There’s no business like International Business (TNBLIB) is a wonderfully engaging and idiosyncratic offering that confidently transcends the seemingly steady travelogue genre. Dowson is a successful businessman. Almost twenty years ago his company was faced with the task of expanding globally; commercial necessity expanded his passion for international travel and cuisine. Fortunately for us, Dowson has recounted events from this period, dispatching something to savour.
Split into two sections, the first takes us across South America. Seven countries within twelve days, interspersed with supplementary recollections. The second takes us through China, Japan, and Korea in 3 weeks of business meetings and cultural immersion.
We have the vividity of exotica that travelogue junkies demand: the impossibility of navigating tropical rainstorms, car ferries that more closely resemble ‘oversized pallets’, blazing Venezuelan buses, night flights on an ancient aircraft courtesy of the Ecuadorian military, and DIY internet connections that result in explosions.
Indomitability proves paramount. An appreciatively brief initial visit to Venezuela (comprising riots, kidnappers, and corrupt officials) yields immutable advice about rental vehicles should an armoured 4×4, or police escort prove unavailable. Farcical demonstrations bankrolled by the Ecuadorian government results in our protagonist’s first, and mercifully only encounter with tear gas.
Familiarity with Colombia’s cartels and civil strife aside, a brow is justifiably arched at hotel security diktats, whereby the use of taxi from portico to the immediate restaurants is non-negotiable. Realisation that flight crew administer editions of El Espectador post take-off becomes the stuff of whimsy. We are indeed grateful that our narrator survives an assault by lightning on the oldest Boeing 727 in commercial service on route to Quito; surpassed in mirabilia only by a later flight on the delightfully bijou propeller plane to Buenos Aires. We learn later that aviation insouciance is embraced with equal vigour by the Chinese.
Observations give us the fragility, chaos, and peril of life within South American countries, and the corporate rigidity that still pervades the key South-East Asian heavy hitters. Throughout the Pacific, commonality of bureaucracy is central. Weaponised by immigration officers and plant security guards, reinforced by officialdom. So too the energetic and conscientious lower orders. Hispanic shop floor workers and Asian suits, stifled by inequality and etiquette, afford us a glimpse of old-fashioned values allied with plain old graft. Callow Chinese entrepreneurs and Korean Apprentice style boardroom shootouts aside, transformation and modernity are reserved for the sprawling cityscapes.
Standout characters are South American cooking, and Dowson’s supposedly multi-lingual colleague Jin Ae. Food is Dowson’s true travel companion. Descriptions suffuse the pages; rhapsodies champion unpretentious local fare. Effort is expended in the evocation of finding the best padarias to satisfy one’s cravings for cozinhas and pao de queijo, the presentation of a barbequed picanha, and the virility and variety of Brazilian pizza. The unadorned becomes the extraordinary. Take the Colombian dish of potatoes, chicken, corn, cream, and capers. There are hearty soups, and then it seems, there’s ajiaco.
So, to Jin Ae. An enterprising, if unpopular, employee who Dowson is sufficiently impressed with to invite on his far east business marathon. A compositional tour de force of comedic gold, she merits a concluding chapter that unquestionably serves as much needed cognitive therapy for the traumatised Dowson.