Perceptive Travel Book Reviews January/February 2006
by Tim Leffel

In this issue: Don't Let the World Pass You By, Shadow Cities, and Signspotting.

Don't Let the World Pass You By! 52 Reasons to Have a Passport
Various authors (Lonely Planet, 2005)

This chirpy, optimistic handbook is in some ways, a piece of propaganda. It is published by Lonely Planet, a guidebook empire that is based in Australia, but counts the United States as its biggest sales market. Imagine the number of guidebooks they could sell if the number of U.S. passport holders increased from the current 22 percent to, say, 30, 40, or 50 percent!

Despite the not-so-hidden agenda (this book is aimed solely at U.S. buyers) most travelers will find themselves nodding in agreement as they read the many reasons why everyone should have a passport. Several times, I entertained the idea of buying multiple copies of this book just to have on hand the next time someone tells me they don't feel a need to go abroad. (Though in all fairness, we all know plenty of people we would rather just stay home - so they won't bring our country's reputation down even more!) It would make a great gift for a college senior or someone just making plans to go abroad for the first time.

The title is written by ten different contributors, with Sarah Benson being the coordinating author. The most worthy reason to own a passport is spelled out in the introduction by Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler, who says, "It's through travel, first and foremost, that we meet and understand the outside world. We can read all about other countries in papers and magazines or see them on television, but it's remarkable how different places turn out to be when you actually visit them." If only our elected leaders, who only use their passport for whirlwind state visits, would take this to heart, the world would probably be a more peaceful place.

The book starts with a history of the passport, reminding us that it really hasn't been around that long in its present form. In the U.S., the first one issued by the State Department came out in 1856, but the requirement to have one to travel in and out of the country has only been in place since 1952. Residents of other developing countries probably began to pooh-pooh the low percentage of U.S. passport holders soon after and never stopped. There's been a big loophole of course, one that most international criticizers don't think about. Many Americans don't have a passport because we have agreements that allow us to go a whole lot of places without one, such as (for now): Canada, Mexico, and quite a few islands in the Caribbean. Add in Hawaii and Alaska and you can cover a lot of real estate with just a birth certificate copy - a whole continent and then some.

You need a passport to go beyond though, and there are plenty of good reasons.

#3 Exercise Your Rights
As I wrote this review, Palestinians in Gaza were finally able to legally leave their country for the first time since 1967. North Koreans, Burmese, and Cubans still can't. In many Middle Eastern countries, the men can travel, but the women can't without a husband. What's stopping you?

#6 C'mon, Live a Little
Pioneers and explorers founded America. How did we get so fat and lazy? "Now that jet travel has evaporated distances and economy class is luxurious compared to Calistoga wagon trains, isn't it time to reclaim our gypsy beginnings?"

#7 It's Not Such Risky Business
The book lists the 10 Safest Countries. The U.S. ranks 27th, right after Armenia.

#15 Ship Out and Shape Up
Travel has got to be the most interesting and least painless ways to lose weight and get in shape. (See Travel Diets: The Backpacker Weight Loss Plan)

#26 Stay Awake in Class
One of my favorite justifications for travel: you learn far more than you ever will in a classroom. History and geography are actually interesting, instead of nap-inducing.

#27 Visit Other Lands of Liberty
Yes, the USA may be called the land of the free, but civil society sure does require the surrendering of a lot of freedoms. Go abroad to experience legal vices, beer and smokes that aren't taxed to the hilt, topless beaches, the lack of open container laws, and bars with no last call. 

And #28 probably sums it up best when it talks about the numbing day-to-day routine we allow our working stiff selves to fall into. Breaking out of that is reason enough on its own. Only one life to live, and all that. 

Picking a few examples is difficult since nearly every one of the 52 reasons is a valid one. Lots of fun charts and factoids are sprinkled throughout. One notes that in the time it takes to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, you could fly to Costa Rica. Or that in the time it takes to drive from Miami to Disney World, you could fly to Peru. A "Top-10 Cinematic Settings" list tells you where famous movies were filmed. Another list has "Top-10 Things You Can't Find in Your Own Backyard."

If you're already an avid traveler, this is a bit of preaching to the choir, but it's still worth having on your shelf. If nothing else, it'll provide an endless list of talking points when Aunt Millie starts asking why you've quit your job (again) and are heading overseas (again). Or you could buy her a copy and say you won't answer any more questions until she reads it. Or hand a copy to your old boss along with your resignation letter. Maybe he'll read it while you're gone and will start to understand.

Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World
By Robert Neuwirth

This magazine, Perceptive Travel, attempts to help readers see beyond the surface of tourism: to get under, behind, and inside a place and its people. Few writers have taken this idea as far as Robert Neuwirth. The author lived among the residents in the squatter towns of Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul, Mumbai (Bombay), and Nairobi. He moved within worlds that even the most enlightened among us generally choose to ignore. As we see things through his journalistic eyes, we discover many of our assumptions prove true (sewage and clean running water are a perennial problem). However, we also discover that these are thriving, entrepreneurial communities that go well beyond a collection of poor slackers.

The history of squatter towns around the globe doesn't show up until 200 pages into the book, but it provides some important perspective. There the first-world reader is reminded not to be so smug: it wasn't that long ago when large swaths of real estate in London and New York City were essentially shantytowns. The post Upper East Side of Manhattan was a mish-mash of mansions and slums in the late 1800s. "Picture more than 20,000 squatters living in self-built communities on the knolls and cliffs that made up most of Manhattan Island before it was graded and tamed for easy real estate development." The society mavens that would recoil in horror when seeing the shantytowns of today's developing world cities would feel the same repulsion if they went back in time. "A century ago, the city's illegal communities bore a great resemblance to the squatter regions of the Third World today: chaotic and cacophonous but also lively and commercial."

