Perceptive Travel Book Reviews March/April 2006
by Tim Leffel

In this issue: The Devil's Picnic, Best American Travel Writing 2006, and Lonely Planet's Blue List

The Devil's Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit
By Taras Grescoe

As I made my way through this book, I started to see patterns of its premise in the news. A Brigham Young study finds that Mormons are nearly five percent more overweight than non-Mormons: they make up for the rules against alcohol, mind-altering substances, and caffeine by eating more. The government in Singapore is trying initiatives to make its citizens more amorous. The population is declining because their repressed citizens are having less sex than those in neighboring countries. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal--hardly a beacon for liberal pot smokers--points out that the $50 billion "war on drugs" was, is, and always will be a pre-ordained failure. It defies the laws of economics.

The Devil's Picnic ties all this and more together in a fascinating, engaging collection of stories about what we put into our body and why governments try to stop us. It is a joy of a romp, one man's tireless pursuit of the history of prohibitions and their failure around the world. The author looks at the big question of why we must be protected from ourselves, while showing how individual prohibitions reflect the history or society where they are in force--and who can make a buck by keeping something off the shelves. To his credit, he only touches on the easy arguments though. Only a few pages go into the absurdity of criminalizing ganja, the widespread abuse of legal pharmaceutical products, and the overall lack of harm from the ecstasy craze.

For the U.S., he looks at why stinky raw-milk cheese can't be imported and why smoking in bars has become a clandestine activity in many states--the "smokeasy" of the 2000s replacing the "speakeasy" of the 1920s. For Europe we start out with the super-regulated alcohol policies of Norway, then move on to the moldy ham and bull testicles of Spain, finishing up with the elusive authentic absinthe and the final solution of pentobarbital sodium.

We visit the nanny state of Singapore, where Grescoe intentionally shows off his imported chewing gum and poppy seed crackers--both illegal--but can't manage to get arrested. We head with him to Bolivia, where he contrasts the demonized image of the coca plant held by DEA agents with the benign, traditional image it represents for the people of the Andes.

It's a lively and fun adventure, with more questions than answers in the end. There's the philosophical dilemma of how a banned substance becomes more desirable, except when maybe when you're talking about cigarettes or something else that will obviously kill you. There's the question of why countries like Norway would rather have distillers making their own booze for home use than make it easier to purchase the legal stuff at a reasonable price.

Grescoe's home country of Canada escapes without one negative mention, so at times his joining in the international sport of America-bashing gets a little old. Regardless, this is an incredibly well-researched book, but one that never puts facts ahead of the power of a good narrative. The extensive pure research is presented in a compelling way, but is enlivened by an impressive number of interviews with key players in a variety of countries, from important government figures to people on the street. A strong dose of self-effacement helps also, as the author gamely drinks Norwegian moonshine, gets tanked on absinthe, and starts chain-smoking again to see life from the perspective of a smoker in the city. He ingests plates of offal that would make even the most hungry carnivores retch: "No matter how you dressed it up, it was still tongues swallowing tongues, innards digesting innards, intestines slipping through intestines."

Along the way he touches on nearly every prohibition and its consequences throughout the ages, from the Opium Wars to the banning of absinthe to the current debate over assisted suicide. The issues are always a bit gray of course. "As a species, Homo sapiens has always been in need of some restraint," he notes and in modern-day New York City, "maintaining a pack-a-day habit would cost a New Yorker the same as a round-the-world plane ticket." But then again, "What a society ends up stigmatizing is often more revealing of its own phobias and prejudices than the inherent nefariousness of the substance in question." In other words, we ban what we're afraid of--and often we're just afraid of each other.

Lonely Planet Bluelist: 618 Things to Do & Places to Go. '06-'07
By a cast of hundreds

Finally a travel book for those who think magazines like In Touch, Maxim, and Lucky would be better if they didn't take so long to read. Where else can you get descriptions of a whole country boiled down to only three words!

A more accurate subtitle for this would have been 618 Places to Check Out Before You Have to, Like, Get a Job or Something Lame Like That. If you like your travel info in bite-sized snippets and lists, here is everything you need in one book. You get complicated issues boiled down to easy-to-digest ditties like this one, in the Botswana section:

What's Hot...
Serious bling - diamonds are some girls', most rappers and the Botswana economy's best friend.

What's Not...
The HIV epidemic - 40% of the population is presently afflicted by the virus.

(I am like soooo bummed that HIV is not hot anymore!)

Each country also gets a "Recent Fad!" section. (Yes, complete with exclamation point--there are thousands of those in this book.)

Here's Korea's entry. "Got a personal mini home-page? Nearly every techno-literate South Korean has one. A 'mini-hompy' so 'right now.'" The Recent Fad! in Egypt is "Internet chat, text messaging, satellite TV..."

Inane entries like this are the norm rather than the exception, including categories telling you what to mention and what not when in a country. For Tibet, you should mention "The beauty of Tibet and the fortitude of its people." Don't mention: "Politics." Gee, thanks for the insight.

