- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

James Sullivan, a New England native and graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, had a problem. He had fallen hard, almost deus ex machina, for a lovely-looking Vietnamese woman whom he saw in a shop in the ancient city of Hue. Jim was a writer on a magazine assignment about a bicycle trip he and a friend took that involved cycling from Saigon to Hanoi. Returning by train, he made a sudden decision to leap into the unknown —literally — and, while it seems improbable at first, ended by writing Over the Moat: Love among the Ruins of Imperial Vietnam (Picador/St. Martin’s, $15, 369 pages), a book about where his pursuit led and how love conquers all.

Sentimentality is kept at bay by the author’s ability to describe the incredible adventures he had fighting off the woman’s other suitors and overcoming the resistance and corruption of bureaucratic officials opposed to such a match. If all this sounds somewhat mawkish, almost a novel for the lovelorn, what saves Mr. Sullivan’s tale is its open-hearted honesty. He indulges a little too much in the details of his mind and mood, perhaps, but there is no denying that the reader wants to let out a fine old-fashioned cheer at the end. The author is especially good in rendering the subtle and often not so subtle cultural differences between American and traditional Vietnamese worlds — useful tips for the wayward traveler and a moral lesson for anyone contemplating a similar commitment.

• • •

Commitment of an entirely different sort is part of a more traditional traveler’s tale in An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude (Doubleday/Broadway Books, $24.95, 299 pages). As told by author Ann Vanderhoof, the female half of a marital partnership, the unspoken pact between the two is staying together whatever the weather until the end of their journey. And what a trip it is: cutting out and sailing two years, for 7,000 miles, from Toronto to Trinidad and back in a rehabilitated sailing vessel just for the fun of it.

Husband Steve Manley was the sailor; his wife, the cook and part-time navigator. If they ever came close to a split, details aren’t revealed here. The reader is told mainly about the lighter side of a relationship lived in such close quarters. The author writes that at one point they actually grew closer, but then they appear to be two very resourceful and sympathetic grown-ups. Her descriptions of local islanders and cultural traditions encountered along the way are top-rate. For readers with wanderlust eager to escape a chilled winter world, she very helpfully touts Grenada — her favorite — in detail. Stay-at-homes get recipes interspersed through most of the chapters.

Full of humor and insight, “Mangoes” easily reminds a reader of some of the true pleasures of travel — and how travel writing at its best indisputably pleasures the reader.

• • •

For sheer bravado, however, the prize goes to John Gimlette, a British lawyer who is a contributor to Conde Nast Traveler magazine. His first book, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels through Paraguay (Knopf, $25, 384 pages), should be ranked among the very best explorations of its kind: at once a history and a guide to one of the least hospitable nations on earth.

That’s not entirely due to its bizarre politics — remember that Paraguay was the hideout of several escaped Nazis during the reign of General Stroessner — but the issue of governmental instability plays a large part in the tale. Read and weep: Between 1870 and 1936, Mr. Gimlette writes, “there would be thirty-two presidents (two assassinated), six coups, two successful revolutions and eight failures.” Manufacturing fell off; the economy died. “The only creatures to profit from this chaos were the jaguars,” he says. And he doesn’t mean classy expensive cars. The marvel is that he stayed whole in spite of his many trips to bring the place to life, and his writing of its many deaths.

The intrepid voyager took up the subject almost by accident some 20 years ago, becoming curious about Paraguay while working on a farm in northern Argentina. He gives especially telling portraits of the woolly characters who stalk the land, although names eventually blur and first-person accounts of his various trips back and forth tend to skew the narrative. He delivers the country’s history in intermittent but indelibly colorful segments. No one should miss the story of Irish-born Madame Eliza Lynch and her relations with the hapless, corrupt Lopez dynasty.

The curious title suits a wildly incongruous place where such a tomb does exist — and it is the very least of many stories the author tells in detail with deadpan authority. The illustrations alone are worth the price. History and literature buffs get a thorough bibliography. Should the movie ever be made, “Apocalypse Now” is likely to seem a Bugs Bunny show by comparison.

“An island surrounded by land,” he begins, quoting a native Paraguayan by way of introduction. “Almost impenetrable. A refuge to Nazis, cannibals, strange sixteenth-century Anabaptists, White Russians and fantastic creatures that ought long ago to have been extinct.”

Maybe it takes an Englishman to get a real grip on the eccentricities that flourish here. His ultimate one-line summary: “Paraguay — as it seemed to me — was everything that America tried not to be: tribal, crafty and institutionally opaque. The British may have been rather more at home with these attributes.”

Tucked away between Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil, its shape and location resemble a cavity in the tooth-shaped South American continent. The capital city of Asuncion, as all professional smugglers well know, lies conveniently at the meeting of three rivers on the east-west highway. Mentioning a highway may be an overstatement since, as Mr. Gimlette tells us, barely 11 percent of the roads are paved.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk at The Washington Times.

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