Perceptive Travel Book Reviews January 2012
by William Caverlee

In this issue: a sumptuous coffee-table book from Lonely Planet, a guide to the Maya world for 2012, and the adventures of a $5-a-day traveler traversing the USA.

Great Journeys: Travel the World's Most Spectacular Routes
By Andrew Bain, Sarah Baxter, Simon Sellars, and Adam Skolnick

Lonely Planet's Great Journeys is a high-concept, 311-page, hyper-glossy coffee-table book that will easily surpass the expectations of any devotee of the coffee-table book genre. . . . Well, in truth, it's a beautiful book with a staggering compilation of over-sized, color photographs of nearly all the wonders of the world.

The seventy-five journeys described here range from the predictable (Orient Express, Great Wall of China) to the boutique (California Zephyr, Dakar Rally) to the moderately obscure (Ring of Kerry, Theroux in the Pacific). Each chapter (usually four pages) is peppered with sidebars offering practical tips, maps, book and movie suggestions for further reading and DVD-viewing. A chapter's text runs a few hundred words and is itself chopped up into segments so that modern-day book-buyers won't over-tire themselves by reading five full minutes nonstop.

Still, when the authors want to, they write solid, lucid, informative prose. Here's an example from a chapter on the Maya (which I've chosen because of the tie-in to the next review):

At its apex, Mayan civilisation extended from the southern Mexican states of Tabasco, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche and Chiapas, through Belize and Guatemala, with a pinkie in both El Salvador and Honduras. Archaeologists believe the oldest of Maya's pyramids were built in present-day Belize in 2600 BC, but the lunar calendar, for which they have received most publicity, dates back to 3114 BC. The famed stepped pyramids and larger city-states, including Palenque (Chiapas), Tikal (Guatemala) and Copán (Honduras), were built during what scholars define as the Classic period (250-900 AD).

While making my way through Great Journeys, I rapidly grew bored with the sidebars called "Essential Experiences," which have the annoying, chatty irrelevance of a Globe Trekker epilogue: Best ten things to do while in Taiwan, Best shopping malls. . . . But it's fun to examine each chapter's "Armchair," with its list of books and movies connected to the topic at hand—and see how many titles you recognize.

Moon Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras
By Joshua Berman

Compared to the sumptuous Great Journeys, this travel guide in the Moon series resembles an amateur affair—a paperback handbook about the size of Reader's Digest, with a sprinkling of small color photos in its humble, primarily black-and-white format. The year 2012, we're told, is the culmination of the Mayan "Long Count," a momentous calendrical cycle that began on August 11, 3114 B.C. It is claimed that the cycle will end on December 21, 2012—thus, an enormous tourist surge is expected for the archaeological sites of Central America. And therefore, Moon Maya 2012 has been compiled for the upcoming world invasion of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras.

Joining the influx of khaki-clad eco-tourists, legitimate scholars, and probably half the backpackers of the world should be a strong contingent of crackpots and New Agers. Author Berman notes that among the ideas circulating these days are theories that "on December 21, 2012, the sun will cause a magnetic phenomenon triggering all human pineal glands to release a hallucinogen causing a mass humanity-wide transcendent trip."

Other non-Maya-based theories predict Atlantis will rise, solar flares will explode, and extraterrestrials will return to Earth to beam away the chosen ones. (That last one is supposed to happen in the village of Bugarach, France. Seriously.)

Actually, these tabloid bits are tacked on at the very end of Moon Maya 2012. Overall, the book is a straightforward travel guide—utilitarian, informative, filled with lists, dates, and maps. For armchair travelers, there is a wealth of reading pleasure here, packed in a slender volume: Mexico, it turns out, has the largest historical presence among the Maya countries—29,000 registered sites. The ruins of Tikal in Guatemala were the region's first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Belize is an English-speaking country with a long eastern coast on the Caribbean. Copán in Honduras was the center of Mayan culture for four hundred years.

