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Myth Adventures
By Margaret Black

Hold the Enlightenment: More Travel, Less Bliss
By Tim Cahill • Villard, 297 pages, $24.95

Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad
Edited by Christina Henry de Tessan • Seal Press, 288 pages, $16.95

The two books reviewed here rest at either end of the travel-writing continuum. Expat, a collection of more than 20 different accounts, deals with trying to live in a foreign land and not simply move through it. All of the authors are women, mostly young, many single, and their essays tend to highlight one curious issue or a small defining occasion. Most of these women have written professionally, but none are professional travel writers. Tim Cahill, author of Hold the Enlightenment, on the other hand, has been whomping out high-risk, get-in-get-out-alive adventure pieces for two decades. While his trademark self-deprecation and ironic humor vaporize any hint of chest-beating testosterone, his considerable physical skills and courage nonetheless shine through. He seeks out extreme situations, often ones with few other people in them, and although he can write with insight about Tauregs in the Sahara or Kurds in Turkey, he’s not planning to settle down among them.

Among the female expatriates, nearly all realize, no matter how hard they try to fit in, how “outside” they are, how foreign everything is. This should come as no surprise, but inevitably it does, especially in English-speaking countries. In addition, sooner or later most of them suffer an overwhelming nostalgic need for something quintessentially American. In her essay “Jean-Claude Van Damn That Was a Good Movie!,” Emily Miller recalls “a grown man who cried all the way through Dances With Wolves, which he saw in Prague in 1991, just because it was filmed in South Dakota, his home state.” She herself seeks out “typical, cheesy Hollywood films.” Most frequently, however, the yearned-for thing is food. But Tonya Singer’s mom’s roast chicken is simply not replicable in China, and Mandy Dowd’s frantically comic attempt to create a Thanksgiving feast for Parisian friends collides with a multitude of cultural differences.

Beginnings can be hard. In “First, the Blanket,” Kate Baldus is totally unprepared for Bangladesh to be cold. “Before I left home I did not think of any of the difficulties of living in Dhaka because all my friends and family did that for me. No one wanted me to go because they were all worried that I would die of something—diarrhea, floods, arsenic poisoning.” So she concentrated on the positive, neglecting realities like the temperature in January. The shops near Baldus sell everything from computer equipment to cows, but no blankets. It is typical of the artistry in these essays, incidentally, that when Baldus is finally helped out by a friend, her terror during their kamikaze rickshaw ride to a distant market is contrasted with her friend’s calm, trivial chatting.

Child rearing is different, even startling, as in “Watching Them Grow Up,” where Laura Fokkena’s first Arabic sentence—“The baby is under the car”—turns out to be a plausible construction. Angeli Primlani, an American of East Indian descent in Prague, meets constant inexplicable hostility until she learns that the Czechs think she’s a Gypsy. Emmeline Chang, an Asian American, can bring herself to acknowledge her lesbianism only after she has lived for a while in Taiwan.

Many of these expatriates would have benefited from Tim Cahill’s experience, especially as encapsulated in “Professor Cahill’s Travel 101.” This essay includes essentials like “study up on the festering political and cultural animosities so that you don’t do something to create a situation in which already angry or zealous people feel obligated to march on your campsite with pitchforks and torches.” Cahill’s understanding of the food issue produces “Culinary Schadenfreude,” in which he contemplates with vengeful pleasure the predicament of three Chinese scientists in Montana as they face a traditional Lutheran Christmas dinner of lutefisk.

It’s the advice Cahill gives about behavior around animals that’s most to the point. Learn their etiquette, he says, and then you’ll be able to get along with them peaceably or know when to leave quickly. “Evilfish,” a bit of revisionism on dolphins, is especially apt. It’s also very funny, because Cahill suggests sensationalist headlines to accompany his observations. After describing dolphin copulatory habits, for example, he offers “Behind the Smile: Unspeakable Abuse.”

Like the women, Cahill seeks meaning from his experience. This is a relative departure for him, but his approach is so sly that he won’t scare off his regular readers who enjoy dangerous adventures spiced with humor. He introduces the subject comically in the title essay, which describes a yoga vacation in Jamaica. Under the serene poster-gaze of Bob Marley (“every little thing is going to be all right”), he fears achieving enlightenment. “What if . . . flash-bang, I’d see it all: the meaning of life, my own connection to the cosmos, and the blinding curve of energy that is the pulsing soul of universal consciousness itself . . . I’d know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that at that moment, I was completely and irrevocably screwed.” That’s because “the Enlightened Masters I have read are invariably incomprehensible and the Masters themselves are entirely incapable of constructing a single coherent English sentence.” No coherence, no publisher; no publishing, no career; no career, no food, home, wife, etc.

But gradually, seriousness creeps in. Many people set off, says Cahill, “on a journey designed to heal the soul.” Instead of having Dante or Orpheus do it for us, we get to be our own protagonist. This being so, he urges that we make our myth a good one. “An adventure is never an adventure when it’s happening,” he says. What matters is the story we make of it afterward. “Risk,” Cahill says, “is always a story about mortality. . . . We put these stories together—in poems and essays and novels and in after-dinner conversations—in an effort to crowbar some meaning out of the pure terror of our existence.” If we pay attention and craft our stories well, we get flashes of enlightenment from the sheer process of our lives.

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