by Richard Fernandez
It is not an easy task to describe traveling to more than 75 countries, primarily in the Third World, over a period of nearly 50 years. Mt. Airy resident Stanley Diamond’s reflections, available in soft cover from Amazon.com, provide the reader with enough practical information to plan a trip in the Third World. It has enough description of out-of-the-way sights and experiences to excite and inspire a would-be traveler. There are enough scary occurrences to make one wonder why on earth Diamond, accompanied by wife Beverly, would ever embark on so many problematic adventures.
(Diamond’s book, “What’s an American Doing Here? Reflections on Travel in the Third World,” $16.95, was published by Eloquent Books in Durham, Connecticut. Publisher’s Web site: www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/WhatsAnAmericanDoingHere.html.)
It is the juxtaposition of their rather simple and ordinary life in Mt. Airy with their Third World travel that causes one to take notice. They raised three children and now enjoy five grandchildren. Stanley and wife Beverly taught or served in an administrative role in schools (until their recent retirement). They have enjoyed biking and tennis and have always enjoyed a rather quiet social life.
But they also travel!
Although this volume is not a “how to” book, the fact is that Diamond sketches out some very practical advice on how one might plan a trip and what to expect in Third World travel. Although he understands why some would be concerned about edible food, medical availability, clean sheets and safe streets in Third World travel, he doesn’t believe that super-sensitive caution about these matters should rule the day.
Diamond says, “Many foreign travelers seem to feel that out-of-the-way places offer titillating opportunities rather than precarious and life-threatening undertakings. That makes me suspect that it is the traveler’s background and reluctance to take risks that are more at issue … than are the actual problems one is likely to encounter.”
Diamond underscores the need for travelers to do sufficient homework in planning their travel so that they can actually feel in control of their schedule. The Diamonds did not, as a rule, rely on local guides. They used guides when they knew language would be an issue. (Stanley speaks Spanish, German and Italian.) Typically, Diamond would do enough research to be able to sketch out his preferred itinerary and then work with two or three agents he located on the internet. He promptly backed away from agents who wanted to send them on a pre-planned generic trip.
For the Diamonds, control usually meant traveling independently. Only on very rare occasions have they allowed themselves to be part of a group. Diamond puts it this way: “We want control of our journey – our itinerary, our time, housing, eating, visits and just about everything else – insofar as that is possible … I cannot stop a busload of fellow travelers to take a photo of people along side the road. I cannot ask other folks to wait while Bev and I stroll leisurely through an interesting market or walk the back paths of a small village.”
The chapters on “Survival” and “Big Pills, Little Pills” are scary, informative and at times humorous. After suggesting earlier in the book that Third World travelers would do best to lighten up on their fears, the author then tells story after story that made me anxious in just reading the tales. Here are a just a few situations the Diamonds have found themselves in during their travels:
•Traversing the Mahakam River in Central Borneo in Indonesia, they had to transfer from one small houseboat to another after their engine was struck by a floating log. On their first night, it rained unmercifully, and after closing the canvas around them to keep the rain out, Diamond writes, “It must have 95 degrees … and we were attacked by a thousand little flying things.”
•On the way back from visiting a Mayan site, their van, carrying about eight tourists, was stopped by bandits wielding AK-47’s. After having a gun pointed at his head, Diamond gave the bandit some loose change. They also took Beverly’s camera.
•In attending a Buddhist festival in Kataragama, Sir Lanka, the Diamonds left their shoes at the door of a holy place, having been assured by their guide that they would be safe. Upon leaving, their shoes were missing. Having lost his only pair of walking shoes, sandals had to suffice for the next several days. Diamond affirms the magnificence of the festival and asks the reader to let him know if they see a farmer in Sri Lanka walking around in Rockports.
•Traveling down the Li River in China, where the scenery was quite beautiful but the water was not an “inviting” place to swim, Beverly wondered after having lunch, where the dishes were washed. Stanley had no idea. Just a few minutes later, the riddle was solved. An identical river boat passed them going the opposite way. On the very end of the ship, waiters were washing the dishes in the water of the Li River!
•In the 1980s, after arriving in Rangoon, Burma (before the country was renamed Myanmar), the author experienced a very sharp pain in his abdomen. After failing in their attempts to contact the American doctor at the U.S Embassy, the Diamonds sought out a local doctor with some trepidation since medicine in that country “was reputed to be in the 1920s.” A doctor, who looked about 20, arrived with a nurse trailing behind carrying a little black bag. He gave Stanley a pill the size “of a ping pong ball” telling him he had an abdominal strain. Diamond did what all good patients do: he consumed the pill. Not altogether satisfied with the indigenous doctor’s diagnosis, later that day the Diamonds managed to see the embassy doctor, who said Stanley had a kidney stone and had to get to Bangkok fast to get good medical care. One day later, after the embassy pulled a few strings, the Diamonds, resting in a very nice room in a fine Bangkok hospital, learned that he did not have a kidney stone but an abdominal strain. The ping pong-sized pill must have worked, as the author was released from the hospital one day later.
In the chapter on “Just Having Fun” one cannot help but be struck by the insatiable curiosity of the author. This is a characteristic that permeates the entire book but is most evident in this chapter.
Spending an entire day driving together on a moped in pouring rain around Vientiane, Laos, with Beverly sitting behind driver-Stanley and holding an umbrella over their heads still causes them to chuckle. On another trip they spontaneously jumped on another moped in Danang, Vietnam, and headed off to the ancient city of Hoi An. So what if they got lost on the way? Friendly people helped them turn around and get to Hoi An in plenty of time to visit and enjoy the markets, old houses and temples.
The Diamonds took a few days to visit the Island of Lombok, which is in the Lower Sunda chain east of Bali and part of the province of Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. At breakfast in their small hotel, the author, in conversation with his waiter, said he would be interested in visiting a wedding or funeral service. The young waiter, Zohri, said there was to be a funeral near his hometown, and serving as Stan’s interpreter, with Stan behind the wheel of his rented vehicle, they headed off on their venture (leaving Beverly behind by her choice to relax for a day). It was a full day of visiting small villages, observing unique weaving practices and, most of all, spending time with Zohri’s family at their home. That the author was not able to see the funeral they had set out to see because it was postponed, in no way diminished his enthusiasm for a memorable experience.
Fun for the Diamonds wore many faces but was everywhere available: “Fun included trips into mines in Bolivia and Brazil, scuba diving without certification in the South Pacific, getting tipsy on vodka in ‘Cold War’ Russia or on the local liquors on Monkey Island Road in Bali. Fun was bargaining for native products and realizing that there was only a nickel difference between our offer and the asking price.”
The chapters on “Politics and Travel” and “Byproducts” were very interesting but not nearly as captivating as the other chapters where curiosity, adventure and risk-taking were everywhere present. “What’s An American Doing Here?” is a good book for would-be Third World travelers or those who have already begun or concluded their Third World travel. It is an even better read for those who appreciate unbounded curiosity.
The Reverend Richard R. Fernandez is a minister in the United Church of Christ and is a consultant to nonprofit organizations and religious congregations. He was formerly the director of the Northwest Interfaith Movement.