The catch-all descriptor “the tropics” describes an imaginary band that wraps around the earth approximately 23 degrees north and south of the equator, bound between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Alexander Frater, son of a Scottish Presbyterian missionary couple (and grandson of one of the first European missionaries to many of the islands in Melanesia), was born on the small island of Irikiki and flitted around the tropics for many of his early, formative years. He later relocated to the UK, where he became travel correspondent for an award-winning British newspaper, The Observer. In his role with The Observer and other publications, Frater returned to the tropics often, satisfying his ingrained need for the heat, humidity, and inherent madness of what he calls the Torrid Zone.
Tales from the Torrid Zone follows Frater on many different visits to tropical regions, including a trip that revisits his birthplace and retraces some family footsteps. He also recounts a journey as part of a BBC film crew, flying on a single-prop plane through parts of Africa, a river-excursion down the Irawaddy in Burma, and a five-star cruise on the Amazon. His travels are fantastic, interesting and unique—far from the typical misadventures of a young traveler bumming around beaches with a copy of the local Lonely Planet guide in hand. Instead, Frater is more like Michael Palin, traveling through history and folklore, chasing hundreds-of-years-old stories and meeting with innumerable characters to help him recreate the scenes set in history books. He visits the birthplaces of surfing and bungee-jumping, follows the path of a lesser-known European explorer, recounts tales of Gauguin, the painter who spent his final years in the tropics, and has dinner with the Queen of Tonga. Seriously.
Frater’s writing is of the highest quality. Perhaps his most endearing literary trait is his ability to capture interesting dialogue. On his travels, he seems to unabashedly mix with anyone and everyone, and is evidently an attentive listener. He relates countless stories told to him by a wide variety of characters he meets - indigenous locals, other travelers, and ex-pats putting down roots in some tropical clime. Frater leaps from story to story and place to place in a way that at first is a little frustrating to follow, but by the end of the book, it seems obvious that this chaotic, muddled approach is less an attribute of poor writing than an ingrained and essential part of what the tropics represent. The tropics are a little crazy at times. Heat, humidity, and clashing cultures all add up to a slightly manic life. Hunter S. Thompson captured the sultry tropics similarly in Rum Diary. Set in San Juan, Thompson either describes the pace of life (reflected in the pace of the book itself) as slow and tepid, made sluggish by the heat, or fast, manic and crazy, like the rhythms of Carnival or pounding tribal drums. These two vastly different velocities are so much a part of the tropics, and therefore part of Frater, that his book reads in exactly the same way.
One story that ties the others together is Frater’s donation of a church bell to the small town where he was born, and the mishaps he encounters during the many-year process. His ultimate journey back to Iririki with the bell is documented by a BBC Radio 4 crew—the radio program later wins a national radio award—and his description of the misadventures is fantastic. This story, which is told in parts throughout the book, has the effect of personalizing all the experiences Frater has in the tropics. While he lives in London now, these distant islands still remain his home, and his connection to them remains vital.
Despite dining with royalty, interviewing the likes of Sir David Attenborough, and traveling with a BBC film crew in countries where even a BBC ballpoint pen is worth its weight in gold, Frater is a modest guide. And, perhaps more importantly, he is an informative guide. Torrid Zone is a memoir of three generations lived in the heat of the tropics. It is also a written portrait of the tropical region that is worthy of Gauguin.