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Cultures and their archeaology July 21, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life.

What could be more thrilling than discovering an ancient ruin, a hidden city or even a lost tribe, the buried treasure of humankind itself?

In “From Stonehenge to Samarkand: An Anthology of Archaeological Travel Writing” (Oxford University Press; $35; 291 pages), editor and author Brian Fagan makes his own Grand Tour of archaeological adventurers. His subjects range from the antiquarian collectors of the 16th century through the 19th century excavators of Middle Eastern, Mayan and American Indian sites, from renowned tourists such as Thomas Cook and Mark Twain to modern observers such as Paul Theroux and Karin Muller, traveling at a time when places such as Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu are wrapped in a suffocating embrace.

A professor emeritus of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara, Fagan is well aware of the Western tendency to assume the right to peer into the past of others — and to appropriate what it finds. While noting that Greece during Lord Elgin’s day was “a remote, little-traveled land, its temples overgrown and neglected,” thus lending itself to plunder, Fagan also notes that the English milordi “regarded the Greeks with indifference, despite receiving many kindnesses, and treated the archaeological sites as a source of potential wealth.”

But who better than Lord Byron to criticize his countrymen? Fagan cites his sarcastic view of the despoiled: The Greeks “are to be grateful to the artist who engraves their ruins and to the antiquary who carries them away; to the traveler whose janissary flogs them and to the scribbler whose journal abuses them.”

My only complaint: The historic extracts are in a small typeface that discourage reading the longer passages. Like the archaeologists whose writing Fagan celebrates, I should have kept a magnifying glass at my side.

“The Best Travel Writing 2006: True Stories From Around the World,” edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger and Sean O’Reilly (Travelers’ Tales; $16.95 paperback; 350 pages). It’s been out for six months, but summer is the perfect time to pick up this anthology from the prolific Palo Alto publishing company. I can’t vouch for “best” or “true,” but “around the world” is justified — and “excellent” wouldn’t be a stretch, either.

Herbert Gold’s exuberant introduction seems hyperbolic — until you wend your way through several stories. Joel Simon’s “Fiji Time,” which starts with a happy interjection (”Bula!”) and ends in tragedy (a slow death from shark bite), is a prime example of how the authors — many of whom are from the Bay Area — are willing to shed their assumptions and see beyond the immediate.

There are intimate revelations, such as Dustin W. Leavitt’s “Japanese Tattoo” (his account of the rituals of receiving one), Constance Hale’s “Cutouts” (unexpected Italian lessons — in language and love) and Melinda Misuraca’s “Blinded by Science” (an exploration of lust, with inspiration from a Thai cave of wooden phalluses). There are mind-changing pilgrimages (Jeff Greenwald’s “In Jerusalem”) and body-challenging peregrinations (Pamela Logan’s “To Lhasa”). And there’s enough to keep one happily reading until the 2007 edition.

“Outside of Ordinary: Women’s Travel Stories,” edited by Lynn Cecil and Catherine Bancroft (Second Story Press; $14.95 paperback; 268 pages) On the surface, the short stories in this Canadian collection seem very ordinary indeed: The itineraries are often conventional, the style often conversational (certainly less polished than the Travelers’ Tales prose). Family, friends and partners are rarely far from mind even when the authors are far from home.

But the capacity for detailed, empathetic observation of one’s self and others, often labeled as “women’s intuition,” propels many of the tales into a deeper realm. Sharon Butala, in “Bocca Della Veritΰ,” her spin on “Roman Holiday,” sums it up simply: “The humanity of others, the little surprises, the unexpected boredom, the occasional moment of insight about oneself are what travel is really about.”

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