Now that it’s officially summer, acquaintances and friends of friends are emailing me, asking, “I’m going to be in Berlin for two days — what should I see?”
I have no idea how to answer that. I’ve never been a skimmer when I travel — someone who only has a few days in each place, with a very clear list of things to do, see, eat, drink, take photos of. Two days? That’s a lot of pressure. Spend two hours at Potsdamer Platz, with the Wall exhibit and their Topography of Terror, and that’s two hours you can’t spend at the Kaiser Panorama, or trying to figure out where exactly it’s polite to look while at the Tiergarten, surrounded by the naked Germans.
Likewise, my mode of travel baffles them. I plant myself in one place, spend one month on a dairy farm in Ireland getting to know the local cows, or renting a place in Buenos Aires and exploring the city in depth rather than using it to leap to Brazil, Chile or Patagonia. The skimmers have their travel writers — the king probably being Anthony Bourdain, who leaps from one place to another, eating his way through city after city. I prefer a different kind of travel writing, with a sluggish pace matching my own.
Alice Albinia is not a skimmer. I’m not entirely sure her new travel book “Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River” would work if she were. When you’re writing about Pakistan, a country that exists in the minds of Westerners mostly as a terrorist breeding ground, a scary place of bombs, assassinations, religious persecution, and evil backwardness, it would be entirely unsatisfying for Albinia to drop in, eat some of the food, and see a few highlights.
Rather, this is an area that Albinia knows quite well. While still writing as an outsider, Albinia tells five thousand years of history as she travels along the river from Pakistan to India to Tibet. While in Karachi, her story wanders from the horrors of the 1947 partition to the first Dutch and English traders who coveted the waterway. Plutarch, Pliny and Alexander all make appearances in her story. And yet so do the modern inhabitants: transvestites, Christian sewer cleaners, fishermen, Pashtuns and the men patrolling the borders.
Albinia delves, and the result is a gorgeous, bold book that works as an antithesis to the frantic pace of modern checklist travel. Now, if I could only clear out the six months I need to visit Moscow, I will be on my way, with Albinia’s book as inspiration.