Perceptive Travel Book Reviews June 2018
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Some comic riffs on traveling to undesirable destinations with a reluctant partner, a grassroots look at contemporary Iran, and an idealized compendium of sacred places that (allegedly) seep into your soul.

Don't Go There: From Chernobyl to North Korea - one man's quest to lose himself and find everyone else in the world's strangest places
By Adam Fletcher

Even without noticing the typography or upside-down text on the spine, you can tell from the length of the title that this book must be self-published because no publisher would countenance such verbosity on a title page. Fortunately self-publishing is no longer considered shameful, just as the stigma has faded from online dating.

Our genial and amusing guide to a series of less-than-glamorous destinations is a British writer, living in Berlin with his hyper-organized German girlfriend. Comic writers seem to be drawn to dangerous, uncomfortable, and unlikely places. A conventional week of sight-seeing and gourmandizing in Tuscany offers less scope for hilarity than weird places like Transnistria (disputed border between Moldova and Ukraine) or the newly designated Liberland, (a micronation between Serbia and Croatia).

Actually, Adam Fletcher is trying to cure himself of chronic boredom and lassitude. At the beginning he is a self-absorbed couch potato. Travel gradually rescues him. Exposure to an anti-government demonstration in Istanbul and later an overnight stay in Hebron makes him wake up to how easy a life he has been taking for granted.

The comedy is a little unrelenting and the hyperbole sometimes gets out of control. When Djarbah, their contact in Ghana, guffaws, skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi implode and surfers in Papua New Guinea notice. But all of the joking floats on the surface of a genuine coming-of-age story or Bildung as they might say in Berlin. After he gets a taste for edgy travel in Istanbul, he persuades a reluctant Annett to accompany him to China. Travel in China is a struggle, mainly because they go in the depths of winter and during the lunar new year when all transport is mobbed. He clearly thrives on this kind of thing and especially on writing about it in an entertaining way. He is trying to reform himself and overcome his default laziness.

The reader is right to worry that the Germanic girlfriend will lose patience with these trips, because after enduring one too many chanting sessions at a Hare Krishna ashram in Argentina, Annett decides she is abandoning this "go-to-weird-places project". The upshot is that he learns that balance is the key. He hopes that Israel, like his other destinations, will combine delight, danger and drudgery in the right proportions. He realizes that he has become obsessed with pursuing the novelty of travel to the detriment of his home life. "Everything in life is about dosage." And perhaps in this book he gets the balance right between honing his comic persona as an incompetent wisecracking wastrel and developing into an insightful traveler. 

Photo of Iran by Richard Bangs
Photo by Richard Bangs from his story Isn't it Iranic?

Couchsurfing in Iran: Revealing a Hidden World
By Stephan Orth

Here is another German-based author in his mid-30s who travels to discover the texture and detail of everyday lives rather than to visit tourist attractions. But here there is no inner quest and no compulsion to make jokes; the focus is firmly on the country he has chosen to understand, Iran. The publication of this book in English—it was published in German not long after the author's two months spent exploring Iran in 2014—is timely since the country on George W Bush's "axis of evil" is seldom out of newspapers these days, but almost never on the travel pages. The astonishing friendliness that Orth encounters among the people (whose names he changes) belies the media perception of Iran as fiercely anti-Western. Like all discerning travel books, it prompts us to adjust our "prejudice compass" as he claims he has to do within an hour of arrival.

The author admits that couchsurfing hosts comprise a specialized constituency of young, tech-savvy and liberal people. He has been a committed member since was launched in 2004, and is far less happy in a hotel than sleeping on the floor of a stranger. In Iran, the arrangements normally have to be clandestine, since the repressive state disapproves of private stays and in some places forbids it. The author's stated plan is to let invitations from natives determine his itinerary, even when he might be expected to have reservations, like the invitation from a woman who is active in the Tehran S&M scene or the one from a forward young woman with "come-hither" make-up. Nothing sinister ensues, and the overwhelming hospitality he receives is genuine and generous. Later in his travels, the novelty of meeting new people begins to wear off (also for the reader) but the cast of characters and situations is varied enough to sustain interest, as does the tension he experiences when having to extend his tourist visa. He has to be economical with the truth and declare himself a website editor rather than a journalist. A simple web search by the immigration authorities could uncover the deception, but he gets the stamps and we breathe a sigh of relief along with him.

