East Toward Dawn
Seal Press ($14.95)
by Carrie Mercer
Nan Watkins was hardly a novice explorer when she decided to go on a trip around the world to celebrate her sixtieth birthday. At sixteen she spent three months in Europe and kindled a lifelong love for travel. As an adult, she and her former husband hosted more than twenty international college students, and many of these students now host Watkins as she makes her way through Germany, Switzerland, Nepal, India, and Singapore before returning home to North Carolina.
The enthusiasm with which Watkins often immerses herself in local custom shows through in her writing, as when she insists on eating with her hand (instead of a fork) in Nepal. Undeterred by initial clumsiness-"it feels cumbersome and sloppy; rice grains and sauce fall into my lap"-she persists, enjoying the experience of "feeling the warm sauces on your fingertips, the different textures of the food." Such sensual descriptions are a major strength of East Toward Dawn.
Where Watkins fails to convince is on her soapbox. She's probably right that "American indifference to geography reflects our modern urban culture's disregard for the natural world and lack of understanding for our fellow species' habitats," but such platitudes feel like tacked-on political correctness. Watkins also has a habit of gushing romantically at the end of many chapters: after touring a 500-year-old fort in India, she longs for the Good Old Days, that she might "don instead the silk sari of a striking courtesan . . . waiting to be summoned to the Pearl Palace to lie next to the beating heart of my maharaja."
Part memoir and part travel essay, East Toward Dawn is saved from its occasional banality by Watkins's powerful curiosity about other cultures-the less comfortable and familiar, the better. When she passes out after eating some especially spicy Indian food, Watkins is unfazed. Likewise, she gamely learns to spot "rhino trees" (good climbing trees that will provide escape from charging rhinos) on a jungle safari as if it were a natural and indispensable part of the adventure.