Travel narratives usually gloss over the less-than-ideal parts of the places covered, instead focusing on the more picturesque elements – poverty, political instability, environmental deterioration, and social upheaval are very rarely covered in travel books. That’s definitely not the case with Brendan Shanahan’s Mr Snack and the Lady Water: Travel Tales from My Lost Years. In fact, little of the 11 stories featured have much in the way of endorsement; instead, the author shows unvarnished episodes in which he is faced with various obstacles be they a result of terrible accommodations, poor social interactions, or adversarial characters he comes across along the way.
The title refers to his trip to China to take a boat down the Yangtze River. He boards the Lady Water, a crumbling, decrepit vessel that takes him to the Three Gorges. His trip is marred by a passive aggressive tour manager who starts his trip on an inauspicious note when she demands he vacates his room – suspicious of the quality of the second room she’s suggested, he refuses and dooms their relationship for the rest of the trip. Mr. Snack is Shanahan’s roommate, a taciturn man who spends his time on the boat eating packaged snacks and remaining silent and stoic. Shanahan also runs into a pair of elderly ladies who either are missionaries or lesbians – Shanahan’s never sure; there is also a pair of Irish brothers who rumble through their surroundings in drunken roars, not helping the nasty stereotype of the alcoholic Irishman.
In between describing in dire detail, his shipmates, Shanahan also takes some time to write of the Three Gorges and the Yangtze River- and none of it is too appealing according to the writer. Government indifference to environmental concerns have the river swelling, leaving lots of places inhabitable, but poverty and bureaucracy leaves many displaced residents squatters in condemned buildings. He also must face grinding social inequity when interacting with the locals – especially merchants who are particularly desperate in hawking their wares.
The difficult trip in China is only the beginning of Shanahan’s trying trips. In “Bollywood Nights,” he talks about being discovered a la Lana Turner by a film producer and being cast as an extra in a Bollywood feature. He turns from actor to cultural anthropologist as he examines the importance of Bollywood in India, particularly the movie stars, who he writes are seen as cultural gods. He also writes of the caste system that sprouts among the filmmakers, actors and tech folks. He definitely feels he’s in the bottom rung of the social latter of a film set, as made evident by the smug, condescending treatment from the film’s producers and stars.
A detail that Shanahan shared with his readers in “Bollywood Nights” is that by a wall at the studios, cab drivers smoke cigarettes and pee a lot; the theme of urine is important in “A Grand Gesture,” in which Shanahan’s trip in Arizona is sullied by a urinating hippy who soiled his belongings, leading to a cringe-worthy experience as well as confrontations with his hostel’s staff.
But aside from Shanahan’s personal travails while on holiday, he also takes on political and societal issues – this is especially true in “White and Wrong,” a particularly absorbing and difficult tale of his experience in South Africa. He’s with a wealthy friend, but is still confronted not only by South Africa’s crushing poverty and oppressive racial segregation (despite the end of Apartheid), but he also must contend with the casual racism and bigotry of his friends and hosts. He also understands an innate prejudice in himself, despite his avowed entreaties to treat everyone as equals – in particular his yeoman-like effort in treating a domestic as an equal exposes a condescension that Shanahan candidly acknowledges. It’s a powerful moment, all the braver because most would rail against the racism of other’s, without examining their own.
But it would be a mistake to assume that Shanahan’s memoirs are dour, serious or one-note. When he’s writing of the absurd or bizarre, he proves to be a deft comedian with a hilarious eye for detail. In “Babyland” Shanahan mercilessly skewers consumer culture in the ridiculous landscape of Babyland, a theme park dedicated to Cabbage Patch Kids – the popular doll from the 1980s; when he takes on the other tourists, particularly the larger ones, he unleashes a savage wit.
Judging from Mr Snacks and the Lady Water, one would think that Shanahan should’ve stayed home. There is a sneaky sense of glee when reading of someone else’s troubles on vacation. It helps that despite the urgent issues at hand, Shanahan doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s a journalist and he uses this talent to recount entertaining and thoughtful tales of the kinds of people and places he gets to see on his journeys – they’re not idealized – this is nothing like Peter Mayles – but that doesn’t mean this book is not enjoyable; in fact, the opposite is true – the book is a darkly hilarious, sometimes provocative, always entertaining collection.
Click here to buy Mr Snack and the Lady Water: Travel Tales from My Lost Years from Melbourne University Publishing.