Monday, September 19, 2011

Following Josh

For a long time, my favorite kind of travel book reading has involved long trips by train, foot, automobile, boat, or hitchhiking, during which a solitary traveler connects on a basic level with people in remote parts of the world.  Dave Norman’s description of his trip by train from China to Poland, Following Josh, although technically not a trip he took alone, certainly qualifies in every other way.  I use the word “technically” here because, for two guys traveling together as far as Dave Norman and Josh Vise did, the two managed to spend as much time apart as they spent together.  It was almost as if they did not much like each other – more on that later.

Dave and Josh are old high school buddies from St. Louis whose lives took different turns several years prior to the trip.  Josh has been teaching English in Asia while Dave has been earning a living as a freelance sportswriter from his home base in New Hampshire.  Now, each is ready to begin the next chapter in his life.  Josh is returning to his hometown to see what happens next, and Dave wants to take the long way (around the world) to his new home and life in New York.  They decide to meet in Seoul, from where they will travel all the way to Poland together.

As the book’s subtitle summarizes, this is a trip from China to Poland, but its actual route is this one: Seoul, Beijing, Ulan Bator (Mongolia), Irkutsk (Siberia), Perm (Russia), Moscow, Brest (Belarus), to Warsaw.  Along the route, Dave and Josh are tested in a number of interesting ways but manage to survive the journey in relatively good health and with their friendship passably intact.  As difficult as some of the trip proves to be, the biggest danger the two face is that they might not be friends by its end.

Dave Norman
Dave and Josh, despite the high school friendship Dave recalls fondly, are not much alike these days.  Josh is the organized one who arrives in Seoul with detailed written plans for each leg of the trip; Dave is willing to go along with Josh’s plans but would be just as willing to take the whole trip one day at a time.  Josh is the kind of American traveler who worries excessively about not offending any of the locals along the way; Dave ridicules Josh’s political correctness and is more, as he sometimes demonstrates, the Ugly American type.  Their Odd Couple relationship makes for some interesting moments, confrontations, and misunderstandings.

The boys have some interesting experiences (although the more interesting ones do not seem to have been all that much fun) involving friendly and not-so-friendly locals, corrupt border officials, and other travelers they meet along the rail system.  The trip is a way for Dave and Josh to say goodbye to their old lives and to welcome their new ones.  As Dave puts it:

            “Back home, I react to the same things in the same ways, day after day, and that becomes who I am.  But in completely new surroundings, I can be anyone I want as I feel my way through the customs.  Travel lets me character-act, and the locals get a kick out of helping.”

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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