- The book will appeal both to the armchair traveler as well as to the serious traveler, and indeed to anybody who considers themselves global citizens.
Summer is around the corner and the world is gradually opening after a year of the nightmarish pandemic, some countries more than others. The United States has now vaccinated more than half of its population and its people can sally forth once again. This then is an apt moment to share an interesting travelogue by a self-styled “global nomad,” Dan Mayur.
Muhammad Ibn Battuta was a Moroccan traveler and writer of the 14th century, who like Hiuen Tsang and Marco Polo before him, traveled extensively around the world. It is appropriate that the author pays tribute to him right at the beginning of his travelogues across the globe.
Mayur is the quintessential traveler, in the line of a Rick Steves, wandering blithely across the globe, making genial pronouncements on cultures as disparate as St. Petersburg and Valparaiso, and equally at home in both. But the similarity ends here, for Mayur demonstrates a far more erudite tone than Steves, but without the stinging cynicism of an Antony Bourdain. As he declares triumphantly in the book,
“I have had more than my share of globetrotting…. From places near the Arctic Circle to witness the spectacular northern lights, and the “magnificent Catherine palace in Saint Petersburg, to the gut-wrenching killing fields of Cambodia.”
He inherits his love of travel from his grandfather, Maganlal Nagindas “Baa” who was a world traveler in the 1930s and 40s when traveling abroad for pleasure was an anomaly for a middle-class Indian. He picked the right career that would enable him to surpass the travels of even his beloved grandfather, for he graduated with a degree from what remains the most coveted institutions of engineering in the subcontinent, the IIT, and then acquired a doctorate in chemical engineering from a premier institute in the US. He went on to work in the engineering/construction industry, enabling him “to see the world on the fly,” as he puts it, with a twinkle. I can only imagine the twinkle as I am yet to meet Mayur in person, although we have been friends on Facebook for a couple of years. This is where I first encountered his genial sagas on the road and the high seas.
As expected in a writer of Indian descent, he starts his saga in India, with the famous quote from Mark Twain, “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition.” But for him his ancestral motherland is viewed neither in the light of a hagiography nor as a Naipaulian area of darkness. He sees its greatness as well as its flaws and does not hesitate to criticize its numerous shortcomings. For modern India remains an enigma even to those of us who were born and raised there, living, as has been oft described, in two centuries, simultaneously. It is an important corrective to those western writers who see it only as either representative of the mysterious Orient, replete with sadhus and snake charmers, or as a world of shanty towns and abysmal poverty, as represented in films like Danny Boyle‘s “Slumdog Millionaire.” His description of Mumbai, which to me remains the sophisticated cosmopolitan Bombay of a Salman Rushdie or an MF Hussain, is graphic.
“A true microcosm of India, Mumbai is a place of obscene wealth and abysmal poverty.” But he focuses his lens on neither extreme but rather the nation’s vibrant public sphere, its public spaces, from Shivaji Park to Matunga Market, and of course, its dazzling cinema, the escapist world of Bollywood. It is interesting to read his descriptions of Indian textiles especially sarees that range from the colorful Paithani of the North to the Kanjeevaram of the deep South, ending with his pronouncement that no designer dress from the exclusive fashion houses of Paris and Milan come close to the saree of India. He describes its numerous festivals and holidays with great gusto, and even has an amusing section on his pet peeves regarding his ancestral homeland.
But unlike the usual travelogue, Mayur also delves into history and current day politics, from politicians like the nation’s first prime minister, the suave and erudite Jawaharlal Nehru as well as Dr. B.R Ambedkar, who played a key role as both the brilliant politician of the Independence era who was the brain behind the Indian Constitution, to politicians of today. But he does not hold back his disappointment with the current situation in his ancestral homeland, adding, it is one thing to have due pride in the nation’s history and culture, but another thing to have blind faith in religious mythological stories of miracles and magic.
From India Mayur moves on to Australia, and its amazing natural wonders, starting with the world’s biggest structure made by living organisms that are not human, the Great Barrier Reef and the majestic limestone formations in the south sea, named the Twelve Apostles. But it is evidently Cambodia with its UNESCO World Heritage sites of Angkor Wat and Borobudur to which he has lost his heart. The book ceases to be a mere travelogue when he goes into the intricacies of the Secret War in Southeast Asia and its heavy toll on the lives of the Cambodian people, both from the western neocolonial power that carried on the heinous bombing of the region and the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge, which finally ended only with the intervention of Vietnam in 1979. His indictment of the US is striking. “Since World WAR II, the foreign policy of democratic America was to blatantly prop up dictators anywhere in the world as long as they were subservient to it and helped thwart the advent of communism.”
