, with cab rides in-between as he travelled the river less and less as the book went on, opting for train and land based motor vehicle rides and routes even when river travel presented itself.

Bottom Line:
…as a travel type memoir: Not Recommended

…as a history of the Nile: Not Recommended
…as a journalistic view on the issues of Southern Sudan today: Not Recommended

…if you don’t know much about the Nile or what has happened, and is still happening, along its length and are just looking for a general background read: ummm, maybe slightly recommended, but knowing that there is much better out there, just barely slightly.

     Sorry Dan, bottom line is I didn’t like it. Period. You lost the whole premise of the book from what you started it out to be, and it did seem that the book was an afterthought on a trip that was taken for other reasons, all gone bad. On that note though, it’s all opinion, and the book has mostly good reviews on Amazon, with the book being called “nearly perfect” and “amazing” by some, just not by me.

…and an endnote: I hate writing bad reviews, but it is what it is, and I’m not going to lie. I want to review the books I read and don’t want to hold back if I don’t like one. I thought it was bad, but it is all opinion, and no matter what I think, The Black Nile was still well worth the effort, especially from this part of the world.

     Help me keep traveling, reviewing, and taking pictures. If you want to buy this book, or any other book through Amazon, than click and buy through the photo above. Thank you!!! John

Book Review: The City of Djinns

The City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi
by: William Dalrymple

     One man’s fascination and love of a city turns into a year, and honestly, most probably a lifetime, trying to understand that city. A year of “peeling back the layers” of Delhi. Right off the bat I have to say, William couldn’t have picked a better, more mysterious and historically more colorful city. Delhi could possibly have more history buried beneath it, surrounding it, held within its walls and still viewable in the streets than any other city on earth, not to mention that people still live there that were very much part of its recent turbulent history. William couldn’t have picked a harder task to record.

     This book is actually described as a travel memoir type book but it is much much more than that and much less a memoir but more a history of Delhi. I would actually say it is maybe 20% memoir, 80% history, which is usually a really really bad sign for me, as I’m just not interested in reading history, and yet, this book was absolutely fascinating to me. I also have to say that I have been to Delhi and honestly, never knew that three-quarters of the material in this book even existed or happened to, or in, Delhi. I just never knew and never really cared, or thought I didn’t, but I do. This is why I have to call William’s work here a literary masterpiece. This isn’t your average travel memoir. You can tell right from the get go that William did a lot of research and knows Delhi’s history very well, or as well as any one man can possibly  know of it. I would usually close a book like this at about page fifty, but this is truly a masterpiece of writing.

     William takes a travel memoir and weaves a tale spanning two-thousand years into it. He walks a fine line almost perfectly, keeping the “travel memoir” side very active while informing the reader of what exactly made Delhi into what it is today. I never wanted to go back to Delhi until I read this book. I want to go back now. I want to see William’s Delhi. I want to explore the city. I want to see what he saw.

     There are way to many topics to list, but William goes from spending time with the Eunuchs still there in the city today to something as mundane as trying to get a telephone line. He goes into detail about the architecture of the city, he goes to a wedding. He tells the tale of Skinner, a British soldier, goes to a pigeon fight. Explains the Partition, the “leftovers from Britain”. He befriends the Delhi-wallahs, he interviews the last living relative of Shah Jehan. William tells the story of Indira Gandhi, and the ramifications of her death, the festivals of Holi and Diwali. He weaves the tale of Fraser and Ibn Battuta. He tries to give all views on the Muslim, the Sikh and Hindu thoughts on the city. He looks for tales of Nizam-ud-Din, the hakim and the last remaining haveli’s in the city.

     William tells of, as well possibly finding, the catacombs and tunnels believed to be underneath the city. He peels back the layers of seven cities built and destroyed over the ages. Tells the tale of Tughluk, when Delhi was moved, on three days notice, the whole city, only to have ninety percent of the residents die en route to the new location, Daulatabad.

     This is a great one, and no matter how much money or how much fame William has received from this book, he has to be proud. A masterpiece in the thinking of Mark Twain almost (no, I’m not kidding) – it’s that good. He finds those Djinns, or the tale and legend of them, and holds the reader in awe all the way through. Almost insane how much information is in this book. I just never knew that I walked through this …and never knew. A book that gives you an authentic feel of Delhi throughout. It sucks you in and then spits you out, leaving the reader wanting more and asking the question “What the hell just happened?”. Three hundred and thirty nine pages of small text that you wish went on for twice that much, all the while thinking in the back of your mind that this is insane. It’s Delhi and that is what Delhi is. A history of a city that can truly be called the city of Djinns, because, well, that is insane, and that is Delhi. There is no reason for it being the way it is, but William gives you that reason. It’s insanity explained, and explained very well.

