Three Pagodas Pass

Reviewed: September 9, 2003
By: George Fetherling
Publisher: Subway Books
152 pages, $19.95

George Fetherling had a passion to go to Burma. Some might call it Myanmar, after the fashion of the latest junta to control the place, but George feels strongly that to use that name is to condone their ways, which he does not, so when he planned his journey, it was as a trip to Burma.

It was also a most roundabout trip to Burma. It began in Tunis, in North Africa, and instead of going west through the Suez Canal, across to the Indian Ocean, and then east to Burma, his converted ship of all trades sailed west to Casablanca, out across the Atlantic, down the coast of South America, around the Horn and on to Tahiti, from whence he made use of frequent flier points to reach Thailand, and lots of subterfuge to get into Burma.

He says it was cheaper this way and he was on a budget. Perhaps we are lucky that he was, for though his arrival at his destination is a long way from the introduction to the topic on pages 4 to 14, the details about the rest of the trip are well worth the time it takes to get to page 95, two-thirds of the way through the book, where he and his travelling companion part company and he boards a plane for Thailand.

Of his travelling companion, he will say only that she was a real enough person, and that he changed her name. When I asked if he had invented her, after the fashion of some travel writers who add an imaginary companion in order to give themselves an extra point of view to work with, he assured me that I was giving him credit for entirely too much of an imagination. Inventing Bernadette, who stopped taking her anti-depressants just as they began this trip together, was, he said, beyond his abilities.

The boat itself was an interesting old vessel. Built at the end of the Second World War, and used for a variety of purposes, she was now outfitted as a sort of lower end cruise ship, and neither the owners nor the crew seemed to have quite gotten the hang of the operation. This leads to some amusing stories, but the material that is most interesting comes from the places Fetherling chose to visit en route: Casablanca, the Falkland Islands, Antarctica, Easter Island and Pitcairn Island.

The last two places, in particular, produced fascinating essays. I know much more now than I did about those massive stone heads on Easter Island, and his account of the home of the Bounty mutineers makes an informative footnote to that whole saga. As for the stopover in the deep south, Fetherling seems to have had a much nicer trip than our local doctors, whom I interviewed after they did it a few years ago.

For Fetherling, the main event was his arrival in Burma, the various subterfuges he had to employ to get into the closed country, his trip on the Irawaddy River. That journey, with his travelogue of all the ancient cities and temples along the route, was a journey through time as well as space.

It was also intriguing to read of his relationship with the woman he calls "M", She entered his life as a local contact who could guide him about in Rangoon, but he soon began to suspect that she was an agent of the government, assigned to find out what he was really doing there.  Not even a passionate love letter slipped under his hotel door the morning he left for the Irawaddy could allay this suspicion, which deepened after he got home to Vancouver. After some exchange of correspondence M, who had seemed to be a relatively poor person Rangoon, turned up in Canada as a visitor, stayed for about 10 days and then departed for England, using an expensive aeroplane ticket she just happened to have with her. The whole non-affair was quite puzzling.

When I was discussing travel writing with Fetherling while he was at Berton House last summer, I asked him if he would compare himself to V.S. Naipaul or Paul Theraux, both of whom have wandered the planet and produced fiction as well as travel writing. He said he hoped he was kinder. I think that would be true; kinder and probably less exhausting.