In essence, America was founded by squatters. The first settlers set up where they felt like it and squatting was codified into law with the Homestead Act and other "go and grab what you can" initiatives. This spirit of rugged individuality, so celebrated in American culture, is alive and well in Rio, where technically illegal settlements have become cities within cities. Real estate changes hands, people run busy restaurants, and stores supply most of what any resident would need. Neuwirth rents an apartment from a landlord, one with a city view better than that of many top hotels.

In Bombay, we learn that the shantytowns are in a symbiotic relationship with the city's rich upper class, supplying them with their cooks, maids, and guards, at low wages that wouldn't support rent in a real suburb. Over the years, squatters have moved from attention-grabbing stunts to political dialogue in order to get better treatment. As a result, some of the most recognized political figures in the city hail from squatter towns.

In Istanbul, the author delves into the economics of these makeshift towns, revealing that the towns thrive, in part, because of the lack of taxes and regulation. If the residents had to pay market rents, they simply couldn't live on the income they receive each month. And despite the mind's eye image of a "slum," we find that Turkey's Sultanbeyi squatter neighborhood now looks just like any other in Istanbul: 1,200 streets, 91 mosques, apartment buildings, and even a city hall with an elevator, a city hall that managed to pull off a $90 million water infrastructure project.

The least inspiring location of the four is Nairobi, where the ever-present African problem of corruption pervades every aspect of life, squatter or not. When explaining how not one drop of water made it to Nairobi's Kibera town after a half-million dollar aid program was implemented, it sounds like a story we've heard too many times before. "Bad management. Bad preparation. Bad accountability. No transparency." Even the smallest construction project requires paying a huge bribe to someone in power, with even schools and clinics getting the shakedown in order to expand. As a result, there is little hope that the slums will ever resemble the thriving squatter towns on other continents. The author finds plenty of young entrepreneurs, but unlike in the other cities, they are not trying to open restaurants, build apartments, or start distribution companies. They all want to start their own "non-profits" in order to make a quick buck. "The income seems to come first. Doing good is secondary."

This book is a fascinating glimpse inside a world most of us would rather not see too much of first-hand. For anyone who wants a look at how some billion or so people of the world are living, it is an enlightening journey.

Signspotting: Absurd & Amusing Signs From Around the World
Compiled by Doug Lansky

Anyone who spends weeks or months traveling in foreign lands will stumble upon signs that make them laugh out loud. Some are meant to be funny and are, such as the handwritten sign I photographed outside a business in the Philippines. It simply stated, "Only dogs may urinate here."

Some are so strange, misspelled, or ironic that a double take leads to an immediate grab for the camera. You can just imagine the wide-eyed look of the traveler pulling out his or her camera to take a picture of the sign in this book at the Pakistan Narcotics Control Board Investigating Unit: the sign was half covered by a patch of very healthy marijuana plants!

Some of my favorite photo album pictures are silly signs, from the advertisements of sidewalk stall dentists in India to the almost poetic English nonsense that adorns signs throughout Japan and Korea.

Signspotting is a whole collection of gems that will produce a smile or a chuckle. Slightly wider than a 5 X 7 photo and about as thick as a few stacks of photos from the processing lab, it is a hilarious tour through the strange and silly signs gracing our planet. Some are an attempt to welcome foreigners, but in a manner that doesn't quite work. "Welcome big nose friends" says an extra large sign in Kashgar, China. One from Phuket, Thailand states, "Of clouse we spoke England!" A restroom sign from Shanghai says, "Deformed Man Toilet." One from Istanbul says, "Sorry we're open."

A sign in six Asian scripts has one line at the bottom in English, "This is to prevent foreign visitors from getting lost." Another lists six lines of kanji characters and the only word in English is "Information."

Ironically, half the signs seem to be from countries where English is the first language and these are some of the silliest. It's usually a case of throwing two unrelated ideas together on one sign. One sign from California reads "Not a through street." The sign under it reads, "Evacuation route." A roadside sign in Wisconsin has two lines: Happy Easter and "We Rent Handguns." A big wooden sign from Harlow, England reads, "Beer Garden & Childrens Play Area." Or it's a matter of meaning one thing but conveying another. "Caution: Blind Drivers Backing Out." Or "Reno Left Lane. No Left Turn."

Some are just funny places or juxtapositions, such as Toad Suck Park, Boring Oregon City, or "Cruise Ships Use Airport Exit."

Others have been making the rounds on the Internet for years, such as the California 24-hour fitness center with escalators bringing patrons to the entrance.

Sign compiler Doug Lansky is the prolific author behind Last Trout in Venice, and several Rough Guide books for first-time travelers. Most signs require no explanation, but Lansky offers up some good captions nevertheless. After a sign stating, "To go left, make 3 right turns," the caption says, "This is evidently what happens when they let civil engineers graduate early." Below a sign for Barf detergent in Uzbekistan, the caption wonders if there is any good way to promote this cleaning product. How about, "Wow, Mom you smell like Barf!"

Signspotting reminds us that sometimes it's better to have no sign at all. A display photo from the aquarium in Alexandria, Egypt says, "Some kind of fish from the Red Sea."

At a list price of $7.99 US or 5.99 UK, this book offers one of the highest laugh-to-currency ratios in the bookstore.

This issue's book reviews were written by Tim Leffel, Editor. Leffel is a veteran travel writer whose work has appeared in dozens of publications over a 15-year period. He is the author of The World's Cheapest Destinations and Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. He is a regular columnist for Transitions Abroad and edits their travel writing portal.

Also in this issue:

Buy Don't Let the World Pass You By! at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Buy Shadow Cities at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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

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