Perceptive Travel Book Reviews May/June 2008
By Tim Leffel

In this issue: Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien, Quest for Kaitiakitanga, The Rough Guide to Travel with Babies and Young Children, and The Three–Martini Family Vacation.

Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanquis Missteps in Argentina
By Brian Winter

It's a familiar story often told: the expatriate moves to a strange land, tries to figure out what makes it tick, and gets befuddled. In Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien, however, journalist Brian Winter (who was working for Reuters in Argentina) gives the formula a twist, telling it through a series of adventures and misadventures on the dance floor, trying to learn the tango.

The author was in Argentina from 2000 to 2004, so it's not like he didn't have a story to tell already. This was the start, the explosion, and the aftermath of the Argentine currency crisis, when the whole economy cratered and Argentines went from acting like they were rich to realizing they were instead quite poor. Winter laments that falling in love with Argentina at that time was odd, "a bit like falling for an alcoholic at the very moment she hits rock bottom, sleeping in a gutter with puke in her hair."

All that drama though is interwoven with an ongoing attempt to understand the tango: the moves, the rituals, the history, and why it is so central to the conflicted personality of Buenos Aires. He first gets lessons from "El Tigre," who mostly feeds him advice about women and has him practice dance steps in a circle. Later the lessons move to an eventual love interest, Mariela, who it seems has a way of always keeping a dozen men lonely men paying up for lessons by pouring on her charm.

Through it all, Winter doesn't pull punches on the Argentines, like commenting on "one of four twenty–four–hour, live–action channels that sought to satisfy Argentines' insatiable appetitite for news about themselves." He notes that most residents of Buenos Aires are like creatures raised in captivity, without much interest in nature and the great outdoors. "On weekends, porteños of all ages go to bed at 4 a.m., wake up at noon, and spend their Sunday afternoons either in cafes or at grandma's house eating ravioli. It isn't that they never venture outside––they don't even seem to be aware of the concept."

In the end, Winter doesn't get the girl and his research doesn't lead to any clear history of the tango. "After all, porteños today are dancing a black dance in a city that used to be full of black people––yet almost no one has any idea. That's Argentina for you." But hey, he does finally learn how to dance––or at least to look like he knows what he's doing. He has learned his lesson: in Buenos Aires, image is everything.

The Quest for Kaitiakitanga: The Ancient Maori Secret from New Zealand that Could Save the Earth
By Richard Bangs

Richard Bangs is the kind of Renaissance Man adventurer you can't help but admire. He founded the company that went on to become Mountain Travel Sobek and he has often been one of the first to raft down a certain river or explore a newfound pass. He has published books, written interesting articles, hosted TV shows, and edited webzines before anyone had heard of such a thing. Despite all that, he manages to remain humble and is an all–around nice guy, a traveler who still has a child's curiousity about the world around him.

Quest for Kaitiakitanga is the longer, written word version of one episode of a public television show bearing the same name. "Kaitiakanga" is a Maori word encapsulating the idea of living in harmony with nature, but not to the point where you don't take some of what you need for food or shelter. It's all about balance, compromise, and sustainability. Some would call it practical environmentalism, a middle way that aims to allow people make a living off the land and sea, but in a way that preserves the native species and allows them to flourish.

Bangs is a surprisingly poetic writer, taking obvious joy in describing the way light dances off a snowy ridge or how it feels to be kayaking on a still bay. He also has the benefit of something most writers never do: raw footage containing hours of interviews with his subjects up and down New Zealand. No scribbled notes or noisy handheld recorder transcriptions to deal with; instead he has unfettered access and a camera operator to record it all. As a result the book is filled with interesting conversations and insights from those who have managed to make New Zealand an example for others, perhaps the one place on Earth where the environment is in better shape each year, not worse.

It's an almost cinematic journey through the mountains, rivers, and bays of New Zealand (with plenty of stops for good food and wine along the way), but with as much of the story told from the Maori side as from the author's. I can't wait to see it all come alive on the screen.

The Rough Guide to Travel with Babies and Young Children
By Fawzia Rasheed de Francisco

Author Julian Barnes once said, "There are two kinds of travel: first class and with children." For many of us, of course, there was no first class to start with. We were backpackers, vagabonds, and world explorers, so the last thing we want to do is get all soft in our parenting years, worrying about whether the pool cabana service will be up to snuff at the Four Seasons Punta Mita.

