Shooting Stars and Flying Fish by Nancy Knudsen (2011) 315 p.

I have a vague idea that I’d like to go sailing one day, largely for the travel rather than the sport, and so I read this book just to get a feel for that idea – also because I got a free proof copy from my old bookstore job. That essentially means that this is a light break from “real” reading, which I would normally review in a paragraph or two. Instead the author irritated me with her patronising and condescending attitudes towards foreign cultures, so this is going to be a rant about Orientalism. I feel like I have the right to dwell on this, because the book sure does.

Shooting Stars and Flying Fish is an account of Nancy Knudsen’s four-year sailing voyage with her husband Ted, leaving Sydney on their yacht Blackwattle and circumnivagating the globe through the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific. I suspect much of it, particularly the second half, is assembled from articles Knudsen wrote for Sail-World magazine; the chapters seem to have a brief, self-contained aspect to them. Knudsen’s writing is technically competent, and although she is prone to cliches and excessive adverbs, her writing is readable enough and certainly better than, say, Steve Crombie’s in Lost On Earth. (She does write the entire book in present tense, though, which is a pet peeve of mine.)

What mostly bothered me about Shooting Stars and Flying Fish was that it was very clearly, from the outset, going to be a travel memoir about rich people who leave behind stuffy jobs and discover How Stressed And Hassled People In The First World Are, and How Genuine And Happy The People In The Third World Are, and Who Is Truly The Most Fortunate, Am I Right?

I’ve written about this topic before, but I’m not sure I’ve come across as perfect an example of it as Knudsen’s blissfully naive (or editorially selective) travel writings. My choice example would be Eritrea, a country on the coast of Africa. Knudsen acknowledges that the country has seen war, and that the capital is largely in ruins, but then seems quite smitten with the place:

Among the dereliction, people walk with pride and patience… the shopkeepers greet us hospitably… We stop, like the locals, at the makeshift bars under the night sky, enjoying the bonhomie and music which defy their poor surroundings… We sit, included for a while in the warm embrace of the family…

Her husband offers this gem of originality:

“Look how they live. They have nothing. But, you know, they really have everything, everything in the world that is important.”

Judging from Knudsen’s basic run-down, you get the impression that the Eritrea is a poor country, but one where people get by with what they can and appreciate the simple things in life. Except – whoops! – she forgot to mention it’s also a dictatorial one-party state with one of the most shocking human rights records on the planet. Eritreans have literally no rights, government kidnappings are common, female genital mutilation rates hover around 90%, and it ranks dead last on the Press Freedom Index – worse even than North Korea.

I’m not saying that living under a brutal Orwellian regime means that Eritreans are incapable of being happy about anything, though I expect it would certainly put a crimp in things. I’m just saying it might have been worth a sentence or two. Otherwise one might get the impression that Knudsen is sailing across the world without taking anything in, blissfully unaware of the realities of people’s lives, marvelling about how “simply” they live and how good that must be for their souls, before returning to her mod-con outfitted yacht.

But she can’t be entirely clueless. I mean, she did meet a teenager who told her he was planning on fleeing the country before being conscripted into the army for his seven-year stint as part the government’s military machine:

While it is easy to condemn this teenager for whose freedom so many have given their lives, it is also easy to understand a young soul who thinks of seven years as an eternity – indeed, it is exactly a third of his life so far.

Wait, what?

easy to condemn this teenager for whose freedom so many have given their lives

What? Who are you even talking about? Other soldiers in the Eritrean Army? “Harden up, Mohammed, it’s just seven years’ service to your evil government, it’ll build character, you young scamp!” Yes, I know she then says that it’s also “easy to understand,” but the fact that she even prefaced it with saying that it was “easy to condemn” – who the flying fuck would find it “easy to condemn” a teenager trying to escape becoming a tool of government oppression in a country with less human rights than North Korea?