These are the country sections though, which at least give you a quick flavor and overview of a place.  The front half takes a page from just-folded Travel Savvy magazine, however: a bunch of arbitrary lists that will leave most experienced travelers scratching their heads. "Best Foodie Destinations" includes strange entries such as Indonesia and Greece (but not Vietnam or Turkey). "Best Value Destinations" has New Zealand at #2 (huh?!) then lists Mexico but not any of the cheaper places in the Americas except Argentina. On the "Best Kid-Friendly Destinations" list, India--I kid you not, India--is listed as one of the top three! (Honey, just ignore that amputated stump the nice  beggar is sticking in your face. And no you cannot take your shoes off here—ever!)

Other lists include "Most Awesome Treks," and "The World's Best Booze and Where to Drink It." For the latter, I live in Tennessee, but no amount of state pride will make me think George Dickel belongs anywhere close to this list. It's fine bourbon's poor ugly cousin. And absinthe not from Switzerland or France, but the Czech Republic--whose fine pilsner doesn't even get a mention? Who picked these--someone below the legal drinking age?

At 328 pages and a list price of 20 dollars/15 pounds, this brick of a book's main appeal is the quality of the photos, the best of the LP vault. Perhaps that's the point: a picture book for adults, with some text thrown in as an afterthought. I suppose it'll turn a profit pretty easily. Just recycle existing material, dumb it down for the kids, and voila! You've got a book that "captures the world's hottest trends, destinations and experiences and sets the travel agenda for the year ahead". It's Lonely Planet stooping down to get eye-to-eye with the MySpace crowd: travel packaged like the latest boy band, with the kind of gushing pop culture writing you see in celebrity magazines. Call me a grumpy old codger, but this book makes the Let's Go guides seem downright erudite. If you've got a high school graduate on your gift list who thinks a trip to Amsterdam or Cancun would just be so bitchin', this will make a fabulous gift. It might open up the horizons a tad at least.

The Best American Travel Writing 2005
Edited by Jamaica Kincaid

If Bluelist is for your half-literate nephew, this one is for your bookish grandmother. In past years this series has been edited by the likes of Bill Bryson and Pico Iyer and its pages have consistently been filled with some of the most entertaining and memorable travel stories of the year.  I looked forward to lazing around in a hammock on my vacation, reading tales of wonder, adventure, and misadventure. Alas, despite the perfect environment and plenty of time on my hands, slogging through this collection was too often about as much fun as taking a Friday night seminar class at the university.

The unfortunate truth is that "best" is always in the eye of the beholder, but this time more than others. Editor Jamaica Kincaid says of the stories featured, "...they were chosen because I simply liked them." In the same paragraph she goes on to say, "...they all hold an idea that is so central to my own understanding of the world I have inherited. These essays stimulate my curiosity; they underline my sense of displacement."

In my case, the essays often stimulated a good nap. Many entries are long and dense narratives that are worthy of a textbook. It's not that the writing is bad: the collection, after all, features well-known authors Simon Winchester, Thomas Keneally, Tom Bissell, and Robert Young Pelton, as well as plenty of writers with prestigious awards hanging on their study wall. But the publications these were pulled from hint at the overall tone: magazines such as Harpers, The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, and The American Scholar.

If you're the type that enjoys this type of pedantic reading regularly, you'll like this collection. You'll get a 24-page rundown on the bloody history of Haiti, a 28-page explanation of how a barge gets down the Mississippi River, and a 29-page search for some abandoned underground tunnels in a Mexican border town. You'll learn more than you ever wanted to know about the jungle reserve between Panama and Columbia, or the status of fishing rights off the coast of Gabon.

What's mostly missing is any sense of the joy of travel—Simon Winchester's "Welcome to Nowhere" at the very end aside. I realized I hadn't smiled until page 52, as I read William E. Blundell's very funny "My Florida," a depiction of senior citizens wiling away their last years in God's waiting room of Florida. The most notable other relief from all the seriousness comes from "Trying Really Hard to Like India," a laugh-out-load piece from Seth Stephenson that originally appeared in Slate. Bucky McMahon's "Adrift," which originally appeared in Esquire, is a dreamy, disconcerted riff about being carried along on an inflatable boat in the Gulf Steam of the Atlantic. It could be titled, "How to have fun with sentence fragments," but man does it move.

One of the most interesting stories is Murad Kalam's "If It Doesn't Kill You First," an attendee's account of the Haj pilgrimage in Mecca. Ironically, this story also appears in another best of 2005 collection, the one published by Travelers' Tales. Get that one if you want to read stories that are fun, intriguing, and exuberant. Get this one if your tastes run more to treatises that are scholarly, cerebral, and intellectual.

Tim Leffel is a veteran travel writer whose work has appeared in dozens of publications over a 15-year period. He is the co-author of Hip-Hop, Inc., author of The World's Cheapest Destinations and author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune

Also in this issue:

Buy The Devil's Picnic in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Buy Bluelist in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK