There are many things that make a great travel book, and Sara Wheeler delivers all of them in Travels in a Thin Country. It is easy to explain poor travel writing, but often difficult to describe great travel writing. In this instance, Wheeler delivers.
Wheeler takes a country (Chile) that I have no knowledge of and makes it seem interesting. She travels serendipitously, open to new adventures, willing to spend a week road-tripping with a hippy stranger or ask around in a small village until she can find a place to crash for the night (often a bed or a mattress in a stranger’s house). Her contacts to introduce her to new people, and these friends of friends add depth and personality to a travel writing genre populated too often by taxi drivers and desk clerks only. Her Spanish language skills allow her to interact with people as well as Colin Thubron does in his China travels. We read of hitched rides with Bolivian truckers and downtrodden deck accommodations on cargo boats. She is equally at ease spending three nights at a police outpost, hanging out with lonely Patagonian policemen, and reading back issues of police trade magazines as she is at the country home of some old-moneyed Chileans, surrounded by servants and excellent food.
This is not a “greatest hits” book of travel to Chile because Chilean Travel is not known for its greatest hits. Those looking for travel advice on must-see spots in Chile will be disappointed, as will those who like their travel books to be uproariously funny or crammed with earth-shattering excitement. As her goal was to travel from top to tail, she skipped Easter Island, perhaps the only identifiable Chilean landmark to the casual reader. In order to cultivate enough material for a book, she takes months for the journey and makes us interested in a destination we would never think of as interesting. Perhaps the most interesting story was her visit to an Antarctic research station, and the pride that Chile takes in its claims to Antarctic lands.
Her stories are skillfully crafted by taking the memorable moments and weaving them with enough Chilean history and politics to give us insight into the country. And the book holds up nearly two decades after her early-1990’s journey (I did not read the 21st century re-release with a new introduction).
Those seeking to be travel writers will be well-served by reading Wheeler. Where she takes freebies, she admits it, yet she has the courage (and it is courage) to connect with people on her journey. Perhaps best of all is her avoidance of the travel writing trap (see Frances Mayes) of giving the reader a blow-by-blow account of every day, leaving us instead with carefully cultivated highlights of a strange journey through a country at a unique time in its history.
Travel Book Review: Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler