The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen
By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
Editions Didier Millet, US$13.95, 371 pp.

Reviewed by Hannah Black

Once in while I read a book that makes me kick myself for not writing down all the strange and wonderful experiences I’ve had whilst traveling. One such book is The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen, a collection of articles and essays by journalist and lifelong traveler Paul Spencer Sochaczewski.

Sochaczewski’s stories are just bite-sized peeks into the cultures and folklore of Asian peoples; his abridged version of the epic tale of Rama and Sita takes no more than half a page. He is often funny and always cynical as he searches for what he calls the Asian equivalents of Bigfoot, including a supposed tribe of white skinned cannibalistic giants in Halmahera and tiny relatives of Homo floresiensis in Flores.

The book certainly represents the eclectic collection of peoples Sochaczewski has met during decades of travel in Asia, but I get the feeling, especially in more recent stories, he was just stopping by and then heading back to his hotel to play a round of golf and write about his experience.

I also found the stories and articles were sometimes too short, leaving me wondering what his point was. Did I really need to read two pages about a trek through the Himalayas culminating in a troublesome trip to a toilet under the stars?

There is no doubt he has experienced some of the least visited places in Asia – Upper Mustang, Nepal, for example – but it is difficult to get a real feel for the locations in such brief stories.

However, most stories are really amusing, interesting and often poignant. His earlier articles from when he began his travels as a volunteer for the Peace Corps and worked for WWF are especially captivating. It’s shocking how many of the articles about nature and cultural conservation, calling on his memories from more than 30 years ago, are still being discussed today.

This is an entertaining and often thought-provoking read, and if you’re a golfer you’ll probably enjoy it 10 times as much as I did.

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

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