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From China to Peru

A Memoir of Travel

Russell Fraser

Publication Year: 2012

"I fly to faraway places in the hopes of finding the distinguishing thing. The frequent flier miles are a bonus." With a title borrowed from Samuel Johnson, insatiable globe-trotter Russell Fraser fondly recalls his travels in China, Peru, Italy, France, Russia, Scotland, the Persian Gulf, and the Antarctic in this series of meditations on the distinguishing elements of culture and history found in far-flung locales. Fraser establishes himself as a knowledgeable guide who combines an intimate familiarity with local history, a keen eye for culture, a companionable wit, and a penchant for speculation about the grip of the past on the present. Fraser's fascination with people leads him to banter and at times to argue with locals in his quest to discern the peculiarities of a given place, be it a communist training school near Milan or the best bar in St. Petersburg. His grand appreciation for discoveries that can be made only through travel is apparent in every poetically phrased description and artfully reconstructed dialogue. Fraser begins each essay with an autobiographical passage before turning to the place and moment at hand. This technique establishes camaraderie with our learned, informative, and entertaining guide as we walk deserts and frozen plains, Old World neighborhoods and Far Eastern danger zones, the lobbies of plush new hotels and the aisles of centuries-old cathedrals. In his ruminations, Fraser circles strategically between personal and global pasts—traveling in time as well as space—to put our modernity in perspective and to ponder facets of human experience found amid the regions he describes so vividly. The heart of Fraser's memoir is a two-chapter sequence devoted to meandering through his ancestral homeland of Scotland, a narrative that ably couples family history and travelogue. In the concluding essay, the author's adventure in Antarctica parallels a trip taken decades earlier by his great-grandfather Alexander V. Fraser, the first commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, and again he deftly juxtaposes the personal with the global and the past with the present. As Fraser advocates for the existence and importance of timeless truths about all corners of the world, he makes even the roughest of environments seem intriguingly beautiful with crystal clear prose evocative of the times and places through which he moves. His tales are peppered with the anecdotes, asides, and well-chosen quotations of a traveler steeped in knowledge of the world's history and its literature. A veteran of these escapades, Fraser uses his experience to hone his observations into a special brand of truth that comes from one who is equally adept at wandering the world and sharing authentic accounts of those sensational travels. From China to Peru is a welcoming invitation to traverse the globe, if only through the insightful memories of one well-versed in such passages.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book is personal memoir as well as an account of travel. Each chapter opens with a bit of autobiography, segueing into the travel piece that follows. What I say of myself isn’t freestanding but ties one chapter to another, and the essays on travel have more than the unity of what comes next. ...

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1. Wadi-Bashing in Arabia Deserta

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pp. 1-22

Straight out of graduate school and glad to have it behind me, I did what Horace Greeley told us to. I went west. But the flowers in California, though the biggest I’d seen and gorgeous to look at, didn’t smell. My teaching job at UCLA had strings attached. ...

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2. Inca Dinka Doo

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pp. 23-41

A stint in the navy hadn’t satisfied my wanderlust, much less made me eager to join the world of nine to five. I wanted the life of a wayfaring stranger. “See America First,” said my patriotic elders, and when I got discharged I looped a ditty bag over my wrist and took off. ...

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3. Little Red Schoolhouse in Italy

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pp. 42-57

When I was a graduate student at Harvard, you couldn’t buy a condom in the state of Massachusetts. Standing up for my rights, I went from door to door calling for repeal of the law. I targeted Charleston, a section of Boston largely blue-collar, Irish, and Catholic. ...

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4. France’s Two Cities

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pp. 58-75

It never ceased to amaze me that I got paid for teaching poetry, like sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. Of course no job is harder, but that is another story and will keep. My principal poet was Shakespeare, whose grace notes promote the sense of air about the plays. ...

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5. The Scotsman’s Return from Abroad

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pp. 76-93

Margot Fonteyn was dancing at Covent Garden the year I lived in London. When they weren’t doing ballet they were doing opera, and I cut my teeth on Verdi, the “Anvil Chorus” in Il Trovatore. It made my heart leap when I was young. Also that year I discovered Mozart. ...

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6. Over the Sea to Skye

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pp. 94-108

I had an epiphany half a lifetime ago, hitchhiking in the Mojave Desert. Coming south from Bakersfield, California, I caught a ride to Barstow, too far or not far enough. Viewers of the Weather Channel will recognize Barstow, where the temperature in summer goes off the charts. ...

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7. Peter at the Crossroads

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pp. 109-129

The cold war hadn’t thawed when I went to Russia in the sixties, part of a team that negotiated the cultural exchange. Before I left on the trip, they handed me a file of documents stamped “For Your Eyes Only.” It sounds more glamorous than it was, and what the government called hush-hush you could find in the public library. ...

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8. Proserpine’s Island

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pp. 130-148

I discovered early that we are all loners. Pop worked in downtown Manhattan and was gone right after breakfast, not to return until dark. We didn’t play catch together, and he never took me out to the ballgame. When Mom bent down to kiss me goodnight, I smelled her scent, “Lily of the Valley,” a lily, coolish and white. ...

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9. Paree Bis

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pp. 149-160

A café in London’s Soho introduced me to snails. With a show of confidence, I called for escargots. Secret in their little houses, they lay in a pie plate with bubbles let into the bottom. The idea was to winkle them out. The French have no problem with this, but on my first go the shell squirted loose from its clamp ...

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10. China Boy

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pp. 161-181

My family took me to the Catskills for my tenth birthday, the day after Memorial Day, when we decked the graves of our war dead. A black-and-white photo evokes that far-off time. The lake in the background is edged with pine trees, coming down to the water. ...

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11. Flying Horses on the Silk Road

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pp. 182-203

London after the war was like a beautiful woman, sadly mauled by the years. Mile upon mile of redbrick tenements, a legacy of the previous age, turned the edges of the city to a wasteland. Craters around St. Paul’s, still waiting to be filled, told of German bombing. ...

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12. Antarctic Convergence

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pp. 204-221

I joined the navy the day I turned seventeen—seventeen plus a day, the recruiting office being closed on the Sunday. The words of a popular song evoked the girl I left behind. “I threw a kiss in the ocean, I threw a kiss in the sea.” The bosun’s mate, hollering obscenities when he woke us in the morning, didn’t sound like Peggy Lee, though, ...

E-ISBN-13: 9781611171730
Print-ISBN-13: 9781570038259

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Voyages and travels.
  • Fraser, Russell A. -- Travel.
  • Travelers' writings, American.
  • Scholars -- United States -- Biography.
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