Category: On travel

BookBrowse gives two thumbs up to The Names of Things

By John Yunker,

The Names of Things just received a great review from BookBrowse. Here’s an excerpt:

The Names of Things is a beautifully written book permeated with a sense of sadness and regret, set against the backdrop of the desolate Kenyan landscape. There are two main reasons why I find myself recommending this novel. First, the author’s ability to vividly describe a setting is among the finest I’ve encountered. Second, while Wood maintains in his afterword that The Names of Things is fictional, the story feels intensely real and personal.  (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Q&A with John Colman Wood, author of The Names of Things

By Midge Raymond,

Q & A with John Wood, author of The Names of Things

By Melody Condon

Q: The Names of Things is a portrait of a marriage as well as a story about grief. In creating a cross-cultural look at marriage and death, what was involved in researching this book?

A: I suppose the research came first, before the idea of a novel. I’m an anthropologist, and what cultural anthropologists do is fieldwork. For a long time mine was with Gabra, a group of camel herders in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. I wrote a bunch of scholarly things about my experiences with them.

But straightforward ethnographic writing didn’t quite get to some of the experiences that I thought were most important, particularly having to do with the compromises we make as humans on the way to other things. Nomads want to be together. They care about each other. They need lasting, intimate relations with each other. But because of what they do they have to disperse, to separate from one another.

The same was true with me and my wife. We want to be together, but my work meant that either I had to leave her behind for a while or she had to come with me, and those compromises were difficult for us. So part of the fieldwork experience involved working through the consequences of that sort of work on a marriage, on family life. And so I was going through that periodic separation issue (or the guilt involved in asking her to go with me, to share that experience) and then I was seeing Gabra experience similar tensions between the desire to be together and the need to separate, to disperse, and the one experience shined a light on the other.

It was in seeing that connection between my dilemmas and their dilemmas that got me thinking about new ways of writing ethnography, of experimenting with fiction as a way of shining new light back on straight-up ethnographic descriptions. So the research was happening anyway, and the novel grew out of that body of experience.

Q: What aspects of your teaching experience were most helpful to you in writing this book?

A: I’m interested both as an ethnographer and as a teacher in the power of juxtaposition, of one thing being set up next to another thing, and the meaning that bleeds across the space between them. The working title for the novel was “The Space Between.” Sometimes you can tell people an idea. But as a teacher and as a student, I often think it’s better to let people, including myself, figure it out, to see for myself. Especially when two very unlike things are juxtaposed, it almost compels the human brain to resolve the gap, to make sense of what doesn’t make sense.

In my classes I sometimes ask students to read fiction, stories, about a place, set among people we are studying, with the idea of jarring some new insight loose. We get bogged down with the usual categories. Unusual juxtapositions give us new thoughts, some of them not very interesting or useful, but sometimes they can be important. That’s what ethnographic fieldwork is all about. You go live with people who are unfamiliar, get to know them, but on the way you get to know your own culture all the better for having experienced something strange, something different. So it is the encounter with difference: another culture. But you can approximate that with texts—at least I think you can—by juxtaposing different kinds of texts that force us to think about each one in a new way.

Q: Why do you write fiction?

A: What anthropologists do is go and experience other people, observe them, hang out with them, participate in their lives, and attempt to understand them. That process of describing and interpreting other people requires raw description but also theory—ideas about people, what they do, how they make sense of their world, the sorts of problems they’re trying to solve. Ideas help us make sense of raw description. But ideas are always a kind of fiction, they’re made up, they don’t exist out there in the world (except maybe if you’re Plato). So our theories are made up, they’re fictions. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that stories, true or made-up, have a way of making sense of things. If we don’t understand what someone has done, we want to know the story of that act, and often when we know the story we have a sense of aha, I get it.

Honestly, one of the reasons I write fiction is I like writing fiction. I feel an impulse to tell stories, to make things up, to imagine things.

