Restless TribesStephen Ausherman
(Central Ave. Press · paper · $14.95)
Stephen Ausherman used to write for the Alibi before I came to work here. I don't think I've ever met him face to face, but I remember his articles well. He's a very good writer. One particularly memorable Ausherman feature ran back in the late '90s and recounted his experiences working with a medical aid organization in Iraq. It was one of the best things I've ever read in this paper.
Published by Albuquerque's own Central Ave. Press, Restless Tribes is a collection of Ausherman's travel essays. This guy has been all over the place. The volume includes accounts of his stays in Honduras, Alaska, the Philippines, China, Korea, Vietnam, India, Tanzania, Venezuela and Ireland. Restless Tribes even includes a version of that Iraq story that ran all those years ago in the Alibi. His introduction implies that this is just a small sampling of the many nations he's visited.
Restless Tribes is quite a grab bag. Ausherman describes observing an annual fracas between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. He talks about mingling with witch doctors in Tanzania and the Philippines. He tells us about dogsledding in Alaska, traveling through the Honduran rain forest with U.S. Marines, saving one of his students from street thugs in China, and taking a tour to the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.
I might be biased, but I think the Iraq essay is one of the best in the book. Partly this is because the essay is timely. By offering a snapshot of that troubled country just after Saddam booted out the U.N. weapons inspectors, Ausherman gives us an insight into the roots of our current debacle.
His account of his horrific honeymoon in Venezuela is entertaining in a completely different way. In between offering impressions of the country's politics, he describes a vacation gone amusingly awry as both he and his new wife get eaten alive by mysterious bugs and have a tough time mustering the energy for romance.
Some of the most fascinating parts of the book feature Ausherman's musings on being an outsider in a foreign land. In one nicely ironic passage, he attends a party in Vietnam thrown by an old college buddy of his named An.
"An has always had a knack for surrounding himself with an international coterie," Ausherman writes. "Hindi, German and Japanese were primary languages at his parties back in Chapel Hill. Sometimes it made me wonder why he always invited me. I'm reminded of that feeling (now)."
It's a nice moment. Despite his global travels, Ausherman is a true American at heart, unable to completely accept that in a foreign country he's as "international" as any Hindu or German.
The book isn't without flaws. There are more typos in Restless Tribes than you'd find in a book printed by a commercial publisher. Also, in weaker moments, Ausherman sounds like a friend rambling out an overly long account of his vacation. You know the experience was probably exciting for the friend, but it's like hearing about someone else's dream—it just doesn't quite translate.
Thankfully, there aren't many moments like these. Like I said, Ausherman is a very good writer. In Restless Tribes, he succeeds in conveying the world-weary joys of escaping the stifling comforts of home.