been on the ocean in a little boat of any
sort," he notes, which doesn't stop him from buying, on
the spur of the moment, from a sailboat broker named Peter, a
twenty-year-old, thirty-seven-foot, ferro-cement, twelve-ton,
ketch-rigged sailboat with the unpromising name of Sea Mouse.
Such is the impulsive action that launches Patterson's sometimes
meditative, sometimes hilarious new book, The Water in Between.
of the humor in the book is derived from Patterson's freely admitted,
complete ignorance of even the most basic principles of sailing
and navigation. "Suffused with optimism and rum, I told
Peter I wanted to sail to Tahiti," he writes.
I asked him how long it would take to get
to Tahiti. He said five or six weeks. I told him I knew nothing
about sailing. He assured me it was in my blood.... I asked him
what one did out there alone at night. When you went to sleep,
did you put out a sea anchor or what? He took a moment, as if
contemplating his response, and then asked when I could get the
check to him.
In the end, perhaps taking pity on Patterson
and his apparent suicide mission, the broker pairs Patterson
up with a former sheet-metal worker named Don Lang, also in flight
from a broken heart (and marriage) but fortunately an experienced
And so the two set sail for Tahiti, and Patterson
soon discovers that life at sea in a small boat, far from romantic,
is mostly long interludes of lassitude interrupted by brief,
storm-driven episodes of terror, and a progressively more desperate
need for a bath. Which isn't to say he does not necessarily enjoy
some parts of their meandering voyage to Tahiti by way of Hawaii
and a couple of small Pacific islands that strike their fancy.
Only that it isn't quite the bold foray into the unknown he had
The Sea Mouse, as it name suggests,
is not a racehorse. In mostly calm seas, under relentlessly clear
skies, it idles along, leaving its two occupants with little
more to do than read and sleep and eat and, most particularly,
brood--exactly what Patterson thought he would escape by going
to sea. Patterson, still reading travel books--Chatwin and Theroux
and Raban, Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World,
and Richard Henderson's Singlehanded Sailing--begins to
question the romance of restlessness and exotic destinations.
"You had to wonder if there was any escape....Whether
every place is just like the last one," Patterson's equally
disillusioned travelling companion suggests. Hawaii seems shockingly
ordinary, with its strip malls and frozen yogurt stands. The
fellow sailors they meet in ports as often as not seem less rigorously
self-reliant nomads than homeless because they manage to wear
out their welcomes everywhere they go. And when at last Patterson
and Lang arrive in Tahiti, they find a polluted harbor, car exhaust
and Parisian bureaucrats longing for home: "All of us wishing
we were elsewhere." Patterson's greatest pleasure, at the
end of his journey, is not freedom but ties to home: discovering
the bales of letters awaiting him poste restante at the
Papeete post office.
At the end of the book, Patterson makes one
last bid for his long-cherished notion of ennobling solitude
by singlehanding the return leg of his journey from Hawaii to
British Columbia--three thousand uninterrupted miles alone at
sea. "This was precisely what I'd longed for, those winter
nights in the little army house." But all he can think about
is landfall, family, home at the end of the voyage, and with
every slow mile his desire for these grows more desperate. When
he is caught in the middle of a raging storm, alone and terrified,
he realizes finally that "the only buttress against the
fearsome and shrieking wind lies in humanity huddled together
to keep warm," and that "being awake at night, alone
and cold, severed from others, does not have a patch on home."
A cynic might point out that Patterson's book
puncturing the myths of travel and adventure literature is being
pitched, somewhat inaccurately, by its publisher as "a high
seas adventure story." And the liberal sprinkling of technical
lingo--mizzen masts and whisker poles and port forestays and
halyards--might leave landlubbers wishing for a glossary. What
makes the book succeed, however, is Patterson's strong, insightful
writing and his humor, much of it at his own expense. If I had
to spend months at sea in a small boat, Kevin Patterson is the
kind of travelling companion I'd hope to have.
suppose it was coming directly from Patterson that made me expect
not to like Jamie Zeppa's Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A
Journey into Bhutan. Here's the cover blurb from the New
York Times: "Zeppa's book suggests...that there are
still a few places left in the world so strange and wondrous
that a journey there has the power to transform the traveler...."
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Another I-went-to-a-foreign-land-and-came-back-
a-better-person story. Like Patterson's book, however, Zeppa's
is full of ambiguities and contradictions, and I found myself
drawn into the story to the point where I was disappointed when
the book ended abruptly.
At twenty-three, Zeppa flees too much certainty--a
fiancé, Ph.D. applications, a careful life--for a teaching
assignment in Bhutan. At first, she is miserable from homesickness
and culture shock, afraid of falling ill from the food and the
water, horrified by her grim, rat-and-flea-infested apartment
in a remote village, completely mystified by the challenge of
teaching the young schoolchildren in her charge.
But gradually she warms to life in Bhutan,
first cautiously, then with a wholehearted enthusiasm measured
out metaphorically in the increasing number of fiery chili peppers
she adds to her ever-more-Bhutanese meals. She falls in love
with this tiny, remote country--it seems a perfect, magical idyll
still simple and largely untouched by Western commercialism.
She converts to Buddhism. She falls in love, literally, with
a Bhutanese man, and eventually they marry.
If the book followed only this narrative trajectory,
it would have all the makings of a Hollywood movie and not much
more. But Zeppa allows reality to intrude its complexities and
contradictions on the story. There is a suffocating lack of privacy,
and the burden of social disapproval. There is little questioning
of authority. There is a growing civil unrest between northern
and southern Bhutanese, argued only in rhetoric and rumor. And
a world without VCRs and Calvin Klein is also a world without
clean water and sanitation, where children die of easily preventable
A friend, a fellow teacher, 'deconstructs'
her romance with the country, telling her, "You're projecting
things onto the place, all the things you feel your own culture
is missing. The pre-industrialized world, communion with nature,
all that Shangri-La-Di-Da business," and Zeppa comes to
the realization that "life here is different, but if you
add everything up, it is not any better. You can love this landscape
because your life does not depend on it. It is merely a scenic
backdrop for the other life you will always be able to return
to, a life in which you will not be a farmer scraping a living
out of difficult terrain." Like Patterson, Zeppa understands
that the true foundation of an adventure is the security of believing
that, when you're sick of it all, you can always go home.
Even her romance with Tshewang, the man who
will become her husband, is more nuanced than not. He is a student
at the college where she is transferred after several months
in Bhutan. It is not entirely clear whether Zeppa forewarns him
that she has decided to get pregnant with him--before they are
married, and while they are trying to keep their forbidden romance
But the book ends suddenly, with the marriage.
A cursory postscript indicates unsatisfyingly that "Tshewang
and I found some of the cultural difference between us to be
even greater than we had expected, and had to make some difficult
decisions about our future. Eventually I decided to return to
Canada, at least 'for some time' as the Bhutanese say...."
The reader feels the hand of editorial imperative at work here,
saying "keep it to three hundred pages," but we've
followed Zeppa too long to be thus abandoned at the border.