Moving on. As Knudsen herself moves up the Red Sea, she is beset with doubt. Doubt about her simplistic and frankly embarassing perceptions of the Third World? No, doubt about whether she wants to return to the First World, where she fears that “there will be noise, tension, crowding, discord, pollution…” I’m sorry? Nancy Knudsen must have visited a very different Third World than I did. Some of kind of mirror-image Third World. Perhaps an oceanic Third World, where she moved about in a comfortable, modern, yacht that she could call her own, rather than one where she regularly had to slog through filth-strewn slums with thousands upon thousands of human beings who never shut up. I, too, remember how terrible it was to return to the First World, where people didn’t shit in the streets, where garbage was collected by government employees, where it wasn’t just a nicer place to be but also a place where people wouldn’t die of easily avoidable diseases simply because they had no choice but to live in their own filth.

Because that’s the crux of the matter, really. I can turn my nose up at the smells and chaos of the Third World, and that’s my albatross to carry, but the real problem is health and safety. These things have a real and visceral impact on the lives of people living in the Third World. It is not a snobbish Western conceit. It is a grim fact of life which means that people in the Third World have life expectancies in the 40s and 50s, skyrocketing infant mortality, rampaging famine, widespread AIDS and malaria, low literacy and education rates and very little chance of improving their lot in life.

That is why we send humanitarian missions there. That is why they try to leave their countries, immigrating en masse to the developed world in the hope of a better life. That is why they continue building coal plants despite knowing full well about global warming – because they don’t want their people to live in miserable poverty any longer. That is why I get so angry when wealthy Westerners like Nancy Knudsen coo about how “simple” and “happy” their lives are. Here is an observation she makes from the deck of her expensive yacht:

There’s still mist around – a brown mist to the north over Europe, that bastion of progress and modernity, and a pure white mist to the south over Africa, that backward continent that hasn’t learned properly yet how to poison the air it breathes.

I know I sure would prefer to be born in the Congo rather than Germany! Your chances of dying during childbirth are certainly no greater than one in five, and if you live to be twelve, you can look forward to a pleasant future career as a gun-toting rapist in the Lord’s Resistance Army!

Now, look. I’m not saying that everybody in the Third World lives a life of utter misery, that one is incapable of true happiness without modern conveniences (Nancy Knudsen would probably point to iPods and TVs and sports cars; I would point to electricity, clean drinking water and trained medical doctors.) Humans are resilient creatures and capable of being happy in difficult circumstances – particularly if they don’t know any better.

What I take issue with is Knudsen consistently painting all Third Worlders as always happy – and, conversely, all First Worlders as always unhappy (even if they don’t know it, because it hasn’t yet been pointed out them by the Enlightened Traveller). Maybe I take more of an issue with that, actually. It’s like seeing a self-help book titled “I Can Make You Happy.” Just because Nancy Knudsen wasn’t satisfied with her high-luxury but high-pressure life doesn’t mean every Westerner is unhappy with their life and their society. I’m willing to bet most people she met in Eritrea or Panama or wherever would have been quite happy to trade places with her.

This prevailing wisdom – this idea that, really, deep down, Third Worlders are better off than we are – smacks of self-denial. It’s a subconscious way of assuaging our guilt about living at the top apex of luxury in the world, the glory of our safe and convenient lifestyles built on the sweat and labour of the billions of people ground beneath the capitalist jackboot in the developing world. That’s a guilt that nobody who travels through poverty can escape, but there are better ways of dealing with it than constructing a fantasy in which poor people live lives free of modern “trappings,” while we languish under the burden of wealth and luxury which, somehow, prevents us from achieving “true” happiness.

True happiness has nothing to do with wealth or luxury. It’s a separate thing entirely. Living in the First World merely allows you to be safe, healthy and comfortable while you set out attaining it, because you aren’t hiding from the Janjaweed during your daily nine-mile trek to get drinking water. Read Shooting Stars and Flying Fish if you want to read an average travel memoir with healthy lashings of naive, condescending generalisations.

Shooting Stars and Flying Fish at The Book Depository