Forty years ago, author and poet Mark Abley went on a three-month journey that changed his outlook on life. Accompanied by his friend Clare, the two travelled through several countries during the last year of the Hippie trail, at a time when it seemed that travel within Asia was cheap, the sights bountiful, and the hospitality exceptional. He filled three journals during his travels to be used for poetic inspiration; instead, they were left in the depths of his desk drawer. Years later, Abley decided his stories should be shared, and thus he collected and reflected on these stories in his newest work: Strange Bewildering Time.
The travel autobiography tracks Abley and Clare’s wandering journey through Eastern Asia and the Middle East. With no plan except a return ticket to London three months after their arrival, Abley and Clare began their adventure as wide-eyed university students, searching for enlightenment and a good story. In fact, Abley originally planned to transform his journals into a poetry collection. However, the journals became a space for Abley to psychologically ground himself and reflect during the trip. Over three months, the travellers’ journey became an experience that built self-awareness and knowledge of new cultures and strangers’ kindness.
But as Abley restructured his journals into a travel book 40 years later, he instead discovered his accounts to be somewhat of a time capsule of 1978. The journals housed a naive young man unaware of the cultural, political, and environmental changes bubbling under the surface of his surroundings.
“[At the time], I hadn’t read enough or thought enough about the countries I was travelling through,” Abley told The McGill Tribune. “[O]ne conscious decision I made right from the start of this book was that I would not quote Western writers in the tradition of literary travel writing.”
To rectify this lack of awareness as a white man in a literary tradition filled with voices of the same demographic, Abley sought to incorporate texts and references from the literary canon of the Global South, such as Alboqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh: The Persian Book of King. In doing so, he uses Strange Bewildering Time as a collage for offering lessons and teachings about the cultures he visited so many years ago. His reflective self-awareness reveals his younger self to be ignorant of his privilege as a man, even while travelling with Clare. Abley thus intends to question how locals at the time would’ve viewed him as the ‘scruffy traveller’ he remembers himself as while acknowledging his naive narration in the journals.
“I feel regret that so many of these countries and places are so much more difficult to travel into and through than they used to be,” Abley said. “But I hoped that nostalgia is not the emotion that comes across. What I more accept is a sense of loss [and] a sense of joy at my own good fortune, at having these experiences and being able to see these places.”
Besides capturing a cultural moment in time, Strange Bewildering Time tracks the environmental changes between 1978 and the present day. Abley ruminates on his bewilderment of the gorgeous landscapes that he and Clare explored mournfully, as the climate crisis has all but eliminated these natural wonders and harmed local communities in its wake.
“The fact [is] that we crossed rivers and lakes in Iran that don’t exist anymore. The fact [is] that we clambered over a glacier in Kashmir that’s a fragment of its former size,” Abley told the Tribune. “The fact [is] that Kathmandu is suffering from its lack of safe drinking water because they just don’t have the infrastructure in place.”
All in all, Strange Bewildering Time acts as a complex narration of naive youth and learned wisdom through a single journey. Abley masterfully navigates his acknowledgement of his innocent self as a foundation for the book while introducing witty and philosophical remarks that allow the reader to reevaluate the authority of the narrative lens. Abley’s book, therefore, is a remarkable time capsule of culture and circumstance wrapped up in an enticing story about meeting new people on a hippie adventure.
Strange Bewildering Time is available everywhere where books are sold.