Book Review: ‘Tales of Buddhas and Bandits’ by Billy Kerr

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Please note: All opinions stated here are my own.

I love travel books. I love all books, but travel books are my favourite to devour, especially when I’m getting a little bored of daily routine. I love to sink comfortably into other people’s travel experiences and daydream about myself being in that magical place.

However, there’s not much that’s comfortable or magical about travels with Kerr and his partner Ellen. In this very honest account of their two years traversing the globe, you wonder if so many strange things can possibly happen to one couple. After coming across a porcelain Buddha at a car boot sale while hungover, the duo decide to pack their belongings and Buddha into a pair of rucksacks and hightail it out of Edinburgh and around the globe, on a mission to return Buddha to his home in Bangkok and beyond.

I came across this book by accident and had never heard of it before. I was browsing the iBooks app on my iPad, trying to find a good travel book to read that’s actually available on this app (please put on more options iBooks! 😃). Having purchased quite a few already I came across this one as recommended for me. How well Apple knows me!

Safe to say that this book will keep you entertained with countless anecdotes of their failures to see some of the worlds’ famous landmarks, their numerous bouts of sicknesses, discovering a Scottish brothel, many drunken nights, a magical experience at Machu Picchu, and a terrifying experience in a ‘taxi’ in Venezuela.

Not to mention all the fascinating and sometimes downright irritating people that they meet along the way, including one with whom they spent the entire journey from Russia to Beijing!

There are some painfully honest parts too, like discovering the passing of his father while in Asia, and the aftermath of their frightening experience in Venezuela.

There was something about this book that I really enjoyed. I love discovering new places through travel accounts, but with Billy and Ellen it was more than that. You really grow very fond of the pair, and want them to find some luck on their journeys as they miss yet another key tourist sight or lie in bed suffering from another severe bout of sickness. I enjoyed following them on their epic train journey from Russia to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian Express, an interesting ferry ride in South East Asia, scary flights in South America, and multiple bus journeys as they made their way down Chile.

Minus a year in Australia, I think Kerr has summed up his travels very nicely. It’s not so long as to get boring and become a trawl, but it’s long enough to give a fair summary of each place they went to. Not to mention the so-typically British traits that they display that I can totally relate to!

If you want a kind of off-the-grid travel account to read, that isn’t all roses and rainbows, then for sure pick up “A Tale of Buddas and Bandits”. It’s well worth the read.

Book Review: ‘The Alchemist’ by Paul Coelho

The attractive cover of The Alchemist, perfect for a rainy day ☔️

Please note that the opinions stated here are all my own. 

This is another book that began life on my to To Read shelf for a very long time, and I have read mixed reviews about it so left it on its designated shelf. However, a recent trip to Beijing brought me within reach of an English language bookstore and I couldn’t resist buying a nice pile of paperbacks! The Alchemist was among them and so finally, on a rainy day in Qinhuangdao, after a full day of reading, I moved it to the Read shelf.

There are several intriguing things about this novel. The first is that the author, Paul Coelho, wrote it in Spanish, and it was published in Brazil nearly thirty years ago in 1988. At first, nobody noticed the book, according to the Foreword at the beginning of the novel. It sold badly and was eventually cut off by the publisher. However, less than a year later an American randomly picked up the book in an old bookstore, and decided he wanted to take it to America, have it translated and published again. HarperCollins picked it up and it became a success. A modern classic. Which is why I wanted to read it.

The second is that the author describes his book as a fable rather than a novel. A fable is a genre in literature which features anthropomorphic animals or inanimate objects – animals or inanimate objects that are given human-like qualities. These, by the end of the fable, lead the reader to a moral lesson. This is interesting to me because initially I thought it was a novel rather than a fable, and also because it’s very different from what I usually read.

So what did I think of it?

My mind is mixed up about The Alchemist, I have to admit.

The plot is intriguing. An Andalusian shepherd boy sets out on a journey in search of a treasure that he has dreamt about, hidden at the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Selling his flock of sheep and crossing the Mediterranean, he arrives in Tangier, Morocco. Something unexpected happens, and he ends up having to stay in Tangier working at a crystal shop to make money for his journey. Finally a year later the boy has enough to buy a camel and cross the desert with a caravan. There he meets an Englishman in search of a great Alchemist. At an oasis in the desert, they are forced to stop for a while, and the boy meets the Alchemist and learns the so-called Language of the World. Finally he gets to the pyramids with the help of the Alchemist… Does he find his worldly treasure? You’ll have to read it to find out!

Now, I liked the plot. I thought the story was an interesting one, and I read on to see if he would find his treasure or not. There are tense moments that intrigue you and I read this book in a day because I liked the story so much. I think it is well written and though no names are given for the main characters (though according to the blurb, the boy is named Santiago. He goes by “the boy” in the story however), they are well developed and largely likeable.

However. There is a LOT of whiffle-waffle to get through too. A lot of people love it for that reason. But for me, it was something I had to kind of slog through to get back to the plot. Some of it is great advice for the reader, about following your dreams and achieving your personal challenges (Personal Legend) as the book states, but wow does he go overboard with it. He talks a lot about the “Language of the World”, and how even if we don’t speak the same English or Spanish or Arabic, we can still learn to understand each other. More than that though, it’s about learning to converse with everything around us – animals, the landscape, the elements. In the book the boy talks with his sheep, the desert, the wind…  

Generally I am fine with these ideas. I have read some books containing these ideas and I like them. I am pretty open to reading the ideas displayed here. Yet, for me, there was too much of it in this short book. I would have liked more plot and less talk about the spiritual elements.

