IF they are to be worth their salt and spice to a reader, the success of any travel book hinges on the reasons the author ventured forth as much as the discoveries made. Add the deft skill of storytelling, and the reader can reach the last page truly nurtured by the journey.
It's not difficult to guess why Charles Corn wrote Distant Islands: Travels Across Indonesia (Viking, 272 pp., $25). This vast, unruly archipelago covering 3,000 square miles surely isn't as humorless and vindictive as Corn reports as he hops from island to island and bar to bar.
Third-world countries, despite enormous problems, are not without heart and humanity pushing up through the squalor, mystery, and animism. Corn's story is artfully told but leaves a sour taste.
Perhaps he went too fast, traveling like the hare instead of the turtle. If he had stayed longer in one place - for instance the legendary Spice Islands, or Minangabau, a matrilineal society where Corn liked the vibrancy - he might have broken through the surface and found a richer, resourceful human dimension.
Give him credit. He did say in the preface he was attracted to "cultural estuaries where fiercely drawn divergencies were at work" and less to "fragments of societies purer by virtue of their isolation."
But Corn finds nearly everyone blinded by ethnic and class conflict. Because he spoke Bahasa Indonesia, presumably he could have angled his way past artifices and traditions to find something newer.
Jeremy Schmidt, biking, busing, and walking through five third-world countries - Tibet, Nepal, China, India, and Pakistan - breaks through the cultural surface there with a harrowing, raucous, and earthy journey in Himalayan Passage (The Mountaineers, 302 pp., $22.95). His spirited resiliency and boundless love for the mountains and the people allow him and his three traveling companions to beat the odds over seven months of low-tech exploring. They endure illnesses, shoving matches with various natives,
loss of a passport, wild dogs nearly everywhere, persistent lice, sardine-like but hilarious bus and truck rides, and fumbling bureaucracies, and the sheer exhaustion of getting from here to there. All this and more can't stop Schmidt's exuberance over the richness of the feast at the top of the world. He writes, "We were after something that existed on no map: an inner landscape, a landscape of the heart and mind, that region of peace which exists within all of us, and which, for me, is most easily attain ed in the company of wild mountains...."
Schmidt's book is chronological, building a story with anecdote and progressive observation and experience (plus some wonderful photos by Patrick Morrow). For Schmidt, a romantic who rises at dawn to see pale light touch pure, white mountains, there is the desire to stay forever.
The meaning of the microscopic world captures biologist John Janovy Jr. in Vermilion Sea: A Naturalist's Journey in Baja California (Houghton Mifflin, 226 pp., $19.95). Janovy defines his journey through the stark and silent beauty of Baja as "an intellectual field trip" as well as "one way to see the universe." He goes to see his first whale, but his field trip ranges wider and deeper on land and sea, a mix of profound questions and brave answers.
The reader stops in his tracks, looks down, and sees the crab Janovy sees, Clibanarius digueti, and therein lie three things for Janovy: a whole world, a metaphor for the world, and also a tiny, fascinating creature.
The antennule tips remind him of "ideals, or values, held out, vibrating, assessing the intellectual climate in which they are bathed." He sees shells on the beach and knows they are washed up seemingly at random. However, each resting place is the temporary end point of a unique history."
As Schmidt luxuriates in the liveliness of his low-tech adventure, Janovy comes to a conclusion both men undoubtedly share.
He writes, "Is it stretching the point to suggest that an automobile capable of buckling a seat belt for you seduces you into believing you're being 'taken care of'? I think not, but more realistically, an automatic seat belt is only one of thousands, maybe millions, of pervasive 'conveniences' that minute by minute reinforce our intellectual separation from the task of staying alive, of successfully meeting the challenges we face."