Wednesday, 1 December 2010
Book Review: Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment by Tim Brookes
Join me the 1st of every month as I review a new book. I will focus on travel, expat adventures and various small business resources. For my first review I have chosen Tim Brooke's Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment – A journey across India in search of the meaning of water, supported by the Champlain College Publishing initiative.
Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment is a behind the scenes look at author Tim Brookes’ adventure to India while on assignment for National Geographic to do a story on forecasting and preparing for monsoon season. I read it while in Malaysia, just recently (so it was actually during monsoon season) so I really got into the mood and anticipation of it all. I read most of it while on a bus making my way from Kuala Lumpur to Penang Island. I know most people can’t put themselves into a place that matches the location of a story physically, so Brookes does a great job bringing you into the story with him.
It’s a philosophical and comical look at circumstances that go way beyond his control and how he deals with it. I often found myself grinning widely and even laughed out loud on several occasions.
He sets out on his assignment with a plan to interview experts and regular people about preparations for the coming monsoon season. His first contact is logically the Meteorological Department of India. Unbelievably, his requests for an interview are denied. He’s shocked. It’s National Geographic, isn’t it? It’s explained to him that they won’t be able to help him because he doesn’t have a filming permit. And, it doesn’t matter how many times he tries to explain that he’s a print journalist and does not have a TV crew with him so won’t be doing any filming the “access denied” message is sent throughout the system. So he sets out trying to find a work around solution and meets up with lots of colorful characters who are more than willing to help him on his journey. But, they don’t always have the same game plan in mind as he does.
Early on in his research for the story he has a revelation… "some things are more important than meteorology.” Even though he’s on assignment to write about how the people of India prepare for monsoon season he comes to the realization that the people who live there just don’t believe the monsoon is as big a deal as the weather forecasters in the U.S. do. They really don’t do anything to “prepare” they just accept that when it comes, it comes and they deal with the aftermath as best they can.
During the monsoon season, tourists stay away, thousands of people can be (and have been) killed every year but it’s prayed for as it is believed to be the lifeblood of India. They ask: How can water be bad? Our bodies are mostly water. Blood is 92% water, brains and muscle are 75% water and bones are 25% water. We can’t live without it.
So Brookes just lets himself go and embraces whatever experiences the countryside will bring…including those that may not be that pleasant.
One balmy evening as he’s smearing bug juice on himself he comments, “Then the mosquitoes arrived. I’d expected them to be as big as crocodiles but they actually seemed smaller than those in Vermont. Of course, size doesn’t matter if you’re packing malaria, dengue fever or Japanese encephalitis.”
I know, it doesn’t sound very inviting but if you’ve ever been in the jungle (or even lake country in Canada in the spring) you’ll understand where he’s coming from and actually feel the stickiness of the bug repellent and smell the sour scent. As I’m reading his story he reminds me that no matter where you go in the world, no matter what you see… “The single question, the one we all have to answer by and for ourselves: What can you make of being here?”
He tells a story of superstitions and rituals like the woman who married a banana sapling (yes, a tree) because an astrologer predicted that her first marriage would be a disaster. After the wedding the sapling was tossed in the river taking the bad marriage with it freeing the woman to find happiness in her second marriage with a more suitable mate. Nothing to do with monsoons, right? But what an experience to see this ritual in person.
Sometimes the story slows down a bit while Brookes delves a little deeper into details than needed into things that don’t really seem to have anything to do with the story. For example, I didn’t know the history of the saying “raining cats and dogs” until I read Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment. He also digressed at one point into a history lesson on umbrellas and water management. It’s probably the professor in him. He just can’t help himself. But if you give yourself up to his in-depth descriptions you wind up enjoying the journey (it’s like value-added). Forget about trying to follow a plot as it eventually dawns that it’s a different plot than you first set out to follow. If you’re the type of person who needs to control the direction of a book, this isn’t for you. But, if you’re a true wanderer and love to explore down unplanned, inviting pathways, this is exactly what the author does for you.
There are many twists and turns as Brookes attempts to find the experts to interview for his story but he’s thwarted at every turn and he even says at one point, “the monsoon forecast, my whole reason for going to India, was a joke, an international joke.” He goes on to say, “In the end I learned most from the unpredictable and unplanned.”
About the Author (as printed in the back of the book)
Tim Brookes is the author of the cult hitchhiking classic A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow, chosen as one of the best travel books of 2000 by Booklist and the New York Times. He has written for National Geographic, Outside and half a dozen other travel magazines and he has been one of National Public Radio’s top essayists for more than 20 years. He is also the author of numerous other books, including Guitar: An American Life, chosen by library journal as one of the Best Books of 2005.