But another reason I write fiction as an anthropologist is to explore the ways stories, even made-up stories, have of giving a reader a sense of things: not just that they happened, but what it felt like, what the experience was like. I think that’s one of the main reasons people read ethnographies in the first place, not simply to find out that there are people over there who do such and such, but what it is like to be there with them.

If out of that comes some emergent understanding of what they do, so much the better.

Q: The book is about a marriage between an anthropologist and his wife, a painter. What ­­significance do the disciplines of anthropology and art have in the story?

A: Perhaps I run the risk of telling the obvious here. But both anthropology and art are in the business of representation, of making representations about the world, or human experience, or feelings, attitudes, ideas. They both seek to make “true” representations, but there are quotations marks around the word in both cases. The representations take on their own reality; they’re not independently real, they’re made. But both disciplines have a different relationship to the idea of truth, to the idea of accuracy, to the ideas of nonfiction or fiction, so making one character an anthropologist and the other an artist gave the story an opportunity to explore those similarities and differences. That also seems like an anthropological impulse, as well as an aesthetic one.

Q: What is the relationship between the story of the novel and the interwoven accounts of Dasse death rituals?

A: Well, this is what I’ve been talking about. The hope and prayer I have as a writer is that reading the fictional story will give the reader a sense, a feeling, for the purposes behind Dasse funerary practices, but also that the straight-up description of the funeral practices will shine a light back on the events of the story. That way, the reader will understand the fictional anthropologist better for knowing something about the death rituals of the people he studies, and the story of the death rituals will take on new meaning because the reader is familiar with the story of a particular individual and what he went through to do the ethnography. The hope is they—the fiction and the nonfiction—help each other tell an even bigger story.

Q: The anthropologist in the book has an intellectual argument with his students about whether the very practice of anthropology changes or even harms the society being studied. What would you say to those wondering about the value of anthropology?

A: One theme of the novel is that the anthropologist is struggling with the guilt he feels for what happens to his wife. He didn’t intend anything bad, but something bad happened, and in a way he’s responsible. At least partly. Same thing happens in anthropology. We go out with the best intentions and then we have an effect on one another, and sometimes that effect is not so salutary. Of course, that happens in any relationship. Life sometimes damages us. But I don’t think because sometimes we hurt each other that we should stop associating.

So yes, anthropologists have an effect on the people they study. Sometimes it’s not so good. But the alternative, not getting to know each other, ignoring each other, being ignorant of each other leads to even worse effects, causes more damage in the end. If nothing else, anthropology, doing fieldwork, attempting to know and understand each other, even if we ultimately fail—and we ultimately will fail to fully understand each other—is the most important thing any of us can do, whether it’s with your family or our neighbors or people on the other side of the planet. The alternative, not trying, is worse.

Q: What is the relationship between this book and your previous ethnography, When Men Are Women?

 A: When Men Are Women explores the symbolic ways Gabra make sense of ambiguities in their lives. Men are associated with “outside,” the pasturelands beyond the camps, while women are associated with “inside,” the tents and life within the camps. Yet both men and women have to go outside and return inside. Gabra must separate from one another and yet form lasting attachments. So the gender reversal is doing a lot of symbolic work in capturing the need for both. Life is not either/or but both/and, and yet being both creates a sense of contradiction, and that sets up an existential tension. This is not unique to Gabra. All of us, in one sense or another, are dealing with the simultaneous need to connect with other people but also to individuate, to separate. The novel became another way of exploring that tension. In that sense, I think of it as a sequel to the ethnography. They’re a matched set though they occupy very different genres of writing.



Q: What is the most frightening—or, perhaps, enlightening—encounter you have had with African wildlife?

