IF YOU'RE the sort of traveller who believes that the best part of reaching a destination is the people you find there, then Ox Travels will be right up your street. It's a charity compilation consisting of essays from three dozen of the world's top travel writers, in aid of Oxfam's work in more than 70 countries around the world.
The editors have amassed an impressively starry list of contributors, from the introduction by Michael Palin, to essays from Patrick Leigh Fermor, Rory Stewart, Paul Theroux, Victoria Hislop, John Julius Norwich and William Dalrymple, to cite just a few. Sadly, a great many essays are instantly forgettable, and there's an unmistakeable air of worthiness pervading the volume, which doesn't come as a surprise under the circumstances.
Highlights include the aforementioned Fermor, whose writing stands apart for its lyricism and poetic impact. His story recounts his meeting with a motley crew of seamen and shepherds in a cave on the Black Sea, but his descriptions make the scenery spring just as vividly to life. He writes: "The Bulgarian winter had not yet begun and the emerald and moss-bright froth across the russet soil spread a fiction of early spring. The hills were empty. Glimpses of villages soared inland, their chimneys balancing above them veils as thin and blue as un-inhaled tobacco smoke." It's hot bath prose – it's inviting you to sink in and linger.
Nicholas Shakespeare describes a visit he made to Africa with his sister, who lives in Brazil with her husband, Rasbutta, a Rastafarian former street boy. In Africa Rasbutta, who is consumed by questions about his ancestors, encounters a clan who might just be his long-lost relations. Shakespeare cleverly uses the encounter to lay bare some of the stark realities of the slave trade between Bahia and Dahomey.
Sonia Faleiro's story, "Madame Say Go", describes her encounter with a disoriented woman on board a plane. Telescoping back from the individual and personal, she shows how one woman's dilemma is representative of the greater problem, which is the shocking trade in humans between Kerala and the Gulf states. Since the 1970s, five million semi-literate men, women, and children have gone to the Gulf to toil as domestics and menial labourers. They are beaten, abused and exploited, treated as invisible chattel. It's a sad, sobering story.
Also in the collection's favour is its sensible design. Instead of making you fumble through the backmatter to find out more about each contributor, their photo and brief bio sits at the start of their essay. With stories this personal, it's much more satisfying when you can envisage at least one of the participants. As curate's eggs go, this one's fair to middling, but it serves well as an introduction to travel writers you might not have heard of previously and destinations so off the beaten track as to be inaccessible to most readers.