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Review: Is Niall Doherty’s “Cargo Ship Diaries” Any Good?

Niall getting his hair did on arrival in Peru. Photo by Niall Doherty.

Notice: This is not an affiliate review. I do not receive any pay or profit for sales of this book. I was given a free copy and asked to review it. 

If you only knew Niall Doherty from his blog, you might think he’s an incredibly social guy. The kind of person who’s just born with the gift of talking to strangers. You wouldn’t realize it terrifies him.

Niall is on a round-the-world trip using zero airplanes. Recently he reached out to me and offered me a copy of his new book, The Cargo Ship Diaries. I was honored, as Niall is one of the only other adventurers I know who travels slow. He’s 2.5 years in and has been to 25 countries. Like me, he has stayed months in a single city, often without planning to do so.

But I didn’t realize just how much Niall and I have in common. Like the socializing thing. Every week Niall makes a new video of himself wherever he’s at, and most of his stories involve the many characters (good and bad) he meets along the way. You get the feeling he’ll just walk up to anyone and strike up a conversation. And he does, actually, but that’s not his first instinct.

The Basic Story

In The Cargo Ship Diaries—named because they were written during two weeks aboard a freight ship in the Pacific, coming from Asia to the Americas—Niall reflects on how he grew up shy and terrified of girls. His first long stop after leaving Ireland was Amsterdam, where he details his experiment of talking to 100 cute girls, with painful and sometimes humiliating results. He got better, but it wasn’t easy.

Niall is still an introvert. At sea he spent day after day eating alone, exercising alone, reading alone and writing alone. You get the feeling that that solitude was more energizing to him than a one-day port leave in Mexico, where he flirted in Spanish, chatted at a local cafe, made friends with eight year olds and got chased through the hills above Puerto Vallarta.

But from Niall’s introversion is born a desire to continually develop and improve himself. He not only practiced until he got better at talking to girls (a process that he admits still terrifies him), he also got himself into the conversations, friendships and relationships that have become, I suspect, the biggest treasures of his journey.

Cargo Ship hits home with me because this is something I still struggle with. About 2,000 miles into my own journey, I’d as soon shut myself in for the day writing. Most of what I love about a new city is walking its streets (alone) and taking in its sights, sounds and vibes (as an observer only). I’ve always felt a certain amount of envy for people like Niall, who seem to be able to swoop into any new scene and make a friend; the fact that he’s a wallflower like me is, I suppose, a little comforting.

Most of Niall’s book takes place in the past. He does pull us back to the life aboard the ship, making the crew memorable with nicknames like Dreamboat or volunteering to try on a starfish-like safety suit that takes (at best) two minutes to wriggle into. But the Diaries are really Niall’s reflection back on the last two and a half years of his life, a life spent traveling with only half a plan at any given moment.

Niall admits that, at times, he’s tired of his journey. When he can’t find a nonflight way out of a country, or when Pakistan tells him to go all the way back to Ireland to apply for his visa, you can picture the normally goofy look melting off his face. As a bicyclist who refuses to take vehicles to go forward: I understand. There are times you want to give up.

But completing an around-the-world journey without breaking the rules is too good of a challenge for Niall to pass up, and it’s often his little victories that make the best stories. Sometimes he needs the help of strangers to go on; sometimes he has to survive by his own ingenuity. But all the time you get a sense that Niall is exactly what one hopes for in a world nomad: thoughtful, kind, and constantly learning from bad situations. It’s not easy… and no one has to do it. That’s the best part.

Good and Bad

Is there anything I dislike about The Cargo Ship Diaries? From the beginning the tone took me by surprise, writing in such a casual voice that it sounds more like an email to a friend than a well planned travel story. Some people will find that endearing while others, like me, may have to get used to it. For a book written by a popular blogger I don’t think it’s a bad thing—he’s using the same voice he uses every week online—but it will throw some readers off.

I also wonder what women readers will think. A good chunk of Niall’s memoir consists of his exploits chasing the opposite sex, never with a long term relationship in mind. Niall is very clear that he’s not just after notches for his bedpost, and I find myself believing that he cares about the women he dates. But he’s also upfront about adopting techniques and tactics to make flirting more successful, borrowing pickup terms like “escalating” (sounds a bit less romantic than “holding her hand,” doesn’t it?).

To me it ends up feeling clean because he roots it in his own self doubt and inner struggles. But then, I’m male. How do these tales come off to women? Do they seem dirtier, too boastful? Or is it just fascinating to see how men, even tall fit men with an Irish accent, break into a sweat at the very thought of approaching a woman?

All in all, I think The Cargo Ship Diaries is an excellent 21st century travelogue, from one of the most likable and sincere journeyers on the planet. Niall doesn’t try to play up a self help angle, he doesn’t use his journey to sell anyone on a lifestyle. He just writes his tale as it happened: a journey both across 25 countries and half of the globe, and an inner journey from scared young man to scared victorious young man. When you change your surroundings, you change yourself.

You can get The Cargo Ship Diaries in ebook or audio book, both of which are available on Niall’s site. I do not receive any payment or commission when you click that link; I just think it’s a fantastic book and I hope you will too.

The Cargo Ship Diaries

L Days cover_front only_half size

My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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