Chasing the Sea
Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
The sea in the title of Tom Bissell's Chasing the Sea is the Aral Sea, an inland lake located in the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in Central Asia. In 1960, the Aral Sea was the size of Lake Michigan. By 2015, in a textbook example of "man-made ecological catastrophe," the Aral Sea will be gone. In its place will be a dry lake bed of salinized sand, herbicides and pesticides, other toxic waste, and bioengineered anthrax.
In 1996-97, Bissell served briefly as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan, until, in his words, he "cut and ran," a "failure" that haunts him. Back in the United States, he wrote short stories set in Uzbekistan, available in God Lives in St. Petersburg: Short Stories, and began a career in publishing. In 2001, by then a professional writer, he returned to Uzbekistan to travel for six weeks. His ultimate destination would be the remote northern part of the country, to see what was left of the Aral Sea.
He visited Tashkent, the cosmopolitan capital; Bukhara and Samarkand, cities renowned at the time of the Silk Road; the populous Ferghana Valley and its surrounding mountains; and the surreal ecological disaster of the Aral Sea. He visited his former host family, interviewed bureaucrats, and stayed with a variety of Russians, Americans, and Uzbeks. Bissell's intention for the resulting book, he writes, was as "a personal, idiosyncratic account of a place and a people."
I enjoyed the geography and history, but the compelling parts of the book are Bissell's skilled recreations of the incidents and conversations of his trip. Most interesting to me was the relationship between Bissell and his translator, Rustam, a multilingual young man approximately Bissell's age. Rustam has an interesting personality, as often seen in those who thrive in cross-cultural situations. His background and views are gradually revealed in what is simultaneously a character study and a glimpse into the multiethnic, unstable country of Uzbekistan. Bissell's portrait of Rustam also highlights differences between American and Central Asian culture.
Chasing the Sea is vivid and engaging. The incident in which Bissell, Rustam, and a driver are stopped on suspicion of drug trafficking is particularly well told. Bissell does have a glibness suggestive of a smart aleck; his ripping of travel journalist Robert Kaplan, however, is priceless.
At the same time, I admired that Bissell has an open mind to cultural differences (and is an extremely good sport) yet does not make excuses for dictatorship, cruelty, unfairness, unethical behavior, or pollution. That's what I expect from travel journalism! I can recommend Chasing the Sea for its entertainment value, information, insight into human nature, and its open-minded yet ethical approach to the fascinating culture of Central Asia.
Copyright © 2006 by Heidi Boudro