A: Well, the most frightening encounter involved my wife, Carol, and I wasn’t there. She was walking in the forest on Marsabit Mountain. There were some other people from the town nearby collecting firewood. An elephant happened by, or the people happened by the elephant, and the elephant charged them and they had to run away. Elephants are fast but their eyesight is poor. At least that’s what I’m told. I’ve never talked with an elephant about this. In this case, everyone managed to escape. That doesn’t always happen. People are often killed by elephants in the Marsabit forest. But that was pretty frightening to hear about when she told me. I think I was off on the desert with Gabra at the time this happened.

More typically what frightened me was snakes, for most of the snakes in this part of the world are pretty poisonous, and I was often far away from medical help. Fortunately they’re not numerous. It’s a desert. And snakes don’t like hanging around people. So though I saw many snakes, and had to kill a few, I was never bitten. A Gabra friend stepped on a puff adder one night and was bitten and died. So I knew this was a danger.

The novel has scenes of hyenas and lions, and, while I suppose they are dangerous to people, they’re more a danger to livestock, and Gabra have to contend with them for that reason. Most of the time predators stay away from people, so, though I saw hyenas and lions and leopards, I never felt directly threatened by any of them. I knew Gabra who had been attacked by lions, or who had killed lions that were attacking their flocks.

The most enlightening experience I had with wildlife was not frightening at all but just the opposite. Some friends and Carol and I were camping in a place called Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya. This was when Carol and I were teaching school there, years before doing fieldwork with Gabra. I was a runner. In the morning I got up and went for a run, and as I did I met a small herd of zebra and another of wildebeest. For a time, running along this path, I was running with them or they with me. They didn’t seem to be desperate to get away from me. We were trotting along at more or less the same pace. Of course, this is all in my head, but it was the closest I’ve felt to experiencing some sort of connection between my human self and my animal self. Not sure there’s an insight there. But the experience was thrilling then and remains thrilling when I think about it now.

Perhaps that’s what anthropology is all about—perhaps that’s what being human is all about—finding ways to connect, to make connections with the world, both human and nonhuman, and even to break down those divisions.

The Names of Things is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Apple iBookstore, and on the Kindle and the Nook — as well as at your favorite indie bookstore.

Melody Condon is a student at Southern Oregon University who will graduate in 2012 with a B.A. in professional writing and a minor in creative writing. After graduating, she hopes to break into publishing and spread the joys of proper punctuation through the world. She is sharing her joy of literature and proper punctuation at Ashland Creek Press, where she has been an editorial and marketing assistant since October of 2011. 

A sense of history through cemeteries

By Midge Raymond,

When we recently took off for the Oregon coast, among the guidebooks we carried with us was, of course, Mad as the Mist and Snow: Exploring Oregon Through Its Cemeteries. As author Johan Mathiesen points out in the book, cemeteries are so much more than they seem. They are parks and museums. They offer history and spectacular views. They offer a sense of the region that is just a little different from what the everyday travel guide offers … and this is what’s so great about the book. (If you haven’t already, check out Johan’s recent article in The Oregonian — and learn about five secret Oregon cemeteries.)

We visited the Marshfield Pioneer Cemetery in Coos Bay (and I’d post pictures here if I had any that weren’t completely rain-spattered) — and then, when the sun reappeared, we discovered the Cape Blanco Pioneer Cemetery.

Cape Blanco Pioneer Cemetery is a tiny but inviting little cemetery near where Patrick and Jane Hughes set up their homestead in the 1860s. (Just down the road is the house they built, which is open for tours April through October.) Both the location of the house as well as this quiet little cemetery offer a sense of what life was like back in the nineteenth century, working on raw, windswept land in an area both beautiful and harsh.

Cape Blanco also has sweeping beaches and a gorgeous, well-maintained lighthouse — but it’s the cemetery and homestead that completes the picture of the region’s history. So the next time you’re traveling through a new place, don’t neglect to visit the cemeteries…they’re well worth the visit.

Guest post: Veggie travel tips, Part II

By Midge Raymond,

We’re delighted to have Cristen Andrews of back to with part two of this special series on vegetarian/vegan travel. All photos are courtesy of Cristen. 

