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Innocents Abroad

An intrepid traveller on an illegal long march

Innocents Abroad
Among Insurgents: Walking Through Burma
By Shelby Tucker
Penguin Rs 295, Pages: 386
An inscription on Columbus' caravels read: "Following the sun we left the old world." At 53, Shelby Tucker left the new world for an ancient land, in conditions that would've deterred most reasonable people. Tucker is neither "most people" nor "reasonable". It makes him an excellent traveller. As a schoolboy, he went to Mexico; two years later, he was in Algeria; at Oxford, he travelled to Peking and Moscow. He celebrated his marriage at Zanzibar.

In 1962, he first conceived the idea of an innocent's stroll through Burma - unguided, unplanned, led by villagers through that torn, beautiful land. Decades later, he returned to the plan. Were not foreigners banned from entering and leaving Burma except by air? Were they not prohibited from visiting any except those parts of the country controlled by the military junta? Tucker's philosophy is that all travel restrictions were repugnant to the real traveller, a view shared by a 22-year-old Swede called Mats he met on a train.

Their journey was an odd mixture of the first forays made by Marco Polo and Hieun Tsang and Quixote's progress. Tucker and Mats sneaked into Burma after crossing through a 250-mile sector of China, dressed as Dai tribesmen, and joined up with the Kachin Independence Army. Their travels included brushes with the Burma Army, a crash course in rain forest survival. On the way, Tucker learned about the complicated politics that drove both the military junta and the struggling rebels.

On arrival in India, after all the dangers Tucker and Mats went through, Indian red tape was the worst as they tried to explain what two foreigners were doing without an Inner Line Pass in a highly sensitive border area! Is Tucker nai#ve, crazy, or intrepid in a way our tired world can no longer comprehend? Only the book can tell us.


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