Bottom Line:
…If you are at all interested in the history of Delhi or India: The Highest Recommendation I can give

…If you have been to Delhi, or are interested in going: Highly Recommended
…If you are looking for a good travel memoir type read but not at all interested in history: Not Recommended

     This is a tough one, because it is more history than memoir, yet it is, truly, a masterpiece of writing on India. If your looking more for just a personal experience type book though, and haven’t been or really plan on going to Delhi, this may not be one for you. That said, William has probably written one of the most comprehensive and informative books on the “thinking” of why Delhi is what it is …ever. 

…so, if you’re a professor of Indian history: A MUST read for your class – never read better – read it yourself and see.

     Help me keep traveling, reviewing, and taking pictures. If you want to buy this book, or any other book through Amazon, than click and buy through the photo above. Thank you!!! John

Book Review: Are We Not There Yet?

Are We Not There Yet?: Travels in Nepal, North India and Bhutan
by: Chuck Rosenthal

     In 2006 Chuck heads to Northern India and the Himalayas for four months with a group of drinking and pot smoking California college students, his wife, his daughter Jesus, and his trusty, well actually confusing, buddy C3PO, but not before a stop in Bangkok. At this point I say: What’s not to like here?

    Written with a great sense of spontaneous skepticism and unabated cynicism, as well as humorous wit, this book is a great view into India and the Himalaya from an educated westerner’s point of view. You can tell Chuck knows the religions of the region, and he doesn’t hold back in giving his humorous interpretation of them when he can. He asks the questions that many, including myself, question when in India. He also tries to answer those questions from a “common sense” point of view. He points out the nuances of the area, he tries to explain how Indian’s think, he tries to understand how they come up with that thinking. What entails is a humorous travel memoir that sets out to educate the western world reader in Indian and Himalayan culture, thinking and religion …or at least try to explain it as much as it can be in a common sense type of way. 

     For those who have been to the area, you know what I’m talking about. For those that haven’t been, Chuck does a good job in giving a truthful and honest interpretation from a western perspective. …the cows in the road that are not there, that are sitting there, but they are not there, depending on who you ask. The half-hour that turns into five hours, but is still considered a half-hour, even at the five-hour mark. The five hot water handles in a bathroom, which has no hot water, but even if it did you would first have to learn the secret combination of the five handles along with the eight other cold water ones before you could get even a drip. From the touts and sellers of Varanasi to the mountains of Bhutan, Chuck weaves a nice little tale here, keeping the students out-of-the-way most of the time, including them when a humorous experience entails. Recording the conversations, remarks and experiences of Jesus, his daughter (…and if you can’t imagine where that is going, you may not like the book) along the way and trying to understand and cooperate with C3PO throughout, all while wearing his feather filled cowboy hat.

     The book starts off right before the trip, in California, where Jesus totals her car the night before the flight. …and so it starts. From there they head to Bangkok, and what do thirteen college students do the first time they are out of the states without their parents? Drink. From Bangkok to Kolkata. Kolkata to Varanasi. Varanasi up to the Himalayas. Northern India, Nepal and Bhutan.

     The book starts off strong. Really strong. A humorous masterpiece of travel memoir literature right from the start. unfortunately the book dies down around half way through, but fortunately not enough to deter the reader from interest in the rest of the story. The second half isn’t bad or boring in any way, but relative to the first half of the book, is a little of a letdown. Still, all in all, a great humorous travel memoir, as well as informative in many areas of Himalayan culture.

Bottom Line:
…it’s a good humorous travel memoir with some great points. Very original, quite funny and entertaining, as well as an original approach and writing style. There are points in this book that are absolutely hilarious and oh so true, yet never written about:
Recommended for anyone as a humorous travel memoir.
Highly Recommended for those who have been to India or are planning to go.

     Help me keep traveling, reviewing, and taking pictures. If you want to buy this book, or any other book through Amazon, than click and buy through the photo above. Thank you!!! John

Book Review: Buttertea at Sunrise

Buttertea at Sunrise: A Year in the Bhutan Himalaya
by: Britta Das

     I’m digging this one. One woman’s memoirs from a year spent volunteering as a physiotherapist in a remote mountain village in Eastern Bhutan. A travel memoir as well as an almost educational look into The Kingdom of Bhutan.