Vegetarian Travel Tips by Cristen Andrews from Circle Our Earth


Are you a vegetarian or vegan? Are you itching to get out and explore the world but anxious that your diet might hold you back? Sure, it takes a little extra effort—but vegetarian travel isn’t really that tough. In fact, with the right combination of planning, patience, and creativity, it can be incredibly rewarding. Click here for the first 10 … and here are the rest.


11. Shop at Open Air Markets and Street Stalls

The small, locally owned markets and street stands are often the cheapest and tastiest places to eat. You can also see your food before you buy it and talk directly to the cook (less things get lost in translation that way).


Vegetable market in Hanoi, Viet Nam


12. Find Cooking Teachers

Learning how to cook popular regional dishes is a great way to discover the country and its culture. Consider seeking out cooking classes when they’re available. And if they aren’t, find your own cooking mentors and just ask them to teach you. You’ll find that most people are proud of their cooking, flattered that you want to learn from them, and more than happy to teach you what they know.

Learning how to make parathas in Kumily, India


13. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

In many popular tourist destinations, there is usually a certain area of town that caters primarily to backpackers. These “tourist ghettos” usually consist of a cluster of streets where accommodation is cheap, English is widely spoken, and familiar foods are served. This can definitely be more comfortable (especially if you’re experiencing a bit of culture shock), and vegetarian choices might be more clearly defined (always nice if you’re exhausted from travel). But spend all your time in places like this and your overall travel experience will be bland, isolating, and much more expensive than it needs to be. And, most important, you’ll be alienating yourself from the culture you traveled so far to see. Instead, seek out local food joints and practice some phrases to make yourself understood. It might feel awkward at first, but you’ll gain respect for stepping out of your comfort zone and making an effort to interact with the community. You’ll most likely end up with some new friends, too.


Picking aronia berries in the Czech Republic



14. Set a Good Example

Like it or not, you may be the first vegetarian/vegan someone has ever met. Think of yourself as an ambassador for all vegetarians, and set a positive example. If you come across as arrogant, preachy, or rude, you’ll sour people’s opinions of vegetarianism and vegetarians. On the flip side, if you’re considerate, respectful, polite, and appreciative, people will be more helpful to the next vegetarian they meet. This also means don’t complain (even if there really isn’t a lot to eat wherever you are). The idea is to show people that vegans can be happy and content with the multitude of choices around, so don’t look like you’re suffering or that vegetarianism is about deprivation. (And besides, no one likes a whiner).


Vegetarian Thalis with Puri and Chapati in India


15. Stay Healthy and Hydrated

Travel is exhausting. And with the stress of being in a foreign place and trying to find meat-free foods, it’s easy to neglect your health. You don’t have to be a health fanatic. Just be aware of what you’re eating, try to get a balanced diet, bring along a few reusable water bottles and a water purifier so you always have clean water to drink, and pay attention to what your body needs to stay energized. Also tell yourself that it’s okay to take it easy sometimes and rest. Your body will thank you for slowing down occasionally (and it will pay off in the long run, as you’ll have more energy to go out and explore).

Reusable water bottle and SteriPEN (handheld water purifier)


16. Get Involved

Some people just eat to be full and then carry on with their day (and that’s okay, too). But if you’re a big foodie like me, food will probably become a big part of your trip. You could tour a spice plantation, visit an animal rescue center, volunteer at a veggie event, or start your own food blog. There are heaps of interesting ways to make your specialized diet fun while traveling.

Feeding babies at a cow sanctuary


17. Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up

Most people are able and willing to accommodate a veggie diet. But if you’re too timid to speak up in the first place, the only person who suffers is you. Be upfront about your diet, state your eating habits firmly and specifically, and ask for custom options when vegetarian choices aren’t available. This can be nerve-wracking or awkward (especially if you’re really shy), but you’ll have to do it or you’ll have a difficult time enjoying yourself. And…you’ll miss out on some really great food. The good thing is that it’s entirely possible to explain your diet in a graceful, non-confrontational way so that you make yourself understood without offending others. And if enough vegetarians make special requests when veg-friendly options aren’t available, dining establishments will eventually react by modifying their menus to accommodate this growing demand.

