“The Nine Horizons: Travel In Sundry Places” is billed as a series of snapshots and lives up to this claim, offering nine sparkling vignettes of the author's experiences in Sudan, Quito in Ecuador, a rainforest (Ecuador again), Bhutan, Syria, Central Asia, Brazil, New York, and during an England to USA crossing.
His method of financing his travels is through “development”, a vaguely worded profession that consists of volunteer work for the UN, the EU, NGO's, and other do-gooder organizations. He started on this path in 1987 with the modest goal of getting out of a journalistic rut in London and once underway his interest escalated toward language studies. Ultimately, he took on the theory and practice of economic development at advanced levels.
His interest in hiking is usually presented as the highpoint of his travels in each country, possibly because it allowed him a literal overview of the country. In the structure of the book, recollections of his hiking serve a different purpose: they allow free space within which he teaches the diversity of these lands and about the integrity of the vastly different peoples and cultures he has helped and learned from. Make no mistake, if you read this book, you too will learn. Robbins is a master teacher and his methods are beguiling.
The first sentence: “You do not need to know much about me” contains few words, but they set the tone, which is both understated and supremely confident. Once immersed in the book, we understand why. His writing style appears to grow organically out of his journeys, for his recollections show that he took countries as he found them. He sought out central areas of the cities for solitary living quarters, for example, rather than settling for suburban comforts. He often arrived into and exited from a country with his worldly possessions crammed into a single knapsack, albeit the contents changed. In between times, he clambered up and down mountain trails with alacrity and agility (notwithstanding bashing a rib or two).
Robbins is a great travel writer but there are surely limits to what one can imply through clouds, and I fear that he reached the limit about half-way through the book. White, fluffy, fat, pale, wispy, foggy or otherwise, I was glad when the clouds (or the often incessant rain for that matter) cleared out and made way for more earth-bound matters. Other than this quirk, I enjoyed his descriptive verse, which accounts for the majority of the book. Long passages can be tiring, but fortunately he is also a master of the short sentence, and the results are never less than graceful. One might question what makes a man travel so persistently, but there is a discernible arc to the stories, and, ultimately, a satisfying resolution — which need not be revealed here.
Robbins seems occasionally to mistrust “progress” almost as much as some of the remote rainforest tribes he profiles. Can you blame him? His creed, if it were reduced to a few words, might sound something like “...feeding the world without wrecking it...” (page 194). Saving the world is a large problem, and I don't mean to give the impression that Robbins claims to know how. But, this book does show that he found the world and its inhabitants to be beautiful, which may be more important.
Only in the last few pages does Robbins' writing become more abstract as he draws a few lessons from his travels. These well-founded observations are perfectly pitched. Like many of the propeller-driven airplane rides just described, these observations bring the reader to a graceful touch-down after an exhilarating and enlightening flight.
It's interesting to note that “Nine Horizons” is only one of three books that Robbins published in early 2014. Having enjoyed this first one so much, it makes me happy to think of what lies ahead.