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A Travel Writer in Context

Jeff Greenwald's Scratching the Surface

In Scratching the Surface: Impressions of Planet Earth, from Hollywood to Shiraz, Jeff Greenwald, America's "most well-known obscure travel writer," compiles the best of his short writing over the scope of two decades.

The accounts cover a wide range of journeys, including an informal Kava session in Fiji, a visit to the 17th Karmapa in Tibet, airport delays in Kazakhstan, even detailed touring of San Francisco. A favorite story, "Swayambunath: The Jewel in the Lotus," depicts the wondrous stupas of Nepal and the myths of their creation.

Greenwald's descriptions of the landscape capture the senses, whether cycling through Kathmandu on an Indian-made Hero bicycle, streamers flowing from the handlebars, or a trekking through a three-hour swamp hike in Australia's Couburg Peninsula and subsequent exploration of the Umorrduk caves' 15,000-year-old Aboriginal art.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the tales with the most impact are those of his visits to ancient sites, where the author becomes absorbed by the age-old legends of each place. Of the carved cliff temples of Ellora in India, he says, "these monuments retain a musty aura of mystery and reserve. Wandering about the site, it is possible to feel you've discovered them yourself."

If it's pure romance you're after, you won't find it here: while Greenwald can paint alluring portraits of the countryside, he looks at the people with one eyebrow raised, especially in dealing with the darker side of human behavior and the stench that can permeate our cities.

This career journalist infuses his observations with a sense of humor coming from an amused yet cynical perspective, and isn't afraid to make fun of himself. One of the funniest stories he tells, "As the Wheel Turns: Backstage at the Big Spin," portrays lottery contestants stressed-out reactions to the pressure of would-be-millionaire status.

This collection shows Greenwald's works in context to one another: we see him encounter the turmoil of a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai border in 1979 ("Very Alive"), finally making it to see the reopened nation in 1993 ("Cambodia: The Time Tunnel"). However, these tales are also in context with the changing world of technology: Greenwald chronicles the birth of Internet technology during the mid 90s, acting as "the first travel writer to circumambulate the world while sending back real-time dispatches for the Internet," webcast from the now-defunct Global Network Navigator, on through to his dispatches from Iran, which aired on in 1999.

Scratching the Surface reveals a writer who spends his life wandering off the beaten path, on a quest for experiences that will change previously-held views, for "the thrill of being utterly, ecstatically wrong." Greenwald admits this is getting harder to do, but still possible for those who search. Readers of some of his previous books, such as Shopping for Buddhas or The Size of the World, may recognize a few of these stories, but will be happy that most of them come from newspaper and magazine articles that would be impossible to find elsewhere, particularly those published before 1990.

Scratching the Surface: Impressions of Planet Earth, from Hollywood to Shiraz
By Jeff Greenwald
Softcover - 272 pages (May 2002)
Regent Press; ISBN 1-58790-018-1

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