Having said this, I like the idea of going on a journey to find your personal treasure. Everybody’s treasure is different though, and the idea of journeying to find yours, and to find a more spiritual side of yourself, appeals to me greatly. I think we are all on this kind of journey in some form or another, or at least we are searching for it.

In conclusion, I did ultimately enjoy this book. I know many that wouldn’t, but there was something quite special about this little book. Once I get past the poetic talk about the speaking to the desert and wind, I enjoyed the plot, and the ideas of spirituality and that each one of us has a treasure to discover, we just need to have the courage to go out and find it.

Book Review: ‘The Backpacker’ by John Harris

Reading on my Kindle 3 with a coffee – perfect relaxation
This book has been on my To Read shelf for a while. Last summer I read ‘The Beach’ by Alex Garland, loved it, and instantly began looking for similar books to read. ‘The Backpacker’ consistently came out top of the list. Living in China means English novels are difficult to come by, unless you’re a huge fan of the Classics that is, so I recently purchased a Kindle! Probably the best investment in technology I have made in a while because even though I was previously adamant I would never succumb to the evil of e-book readers, I now cannot live in China without it! 

So ‘The Backpacker’ came off the To Read shelf finally!

I have to admit, I spent the first 35% (wonderful thing the percentage bar on the Kindle) pretty unimpressed. The very first part sees John in India with his fiancée, and though there were some descriptive parts that I enjoyed, it was for the most part rather moany as he complained about India and it’s bizarre ways. I thought it would pick up once he landed in Thailand in pursuit of Rick, a fellow English-man who had invited him to join him in Thailand. Much to my disappointment, I felt like I was involved in some of drugged-up dream. Their lives were about getting high every night in the jungles and beaches of Thai islands, with a lot of swearing and girls to boot. It had none of the flair of ‘The Beach’, and I found myself slogging through it, hoping the drugs would run out and they would get bored of their Thai islands.

The drugs didn’t run out, nor did they get bored of Thailand, but very suddenly, the book picked up and they are frantically on the run trying to cross the border into Malaysia with one passport between the two of them.

Not to give the story line away, but the next two-thirds of the story are jam-packed with adventure that we can only imagine, from an interesting stay in Singapore, to stealing a boat, sailing across the ocean, tragedy in a storm, ending up in and getting ripped off in Australia, and then jet-setting off to Hong Kong in search of riches. I was so wrapped up in the excitement and the thoughts of John that I forgot at times that this is no story – this is a biography, and it is amazing to think that the author lived this way for so long. Though some of his experiences I would gladly give a miss, you can’t help but find yourself daydreaming whilst reading this book, and wondering if you too could live this way, if it is actually possible.

What began as a slow read, I soon found myself so enthralled that I couldn’t put it down. I can highly recommend this excellently written book if you too love to travel and dream of exotic, foreign places!

Book Review: ‘The Geography of Bliss’ by Eric Weiner

Please note: All opinions in this post are my own.

Reading on my kindle with a mug of lazily self-stirred coffee = bliss!

A little confession: the reason I was first attracted to this book was because I love Geography. Being a Geography graduate, anything around the topic interests me, so I was drawn to the book from the word go.

Moreover, I love this idea. The concept of travelling, not to see the most fanciful places or lie on an exotic beach, but travelling in search of the happiest places, greatly appeals to me. Usually I read the travel diaries and accounts of younger people like myself, or the adventure stories like ‘The Backpacker’. So this one was a refreshing change from those.

First, a little about the author. As a radio journalist, he is blessed with one of those minds that causes him to analyse and critique things that the ordinary person wouldn’t normally consider. I have read reviews of him veering to the side of pessimism, though this being the only book I have read by Weiner, I cannot comment on that. He is, however, a self-confessed grumpy soul, the full title of the book being ‘The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World’, so perhaps those reviews have some truth in them.

Back to the book itself. This book will make even the most chilled out of readers question themselves, and the most important question you will ask yourself is:

Am I truly happy?

Followed closely by:

What is happiness?

Weiner uses not only his experiences in this book to attempt to find these answers. He also draws on the expertise of many people who make a living analysing happiness – scientists, politicians, geographers, religion, spiritual beings, myths, legends…all drawn together in this clever book to reconsider what being happy is all about.

Is happiness about the country in which you live?

Is happiness being strictly governed to keep us safe?

Is it having riches and wealth to do with what you please?

Does religion make a person happier?

Or is it leading a simpler life and having low expectation about the future?

Weiner travels around the world in his epic hunt for happiness – travelling from his home in Miami to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, the UK, India, and finally back to the USA. Each country has its own version of happiness to tell (aside from the extremely unhappy Moldova) and its own reasons and answers to these questions. As we journey beside him, we meet interesting people from all walks of life and encounter some fascinating places. My personal favourite chapter was Bhutan, where life is about the simple things. There are some humorous tales woven into the account, and I was fascinated by all the places he visited.

If I was to display one criticism it would be that, though Weiner never expressed the aim of getting a representative account from each country, I would say that visiting just one city or town in some of those countries leaves the reader without a fair representation of that nation. Being from the UK, I was disappointed when I read the UK chapter, where he visited only Slough, one of the unhappiest towns in the country. Though I know he had his reasons, it would have been interesting to read his take on other towns too. The same therefore goes to some of the other places he visited.

Saying that, I found this a highly entertaining and very interesting read. Each place has its own tale to tell and I loved how he brought it all into his conclusion at the end. A great book that I would recommend to anyone interested in travel, or the study of happiness.