I have never traveled with (or even met) travel writer Garry Marchant, and I have never been to China. But after reading his book, The Peace Correspondent, I want to do both.
Subtitled “Asian travel stories from a restless writer,” The Peace Correspondent is a collection of deftly crafted tales from Marchant’s three decades of traveling through Asia, beginning in the 1970s. So along with the width and breadth of the continent itself, there is the dimension of time.
The vignettes are irresistible, the telling lively, perceptive and filled with delicious tidbits, such as the origin of the dragon boat races so popular worldwide, from the death of a poet, and how Genghis Kahn met his death by falling off a horse. Famous place names come alive as they roll from the pages – Katmandu, Lhasa, the Burma Road, Borneo. And the Taj Mahal, the goal of a long day’s journey fraught with delays and unwanted side trips, not to mention water buffalo in the road.
He notices the little absurdities and oddities that make travel interesting -- an Eifel tower with a satellite dish at a Thai island’s French enclave; Hong Kong’s Fortune Telling and Oblation Arcade, and fortune telling boxes with Budahas whose neon halos flash when a coin is deposited. Or even more curious, a coin-operated alms-giving machine at a Buddhist temple that pours raw rice into bowls on a conveyor belt that circles around and dumps it back to be resold.
He weaves in history, legend, myth and stories he’s told along the way, relating the past of each place to today, especially poignant in his pieces on Hue and Saigon.
Ghosts haunt this journey through Vietnam, where place after place conjures up newscast scenes from the 1970s – Hue’s citadel and the rooftop bar from which the news corps reported the final days before the fall of Saigon, the embassy from which the last Americans were evacuated by helicopter. Today the bomb craters are round ponds beside the railway tracks, and enterprising hawkers sell such bizarre souvenirs as GI dog tags.
In remote islands of the Philippines, he meets reminders of an earlier war, a larger-than-life statue of General Douglas MacArthur striding ashore – making good on his famous and much-quoted promise in 1944.
With such a large geography to cover and so long a time span of experiences, it would be easy for this book to become just a string of anecdotes and colorful images that flash onto a screen and are gone, like a slide show. But Marchant weaves them easily into narratives that give them direction and meaning, and each chapter is tied like a neatly wrapped gift.