Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jackfruit by David E.X.N. Nghiem: A Review

Disclaimer: I was provided a review copy of Jackfruit by the author at no charge.

Why we do what we do is one of the core questions in the heart of each of us. In the case of David Nghiem, he finds himself drawn to Latin America with his bicycle on a journey that he chronicles in his book Jackfruit. An engineer by training, Nghiem has experiences and finds evidence that contradict the common views of history and technology. His attempts to find meaning in symbols, to visit ancient sites and to learn how the people of today live in this part of the world, form a narrative of highs and lows and some questions that remain unanswered. While this book may be too mystical for some, I have no doubt that it is a sincere representation of the author's experience.

Nghiem describes the terrain, the hardships, the artifacts and the people, but the bulk of the story is carried on in conversations. In Peru, for example:
"Why did you come here David?"

I looked at him. Ernesto now had a strange, searching, expression that I hadn't seen before on his face.

"You know, that's the same question my father asked me before I went. I told him - I told him that I didn't know. I just had to go."

Ernesto smiled. "It is always that way. The legend of Paititi is that only those who are selected may see the city. Otherwise, it appears and disappears at will, confusing those who are not worthy. It is for those who come here beyond their own will."

Beyond their own will? What the hell... I started to get a strange buzz up my back. It's the kind of feeling I would get whenever something major was up.

"David, do you think you are the "Escogido'?"


"The name the old Quechua woman called you was Acclhaska. Do you know what it means?"

"It means searcher, right?"

"No... it means 'Chosen One'."

At times Jackfruit certainly reads like an episode of the X-files, with unexplained lights and electrical storms whipping in from nowhere the instant a magical talisman is accidentally destroyed. But, to extend the X-files comparison, Nghiem is more a skeptical Scully than a willing Mulder who wants to believe.

While Nghiem goes to interesting places and has some interesting conversations, in too many places his writing is awkward. Nghiem has a knack for including too much detail in some places and not nearly enough in others. I know, for example, how many times he had to run to the bathroom one night, but I have no idea of the contents of his panniers. In trying to convey an idea of the size of the 200 ton stones of the temple ruins at Sacsayhuaman, Nghiem writes the following:
To present a relationship, the US aircraft carrier Nimitz weighs about 97,000 tons, the battleship New Jersey is 15,000 tons, a typical destroyer class ship is 5-7000 tons, and a 4 story nuclear reactor can be 670 tons.
Despite the mind-numbing level of detail in that sentence, I reached the end of it with no real idea of the size of those stones. Perhaps a good old-fashioned comparison such as "big as a house" would've been better in this instance.

While some paragraphs are smothered in detail, in other places the book reads as if vital bits of information have been left out. One night, after encountering "Dead, hacked opened, mutilated and gutted bodies of dogs, at least eight or nine of them laid on the road, and their guts were all over the place", Nghiem makes it to a hostel. That night "the woman's warning, and the memory of the dead dogs haunted me." While a few paragraphs earlier I'd gotten a flashback of Nghiem's parent's experiences in Vietnam, I vainly flipped back through pages looking for the woman's warning. I never found it.

I have no reason to doubt Nghiem's veracity when recounting the local people's distaste for various vile practices of the World Bank and the U.S. government, but perhaps too many of the books 400 odd pages are spent in diatribes against imperialist corporations. What hostility there is towards gringos is never expressed towards Nghiem, however. He makes friends and works very hard to learn Spanish after an amusing and awkward experience with a young woman in Peru. At the beginning of the book, he knew only about 80 words of Spanish, but by the end, he is fluent.

The best parts of Jackfruit are the people. Nghiem is befriended by the man who designed Thor Heyerdahl's boat, the national bicycle champion of Honduras, Peace Corp workers and a remarkable boy with Down's Syndrome. The true friendships Nghiem forms shine through in the pages of Jackfruit.

Jackfruit is not a how-to manual that will tell you how to tour Latin America and there are far more questions asked than answered within it's pages. It is by no means a perfect book, Nghiem is still more an engineer than a writer and despite some strong scenes and moving passages, the book feels unfinished. But all our journeys ultimately only take us a bit further along the road and we are not here to be perfect, but to be human. At it's core, Jackfruit is a very human story.

You can read more reviews of Jackfruit on Amazon and you can read more about Jackfruit and David Nghiem's latest adventures at:

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

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