The Rough Guide to Travel With Babies and Young Children is the first book of its kind I could recommend in good conscience to parents. It's for those who want to move about as real travelers instead of coddled vacationers staying in a walled resort or RVers carrying half their possessions along. While most other family travel books seem to focus on theme parks of some kind or offer the same simplistic advice everyone else does, this one covers the things I've actually dealt with firsthand since my daughter got her first passport. There are passages on encountering poverty, packing for different weather conditions and altitudes, dealing with layovers plus delays, and navigating third–world toilets. With sections on preparations (including setting expectations), making the journey, being there, and continent–specific quirks, this $16 book is a great investment in any future traveling parent's sanity. Beyond that, the author works hard to show what will benefit the children the most too––without the parents giving up their own travel goals in the process.

Throughout, there's another element here missing from many similar books: the voices of others. A variety of parents from different backgrounds who have "been there done that" provide some excellent advice gained from experience. At 209 pages, including photos and sidebars, this is not meant to be the definitive guide to everything you could possibly encounter everywhere in the world. (If you need that kind of book, maybe a drive to grandma's should come first.) What it does do is cram most of what you would possibly encounter into a sensible, engaging, easy–to–read format.

[See Fawzia Rasheed de Francisco's earlier story for Perceptive Travel, Travel with Children – Go Figure.]

The Three–Martini Family Vacation: A Field Guide to Intrepid Parenting
By Christie Mellor

"I used to think I hated children," a once–childless co–worker of mine told me. "But then I realized I really just hate parents."

I couldn't stop thinking about that quote as I read Christie Mellor's second book on parenting, following up the very funny debut, The Three–Martini Playdate. As with many sophomore projects, however, there's the feeling that all the creativity and long–crafted work of the first one came up a little short on the second. It's amusing, the advice is something many parents need to hear, and Mellor is a gifted writer when it comes to unbridled sarcasm and the pursuit of a laugh. It's the word "vacation" in the title that makes the book end up sounding like a hook without a song.

In a way, the title is false advertising, serving a role more like a short story collection named after one of the passages rather than an indication of what's inside. It seems that the Mellor family doesn't actually go on vacation very much, so the chapters dealing with actual trips are one on Hawaii enduring other parents' kids and an entreaty to spend some time in the back yard instead of subjecting yourself to the hassles of getting away.

When she does let loose on vacationing families though, it is grand fun. I recognized more of the kids from hell (and the parents that allow them to be) than I'd like to admit. One week after finishing the book, I spent an hour witnessing the "Mommy mommy mommy mommy mommy!" toddler and the mother who makes this happen, exactly like the pair described in the book. Unfortunately, I will never get that hour of my life back.

The parenting advice throughout is spot–on. Overall themes: don't let your kids forget who's the boss, force them to learn how to entertain themselves, and don't let the fact you have children get in the way of regular adult fun. And hey, what other book offers cocktail recipes that "are easy for the kids to make?" The specific travel–related advice is worth noting too, with chapter titles like "The Self–sufficient Carry–on: Your Child" ("If tiny third–world tots can haul water a mile to their hut every day, certainly your toddler can carry a small backpack.")Then there's "The Theme Park Vacation: a Last Resort." ("A theme park is still a theme park, whether you are wearing rodent ears or a two–hundred–dollar hotel robe.")

If nothing else, Mellor should be applauded for reminding parents that the amount of money spent and the amount of fun a family has are not even close to being correlated. "Think of the memories you and your child will be looking back on in ten or fifteen years. Will the recollection of getting a pat on the head from a stuffed corporate logo become part of the lore of her childhood?"

Unfortunately, the parents who already know all this and will chuckle along are probably the ones who have also managed to raise nice, well–adjusted kids. This book won't make it into the hands of parents who have raised walking nightmares. "Inflicting your ill–behaved progeny on the unsuspecting habitants of far–off ports will do nothing to further the cause of world peace and our country's already fragile reputation on foreign soil; it might be wise to work on a few of your children's more glaring etiquette problems before leaving town." Hee hee and hear hear!

Tim Leffel is editor of Perceptive Travel and author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World's Cheapest Destinations. His newest book, co–written with Rob Sangster, is Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America

Also in this issue:

Long After Midnight

Buy Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Quest for Kaitiakitanga

Buy Quest for Kaitiakitanga in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Rough Guide to Travel with Babies and Young Children

Buy The Rough Guide to Travel with Babies and Young Children in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The Three-Martini Family Vacation

Buy The Three–Martini Family Vacation in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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