AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds

AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds

by Jennifer Barclay, Amy Logan

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AWOL: absent without leave; absent from one’s post or duty without official permission but without intending to desert.

Originally a military term, it gradually entered the vernacular for when someone goes missing unexpectedly. Jennifer Barclay and Amy Logan thought it fit well with the kind of travel pieces they wanted to publish--irreverent but thoughtful, emotionally honest and opinionated, bold and provocative.

For those who dream of having no fixed address, and those happy simply to read about it, AWOL is filled with entertaining, enriching and edifying stories of people getting away from the familiar. AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds is dedicated to the perspectives we gain when away from our regular circumstances.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307368416
Publisher: Random House of Canada, Limited
Publication date: 07/30/2010
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Jennifer Barclay was born in 1968 and grew up with one younger brother in a village on the edge of Saddleworth Moor in the north of England. The family travelled to Europe every summer in search of sunshine. Her father is a football journalist while her mother has worked variously in catering, care for handicapped kids, and as information officer for an automobile company.

After graduating from Oxford University with a degree in English, and gaining some journalism experience with The Independent and student magazines like the Oxford Author, she ended up teaching English in Greece. Following a roller-coaster year and a summer job in a hotel overlooking a volcano, she had caught the travel bug and saved up to follow a friend to Guyana, to learn the thrill of jungles, rivers and wild savannahs. Eventually a career beckoned. She found herself in Toronto, working for a large literary agency, and in a few years became an agent, representing Canadian authors.

Though being an agent was exciting, she wanted to do something about her love of travel and her creative itch. At 32, she left and headed to Korea and China. Returning, she set up as an editor and writer, published travel articles and book reviews in the Globe and Mail, and researched the idea of a travel magazine. Then she met Amy, and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds was born.

She enjoyed living in Canada, but after a decade felt drawn to Europe again. She and her partner currently live in Montpellier, a lively and historic university town in southwest France. Email allows her to continue assessing and editing manuscripts in English from Canada, the U.K. and elsewhere. The country and sea are easy to reach. “It’s great to be in love with where you live.”

Born in 1972, Amy Logan says it was excellent growing up in Bowmanville, Ontario, where her “family is loving, incredible friends were abundant, the schools encouraged creativity, and summer jobs like strawberry-picking and working at the local marina made life even more interesting.” She moved to Montreal in 1990 to attend McGill University, and her original plan was a B.A. majoring in political science, followed by law school. She enjoyed university and completed the degree, but once the LSAT time came around, law was no longer of interest.

She soon found herself on a plane to Japan, where she lived for eighteen months on the island of Shikoku: a palm- and orange-treed place largely known to the Japanese as “the sticks.” She met wonderful people and filled journal after journal. Her favourite memories include standing transfixed at the edge of a volcano with friends yelling “Amy, no!” and road-tripping around Kyushu with three Japanese friends in a tiny, doily-laden car. Japan is also where she learned to love mountains.

On a flight layover on her way home from Japan Amy took one look at Vancouver and cancelled her plans to move to London, England. She lived in Vancouver for three years, working at a newspaper, in a marketing department, and finally a publishing house called Hartley & Marks. She found her niche working in books and hasn’t left since.

Now based in Toronto, Amy works full-time for the International Festival of Authors and the Harbourfront Reading Series. Prior to that, she worked with ECW Press. She edits and writes on her nights and weekends, and has two passports, Canadian and British, which she tries to use as much as possible.

Read an Excerpt

The Tea House on the Mountain
Rabindranath Maharaj

Maybe it’s a good idea for us to keep a few dreams of a house that
we shall live in later, always later, so much later . . .

-- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Sometimes I would read of travel writers miraculously stumbling upon a remote gem, cached away from everything that had made them uncomfortable and itchy. I was usually skeptical of these miniature paradises and particularly of their descriptions: frozen in time, lush and verdant, wreathed in mist. I felt that these writers needed to isolate some redemptive nugget from their montage of irritation. But then I discovered just such a spot. In Trinidad, of all places.

During each of my summer visits back to Trinidad as an adult, I got the sense of an island hastily constructed and waiting to be pulled down, like a movie set with actors bustling along temporary streets and sometimes disappearing into temporary buildings. And as though it were a movie set, buildings constructed centuries ago were routinely destroyed, with the actors wandering aimlessly, waiting for another production to take over the island. The most recent was the bother about corruption and about American influence.

