Perceptive Travel Book Reviews March 2012
by William Caverlee



In this issue: Ugly war stories told through food, another 1,000 places you can't possibly get to before you die, and 150 places the New York Times thinks you should spend a long weekend.



Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of food during wartime by the world's leading correspondents
Edited by Matt McAllester

We read their dispatches in the New Yorker, the Guardian, and the New York Times; and we watch their two-minute spots on television—war correspondents in helmet and flak jacket, hunched behind a wall. Usually, gunfire is heard nearby, the hero hunches even lower, and an off-camera voice (producer or cameraman) yells, "Those are getting close! Let's get out of here!" As for the rest of their lives—air travel, lodgings, romance, meals—well, we really have little idea. I doubt that Oliver Stone's film, Salvador, should be relied upon for accuracy.

Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar is a behind-the-scenes tour of the war correspondent's life. Matt McAllester ingeniously employs a food theme to edit this fine anthology of memoirs. The settings for these years of living dangerously range from Afghanistan to Israel; Iraq to Haiti. Food, hunger, and the voluptuousness of eating play parts in each of the essays, although there are enough firefights, mangled bodies, blood, horror, and sheer panic to take away the appetites of most readers. War reporters have to maintain a lively sense of black humor to dine with the devil, season after season:

Barbara Demick recounts the culinary tastes of North Korea's five-feet-two-inch Kim Jong Il, who gorged on French cheese, French wine, shark's fin, lobster, and other delicacies shipped in from all over the world, while his subjects starved. In Pakistan, Jason Burke interviewed Benazir Bhutto while she munched on cubes of burfi, a popular sweet in South Asia, "made from condensed milk cooked with sugar until it forms a solid cube of flaky paste." Burke took a ride with Bhutto on an electioneering tour in her armored four-wheel drive, ten days before she was assassinated. In Bosnia in 1992, Janine de Giovanni froze in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, ate bread "made from sawdust and water," dodged sniper fire, and hoped against hope that the next shell wouldn't drop through her window. In 2003 in Teheran, Farnaz Fassihi is thinking about lunch when three students are kidnapped by Basij paramilitary thugs a few feet from where she is standing. She lets out a scream and has a gun pointed at her as well. In Haiti, where "people are often on the brink of starvation," Amy Wilentz learns how to eat sugarcane. "The thing explodes in your mouth, boom, and you rip the wood away from the stalk with your teeth and chew." From other chapters:

I had become used to drinking tea that smelled of dead bodies.

"Hey, let's kill a fucking cow!"

"I used to have problems with Kenny," he said, "because he just never saw the need for our security service. Then he got firebombed a couple of times. Now he loves to see me come around."

The speakers here are (1) reporter Sam Kiley in Rwanda; (2) an American soldier sick of eating pre-packaged rations in Afghanistan, overheard by the late Tim Hetherington; and (3) an IRA bagman in Belfast that writer Scott Anderson drank beer with. Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar has a jaunty title, and a reader might pick it up looking for an afternoon of mild diversion. In truth, it comprises some of the most harrowing war descriptions I've ever read.






1000 Ultimate Sights
Edited by Carolyn Bain, Paul Harding, Kate James, Helen Koehne, Simon Sellars, Jeanette Wall, Kate Whitfield

Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Sights is a whirlwind of wonders—brimming with glossy color photos—a life list for millionaires. It measures 6½ X 8¼ inches, the exact size of LP's Traveller's Guide to Planet Earth, which I reviewed here last year.

Among the recommended sights are places both well-known and obscure: Tiger Leaping Gorge in China (No. 248); Mammoth Cave in Kentucky (580); and the Forum in Rome (038)—the editors helpfully add "Italy" to this last item. Destinations like these have a "spin the globe" fortuity to them. What's better than opening a travel omnibus at random to see what comes up next?

But a thousand sights? Let's say you win the lottery and decide to visit the Geech Abyss in Ethiopia (241); the Valley of Geysers in Russia (406); the Sultan Mosque in Singapore (859), et cetera. Your goal is to visit all 1000 sights, one by one. Furthermore, let's allow a week per destination—in order to deal with air travel; customs; a medley of rail, bus, and auto transport; a day or two of trekking; finally arriving at the Pororoca Tidal Bore on the Amazon (209) or the Ugab River Gate in Namibia (922). You spend ten minutes snapping photos on your iPhone to prove you've actually accomplished the feat; then there's the reverse voyage home—trek, train, Trans Maldivian Airways—back to the flat in time for pizza and a DVD and a load of laundry, before embarking again the next day. That's fifty-two sights per year. Twenty years of nonstop traveling to finish the list. . . . Bon voyage!

