Perceptive Travel Book Reviews April 2015
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Books by two completely different explorers: one who sets off to walk the entire 4,250-mile length of the River Nile through six countries, the other an unconventional thrill-seeker interested in the hidden world of everyday urban landscapes. Plus a book that will entice and inform you about the possibilities of living elsewhere on an attractively modest budget.

Walking the Nile
By Levison Wood

There are good reasons why certain epic journeys have never been accomplished to date. Undaunted, the former British army officer, Levison Wood, set out in December 2013 to be the first to walk the 4,250 mile length of the Nile from its source deep in Rwanda to where it debouches into the Mediterranean. Success eluded him because of the escalating war in South Sudan, which forced him to skip a section. Nevertheless, his journey is an extraordinary feat during which he endures a multitude of hardships, including temperatures topping 115 degrees, crocodiles, choking Sahara dust storms, tsetse flies, minefields, and, most shocking, the death from heat exhaustion of an American travel journalist who joined the walk in order to write an article. This tragedy profoundly knocks his belief in the value of his "indulgent, pointless, selfish trek" but he eventually recovers and decides to continue.

I didn't expect to like this book, since TV tie-ins with impossibly good-looking presenters tend to be rubbish. But he is not accompanied by a film crew throughout, and has to rely heavily on his local guides. This includes the lively and opinionated Congolese man, Boston, who is not one for beating around the bush when he asks a charity worker they meet "Do you have AIDS?"

Inevitably the Tembula Muzungu (White Walker) encounters a multitude of weird and interesting people and practices. A Ugandan witch doctor called Mama Fina douses him in milk while he is stripped to his underpants and holding a goat. For this blessing, she charges a hefty fee. "Not bad work if you can get it," he wryly opines. An even more outlandish dousing takes place later in South Sudan when he joins the Mundari people who use cattle urine as a beauty aid, to redden black hair.

Wood's stated ambition is to explore people: "I was here to bring home stories of what life was like in corners of the world that do not always make it into our headlines." His observant eye provides unexpected insights, for example the poster in a small town police station in Uganda that reads: "SAY NO TO CHILD SACRIFICE" and the monthly Umuganda in Kigali, Rwanda, which requires citizens to spend the day on a civic clean-up project, partly to break down barriers between ethnic groups. In Cairo, he meets a Christian Copt who tells him that the streets have become rubbish-strewn because the government has banned the Coptic habit of keeping pigs who consumed street garbage. He reports on the environmental degradation caused by the ongoing damming of the great Nile and deforestation by sugar farmers eager to satisfy western markets. I feel that I understand contemporary Africa a little better after reading this account.

Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City
By Bradley Garrett

If walking the length of the Nile is one of the holy grails for conventional explorers, cracking the security of London's redundant tube stations is the same for urban explorers. Bradley Garrett is an academic geographer who in 2011-12 became a committed urban explorer (UE) in order to write his PhD about the subculture. He has written an absolutely fascinating book describing their exploits and examining their motivations and rewards.

A simple definition of urban exploration is the act of going into buildings, tunnels and towers that you're not supposed to enter, to see things you're not supposed to see. Of course there are no charging hippos or gun-toting militias in the ruined buildings and construction sites beloved of UEs, but the risks are no less real, of falling from a crane, being hit by a train, or drowning in a drain. The danger of arrest is ever-present, something the author and his colleagues do not escape. Yet, their code of practice echoes the wilderness hikers' motto: "Take nothing but photos…" and they aim to leave the places they hack just as they find them. Of course they are trespassing and the more daring groups infiltrate secure sites by impersonating workmen, popping locks, illicitly accessing elevator shafts in the dead of night, and so on.

The dozens of photos in the book are stunning, including the eerily lit brick tunnels of the London sewer system, a relief of Lenin at an abandoned military base near Berlin, and a thunder storm over Lake Michigan seen from the top of a 40-story building in Chicago. Some are highly stylized, others blurred to capture movement and action, all artistically accomplished.