Big plate of veggies with black sesame seeds in Cambodia


18. Don’t Be Difficult

When you do speak up….don’t be difficult. Don’t assume people understand what a vegetarian/vegan is (or your reasons for being one). You have a much better idea of your dietary needs and how to accommodate them, so don’t simply announce that you’re vegetarian and make people guess what to feed you. Instead, make it easy for them by describing your needs in detail and making suggestions to show that you really aren’t asking for something complicated (after all, creating a vegetarian meal is often just taking out certain elements and substituting others).

Tempeh and stir fried fiddlehead ferns in Borneo


19. Stick to Your Morals

Know the difference between being nice and being a pushover. While it’s obviously okay to make exceptions from time to time if you believe it’s the right thing to do in that particular context, don’t get bullied into don’t something you don’t agree with. If you ever get stuck in a tricky situation, remind yourself why you decided to be vegetarian in the first place. You shouldn’t ever have to take breaks from your diet or compromise your beliefs in order to please other people.


A wall full of flavored soy milk in Japan


20. Keep a Sense of Humor

Don’t be surprised or upset by misunderstandings and miscommunications. These things will happen (especially if you’re in another country where people have a completely different culture and belief system). Always take things in stride and don’t get too bent out of shape when something doesn’t go your way. Your entire trip shouldn’t revolve around food anyway, so just try your best and don’t stress. You can stick to your diet without being uptight or high-maintenance. Just plan ahead and allow for flexibility in your trip. If you’re adaptable, resourceful, and easygoing, you’ll have many great adventures!


About Cristen:

Cristen is a passionate vegan who loves to cook, eat, and travel. Having traveled to more than 25 countries, she has a diverse range of experiences and insight regarding vegetarian travel and loves sharing her stories with whoever wants to listen. Her website,, is a work in progress, but she aims to make it a comprehensive resource for vegetarian and vegan world travel. Her main goal with the site is to inspire more people – especially those who have chosen to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle – to get out there and explore the world.

A million thanks to Cristen for offering these useful tips (as well as these fabulous photos!). Visit Circle Our Earth to learn more about vegetarian and vegan world travel. 

Guest post: Veggie travel tips, Part I

By Midge Raymond,

Today we’re delighted to have Cristen Andrews of offering a two-part series on vegetarian/vegan travel. All photos are courtesy of Cristen.

Vegetarian Travel Tips by Cristen Andrews from Circle Our Earth


Are you a vegetarian or vegan? Are you itching to get out and explore the world but anxious that your diet might hold you back? Sure, it takes a little extra effort—but vegetarian travel isn’t really that tough. In fact, with the right combination of planning, patience, and creativity, it can be incredibly rewarding. I’ve got 20 tips that will help you make your next travel experience delicious, inexpensive, and fun. Here are the first 10 … and click here for the next 10!

1. Research Your Destinations

The most important thing you can do is plan ahead. This doesn’t mean you’ll need to micromanage every detail of your trip and adhere to a rigid schedule you decided on months in advance. It just means you’ll want to have an idea of the veg-friendly things that exist in the places you intend to visit.

Not sure where to start? Here are some great resources:

2. Learn The Local Lingo

Learning just a few words will immensely enrich your travel experience. Make your own notebook of useful phrases and add to it as you go. Copy down characters in addition to phonetic pronunciations, learn to say “I cannot eat” rather than “I don’t eat” (your diet will be taken more seriously that way), and don’t forget to learn the most important words of all: “please,” “thank you,” and “delicious.” The Vegan Passport and SelectWisely translation cards can be useful tools if you want something you can just point to and make your diet understood. But nothing beats verbal communication, and the locals will applaud you for your efforts.


