Perceptive Travel Book Reviews March 2014
by William Caverlee



In this issue: A 90th birthday version of what may be the most revered guidebook still standing, another glossy global coffee table book from Lonely Planet, and the unpleasantness of West Africa taken head-on.



South American Handbook 2014
Edited by Ben Box

The mother of all travel guides logs in at over 1,600 pages on its 90th anniversary. This is the famed South American Handbook, first published in 1921 as the Anglo-South American Handbook, adopting its current name in 1924. This year's edition includes a twenty-two-page color atlas, dozens of city maps, even a blurb from Graham Greene.

Armchair travelers have been known to choose the SAH for their desert-island book. Still, it's not a mere cult item; it's an indispensable, work-a-day guide with thousands of recommendations, pointers, tips, and directions. There are even a few dozen advertisements sprinkled throughout—Galapagos Classic Cruises, Bogotá Bike Tours—which remind you of those old 1970s world photography annuals with their ads in back for Contax cameras and Kodak Ektachrome film.

A book should be written on the "making" of the SAH. Doubtless, these days, the editors employ e-mail, GPS, social media, and the rest of the ever-accelerating arms race of techno-communications. Yet I like to imagine a set of fusty offices on Lower Bristol Road in Bath, UK, where rows of editors at wooden desks read letters from field agents and update long trays of 3 X 5 index cards: Abancay, Abra Pampa, Acandi. . . . .

The route across the Andes via the Cristo Redentor tunnel is one of the major crossings to Argentina. Before traveling check on weather and road conditions beyond Los Andes. See international buses, page 640. Some 77 km north of Santiago is the farming town of Los Andes. There is a monument to the Clark brothers, who built the Transandine Railway to Mendoza (now disused). The town has several hotels. The road to Argentina follows the Aconcagua valley for 34 km until it reaches the village of Rio Blanco (1370 m). East of Rio Blanco the road climbs until Juncal where it zig-zags steeply through a series of 29 hairpin bends at the top of which is Portillo (see above).

I swear to you that I picked this gem by random, opening the book and reading the first thing I saw. It's from page 643 in the Chile chapter, subheaded "Santiago and Around," sub-subheaded, "Around Santiago." The brief paragraph is packed with wonderful items: the sober reminder to always consult weather reports; the mysterious Clark brothers (British? Swiss? Chilean?) and their tragically defunct railroad; the dangerous road from Juncal to Portillo with its 29 hairpin turns, surely counted by someone, swerve by swerve, in a cold sweat, wishing he'd read this paragraph before attempting the drive.






Great Escapes: Enjoy the World at Your Leisure
Edited by Elizabeth Jones, Ali Lemer, and Gabrielle Stefanos

The travel industry has grown enormously since the innocent 1970s, when a generation of youthful American backpackers flew low-cost Icelandic Airlines (as it was then known) from New York to Luxembourg, there to spread outward upon the continent like a wine stain on a map.

Today, powers and principalities like Rough Guides, Rick Steves, and Lonely Planet don't want you to leave home without researching and Google-Earthing your trip to death. Accordingly, they release hundreds of new travel books—a dozen every week, it seems. Lonely Planet's latest offering, Great Escapes, is a high-gloss coffee-table book. I have nothing against coffee-table books, especially when they contain beautiful photography (like the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian in full regalia on page 283 or the coast of O'ahu on page 196). If I came upon Great Escapes in the waiting room at the dentist, I'd eagerly browse its pages. In fact, I sometimes imagine the ideal reader of Great Escapes to be a husband-and-wife orthodontics team with a practice in Chicago, say, who are looking for an envy-inspiring destination to take the kids next summer.

Great Escapes offers our dental family 75 travel ideas over its 320 pages, from chapter one, "Check Out Chicago's Architecture" (they'll probably skip that one) to chapter 75, "One Night in Tokyo." Between these two, one visits well-trodden spots in Normandy, Dublin, and Barcelona, along with woolier outposts like Rajasthan, Bhutan, and Kenya.

Other somewhat rarified destinations that caught my eye include Tasmania, Penang, Tikehau, Ljubljana, Byron Bay, and the San Juan Islands. Don't turn to Great Escapes for its prose style, which is tediously upbeat—little more than ad-speak. Choose it for its photography, which is excellent. And for armchair travel. For useful travel tips. And for reminiscence, once you're back home.






Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves: West Africa and the End of Days
By Tom Coote

When we last saw Tom Coote, he was wrapping up a grueling nine-week tour of Asia—China to Istanbul—described in his travelogue, Tearing Up the Silk Road, reviewed here last year. Coote prefers to travel in steerage, hopping trains, buses and taxis, more or less barging straight ahead, not worrying about hotels and border crossings until he gets there. His ports of call in Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan—included scenes of such unprecedented foulness that you feared for his life.

Apparently, Coote can't get enough of risk-taking, for in his latest foray he travels to West Africa, by anyone's standards, the poorest, most unstable, most violent corner of the globe—a preview of the Apocalypse. (Author Mark Weston visited the same region in The Ringtone and the Drum, reviewed here.

As a writer, Coote doesn't measure up to old Africa hands like Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin. His casual, blog-like, prose is often content to describe the day's events: woke up, looked for something to eat. He has a habit of overusing certain words and expressions ("Having filled in yet another stack of pointless forms," "Having traipsed up a muddy, tangled path," "Having wandered around the tatty town for a while").

Still, I stand in awe of Coote for venturing into some of the scariest territories on earth, putting his freedom, health, sanity, and life on the line, to give us first-hand reports from the front. Coote's tour of West Africa takes him to Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Mali. He has read deeply in the scholarly literature of the region and deftly weaves the sad history of West Africa into his personal narrative.

The culture of slavery is still heavily ingrained throughout Africa and many of the powers that be are still reluctant to abandon the use of free labour. Although slavery is now officially illegal everywhere, Mauritania didn't abolish it until 1981 and although Niger officially abolished slavery in 1960, it wasn't actually made illegal until 2003. It is estimated that there are 27 million slaves alive today—more than were taken from Africa during the entire history of the transatlantic slave trade.

Scan the book's index, and you can easily pick out enough entries to compose your own litany of horrors. Here's one: AIDS, Al-Qaeda, blood diamonds, child slavery, cholera, civil war, cocaine, DeBeers, Gaddafi, genital mutilation, heroin, leprosy, malaria, murder, organised crime, sex tourism, terrorism, voodoo, witchcraft, yellow fever.




William Caverlee is an American freelancer who has written for numerous journals, such as The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Flight Journal, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of a collection of essays, Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays. One of his articles, on Flannery O'Connor, was reprinted in The Writer's Presence, 7th Edition.



See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee





Also in this Issue





South American Handbook 2014

Buy South American Handbook 2014 in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)







Great Escapes

Buy Great Escapes in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)





















Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves

Buy Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)