On my last visit, a recently retired teacher was complaining that the malls and shopping areas were being converted into American monstrosities. He placed his glass of Coke on the circular table set at the edge of his porch and glanced at his overdressed daughter. “This is the younger generation for you. Follow fashion. Monkey see, monkey do.” He leaned back. “This damn nonsense start the minute the English pull out from here. Now them fellas did know how to run a place.” After two weeks of listening to mauvais langue, a potent form of gossip, I decided to escape to Mayaro Beach on the eastern tip of the island.

On the road from the small agricultural town of Rio Claro, the approach to the beach is signalled when the teak plantations shift to coconut palms, and the small, modest houses with perfect lawns and croton hedges give way to newer concrete homes owned by employees of the various oil companies. The house where I was to spend the weekend was a two-storey structure, part of a semicircular compound at the edge of the beach. The first night, I slept on the porch, listening to the wind prowling through the leaves of the coconut palms, and the tumbling of the waves. Once, I heard a metallic knocking and footsteps, but when I looked over the balcony, I saw no one.

The next morning, I was awakened by a fierce argument. Two men, one accompanied by a woman and three boys, were quarrelling in the sandy yard in the middle of the compound. The single man saw me and shouted, “You get any water last night? Tell me one time.”

“I just woke up,” I told him.

He took this as some sort of confirmation. “You see? Is the same thing I was saying.”

The man with the family looked at me. “You sure you didn’t get any water?”

“I just woke up.”

“You sure?” After a while, he added, “You better go and check again.”

“Why you making the man waste he time so? It have no water in the whole compound.”

“But I turn on the pump last night.”

“Turn on, turn on, turn on. You don’t know nothing about this damn job. I never had no problem when I was caretaking this place. Since you start caretaking is problem on all side.” He glanced at me. “True or not true, mister?”

Just then, a stubby man emerged with a wrench from one of the houses. “I was a plumber. I will fix it.” He tapped the iron water pipe with the wrench, held a steel crossbar with his other hand and torturously hoisted himself up to the tank. A woman came to the doorway and said tiredly, “Take care you don’t fall down again.”

After about twenty minutes of knocking and tapping, the ex-plumber announced that someone had turned off a valve. “It look like sabotage to me.”

I headed for the beach, the argument still simmering. I walked along the shore, trying to memorize the pattern of the waves, the position of the driftwood on the sand, and the varieties of shell strewn about. Beyond the crashing breakers, a fishing boat skimmed the small rippling waves. Seagulls dipped into the boat’s trail, foraging for fish trapped in the seine. Soon the net would be stretched along the shore, and carite and kingfish and moonshine heaped into aluminum pails.

When I returned to the compound, the ex-plumber, looking quite pleased, was sitting on a bench, nibbling at mango slices seasoned with lemon, pepper and shadow beni, a local herb. He raised the bowl toward me, “You want some chow?” I took this as a hint that he wanted to talk about his mediation. Later in the day, the bench grew crowded as friends and relatives dropped by. A group of government workers descended on another building in the compound and off-loaded a few cases of Carib, a local beer, from their vehicles. They discussed the political situation in a noisy, partisan manner. A foreigner could easily have imagined that they were quarrelling.

In Trinidad, these intricate arguments are often a prelude to astonishing revelations about shady deals, and for the next few days, I regularly encountered similar boisterous conversations, where opinions and “inside info” were flung at friend and stranger alike. A man in his sixties, a friend of my uncle, told me, “I hear you is a sorta writer. Make sure you don’t say my name when you write about who greasing the Minister hand. Make sure you don’t say that is Maniram who clue you in.” He spelled his name slowly. “That is M-a-n-i-r-a-m.” Before I left, he recanted and said I could mention his name.

After less than a week of this, I asked my sister, a doctor at St. Ann’s Hospital, known locally as the Madhouse, if there were any quiet places nearby. She mentioned a tea house at Mount St. Benedict. I had been up the mountain a few times. The estate, about seven hundred acres of misty, forested mountains and sharp valleys and once-thriving coffee plantations, is studded with distinctive red-roofed and white-walled buildings. There are partially concealed chapels, natural trails favoured by bird watchers searching for euphonies and woodcreepers, a rehab centre, and the monastery, built a century ago by Benedictine monks from Brazil. I remembered it as a place to which troubled families turned as a last resort. This bushy Benedictine outpost, shaded by palmistes, was also a perfect place for young couples to visit, and there was a steady stream of cars trekking up the hill.

To get there, my sister and I had to pass through Tunapuna, a busy town about half an hour from Port of Spain, the nation’s capital, and a few minutes from the University of the West Indies. As we crawled along the crowded road–here pedestrians veered in and out of the traffic and occasionally slowed to respond to an irate, swearing driver–I noticed that not much had changed since my last visit, two years earlier. The roads were lined with hardware stores and rum shops and vendors selling doubles and pudding and souse. Everyone seemed busy, but there was no discernible pattern to the constant motion; from a distance it might have seemed as if the pedestrians, many with cellphones clapped to their ears, were going round in circles.

Soon we were out of the tangled traffic and at the foot of the northern range. On both sides of the narrow, precipitous road were old wooden houses crowded together, but as we drove up, I was able to see the Aripo Savannah and the Caroni Swamp, and from this elevation, the landscape simplified into an uncluttered pattern of towns, villages, plains and mangrove swamp. We drove past the monastery and then up a winding road, almost missing the tea house, an incongruous building at the apex of a sharp curve. There were two cars parked close to an iron railing at the brink of the hill, but from the road, I noticed the tea house was empty. In Trinidad, buildings are usually renovated in an elaborate and gaudy manner, but the guest house and the adjoining tea house, built during the Second World War (and favoured by American soldiers, my sister mentioned), retained all the architectural characteristics of the period. The garden was noisy with bananaquits, tanagers and unrecognizable seed-eaters. I thought: This place is perfect. There was just the correct mix of desolation and sanctity.

We chose a table close to the garden, and a woman dressed in white brought over a menu that listed Dutch and Chinese and American and presidential teas and a variety of fruit-flavoured ice creams. A few minutes after we ordered, she returned with a tray smelling of cinnamon and honey and faintly of molasses. The home-baked bread and cakes were soft and warm, the tea perfectly blended. A young man, also dressed in white, emerged from the kitchen a few times, but for the rest of the afternoon, my sister and I were the only visitors.

From the tea room, partially encircled by the hill’s arm, I saw starthroats and copper-rumped hummingbirds buzzing around a bird feeder wreathed in serpentine orchids and set against the edge of a slope. The waiter walked to the garden and, with his back to me, joined in my examination. After a few minutes, he returned to the kitchen. I tried to read his face as he passed.

On an island where there is an interminable stream of conversation, it was easy to be lulled into a pleasant languor by the singing of the birds, the remoteness of the tea house and the unexpected reserve of the workers. But all too soon, it was six o’clock and the tea shop was closed.

I returned alone to the mountain a few days later, just before my departure from the island. On the way, I paid a visit to the monastery, which was so quiet that my footsteps echoed intrusively along the aisle. An Indian woman was kneeling before a statue decorated with an impressive array of flowers: pink heliconias and blood-red ginger lilies. I remembered that non-Christians routinely sought solace here.

I walked up the hill to the tea house, taking some of the monastery’s peacefulness with me. That afternoon, there was a family whose racial mixture could have placed them as Trinidadian but who gave no curious glances, and for the rest of the afternoon they were quiet. When the woman in white came to take my order, I tried to engage her in conversation, but she, too, was unusually reserved for a Trinidadian. She glanced at my notebook on the table but said nothing. When she returned to the kitchen, I walked out to the garden. This late in the afternoon and at this altitude, the place felt cool and breezy and somehow disconnected from the busy streets, the crowded houses and the impatient pedestrians I had left behind. A circlet of smoke, perhaps a bush fire, seemed far, far away. I remembered that the monastery was known locally as “Our Lady of Exile,” and I wondered at the tenacity of the Benedictine monks setting up their buildings in this steep, forested area.