Menu in a Japanese restaurant


3. Notify Hosts in Advance

Vegetarianism is not a well understood concept in many places, and your hosts will likely assume you eat meat unless told otherwise. When possible, politely explain your diet well before a meal is prepared, as this will help avoid an awkward situation. People are usually pretty accommodating if you’re nice. And as long as you’re a polite, gracious guest, your hosts shouldn’t be annoyed or angered by your desire to eat only vegetables. They might think you’re kind of weird, but since you likely have other habits that are unfamiliar to them anyway, they probably already do.



4. Make Friends

Once you start seeking out other vegetarians, the world will start to seem very small. Hang around veg-friendly places in search of like-minded folks, join meet-up groups, or use a variety of online resources to make connections easy.

Here are a few places to start:

 Eating at a delicious vegetarian buffet in Bangkok, Thailand


5. Be Prepared

Whether you’re staying a few days in a centrally located hostel, spending a week in a remote village, or going on a two-month camping trip, it’s important to plan ahead and pack accordingly. It’s a good idea to at least bring some snacks so you don’t get stuck someplace with nothing to eat. You can pack a bunch of food and some basic eating utensils, or just carry a few favorite spice mixes to spruce up otherwise boring meals. It’s up to you. But no matter where you go and how long you’re away, don’t expect other people to take care of you.


Examples of things I like to bring on backpacking trips (note the spork, travel knife, compressible bowl, and mini cutting board) 

6. Learn About Regional Foods

International cuisine is generally more conducive to a vegetarian diet, and many cultures are centered around plant-based foods. Many dishes will already be vegetarian, and many more can be made that way with the removal of one ingredient (for example, fish sauce in Thailand or bonito flakes in Japan). Knowing the names of local ingredients will help you decipher menus, customize a menu item that’s already almost vegetarian, suggest veg-friendly dishes when communication is tough, and ensure you don’t miss out on all the delicious regional specialties.


Udon soup with rolled yuba in Japan


7. Seek Out Veg Versions of Local Favorites

Once you do a little investigating, you’ll be surprised to learn that most countries are much more veg friendly than you may initially think. Many places even have vegetarian versions of popular meaty foods. Sampling these is a fun way to try local specialties without actually eating meat.


8. Stay Somewhere with a Kitchen (or Bring a Travel Stove)

It’s obviously nice to try the local cuisine and support local businesses. But if you have the means to cook your own food, you can save money, eat healthier, pack meals to take with you on day trips, and eat whenever/wherever you’re hungry.


9. Be Creative and Resourceful

Be creative with what’s available, pack versatile ingredients that can be combined in numerous ways, and learn to make tasty meals with only a few basic items. It’s a fun challenge and a good skill to have if you want to travel light and cheap. Foraging skills are also useful (especially if you’re on a long-distance hiking or cycling trip). Learn to identify nuts, fruits, mushrooms, and edible wild plants.

Picking chanterelle mushrooms in Germany


10. Seek Help from Locals

The best knowledge is local knowledge. Locals can be your best resource, and don’t be afraid to ask around if you need help with something. They can explain menus, decipher ingredient lists, suggest places to eat, make you a list of important phrases, customize your meal to be veg-friendly, and speak for you when you have a tough time communicating. Remember to always thank those who help, as they’ll be more apt to do it again for someone else.


About Cristen:

Cristen is a passionate vegan who loves to cook, eat, and travel. Having traveled to more than 25 countries, she has a diverse range of experiences and insight regarding vegetarian travel and loves sharing her stories with whoever wants to listen. Her website,, is a work in progress, but she aims to make it a comprehensive resource for vegetarian and vegan world travel. Her main goal with the site is to inspire more people – especially those who have chosen to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle – to get out there and explore the world.

Come back on Thursday for the second part of this series on veggie travel…and also visit Circle Our Earth to learn more.