'Good travel is like good reading," observes Canadian writer Karen Connelly in "Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story" (Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, $27.95). "You go inside a new world and you cannot resist it." In 1996 Connelly journeyed to Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar), hoping to learn about the underground movement opposing Burma's repressive military junta. In Rangoon, she dines in noodle shops with Burmese poets and intellectuals and attends a massive student protest that is quashed by the authorities. She sees a man brutally beaten, and her understanding of Burma starts to becomes more visceral, more personal.
Connelly isn't a hard-nosed journalistic observer. She's intelligent and curious, also emotional, self-deprecating, openhearted. When she meets Maung, a handsome Burmese dissident, at a Christmas party in Chiang Mai, she begins a passionate and complicated cross-cultural romance.
"I still think it unwise to become involved with a man who belongs to a guerrilla army, even a small one," Connelly deadpans. In other words, she knows better - but when has that ever stopped a woman in the throes of lust?
Maung is suave and elusive; he's always being called away on unexplained missions. He invites Connelly to a rebel camp deep in the jungle, but she's disappointed that he won't share her bed under the watchful eyes of his comrades. Even when the couple steals away to the river for a midnight tryst, she sees a cigarette glowing nearby: "It's just me and my beloved and his bodyguard."
We know things can't end well, but we're with Connelly all the way on this journey. There's no resisting.
Like Connelly, Mark Stephen Meadows went to Asia to learn more about a grim political situation that gets only sporadic coverage in the American press. In 2008, Sri Lanka was in the endgame of a deadly 25-year civil war, one that pitted minority Tamil rebels against the majority Sinhalese government.
An American adventurer who once hitchhiked through Iraq, Meadows wanted to better understand the psychology of terrorists, and he figured that the LTTE, the original suicide bombers popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, were a good place to start. In "Tea Time With Terrorists: A Motorcycle Journey Into the Heart of Sri Lanka's Civil War" (Soft Skull, $14.95 paper), he interviews various Tamil militants, including the man who masterminded multiple bombings in the capital city of Colombo in 1984. He expects "some chiseled Indian version of a Clint Eastwood gunslinger-cum-Hindu James Bondlike electronics hacker," but finds instead a disappointingly "fat-faced, doughy" man with a "gentle smile."
Meadows rents a Honda XLR 250R Baja trail bike and heads north into the war zone on A9 Highway, which he dubs the "Highway of Death," dodging bomb craters, reckless trucks and monsoon rains. There he finds a shell-shocked population living amid ruined tanks and unexploded mines. He may not crack the terrorist psychology, but "Tea Time" offers unexpectedly comic sketches of a foreigner in over his head and gamely recording the whole experience.
Connelly and Meadows write about what happened to them abroad; William Dalrymple writes about the people he meets. His fascinating new book, "Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India" (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95), is about nine men and women whose stories cast light on the wildly diverse religious traditions of the subcontinent, including Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism. Nowadays, we're inundated with stories of Bangalore software engineers and Bollywood movie stars, but "Nine Lives" reminds us that religion remains a vital part of everyday life and culture in India.
Among Dalrymple's subjects: an untouchable laborer who is believed to transform into a god when he dances the traditional theyyam of Kerala; a "lady fakir" who worships, with music and ecstatic dance, at the shrine of a Sufi Muslim saint frowned on by Islamic fundamentalists; one of the last of the Rajasthani bards who has memorized an ancient epic that takes five nights to perform.
These might seem like exotic characters, but Dalrymple allows them to tell their own stories, and they emerge as deeply sympathetic and human. "I have made a conscious effort to try to avoid imposing myself on the stories told by my nine characters," Dalrymple writes in his introduction, "and so hope to have escaped many of the cliches about 'Mystic India' that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion." He's succeeded brilliantly.