The publisher categorizes this book as Travel/Adventure, and it is compelling to consider the similarities between these transgressive urban explorers and us ordinary travelers who share a human desire to explore. Like UEs, adventurous travelers aspire to get off the beaten path, explore uncharted territory and even to experience a rush of excitement and fear. Both groups long to obtain exclusive views and to photograph ruins. The urban explorer takes these aspirations to an extreme, straying into adrenaline-fueled escapades. But exotic travel and urban exploration share the goal of making the world 'a more exciting, adventurous and participatory place, undermining the deadly trio of apathy, distraction and boredom that so often makes up modern life'.

Garrett provides heart-stopping descriptions of their capers, such as climbing over Edinburgh's 1½ mile-long Forth Bridge. As the sleeper train shakes the steel beams to which they cling, he feels as though he is riding a dragon. Compare that to the touristy Sydney Harbour Bridge climb marketed for up to A$368 and involving lots of health and safety briefings. Of course few of us will join the elite ranks of urban explorers. But reading this provides vicarious thrills, and might stretch our imaginations a little and inspire us now and then to slip away from the organized tour and the places mentioned in our guidebooks.

Panama City beach

A Better Life for Half the Price: How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live
By Tim Leffel

Here we have a completely different approach to making life more exciting and adventurous—as well as affordable. This is the ideal book for anyone taking the first timid steps in contemplating a move abroad. With an ever-increasing number of people earning a living through their computers rather than being tied to an office, this is a timely spur to thinking creatively and globally.

Realistic and practical advice is offered in abundance on what might be involved in leaving your home country to live in a significantly cheaper one. The author (esteemed editor of this magazine) has lived in several countries, most recently Mexico with his family, which partly explains why the Mexico chapter is the longest. His advice is based on lived experience and hard-won wisdom supplemented by first-hand accounts from expats around the world whom he knows or has interviewed.

The book's emphasis is less on the hype of "living the dream" than on nitty-gritty realities. He aims to interrogate the fantasy and challenge naive assumptions. It is common sense to spend a trial period in a place before deciding to move there, but it might not have occurred to you to go at the time of year when the weather is at its least comfortable, for example the rainy season in Cuenca (Ecuador) or the hot summer in Mexico. I love the tests he proposes to help readers assess whether they will enjoy life in a new country, from visiting a local gym to see what kind of classes are offered to signing up for a local language class and quizzing the teacher. Later he suggests (tongue-in-cheek) a further test of your suitability for relocating: whether you can laugh at Kafka's surreal novel The Castle or Terry Gilliam's dystopian film Brazil.

A Better Life profiles 20+ countries with low costs of living. For obvious reasons most are in the developing world, with the majority in Latin America and South Asia, but Bulgaria, Hungary and Portugal are also included. Perhaps the next edition will be expanded to include less obvious but even cheaper countries like Albania where, reportedly, a comfortable furnished apartment in the capital can be rented for $230 a month and a one-year visa is easy to obtain.

While the author admits that saving money cannot be the be-all and end-all of relocation, financial considerations are key, as promised in the book's title. Anyone currently struggling with a budget cannot fail to be tempted by the prospect of living well on $1,500 per month for one, $2,400 for two. Concrete breakdowns of estimated expenses for rent, utilities, internet, phone, groceries and so on are given for each country covered, always acknowledging that there will be sizeable variations depending on lifestyle choices. Care has been taken to describe the health care available and sample prices of different procedures are given (which anyone who benefits from a national health system as in Britain or Canada will find shocking).

Bureaucratic issues such as the thorny problem of visas are also addressed. In the case of Thailand visas have become even more problematic since the book was researched since a recent crackdown prohibits Americans and Britons from getting more than a 30-day extension by crossing the Cambodian border. Generalizations provide useful signposts and the breezy, punchy conversational style is a pleasure to read.

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 16 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

Walking the Nile

Buy Walking the Nile at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Explore Everything

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

Buy A Better Life for Half the Price at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
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