He resists the temptation to romanticize. Persian hospitality might have survived into the 21st century but it sounds as though the cuisine has been debased. Young Iranians love fast food and Pepsi, and always eat pizzas with ketchup, so the author cheerfully joins them without passing judgement. Apparently tourist numbers have been increasing and Orth foresees a day when mass tourism will erode the magic and when friendliness of the people will no longer be without ulterior motive. He worries that tourists will be bussed in to traditional places like the desert village of Kharanaq. But with the scuppering of the nuclear deal in 2018 Iran may not get to that stage for a long while. The caption to one of his gritty black and white photos in the appendix will continue to pertain: "Even in spectacular places, I was often the only tourist." He is a well-informed guide with a genuine love of Iran and the Persian language. It is a pity that he is unlikely ever to be granted another visa after publishing this revealing book.

Inspired Traveller's Guide: Spiritual Places
By Sarah Baxter

Billed as the first in a new series aimed at the thoughtful traveler, Spiritual Places describes 25 places around the world which are imbued with a sense of the sacred. It is easy to understand the appeal in these troubled times of such a book with its gentle text and delightfully handmade illustrations of places of beauty and mysticism. Eight of her chosen destinations are in Europe and none is in Africa. Some are predictable, like the Temple Mount in Old Jerusalem, others less so, like the Saut d'Eau festival in Haiti where people gather at a waterfall to seek blessings from the Virgin Mary and voodoo spirits. Many strange creation myths are re-told.

To create (or enjoy) such a book, heavily rose-tinted spectacles are required. Readers who like to entertain escapist fantasies will surely enjoy this book. This is not real travel where hikers get blisters, restaurants are closed and buses don't turn up. All of that is omitted. In the section on Varanasi, holy city of the Hindus, the River Ganges may be a "goddess in water form" but it is also the sixth most polluted river in the world. Around Uluru in the Australian outback, we are told that Aboriginal people can still walk in the footsteps of their ancestor spirits, with no hint of the abject misery evident in so many native Australian communities.

The prose can be a little breathy, but is seldom clichéd. She favors Homeric compounds like "gust-frenzied sea" (of Iona), "star-spangled darkness" (of Mt Sinai), “crag-perched lighthouse” (of Cape Reinga, New Zealand) and "heavens-piercing spire" (of Mont St-Michel). Some metaphors are less than felicitous: stars pimple the Hawaiian sky "like celestial acne". Occasionally the writing smacks of brochure-speak: "It's about those simple heart-soaring moments when Mother Nature does something spectacular, making you fully believe in a higher power" (this on the Camino de Santiago). I preferred the entries with a personal take that brought particularity and authenticity, for example at the Avebury stone circle "two hippies sing." Quirky facts are welcome; of the thousands who claim to have been healed by the holy waters at Lourdes, only 69 cases have been recognized as official miracles by the Lourdes Bureau of Medical Observation.

In travel there is always a tension between the imagined romance and the reality. Perhaps an ability to suspend disbelief depends on whether you are a dreamer or a debunker by disposition. When the author wonders whether the brooding sky and incessant rain on the Scottish island of Iona is due to an angry spirit or Scottish weather, I'm sorry I have to plump for the latter. The colorful stylized illustrations could be from an upmarket children's book and reinforce the fairytale nature of the content.

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 and Teaching English Abroad, she has also 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 hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

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Couchsurfing in Iran: Revealing a Hidden World

Buy Couchsurfing in Iran: Revealing a Hidden World at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Inspired Traveller's Guide: Spiritual Places

Buy Inspired Traveller's Guide: Spiritual Places at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon