Christopher Kremmer and Eric Campbell are enjoying the popularity of their recent books, respectively Inhaling the Mahatma and Absurdistan. When these two world-class travelers sit down together October 2 at the Alila Ubud and compare notes, some rich tales will be traded. Anyone wishing to eavesdrop should be warned that tickets are selling like hot pakoras in Agra.
Kremmer is a former ABC reporter and now regularly writes for the Sydney Morning Herald focusing (sometimes very pointedly) on South Asian issues. Campbell began with the Herald and is now with the ABC as a foreign correspondent. They’ve been to many of the same places, have received notable awards, but the similarities end there.
Campbell’s aptly named Absurdistan fairly screams with the insanity, inhumanity, and horror of being in the world’s recent trouble spots. His memoir rather unceremoniously plops the reader onto a conveyor belt taking on a succession of corrupt Russian cops, Chinese propaganda in Tibetan monastaries, and courtly mass murderers. Campbell’s experiences are paced and described with both a matter-of-fact immediacy and an authentic sting of the kind of humor that keeps reporters from going crazy.
The book touts itself as a bumpy ride through some of the world’s scariest, weirdest places. Except for the adrenaline factor, this is nothing like a thrill ride. Although reporters have access to services (six armed bodyguards on a Balkans junket) and resources (flying on Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s jet), the work can be unpleasant at best. Though paid to travel and living on an expense account, a reporter goes where no one in his right mind would dare. Absurdistan is no just-back-report on a backpacker web forum. It’s the real unsavory deal.
Kremmer’s books are also born of the highly personal experience, but with a touch less frontline and deadline. set of circumstances. Campbell rushes from war zone to earthquake zone, falling in love on the fly and dealing with ridiculous nigglings from the home office. Kremmer’s journey in The Carpet Wars is by contrast a meandering stroll, full of delightful pit stops as agreeable as a cup of mint tea proffered in a fragrant souq. It’s detailed and descriptive, a tribute to the legions of men and women who have left their mark upon the carpets we can appreciate today.
Combining sober research with the warmth of personal contacts, Kremmer has become an expert on Afghan rugs, and his love for their craft and history is contagious. Kremmer exudes an infectious joy for factoids about dye technique and knots, and there’s a lot of poetry in his writing. He sees, in a sudden change in a rug’s color intensity, the story of a mother interrupted by a baby’s cry, leaving her wool overlong in the dye vat.
Kremmer’s sense of humanity brings readers a most reassuring message from his travels through an uneasy world. Armchair travelers who wouldn’t want to set foot in the Hindu Kush are at least able to channel the essence of the region through Kremmer’s wonderful writing. Not too different a task from that of our intrepid correspondent Eric Campbell, who keeps us informed as a witness to events in remote and dangerous places.
It will be interesting to see how Campbell and Kremmer will mesh in Ubud. We are lucky to have Kremmer’s generosity as a carpet trade insider, and Campbell’s tenacity for details surrounding his assignments. Each writer tells us more than just the facts, each man has his own passions and pain. Readers will find, in both men’s books, a sense of the undying spirit of humanity. The writers’ methods certainly differ, and therein lies the fascination.
Also by Christopher Kremmer: Inhaling the Mahatma, The Bamboo Palace.