In this issue: Marco Polo, Bad Karma, The Geography of Bliss, and Viva List Latin America.
Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu
By Laurence Bergreen
Many explorers have contributed to our collective understanding of strange new worlds over the centuries. There's a reason the name Marco Polo is still so well-known over 750 years after his explorations, however. He traveled vast distances at a time when doing so was extremely difficult and dangerous, plus he was accepted into the court of the most powerful ruler on the planet at the time—the Mongol king Kublai Khan. His name has always come with lots of baggage though, since it was hard to separate fact from fiction, or what Marco actually said and what his biographer Rustichello added later to juice up the story.
Respected biographer Bergreen approaches the whole mix with a keen eye and a pragmatic sense of what most likely happened each step of the way. The undisputed parts of the story are amazing enough: a merchant from Venice becoming a part of the inner circle all the way across the globe in what is now Bejing and traveling throughout China and Southeast Asia as a tax assessor. It's the strange details that keep the story moving though, such as Marco's amazed retelling of unique sexual practices in different provinces or his descriptions of innovations that were at that time unknown in Europe, such as paper money, catapults, tattoos, and coal. There are also plenty of interesting revelations along the way. When Marco and his father were delayed for a year in Afghanistan, it was likely due to kicking an opium habit. Exotic-sounding Xanadu just means "upper capital." The largest city in the world in the mid-1200s was Quinsai, now Hangzhou. And here's a fun fact for your next cocktail party: one out of every 12 Asian men carries a Y chromosome that can be traced directly to Mongolia during the rule of Genghis Khan.
Containing pages of interesting images and historical anecdotes put into the proper context, this definitive guide brings the great explorer to life in a way that has never been done before.
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World
By Eric Weiner
Subtitled "One grump's search for the happiest places in the world," an NPR correspondent with a last name that reads like "whiner" goes searching for the meaning of happiness. He starts off in the Netherlands, visiting a Professor of Happiness Studies in Rotterdam, the man who runs the World Database of Happiness. After finding out what research tells us (people in very poor countries are not happy, neither are those in most of the previous Soviet republics), he moves across the globe to happy places, semi-happy ones, and miserable ones. Bhutan and Iceland rank highly in the first category, while the Moldova chapter's subtitle is, "Happiness is somewhere else."
How happiness is defined varies greatly from culture to culture, which is what makes the search so difficult. In Switzerland he finds a content and efficient kind of happiness, where nobody gets angry but loud laughter is seldom heard. In Bhutan, the important government official behind the Gross National Happiness push says, "I have achieved happiness because I don't have unreasonable expectations." The nouveau riche nation of Qatar credits its happiness not to its vast natural gas wealth, but to its strong religious foundation. But how then, the author wonders, do you explain the high happiness ratings of mostly unreligious Denmark, Iceland, and the Netherlands? Perhaps, Weiner ponders, it's belief in something. For those happy athiests, it's the belief in "six weeks of vacation, in human rights, in democracy, in lazy afternoons spent sitting in cafés..."
His last stop is home, the big paradox known as the USA. The richest country overall, with citizens that are three times wealthier than they were in the 1950s, but no happier. Not miserable by any means, and possibly the most optimistic populace on Earth, but definitely not gold medalists in the happiness rankings like those Scandinavians or Bhutanese. So what's the secret to happiness? This book never really answers it definitively, which in the end doesn't really matter. It's an entertaining read and great philosophical stimulation, from a talented and witty journalist.
Bad Karma: Confessions of a Reckless Traveller in Southeast Asia
By Tamara Sheward
While both Marco Polo and Eric Weiner have both been described as curious travelers and keen observers, the author of Bad Karma joyfully revels in her ignorance, while ironically shunning the "clueless backpackers" she is constantly imitating. Sheward and her companion Elissa say they want to get away from backpackers, so they decide to head to...Southeast Asia! Never mind that it's the prime destination for anyone planning to travel months or more on the cheap. Then when they get there, they go on a fast-paced whirl through standard stops on the Farang Trail, hitting the tried and true of Khoa San Road, Vientienne, Luang Phrabang, Hue, and Mama Hahn's boat trip in Na Trang, Vietnam. The only time they strike out into areas not covered by their Let's Go guide is when they hitchhike and get lost.
The "reckless traveller" part of the title instead seems to refer to all the smoking, drinking, cultural insensitivity, and willful cluelessness about their surroundings. That unfortunately describes a sizable portion of 20-something backpackers out there, of course, so the only thing really making these tales stand apart is Sheward's well-honed wit. She has a gift for self-effacing humor and obviously put a lot of time into editing and rewrites to turn mundane stories into ones with flair. Containing 302 pages of non-stop humor though, the book eventually starts to feel like a TV sitcom marathon, with conveniently snappy dialog on every page to match. ("What Laotian worth his pyjamas would eat fried chook when they can have its innards raw?") It attempts to follow the Larry David interweaving plot lines device to tie the tales together, down to the contrived ending in Cambodia where everything improbably comes together just like it would in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
There's my USA-inspired cultural reference, but it's no match for the dozens of Australian ones in this book that will fly over many readers' heads. In most of the English-speaking world "retch" means "to vomit," but with Sheward's characters retching in people's faces every chapter or two, it apparently means something else down under. Since many tales in this book come off like stand-up comedy routines aimed at an audience that gets the slang, the buyers of this U.S. release may be left wondering what they missed.
For those picking up a book in Bangkok for the next long bus ride, this would serve as an entertaining, easy-to-plow-through diversion. If you're looking for something that will give you real insight into a region, however, Bad Karma is all Vegemite, no toast.
The Viva List Latin America: 333 Places and Experiences People Love
By Various Authors
Over the past few years we've seen "user generated content" come to the fore for many websites. The economics for the website owner are great (volunteers don't need to get paid) and sites like TripAdvisor, VirtualTourist, and BootsnAll provide a kind of "wisdom of crowds" overview that you can't get from an individual guidebook writer. Can that translate to the written page though? Will hundreds of amateur travel stories collected in one place make a book worth buying?
The Viva List Latin America is a worthy experiment, presenting the best of the stories that have run on the VivaTravelGuides.com site. There's no real organization to the book, with a few pages of color photos leading to black and white text, photos, and author headshots arranged by country. As such, this works best as a generator of ideas while planning where to go rather than any kind of guide you would use to look up information. Few of the features are groundbreaking or filled with impressive prose, plus the worn travel clichés pile up like llama dung. Still, it's rare to find so many stories about interesting and off-the-beaten-path destinations sharing equal space with ones about Cancun and Cusco. As much time as I've spent traveling in and researching stories about Latin America, there were still dozens of places in this book that I had never heard about before.
The Viva List is not completely a collection of narratives. There are bits and pieces of advice scattered throughout, plus quick tutorials on the likes of Cuban cigars and Quinoa. Shaded boxes in series run down all the "Latin American Revolutionaries" and "Unsolved Latin American Mysteries."
Be advised though that this thing is one huge book. It weighs several pounds and has the dimensions of a pack of copy machine paper. Pick it up several months before your trip to Latin America and spend some time on weight training at the gym before you decide to read this while lying in bed!
Tim Leffel is editor of Perceptive Travel and author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World's Cheapest Destinations. His newest book, co-written with Rob Sangster, is Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America (Late Feb. '08).