Travel literature review: Golden Earth

Golden Earth by Norman Lewis

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Rating 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark Broadhead

Missing the (metaphorical) boat is a common fear among travellers. It was the impetus for the trip recounted by Norman Lewis' Golden Earth. In the early 1950s he decides to get to Southeast Asia as soon as possible before it departs with the Chinese sponsored expansion of communism.

So, quick on the heels of visiting Indochina, which he wrote of in The Dragon Apparent, he makes his way to Burma. At the time Burma was riddled with insurgents and warlords, which the newly minted post-colonial government had little influence over. 'On the first morning I bought a newspaper and noted with slight surprise that a ferryboat crossing the river to a suburb of Rangoon had been held up by pirates and three members of the crew killed.'

Nevertheless, dangers aside, a recent traveller to Burma is easily jealous of Lewis' era. Then he could converse with most of the population in pretty fluent English; today broken English is the norm, and only with a small number of people engaged with tourists. Then too the populace wasn't cowered by fifty years of repressive dictatorship. However, other things haven't changed so much: Burmese cuisine is elusive (perhaps rightly so in my limited experience); transportation is slow; and the Burmese themselves are friendliness incarnate.

The three strengths of Golden Earth are Lewis' desire to get off the beaten path, his historical research, and his ability to write. Strangely, the latter is all too often missing from so-called 'travel writers'. In Lewis' writing, though, you'll find a master scene setter and a knight of understated humour. Here, for instance, is Lewis describing his presence at a formal reception: 'Fortunately, Orientals are not obsessed by the necessity of keeping up polite conversation. It is sufficient to contribute an occasional remark; to produce for the benefit of those sitting opposite, a smile, which, indeed, tends after a time to stiffen into the kind of grimace produced at the demand of the old-fashioned photographer.'

Golden Earth is a pleasure to read, and informative of the character and history of Burma.

Mark Broadhead is the Research Librarian at Lonely Planet's Melbourne office. He visited Burma in January 2011.

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