It is intriguing to hear of Cambodia’s connection to Indian mythology. Who knew that the name of its capital Phnom Penh refers to the four faces of the Hindu god of creation, Brahma? This is interesting considering that Hinduism is no longer the prevalent faith in the region which is predominantly Buddhist. No surprise then that the city’s international airport carries a gigantic sculpture depicting the tale from Hindu mythology of Samudra Manthan, the churning of the ocean by the gods and the demons, in search of the nectar of immortality. It is disturbing to reflect that this city that was destroyed in the bombings of the Secret War was once considered the pearl of Asia, one of the loveliest of the cities built by the French in their empire of Indochina.
Mayur makes the comparison of the genocide in Southeast Asia to the Jewish holocaust of Europe, with its hideous concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz and reflects sadly, “What is it with us? Members of the human race that can create unbelievable works of art and science from the Sistine Chapel to the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat, to the technologies of heart transplants and cell phones on the one hand and carry out genocides like this on the other?” This is no Rick Steves here, it is a traveler who does not hesitate to point out unpleasant truths where needed.
However, Mayur is no mere intellectual pundit who pronounces judgment from upon high. He revels as much in the belly dancing of the evening cruise along the Nile as he does in the magnificent museums and art galleries of the two “Cradles of Civilization,” Egypt and Greece. His little aphorisms make a lot of sense. “Too much history on an empty stomach is never good for your health.” If he were to lead a tour of these regions, I can think of many who would willingly sign up. It is encouraging to know that upon the ruins of the majestic library of Alexandria a new architectural masterpiece has come up, what he calls the modern-day pyramid of knowledge, the Biblioteca de Alexandria. The main reading room spread out over 11 cascading levels covers 220,000 square feet in area with a front wall of Aswan granite with a stupendous carving of characters from 120 different scripts.
However, it is the connections to the real world that makes the book so memorable. He rhapsodizes over the marvels of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings with its famous pyramids. But he makes the time to visit the Temple of the only female pharaoh of Egypt, the intriguing Hatshepsut “a most powerful ruler who dressed and acted like a man” (right down to a false beard) “and must have been the pioneering member of the LGBTQ Movement of the era.” In fact, theorists like the German physician Magnus Hirschfeld had developed his model of ‘sexual intermediacy’ to demonstrate through the image of the pharaoh Hatshepsut that gender non-conforming people had existed across history and to call for greater acceptance of such individuals in contemporary society.
But it is in his descriptions of his travels across Russia that Mayur comes into his own. The very phrase with which he titles this segment is self-explanatory, “Resplendent Russia.” I have never seen a writer from the US dare to describe the former adversary of his country in such terms. In fact, the USSR had been demonized for so long, that it is all too easy for American writers to fall into this trap even today. But Russia is far more than PRAVDA and the GULAG, just as the US is far more than Hollywood and the CIA. As Mayur puts it, Russia is a developed country that rightly boasts a veritable treasure of some of the world’s finest art and architecture.
“In education and culture, they are ahead of much of the rest of the world.” These words would baffle the average Americans who have been raised to think the worst of their Cold War foe. It would shock them to know that healthcare and education are free in Russia, and that it has the highest education level in the world, with more than 40% of the population having a college degree. But Mayur does not stop with that. He goes on to describe its many marvels, from its magnificent art, architecture and literature to its colorful cathedrals and cuisine. Yes, even its cuisine which has hardly been discussed in most other travelogues. One realizes there is more to it than borscht. No surprise then that one of Mayur’s favorite haunts in Moscow is Café Pushkin, which he describes as the temple of Russian gastronomy, where dining is like a religious experience. The other is what is known as the People’s Palace of the Metro. The Moscow Metro is more than just a means of transportation. Each station is a masterpiece of art and architecture featuring stained glass windows, crystal chandeliers and artistic mosaics. And yet, as he points out, this national wealth is not expensive. It is accessible to the masses on a daily basis, instead of being restricted to a privileged few. As an American himself, he expresses his regret that most affluent Americans are over dependent on their private cars and isolate themselves in their suburban cocoons.