A few months later, back in Ajax, Ontario, when fall was shrugging off its appeal, I felt a twinge of nostalgia for the little island I’d left behind. This was surprising because Trinidad usually evoked memories of unwarranted conversations and a lewd, speculative friendliness. But on those chilly fall nights, I missed the sudden, brief thunderstorms, the rain tumbling on the aluminum roof like a hail of broken bottles, and pedestrians shaken out of their lethargy, hurrying like they might do for a train or bus in Canada. I missed the water softening the leaves of the jiggerwood and the pois doux and the tapana, and a few moments later, the sun’s signature: brazen specks of garnet, a scatter of tinfoil. I missed the precise tranquility of the nights with the chirp of insects coming at such regular intervals that they sound like cartoonish chanting. I missed the cool fogginess of the mornings, and the drop of fruit on the wet grass.

When I was growing up in Trinidad, I had this romantic notion of travellers circling the globe and finally banishing themselves to some outlandish, far-flung corner. I imagined that I, too, would someday leave the island for a secluded cottage with a shaggy hedge overlooking a misty field, and a garden with small unfamiliar animals burrowing about. I had already written off Trinidad as incapable of hosting this romance. I’d forgotten this until my last afternoon at the tea house at Mount St. Benedict, which was strange because the dream may have played some part in my decision to leave the island. I had wanted to share this with the woman in white; instead I simply wrote in my notebook, “Sometimes home is right around the corner.”

Rabindranath Maharaj is the author of The Lagahoo’s Apprentice (“This may be the best Canadian novel yet written about the Caribbean” The Toronto Star), Homer in Flight, which was shortlisted for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and The Interloper, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. The Book of Ifs and Buts was published in 2002 by Vintage Canada. He was born in Trinidad and now lives in Ajax, Ontario.

Table of Contents

Laurie Gough -- Monks on Mopeds
Peter Unwin -- Incident at Rankin Inlet
Simona Chiose -- Chickens, Girls and Ruins
Charles Wilkins -- Two Days in Dallas
Camilla Gibb -- Her Eyes Follow
Michael Redhill -- On the Road to San Rocco a Pilli
Myrna Kostash -- Looking for Demetrius
Rick Maddocks -- Bus Ride to Big Jesus
Grant Buday -- Exit Permit
Mark Anthony Jarman -- Penetrating Europe-Land
Steven Heighton -- The Drunken Boat
Gillian Meiklem -- A Lesson in Dance
Brad Smith -- Local Rules
Andrew Pyper -- A Brazilian Notebook
David Manicom -- Up the Holy Mountain (and Down by Cable Car)
Warren Dunford -- Off-Season in Puerto Vallarta
Deirdre Kelly -- Close Encounters of the Euro-Trash Kind
Nick Massey-Garrison -- We Turned Some Sharp Corners: A Marriage Proposal in Durango
Karen Connelly -- Broken Heaven, Broken Earth
Tony Burgess -- With My Little Eye
James Grainger -- The Last Hippie
Arjun Basu -- How I Learned to Love Scotch
Rabindranath Maharaj -- The Tea House on the Mountain
Scott Gardiner -- My First Brothel
Nikki Barrett -- The Growing Season
Patrick Woodcock -- The Ballet of Patrick Blue-Ass
Jill Lawless -- Aftershock
Michael Winter -- Two Drawings
Jonathan Bennett -- Headlands
Alison Wearing -- The Motherhood Roadshow
Sandra Shields -- Station Road
Katherine Govier -- Where the Birds Are
Rui Umezawa -- Photographs
Jamie Zeppa -- Coming Home

Reading Group Guide

1. Come up with five reasons why people travel in AWOL. Are the reasons for going and the results always the same?

2. Many of the stories in AWOL are about discovery. Find a story where an author discovers something unexpected, talk about it and explain why you chose it.

3. Find an illustration of culture clash. There are several examples of economic difference between the traveller and the locals. How do these make you feel?

4. Do you think AWOL reinforces or dispels the notion that travel doesn’t have to be exotic to be rewarding?

5. AWOL stories often give you a window on the traveller as much as on the place. People often go away to reinvent themselves or re-examine their lives. Is there a personal story you found particularly poignant?

6. A review of several travel books in the National Post observed, “The real education is learning to relish the world, not just survive it.” Do bad experiences always make for the best stories?

7. Paul Theroux said in Best American Travel Writing, “The traveller invents the place.” The introduction to AWOL says that “each place yields different things … depending on why you go, whom you meet, who you are.” Discuss, comparing two stories set in the same country, or in reference to a story about a place you have visited.

8. Can you find a story that illustrates the joy of travel for you?

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