     For many, this book is a two-fold type of read. On one hand it encompasses the day-to-day trials and tribulations of Britta, as well as an outsiders look into the day-to-day experiences that one goes through in such a different culture. Britta does a great job weaving these experiences through and into a tale not just about herself and her work, but also of Bhutanese life itself. The book is almost one of those “nothing really happens” books, but written very well and set in the high Himalaya of a mysterious country that very little is known about, where that nothing really happens turns into a very personal memoir of a fascinating experience. Britta brings characters to life, her job into perspective, and creates a detailed picture of the town and district, Mongar, in which she works. She brings her patients vividly to life, transferring emotion from paper to reader with utmost ease. She describes the state of the healthcare system, or lack thereof, in the remote area in which she is working. She learns the religion, she tries to understand the culture. She battles fleas, shops in the bazaar, visits temples, dzongs and stupas. Britta loses workers, fights with patients and their families, falls in love, hikes the mountains and helps the people the best she can.

     On the other hand, the book reveals a lot of information on Bhutan itself, which, let’s face it, is tough to come by even in this day and age. Britta reveals a little bit at a time throughout the book. The people, culture, recent history, problems and religion of Bhutan are all revealed and absorbed into Brittas experience’s without a misstep, hiccup or pause. This is where Britta excels in my opinion. Although nothing extremely exciting happens, the book is written so well, and in such a fascinating country that so little is written about, that it keeps the reader wanting to go further into her experience and deeper into understanding Bhutan and it’s people and how they live.

     A great example of the ability of written word to create a visual picture in the mind or imagination is also present in the book. Maybe the best example I have ever seen. If you are going to read the book, and I probably shouldn’t even say it because it will probably cause the opposite effect, but don’t look at the picture on page 150. Read the book and especially the chapter and text leading up to it, and turn the page to see if the mental picture you have is at all correct . Doing this I was quite surprised at the picture. Not that the picture is good or bad, but just surprising relative to the text and how I visualized the particular subject that is pictured …I’ll let you decide, but if you do read it, let me know your thoughts.

     It’s the little things that bring the book together and make it much more as a whole than the sum of its parts. Small everyday experiences turned into a fascinating year spent struggling against the odds in a far off land. Britta does a great job in creating a visualization of her experience, as well as Bhutan itself. The book may not be for everyone, but if you’re at all interested in Bhutan, I would recommend it. There is also a website for the book, and Britta, containing some great images, more information on Britta, a sample chapter from the book and more information on the religion and culture of Bhutan as well as maps and links:

Bottom Line:
…for any reader interested in Bhutan, especially relative to the books on the subject that are out there right now: Recommended to Highly Recommended

…for those interested in travel memoirs or the Himalaya region, but not particular to Bhutan itself: Recommended, with the knowledge that there are a lot of choices out there.

     Help me keep traveling, reviewing, and taking pictures. If you want to buy this book, or any other book through Amazon, than click and buy through the photo above. Thank you!!! John

Book Review: Little Princes

Little Princes: One Man’s Promise To Bring Home The Lost Children Of Nepal
by: Conor Grennan

     One man’s promise. One man’s realization. One man’s inspiration. One man’s calling. There are many things you can call this book and many things you can call this man Conor Grennan. Inspirational would definitely be one of them.

     Conor, now 29, starts off in Prague, leaving his day job of eight years for a year of travel around the world, starting with a three-month volunteering position in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, which he approaches with some humorous trepidation and a bit of “doing it for the wrong reason” kind of outlook. What, and who, he encounters at the Little Princes Home changes his life forever. Conor describes his first encounters here in a “hilarious antics kind of tale” and slowly unfolds it into a heart warming, engaging and emotional story of his experience at Little Princes and the children he meets there. The first thirty or so pages maybe the best “introduction” to a book I’ve ever read.

     For those not familiar with Nepal – at this time, around 2006, Nepal was in the midst of a civil war. Many of the children at this home, as well as plenty of other homes around the Kathmandu Valley, were not only orphans, but were caught up in child trafficking, which is extremely prevalent in Nepal, at this time, as well as today. Children are taken from their villages and parents at a very young age, with the promise of a good education, being taken care of, and the promise of a good future. The civil war only expanded the trafficking, as people and villages on the outskirts and more rural areas of the country became poorer. Parents who couldn’t feed their families thought they were doing the best thing they could for their children. Giving their children to the traffickers never to hear  from them or see them again.

