July 28, 2010

On the Shelf - (How-Not-To) Travel Guides

I have - through good fortune, dumb luck, and taxpayer generosity - been afforded the luxury of traveling to some pretty interesting spots around the globe. Losing one's way in a foreign place is one of my favorite things; after all, if you've never hopped the metro in the wrong direction then you're really just not trying. It's all part of the experience. On the other hand, there's very little upside to, say, consuming undercooked Moroccan sausage ten hours before taking a four-hour train ride from Marrakech to Casablanca in a car w/ no air conditioning and inoperable toilets in the middle of June and then hopping a flight to Madrid. I guess that was the upside... Madrid. And the ubiquitous European bidet. My point is this: oftentimes the worst situations make for the best stories. 

So with that in mind, humor me some notes on two books that recently crossed my desk that piqued my curiosity as kind-of anti-travel guides:
Top of the list (which is to say I've actually read this one) is The Lunatic Express (by Carl Hoffman who, incidentally, lives in my old neighborhood Adam's Morgan), chronicling the author's travels as he circumnavigates the globe via its most dangerous modes of transport. That is, going from Point A (here) to Point B (there) on the plane, train, auto, or boat that has, on average, killed more people than any other way of getting from 'here' to 'there.' And don't think Palm Beach to Key West via catamaran; think Mali to Senegal on a train with no windows or bathrooms.

The first leg moves a bit too quickly as he goes from Canada to Cuba and throughout South America, as if the whole point is to just keep moving. But once he crosses into Africa the book slows down a bit and a narrative takes hold. It explores some of the inner-workings of the author's wanderlust... his detachment from society, from his family, blah blah blah. But also about the people he encounters, the lives they lead, and their paradoxical connectedness to family and place yet total isolation from the broader world. This is the real meat of the book. 

Second: 101 Places Not to See Before You Die (Catherine Price), which I have not yet read but certainly plan to. For two reasons: i) the contrarian title and a table of contents that tilts towards masochism; and ii) The Economist told me to. And since I follow its advice like a suicidal lemming, that endorsement alone is enough for me. Seriously, any book with a chapter called "An Overnight Train in China on the First Day of Your First Period" has me intrigued. It sounds like something David Sedaris would write if, you know, he had periods.
Her premise is that it's the misadventures that we relive w/ friends, not the bullet-pointed to-do lists.
At capacity: Golden Gai, Tokyo - two Americans, and Irishman, and no bartender.

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