1330 Three decades ago in Asia
Under the Bright Sky: A Memoir of Travels through Asia
by Andrew Scott
Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2021
$24.95 / 9781773860619
Reviewed by Howard Macdonald Stewart
Andrew Scott has assembled a highly readable, often fascinating collection of stories about three decades of travel around Asia, from Japan to Turkey. I particularly appreciated his observation that his travels have led him to conclude that we are far more alike than we are different, and all desperately in need of more skill in co-operating with one another. As someone who travelled for work for decades, I agree with him. By the time I finally stopped getting on planes, I’d found I was meeting the same cast of personalities, over and over, in country after country; they were starting to feel like cousins.
The cover blurb tells us that Andrew Scott is an author, journalist, editor, and photographer; all these skills are in evidence in this book. The photos, some colour and some black and white, are not numerous but very good. A few of his tales grabbed me more than others of course, but all struck a responsive chord and I appreciated their diversity. We visit ten countries between 1987 and 2020 where the focus of the author’s attention shifts not just from one setting to another but among different types of musings. Scott’s prologue charmed me; it speaks not just of the far-off places he’s visited, but of his Vancouver home and the growing ties between its diverse population and so many Asian places, especially China.
We visit southeast China first, Hong Kong then Guangdong province where his wife Shiane connects with family members she’s never met before. Four years later Scott is alone in Laos and mourning Shiane’s tragic premature death, hoping against hope that his wanderings through this history-laden backwater on the middle Mekong might help assuage the grief. A couple of years later we’re riding elephants through the verdant hills of Sri Lanka and visiting famed science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who’d lived there for decades by then. I was especially jealous of this story as I’d hoped to meet Clarke myself and hung out at a charming old beach hotel he was said to frequent. All I encountered were outrageous shills on the beach path outside that hotel and a huge stone building recently blown to smithereens by a Tamil Tiger bomb.
Much of the talk in the Thailand story is about that country’s jade mines, and BC’s own, and the Taoists and Buddhists who cherish carvings wrought from this stone. I’d visit India for the food alone (though there are so many other reasons to go). So I was happy to learn Scott and his new partner Katherine found India’s food the high point of their visit there. His portrait of India’s Malabar coast, the far southwest, is the most compelling descriptive writing in the book and made me regret, once again, that I’ve never been there. And so on.
What wasn’t to like? I was shocked by the absence of maps. But I suppose that’s a geographer’s thing. I quibbled with a few historical details in Laos, Sri Lanka, and India. I enjoyed the South Korean story but also found it curiously flat and lacking in human contact. A few stories descend sometimes, not often, into the language of tourist guides.
Scott’s memoir excites one’s interest in these far-off places, all of which would be worth a visit. But he ends by musing about the future of tourist travel. Writing from the depths of our seemingly never-ending pandemic, he points out how much the non-human world has profited from the decline in such travel. Covid’s impact on our greenhouse gas emissions has been near miraculous, achieving more than the world’s leaders have managed any time since we signed the Climate Change Convention thirty years ago. Many wildlife populations are experiencing similarly unprecedented comebacks. So let’s hope, as Scott suggests, that ever more people might opt for the wonders of virtual travel, for the sake of the planet’s human and other populations. Scott’s memoir is a good place to start. But what might this mean for economies like ours, so highly dependent upon real tourists?
Howard Macdonald Stewart is an historical geographer and semi-retired international consultant whose work has taken him to more than seventy countries since the 1970s. His memoir of a youthful bicycle trip down the Danube with war hero and debonair cyclist Cornelius Burke, Bumbling down the Danube, was published in The Ormsby Review in 2016, and his memoir, The Year of the Bicycle: 1973, followed in 2020. He is also the author of the award-winning Views of the Salish Sea: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Change around the Strait of Georgia (Harbour, 2017), as well as a popular Remembrance Day reflection, Why the red poppies matter. He has lived on Denman Island, off and on, for more than thirty years. He is now writing an insider’s view of his four decades on the road that followed his perambulations of 1973, notionally titled Around the World on Someone Else’s Dime: Confessions of an International Worker. Editor’s note: Howard Stewart has recently reviewed books by Catherine Nolin & Grahame Russell, Howard White, Wade Davis, Bill Arnott, Seth Klein, Liliane Leila Juma, Kate Harris, and Deni Ellis Béchard.
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