"Here we drink three cups of tea to do business:
the first you are a stranger,
the second you become a friend,
and the third you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything - even die."
Three Cups of Tea is the (semi-auto)biography of Greg Mortenson, an American nurse and mountaineer who in 1993 became stranded on K2, the second tallest mountain in the world. He stumbled, dehydrated and disorientated, into a remote Pakistani village. The villagers looked after him, and on his departure he made a promise to them: he would return and build them a school. The book tells of how he returned and built not one school, but fifty five.
The book has not been without controversy, but the moral core of the tale is of a fight for the power of education against ignorance and prejudice, both of which persist today and are found both on location and in the West as we look towards Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. This is a region of the world the West is (still) loathe to help, or even trust. The travel core of the tale is an insight into the lives and interactions of those who dwell in the remote Karakorum mountains. It is uplifting and revolutionary, and it should be read by all.
|On 10 January 1992, the container ship the Ever Laurel departed Hong Kong bound for the West coast of the United States. Somewhere en route, close to the International Date Line, a storm caused 12 containers to wash overboard, containing among them 28,800 plastic children's bath toys: red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks. Moby Duck is the story of those toys.|
Donovan Hohn, a creative writing teacher, picks up the trail not only of the rubber ducks - sightings of which spanned the US West Coast, some traversing the North West Passage and even, reputedly, reaching the UK - but of the shipping trade, of plastic pollution in the oceans and the vagaries of the environmental movement. He visits the plastic factories of China, gets stuck in ice on his way from Halifax to Cambridge Bay, Canada, and joins researchers of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch south of Hawaii. Some have commented that the prose is overly wordy (he is, after all, a creative writing teacher), but it's a great story, an important message, and a great way to visit some alternative destinations.
|Report from the Aleutians is an Oscar-nominated documentary from 1943. It is widely considered to be Second World War propaganda, but is nonetheless remarkable. The bulk of the footage was taken on the then uninhabited island of Adak, which is 1,197 miles from Anchorage on the boundary of the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. Even rarer, however, is the footage towards the end of the documentary, which was taken on board a bombing raid of the then Japanese-invaded island of Kiska, a volcanic island that is almost as far away from anywhere else on Earth as it is possible to be. The film is not only a rare chance to see a part of the world few will ever see, but is colour footage from the 1940s, showing the everyday lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary setting. It can be argued that the film is a sanitised and corporate view of military actions, although a funeral is shown. Nonetheless, you cannot help but wonder how detached life might have felt during deployment to such a remote place: far away from the rest of the world, making daily bombing runs to an even more remote location, never seeing retaliation nor society.
Report from the Aleutians is currently available for streaming for free for Prime customers at Amazon Instant Video. Footage of the aftermath on Kiska is available on YouTube, complete with rusting wreckage of the Japanese occupation.
|Imagine handing in your notice, leaving the Western world behind, and becoming the People's Lawyer of Tuvalu, the fourth smallest country in the world. This is the subject of Where the Hell is Tuvalu?, a memoir by Philip Ells. Told with reverence for a nation and its people, the book recounts legal episodes, cultural clashes and awkward liaisons with large doses of humour. There is also a brief visit to Kiribati, a nation with very different, and unexpectedly serious problems. This is one of my favourite books - it is fun and serious in all the right quantities, introduces some lively local characters, and shows a scantly regarded country to the world.|
|And, if you've neither time nor money to invest in a book or a film, there's always Google Earth. Many an hour have I lost to the cornucopia of satellite imagery on offer for free. I've found the scuttled ships of the Russian Navy (see also here and here) surplus to requirements after the USSR disintegrated. There's the non-existent Sandy Island, on maps since 1875, but not real. There are biodiversity hotspots previously unknown to science. This touching tribute to the passengers of lost UTA flight 772, deep in the Sahara. The Tucson aeroplane graveyard. The 'bullet holes' of the Nevada nuclear test site. And my favourite (because I haven't worked out what it is yet), there is this abandoned settlement on another remote Aleutian island, Amchitka.|