From Moscow to St. Petersburg by the Sapsan, the high-speed train that covers the journey in less than 4 hours. Then Mayur pauses to discuss the courage and resilience of the people of St. Petersburg. Much of the world has heard about the horrific Blitzkrieg that London was subjected to during World War II as it has been covered in innumerable films and news reports. But how many have heard of the siege of Leningrad (as it was known at the time)? This lasted 10 times longer, almost 2 and a half years in fact, and more than a million civilians were killed, and half a million others fled. Remarkably it survived and rose like a phoenix from the ashes. We need more unbiased writers like Dan Mayur to document these sagas to counter the constant bashing of Russia in the western media.
But for ardent fans of Russian literature, it is Yasnaya Polyana, the former home of Leo Tolstoy that is a must visit. This is located about 120 miles from Moscow and is one of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations, which says a lot about the reverence its people have for the great writer who had inspired Mahatma Gandhi in his youth. This is where Tolstoy lived for half a century and wrote many of his voluminous masterpieces, which were laboriously copied by his devoted wife Sophia Bers, an amazing woman who became his secretary, scribe and agent. I had seen the film based on their tumultuous marriage, The Last Station, a few years ago, starring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, so I was glad to see that Mayur acknowledged the enormous debt the great writer owed to his wife.
The last segment of the book is in what Mayur calls “spectacular south America.” Here he discusses Chile and Argentina in depth, but here too, it is the writers of these countries that enthrall him as much as its landscape and cuisine. Chile is home to two Nobel prize winners of literature, its beloved poets, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. So, it is towards their hometowns that Mayur turned his steps. Neruda is known worldwide as a Leftist liberal who fought for social justice as a close advisor to Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende who had been removed in a coup d’etat by the corrupt dictator Augusto Pinochet. His house, La Sebastiana in Valparaiso overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is now a museum run by the Neruda foundation. Gabriela Mistral was the first Latina to become a Nobel laureate, in 1945. Like Neruda, she too was a poet-diplomat and humanist, and her home too has been turned into a museum. I found it interesting that Mayur focuses on writers and artists who are not as well known as the great artists of Mexico, Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.
From literature, Mayur turns to the performing arts of the continent, where the tango rules supreme. Film afficionados will enjoy the links he makes to famous Hollywood films like The Scent of a Woman, where a visually impaired Al Pacino dances the tango with a stranger. Mayur makes an interesting analogy of the tango as a celebration of human sexuality with the erotic temple sculpture of Khajuraho in India. But he makes it a point to focus not only on the beauty of the art and literature of the countries of the region but also of the horror of its history.
So, his next stop is the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the presidential palace which, much as is the case with the Red Square in Moscow or Tahrir Square in Egypt, has seen much history. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is a powerful women’s movement that helped raise awareness of the corrupt and oppressive regime where 30,000 people disappeared. The women wear white headscarves to symbolize their lost children, embroidered with their names and dates of birth. Four decades later, they are still marching, though some of them must now use wheelchairs. They continue to meet in the square every Thursday afternoon to raise awareness of this tragic period in their lives and that of their nation.
There is so much more that fascinated me about this travelogue, but, as Mayur explains, the book is a tip of the iceberg, and he plans to continue his meanderings around the globe. He is convinced that once the pandemic is over, travel will return with a vengeance. “The world is a mirror, it reflects you. If you are good, it is good to you.” It is a credo that appears to have served him well. The book will appeal both to the armchair traveler as well as to the serious traveler, and indeed to anybody who considers themselves global citizens in an increasingly interconnected world.
Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal is Professor of International Feminist Studies, at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where she works as Chair of the Dept of Ethnic & Gender Studies, and teaches courses on Gender, Race, and Sexuality. Her doctorate is in Media Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Prior to her arrival in the United States, she worked for seven years as a broadcast journalist for the Indian TV networks based in Bombay (Mumbai), India, and has also done in-depth news reports for CNN International. Her journalistic work focused on the struggles of women and indigenous people in the postcolonial nation-state. Her work has been published widely, in academic journals as well as newspapers in the U.S and India.