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Books to Go

Seeking Warmth and Meaning in Antarctica

April 26, 1998|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TERRA INCOGNITA: Travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler (Random House, $25, hardback). Sometimes, Sara Wheeler reports, the only sound on the polar continent is the wind's relentless screech. Sometimes, cold numbs the sense of touch. Sometimes, eyes stare at endless nothing.

Yet this book's pages don't read the way you might expect: White, white, white, cold, cold, white, white, white. In the Antarctic landscape's grandeur and in the nuance of its apparent uniformity, Wheeler finds enough glory to sate even a sensory glutton.

About a quarter of the way into the story of her seven months in Antarctica, Wheeler explains why she doesn't fear to travel so boldly. Since she was a child, she says, she has lived on a mental tightrope, in terror of losing her faith and toppling into existential despair.

Compared to that bleak prospect, adventure is bliss, Antarctica a salvation of sorts. With an international cast of researchers and support staff essentially self-stranded at 200 remote encampments, it is a world apart from the mundane life that triggers her angst.

Listen, for instance, to this snatch of conversation about penguins she recorded during a visit with two Italian researchers.

"How do you tell which is which?"

"How do you tell which man is which?"

"Er, well, they sort of look different."

"Yes, so do penguins look to me."

For her part, Wheeler often refers to the people she encounters with a dismissive shorthand based on first impressions: "the Yeti," "Trotsky," "Seismic Man." She seems more comfortable scrutinizing the lives of dead Antarctic pioneers--Robert F. Scott, Ernest Shackleton--than in making a serious effort to know more of the people with whom she must live in such close quarters.

The richest color in her portraits radiates from the strange societies that have blossomed in the monotonous ice-scape. One scientist she meets calls water "liquid ice." It is, she discovers, pure and delicious. She attends Mass in a church with a stained-glass penguin and a priest who calls his flock "the frozen chosen."

She learns to love the place, even though she writes on leaving: "Antarctica was more of a terra incognita than ever."

HITCHHIKING VIETNAM: A Woman's Solo Journey on the Ho Chi Minh Trail by Karin Muller, (The Globe Pequot Press, $24.95 hardback, $14.95 paper). Muller videotaped these travels in an acclaimed PBS documentary. I didn't see it. But I can't believe it was any better than this warm, insightful, beautifully written book.

In capturing the day-to-day frustrations of communism's real and figurative roadblocks, Muller reveals a traveler's truism: Patience offers unexpected rewards, and so does the occasional bribe.

Visa and passport nightmares, rip-off artist guides, indolent bureaucrats, diarrhea and scurvy all plague her. Yet she refuses to give up her explorations, touring the countryside on decomposing motorcycles and rattletrap bicycles, on foot and by thumb.

While she is honest in portraying how all this drains her morale--any serious traveler will recall similar gloomy moments--it never takes her long to rebound. Rather than slump into self-pity, she springs to new exuberance for each experience, including a charming effort to rescue a baby gibbon and endangered shadow leopard cubs.

Come to think of it, though, how could Muller be anything but cheerfully resilient among these people who have endured so much, and whose strength and courage she sees so clearly?

Quick trips

ALASKA FISHING: The Complete Guide to Hundreds of Prime Fishing Spots on Rivers, Lakes and the Coast by Rene Limeres and Gunnar Pedersen, (Foghorn Press, $20.95, paper) Alaska covers 600,000 square miles, has 42 rivers designated wild and scenic and boasts 34,000 miles of coast. Flies and lures. Seasons. Species. Lots of maps and drawings. Read this while it's still dark up there so that you're not tempted to drop everything and book a floatplane immediately.

PLACES AND HISTORY: London, Paris, Brazil (Stuart, Tabori and Chang, $24.95 each, hardback). The book business is hard to figure. A paperback travel guide with only a smattering of black-and-white photos--but color advertisements, for Pete's sake--fetches $21. These gorgeous, full color, large-format hardbacks with sweeping fold-out photographs, on the other hand, sell for $24.95 each. And these aren't just pretty books. The history is solid; the social commentary pulls no punches. And while the travel fare is prosaic, the photos--of people, art, architecture, landscape--are sufficiently dramatic to make up for it. (The series also will include Venice, Ireland, California, Loire castles, Tuscany, and the American Southwest).

Books to Go appears the second and fourth weeks of every month.

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