In 2006, Mayan studies received a jolt of world attention via Mel Gibson's gory film, Apocalypto, which Berman, surprisingly, does not wholly condemn. (So far, I've managed to avoid a viewing.) I mention this to illustrate the author's admirable catholicity of interests and the range of topics he addresses. Moon Maya 2012 includes a Mayan glossary, even a pronunciation guide. Also: metric conversion tables, an index, vaccination recommendations, info on tour packages, and dozens of maps.

Amazing Adventures of a Nobody
By Leon Logothetis

Once again, the simple act of reading a travelogue evolves into an exercise in private detection, because no one—neither author nor publisher—will reveal the dates covered by the journey in question. Leon Logothetis made a picaresque road trip across the United States sometime after 2004—but when, exactly, I have no idea. Do publishers believe that readers will refuse to buy a travel book if the journey didn't take place in the previous six months? So much for The Odyssey and The Canterbury Tales. . . . I came up with the date 2004 because that's when the film, The Motorcycle Diaries, was released—and Logothetis offers the Che Guevera biopic as one of the inspirations for his trip.

In Amazing Adventures of a Nobody, Englishman Logothetis traveled from New York to Los Angeles on $5 a day. He depended on the generosity of ordinary Americans to cover his expenses: his bus and train tickets, meals, lodging, everything. Nor would he accept cash—only food, motel rooms, and transport. As a safety net, he had a film crew discreetly recording the whole expedition; the resulting documentary would later air on the National Geographic Channel.

With so many artificial ground rules and with that so-called disinterested movie crew hovering nearby, Amazing Adventures of a Nobody would seem to be doomed from the outset, yet Logothetis has written a jaunty, funny, touching, street-level snapshot of America. Along the way, he's befriended by a pimp and his prostitute, a wrestling priest, madcap frat boys at the University of Virginia, a Civil War re-enactor, a religious believer, a gay classic-car restorer. . . In Santa Fe, invited by strangers to a boozy, late-night party, he finds himself looking for a means to escape—until he spies:

A girl, sitting calmly. Calmly! Dressed in jeans and a jacket, she seemed unaware of all the commotion. It was as though she had been placed there just for me, a kindred soul among the throbbing masses. She did not belong. Then again neither did I. Perfect.

I tentatively approached and asked how she was. She completely ignored me. I tried again. Still nothing. Then I noticed the earphones. She was listening to her iPod. I motioned with my hands to let her know that I was there and she took off her earphones.

"What are you listening to?"

"Mozart," she said with a small smile.

The girl's name is Katherine and Logothetis spends the rest of the party with her; then spends the next day with her as well, traveling to a balloon show in Albuquerque. There's an awkward parting scene, as the author explains his (self-made) rules of the trip—but not without a rueful moment: "Looking at Katherine's bright eyes and serene face, I wished I could put her in my pocket and take her with me for the rest of the trip." Still, our hero departs alone, riding west into the sunset. My marginal note at the end of the chapter reads: Dumbass!!

Logothetis ultimately makes it to Los Angeles without being assaulted, murdered, or arrested along the way, although he has several dicey moments. The text throughout is woven with the author's philosophical ruminations and personal backstory, most of which I could have done without. Logothetis is best when shuffling up to a truck stop on some anonymous interstate, then working up his courage to solicit a ride to the next town. And, finally, on the second to last page, he tells us that, yes, he has managed to see Katherine again. Smart move, Leon.

William Caverlee is a contributing writer to The Oxford American Magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, His articles have appeared in numerous magazines, and in the anthology, The Writer's Presence (Bedford/St. Martins). A recent short story appears in The Saint Ann's Review 10th Anniversary Issue.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Great Journeys

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

Moon Maya 2012

Buy Moon Maya 2012 in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

international travel

Amazing Adventures of a Nobody

Buy Amazing Adventures of a Nobody in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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