Thursday 30 May 2013

Wandering Woman

Reading some of the tales in this book, one wonders why Zhang Su Li does the things she does to herself. But I suppose that - and the honesty - is part of the book's charm.

Way back in 2007, Marshall Cavendish published some of Zhang's travel tales in a collection called, A Backpack and a Bit of Luck. Some months back, more stories from her travels in Malaysia appeared in another travel story collection, Sini Sana ("Here and There" in Malay).

The boss would know the details about why Zhang wants to republish A Backpack with MPH. For me, it was a chance to read the book for free, after hearing about it for so long.

Old trails, revisited
Zhang had been a copywriter for years, and it shows. Occasional flashes of what I would assume is literary flair shows up in the book. Colourful, vivid descriptions attempt to put the reader in her shoes as she trots, hikes, stumbles and saunters her way through life and the exotic locales in the collection.

A showcase of her talent can be found in her (mis)adventures as an apprentice Odissi dancer in India, which is worthy of its own staged epic and takes up over a third of the book. What is perhaps the best story in the book also captivated a fellow editor.

For Zhang, the classical Indian art is physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding, particularly the physical part: "In learning Odissi, you become aware of the muscles you never knew you had," Zhang writes. "You also have to disregard the bones you always knew you had."

She describes the sights and sounds from an Indian roadside that conjures all the mental images and feelings needed to fill in the blanks.

Vivid memories of standing by a roadside littered with rubbish, cows, donkeys, pigs, dogs, crows and peacocks, barefoot children in rags with lice in their hair, snot down their noses and possibly somebody else's wallet in their pockets. A dog was dying on one side of the road. On the other, a cow was giving birth. Children were laughing and crying. People were chatting and quarrelling. Animals snorted, barked, mooed and squawked. Cars. Vans. Buses. Motorbikes. Bicycles. Honking their horns and ringing their bells. Swerving around the mobile landmarks and carcasses of small unidentifiable animals. At remarkable speeds, with impressive accuracy.

India is a land of extremes, from her point of view. Living and learning at her Odissi guru's neighbourhood at the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (Noida) in Uttar Pradesh was, I take it, an enlightening experience that builds character, nurtures the spirit and sharpens hyperbole:

Only God knows why in India, there is no such thing as medium, or 'just nice'. On a scale of one to ten, all the numbers from two to nine seems to be missing. In winter, the water is so cold your tits get numb just looking at the bucket.

And isn't it just like a copywriter to anthropomorphise dust? Indian dust, to be precise:

The seams of my mobile phone were packed with dirt no matter how often I tried to clean it with the edge of a fingernail. Anything with a screw top ... oooh, baby ... here they come! Flat surfaces are just too easy for them; they're already occupied by less ambitious dust particles anyway. ... Nothing, nothing, nothing escapes the clutches of Indian dust.

Not all adventures are as action-packed, dramatic or memorable. Zhang appears to find Helsinki boring. The city boasts a Stockmann's departmental store that seems to have become a reference point to all other places in the city. But even in a squeaky-clean utopia of a Scandinavian city, she finds a silver lining:

"Excuse me, where's the railway station?"

"You go past Stockmann, turn left, then past the traffic lights, and take a right..."

Or, "Excuse me, how do I get to the Pyramids of Giza?"

"You go past Stockmann, and you turn right, and..."

Or, "Hello, where can I get a large rubber hose with fur attachments to hit myself on the backside with?"

"You go past Stockmann..."

...Aww nuts, she's just being cheeky. The fur-augmented rubber hose didn't happen ... right?

But if there is a place where Finns can indulge in their own Fifty Shades of Grey fantasies, their country isn't all that boring.

Meet, greet and (maybe) eat
Zhang's penchant for travelling and talking to strangers may have begun when, as a schoolgirl, she met an old British chap who was posted to Malaya and had lunch with him at his home. This pattern of meet, greet and eat would repeat itself at various points in her life.

During a Kruger Park safari, she 'cures' a travelling companion of 'malaria' and, later, helps raid an ostrich nest at a farm in South Africa for a monster-sized sunny-side-up.

Job searches in the UK lead her to quirky and often charming characters in a British pub and its landlady's peace-making custard cream biscuits; and a gambling den and its greasy, chauvinistic manager's "turkey stew" ("Tin 'a turkey roll, baked beans, mix 'em together." Then, keep it in a safe for one night. Eww.)

A flat tyre along a dark silent highway ends in a late-night tom yam and lessons on patience, humility and the kindness of strangers. Answering a call from another kind stranger while searching for Atlantis in Santorini nets her some salt-cured sardines, ouzo and an olive-branch wreath for protection.

At a cemetery in Vienna, she toasted marshmallows with an old bag lady. And a throw of the dart sends her to Myanmar on a bumpy cross-country bus ride to a feast of salad, fried bugs and sago palm worms.

Not bad for a former student at an English school who's terrified of earthworms. Come a long way since then, she has.

And there's more where that came from.

Poignant, funny, punny, a little pugnacious and kind of fun, Zhang is not shy about her own shortcomings even as she strives to overcome them, documenting every misstep for our entertainment and education.

So go on. Pick this up and find out what one phone call, a swing of the steering wheel or a knock on the door can lead to. You might be surprised.

Zhang Su Li's A Backpack and a Bit of Luck will be republished by MPH, plus some edits. Copies of the original Marshall Cavendish edition may still be available at bookstores.

A Backpack and a Bit of Luck
Stories of a Traveller with No Sense of Direction

Zhang Su Li
MPH Group Publishing
285 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-866-8

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  1. Thanks for the review, Alan!
    Su Li

    1. No problem. Hope the book does well.

      All the best!


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