     As Conor works the three months at Little Princes he slowly weaves an engaging tale through and about the children there, as well as Kathmandu, slowly transforming from scared and confused to confident and fatherly. He animatedly describes the children and their antics, connecting names and personalities throughout the book, bringing the children to life through his light-hearted writing style. At the end of his volunteer stint, Conor travels the rest of his journey throughout the world, to end up back home in New Jersey. Not for long though, as promises he made pull him back to Nepal.

     This time with a true purpose. Conor starts his own children’s home in Kathmandu, not only rescuing, watching and protecting children, but setting off throughout the mountains of Western Nepal to find the families of these children. An animated tale of adventure and frustration ensues, until Conor makes it back to Kathmandu. At this point, with the help of Farid, his partner, and many others, Conor realizes not only the dream of the children, but his own. Children see pictures of their parents that they thought were dead, families start calling, showing up in Kathmandu, and Conor’s dreams of reuniting the children becomes reality …but not without its problems, of course.

     A heart warming story, sometimes hilarious and funny, other times heart wrenching and tragic. A very well written story of the children of Nepal, as well as one man’s realization of a dream to help those children that helped him form that dream. Throughout, Conor writes in a lighthearted style which really lets this book and story shine through. A truly inspirational tale of what can be done if one only tries. If you’re at all interested in Nepal, this could be the best book I have ever read about the country. If you’re at all interested in child trafficking, what you can do to help stop it, what it entails and why it happens, again, highly recommended. If you know nothing about Nepal, or any issues in the country, but like travel memoirs, highly recommended.

Bottom Line:
…For any reader the least bit interested: Highly Recommended – This was a great book.

     Help me keep traveling, reviewing, and taking pictures. If you want to buy this book, or any other book through Amazon, than click and buy through the photo above. Thank you!!! John

PS: Even if you don’t want to buy the book, aren’t sure, or looking for another, or more opinions, click the link above to see 52 more reviews (at this point). Not one below four stars, and most five-star, plus an article by the author.

Book Review: Lonely Planet Afghanistan

     Ok. Before I even get started on this one I wanna say that I did go to Afghanistan in July, 2009, and I did read this book beforehand and during my stay there. I’m the “adventurous” type and went simply for a holiday. Not as part of an NGO or military or work or anything like that. Just for the fun of it I guess you would say. From my personal experience I can say, adamantly, DO NOT USE THIS AS A GUIDEBOOK along the lines of where to stay, visit, eat or anything else like that. This is one guidebook that can get you killed.

     The 1st edition, published in 2007. I’m not sure this was a wise decision by Lonely Planet. Actually, what I should say, is this was published to make money and that is it. There is no way anyone can publish a book on a country like Afghanistan and even slightly think that it will help their readers with lodging and visiting decisions. The book was probably outdated a few months before the publishing date…

     Take everything in this book with a grain of salt. It’s a fast moving country and to try to list “tourist” sites, places to stay, and places to eat could be potentially deadly. Good background info read before you go, definitely, but used as a “guide” …good luck.

     Case in point: I originally was going to stay at a highly recommended hotel in the book. I got there, Kabul that is, walked out of the airport and, talking to the mercs there, found out that the manager of that particular hotel was killed a few months earlier. …in the lobby of the hotel. Shot right behind the front desk. The mercs were really adamant about not staying there as the hotel was now compromised and an extremely dangerous place to stay. They gave me about a 75% chance of being kidnapped. Hmm. LP gave it a highly rated…

     Now, it’s not all bad. If your thinking of going than I would definitely recommend this as a good, comprehensive background and general overview type read of the country. In that sense one of the more recent out there. Written and published in the easy and eye pleasing Lonely Planet style, I would even say it’s worth the money if you’re at all interested in the country. I even learned a few important phrases before I went. CBIED, DBIED, DCIED …and things like that. The authors do have multiple “warnings” about information in the book also, so hats off to them there. Maybe even one of the more interesting lonely Planet’s I’ve read. So, in the historical and background context of the book, I would definitely give it a highly recommended.

     As a guidebook though, not recommended at all. If you are going though, and don’t feel like spending the money, I left mine in the library of the Serena Kabul. Really didn’t wanna part with it, but didn’t wanna carry it around for the next two months either.

Bottom Line:
…as a Background Read: Highly Recommended
…as a Guidebook: Potentially Deadly

     Help me keep traveling, reviewing, and taking pictures. If you want to buy this book, or any other book through Amazon, than click and buy through the photo above. Thank you!!! John