Long gone are the days when travel writers could pique a reader’s interest by merely writing about travel. Books like Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which capitalized on the fact that most 19th century Americans had never traveled to Europe, have fallen victim to global communication and Western affluence; we’ve been there, we’ve done that, and we’ve walked along all the paved roads the planet has to offer. As a result, we’ve entered an era of stunt travel writing, in which writers more often than not employ an unsubtle hook to pull readers along for the ride: rowing around the eastern half of the United States, bicycling the circumference of Australia, hiking in the footsteps of another travel writer, traveling from one end of something to the opposite end of the same thing. No one simply goes for the sake of going anymore—or they don’t do so with the hope of publishing an account of the trip at any rate. That’s why a modest travelogue like Ann Vanderhoof’s An Embarrassment of Mangoes comes as an unassuming surprise.
Lacking eccentric ambition or the meticulous introspection of a book like John Barth’s Sabbatical, Vanderhoof’s trip aspires to little more than a cruise down America’s Intracoastal Waterway—“the watery equivalent of I-95”—and through the heavily touristed islands of the eastern Caribbean, a journey comparable to a tour of the national parks of the American West in a recreational vehicle. Unable to deliver much peril or adventure, revelation or conflict, Vanderhoof’s story is merely a realization of the dream of middle-aged professionals everywhere: to ditch the office and sail away to sand and sun.
Vanderhoof, an editor living in Toronto, and her husband Steve, a freelance art director and amateur sailor, decide to put their demanding careers on hold, rent out their house, and cruise unhurriedly down the North American coast, skipping through the chain of islands that reaches through the Caribbean Sea, from the tip of Florida to the coast of Venezuela. The excursion is to last two years, an extended holiday from the rigors of urban existence. Vanderhoof is anxious about the trip, given her inexperience on the water, but she’s game; by the end of the trip, she finds herself to be a competent—if not always confident—sailor. None of her worst fears, or even very many of her minor ones, are realized, and the couple’s boat returns to its berth on Lake Ontario unbruised and intact.
Vanderhoof’s book is not entirely free from contrivance, and her gimmick comes in the form of food. A pair of enthusiastic gourmands, Ann and Steve intend from the beginning to make theirs a self-consciously food-themed cruise—their boat is christened Receta (Spanish for “recipe”), and their little inflatable dinghy is called Snack. Much of Vanderhoof’s narrative is centered around shopping for ingredients, cooking, eating, drinking, and musing about shopping, eating, and drinking. Lest the reader be left out of the fun, the author ends each chapter with a selection of recipes from the previous pages. While the conceit is modestly clever, it wears thin eventually, and some of the most interesting cuisine mentioned in the text—such as the Indian-influenced fare of Trinidad—is disappointingly absent from the recipe collection.
An Embarrassment of Mangoes disappoints, too, in its unambitious reach. In light of Vanderhoof’s enthusiasm and skill with language, the reader is given precious little to grab onto in her account of the journey, and the book ends up feeling frustratingly lightweight. Apart from an extended stay in Grenada and some voyeuristic participation in island festivals, the couple make very few forays into the heart of Caribbean culture. Instead, they anchor Receta in harbors, bobbing amid the floating resort community made up of countless other “cruisers.” They congratulate themselves when they go ashore, thinking themselves more travelers than the tourists anchored around them, but one suspects that most of the other cruisers see themselves in precisely the same way.
Nor are we given much insight into Ann and Steve. What Vanderhoof tells us about herself and her husband—that they are harried, hurried, and long for relaxation—is not a revelation; it is a given that wealthy Westerners harbor romantic dreams of exotic getaways, and merely describing such a dream is not enough. Vanderhoof’s real opportunity was to explain to us what happens when the dream comes to pass. How does one reenter one’s professional life after dropping out for two years? How does an extended sabbatical transform a person? We find no real answers to these questions in Vanderhoof’s book, and that is a shame.
The only discovery to be found in An Embarrassment of Mangoes is one that Vanderhoof perhaps did not intend: a not altogether flattering portrayal of the “cruiser” culture in the Caribbean. The world Vanderhoof describes is a parade of affluent professionals, scouting parties for the Food & Wine set, who hop from island, stroll through picturesque markets, then retreat to the harbor, where they zip back and forth between one another’s boats in rubber dinghies, attending dinner parties and rum-tastings. It’s a mobile Club Med, a cohesive collection of invaders from the north who descend on the islands in a frenzy of culinary colonialism.
Vanderhoof is a talented writer, and she and her husband seem to be capable sailors. Unfortunately, the product of these traits—a competently crafted account of an uneventful sailing trip—makes for less than compelling reading. Absent significant examination of Caribbean culture or meaningful introspection on the part of the author, we’re left with only mangoes.
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