1000 Ultimate Sights is arranged by itineraries, a farrago of improbable titles like "Most notorious prisons and dungeons," "Weirdest plants," "Most fascinating corpses," "Most vertigo inducing cliffs," and "Most risqué sites." This last is accompanied by a couple of disappointingly G-rated photos, although a pilgrimage to Bhutan's Chimi Lhakhang monastery (982) would seem to be in order:

Lama Drukpa Kunley—the Divine Madman—wasn't your conventional saint. He peed on religious pictures, drank, womanised and generally acted scandalously until his death in 1529. But there was method behind this Madman—he used outrageousness to better teach Buddhism to the people. His subduing of the Dochu La demoness by use of his "magic thunderbolt" has particularly captivated the Bhutanese imagination . . .

While exploring 1000 Ultimate Sights, I kept trying to image the Lonely Planet's editorial meetings where the book's oddball chapter titles were batted around. Suggestion: decaf only, guys, next time. . . . Because—what if Lama Drukpa Kunley had been mis-filed and landed in "Most marvelous monasteries & convents" amid the dolorous "upper-class nuns" of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru (341)? The lama's magic thunderbolt indeed! . . . . moving in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.






36 Hours: 150 Weekends in the USA & Canada
Edited by Barbara Ireland

This mega-guidebook is a handsomely designed, 744-page collaboration between the New York Times and Germany's inimitable TASCHEN publishing house. It's about the size and heft of a college-edition dictionary, and its intended audience—the literate, haute bourgeoisie who read the Times travel section—will find it as handy as a dictionary. According to the book's foreword, the Times inaugurated its "36 Hours" column in 2002:

Created as a guide to that staple of crammed 21st-century schedules, the weekend getaway, it takes readers each week on a carefully researched, uniquely designed two-night excursion to an embraceable place. With a well-plotted itinerary, it offers up an experience that both identifies the high points of the destination and teases out its particular character.

A passage of such tiresome boilerplate would normally make readers want to lob stink bombs in every bed-and-breakfast in America, yet I found myself surprisingly taken with 36 Hours, especially its design. The pale blue cover has a kind of denim pliability like that of a cookbook. Inside, the pages are lightly textured. Art, graphics, and photos are likewise muted—a welcome change from the hyper-shiny, semi-metallic photography found in many high-concept travel books. The agile designers at TASCHEN have even included indented thumb-tabs to mark section divisions—again like a dictionary. Also built-in bookmarks—five pastel ribbons—like those in a Bible.

36 Hours

Of the 150 destinations in 36 Hours (ranging from New York City to Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angeles all the way to Kauai), eighteen are located in Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii. The remaining 132 occur in the Lower Forty-eight, with California taking the overall prize with twenty-three winners. For a New York Times publication to give California the gold medal seems generous and democratic—although New York State takes the silver with ten sites.

As an armchair browser, I decide to head straight to Alaska. Here is Juneau, which cannot be reached by car, only by air or sea. My first day in town, Friday (each chapter is arranged like a traditional weekend), I'm ordered to purchase "a pair of brown rubber, calf-high Xtra Tuf Boots, a must-have item in any Alaskan's wardrobe." Okeydoke. Saturday, I'm to spend in Berners Bay, craning my neck for sea lions, harbor seals, hawks, geese, maybe an eagle or two. Sunday, I'm sent to the Mendenhall Glacier. "Dress warmly," my guidebook instructs me unnecessarily, who will not have left home without packing the equivalent of an Everest climber's gear.

36 Hours cheerfully and bossily sends us out on our little tours each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, hour by hour, on each of the 150 weekend destinations. Is there a living traveler on earth who would actually do that? Consult a textbook, morning, noon, and night? Still, 36 Hours contains an enormity of tips and addresses, most of which, I assume, are true. Although—I found this glaring solecism in the Las Vegas chapter, where someone wrote never when they clearly meant to say always: "Regardless of economic cycles, Las Vegas is never boring."




William Caverlee is a newspaper feature writer, a contributing writer for the Oxford American magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, www.ulpress.org. His articles have appeared in numerous magazines, and in the anthology, The Writer's Presence (Bedford/St. Martins). See his last round of book reviews here.





Also in this Issue







Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar

Buy Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

















1000 Ultimate Sights

Buy 1000 Ultimate Sights in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)












international travel












36 Hours: 150 Weekends in the USA & Canada

Buy 36 Hours: 150 Weekends in the USA & Canada in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)