Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: When both the journey and the destinations matter

Review of: Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth
Author: Albert Podell
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: A

Abandon all thoughts of Lonely Planet-style how-tos when opening Albert Podell’s wild and woolly travel memoir, Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth. You won't find anything here about how to locate blueberry pancakes in Mongolia, or hostels in Madagascar, or even the best hookers in, well, I’m not touching that one. But for readers as interested in people as in places, who want something to laugh out loud over as they contemplate local toilet paper options (or not), or enjoy musing about what it really takes for a country to quality as a country, Podell is your man.

He’s not even above providing a few tips about how to illegally enter a country that doesn’t want you to enter it, although it’s up to you to suffer the consequences.

And if you don’t have serious problems of conscience with semi-criminal activity, you’ll be able to stomach Podell’s attitude toward women. (He is, after all, a longtime editor of Playboy magazine.) His inviolable requirement for his multitude of female companions (aside from availability) is a deep-seated lust for adventure. They’ll have to love driving way too fast on the Trans-Kalahari Highway, or rafting through Zambezi River rapids with names like the Devil’s Toilet Bowl and the Overland Truck Eater.

Even Podell, however, was taken aback by a girlfriend willing bungee jump over Zambia’s Victoria Falls – “the largest sheet of falling water on earth.” He declined to follow her, dissuaded both by the height and the jump concessioner’s practice of inking jumpers’ names and weights onto their arms.

Maybe it was just to be sure then jumper had the right kind of bungee cable, but “. . . from my pusillanimous perspective, it looked too much like the numbers tattooed on the wrists of Holocaust prisoners in the Nazi extermination camps,” writes Podell, who later circumvents the difficulties of gaining admission to Saudi Arabia for a man of his self-proclaimed “Jewish atheist” proclivities. (You’ll have to read the book to learn how he managed.)

Podell’s jaunts around the world will find him caught between a herd of Cape buffalo, hippos and crocodiles; trapped in a minefield in Algeria; skirted volcanic eruptions in Brunei; and feasting reluctantly on monkey brains in Hong Kong. (He devotes an entire chapter to food.)

If all this sounds too adventurous, possibly too gruesome, for casual reading, be assured that Podell’s takes are seldom dire, and he never takes himself too seriously. One of those souls who seems never to have met a stranger, he seldom meets anyone he dislikes on his travels. Or anyone who dislikes him.

Lucky enough to visit Yemen before its latest round of hostilities, in spite of signs that proclaimed “Death to America! Death to Israel! Damn the Jews!” he found the people “remarkably friendly,” and, one assumes, unaware of his nationality and ethnicity.

So just how many countries did Podell visit to justify the “every country on earth” boast of Around the World in 50 Year’s subtitle? One hundred ninety-six: the 193 members of the United Nation, plus non-UN members Taiwan, Vatican City and Kosovo. Not that he writes about all of them. (The hardcover version of the book is 345 pages, plus an appendix of the countries visited, in chronological order.)

Podell skips discussions of most of the better-visited European and Latin-American countries to devote pages to lesser-known locales in Africa and Asia, as well as back of beyond countries such as Kiribati, a tiny Pacific nation on the tomorrow side of the International Date Line. Kiribati’s capital, Tarawa, was the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific Theater in World War II. Now, like the rest of the country, it may be doomed to disappear beneath rising ocean waters.

See it before it’s gone; and dream, shudder and laugh about the rest of the world as you draw up your own list of must-see destinations.

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