The book takes us along for his adventures to Africa, India, Mexico City, and Walt Disney World, each place both underscoring his preconceived notions and blowing them out of the water. I particularly enjoyed his take on Congo, having visited there myself. He describes a chaotic world of bribes, bad roads, and conniving "fixers," but nonetheless saw the great beauty of the bush and friendliness of the people. His journey to India was similarly harrowing, with relentless harassment from salesmen and vendors and some of the most reckless drivers in the world.
One scene sticks out in my memory now, weeks after I finished the book. Thompson and his wife are visiting Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, when they're asked by a few random teenage boys for a "camera fee" of 200 rupees. Admission to the mosque is free, and the boys asking for money wear no uniforms or have any other credential, so the pair attempts to move on, but a crowd gathers around them, yelling "Camera charge 200 rupee! You give to me now!" Feeling intimidated and frustrated, they leave, abandoning their plan to see the mosque as the crown slings epithets at them.
It turns out, though, that the charge was legit. But still, isn't there a better way to go about asking for it? Thompson sums it up thusly:
Had someone merely spoken to us like human beings and explained the situation, I would have coughed up two hundred lousy rupees faster than you can say, "As Allah wills it." Instead, within seconds of a minor infraction, Joyce and I were surrounded as though our Black Hawk helicopter had just crash-landed at the Gate of Mecca.
It's a good point. Like many travelers, I go out of my way to respect the customs of other countries, but that's awfully hard to do when people are getting in your face, insulting you, and making you fear for your safety. The "rude boys" in Jamaica come to mind. They'll remind you at every opportunity to show them "respeck" while offering none in return. Is this an aspect of a culture to be lauded?
Thompson and I chatted on the phone briefly and he elaborated on India, calling it a 50/50 mix of beauty and frustration. "The constant pressure from hagglers and merchants was a pain in the ass, and they really made it less fun," he explained. "You’re trying to have an 'experience' at a temple, and there they are. I am sincere when I say I am not asking India to change. I’m not saying ‘here’s how to make your country better.’ But from my perspective it was a real drag to deal with that every single day."
That said, he was particularly taken by the beauty of the state of Kerala, where you find a photo opportunity every five feet, and he was heartened by the efforts of two pedicab drivers who got them to an out-of-the way resort in the dark of night. His visit to Disney World had its own contrasts, but you'll have to read the book for that.
To Hellholes and Back is well-written, funny, and fast-paced, with rich descriptions and metaphors I wish I'd thought of myself. (At one point he refers to a hanger-on as harder to get rid of than a pizza box.) But most of all it's refreshing to read a travel writer who eschews all the "sun-dappled vista"-style prose and tells it like it is. He clearly loves to travel and relishes his experiences in foreign lands. That he acknowledges the annoying parts only makes his conclusions more valid.
· Chuck Thompson [Official Site]
· To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism [Amazon]
· Books [Jaunted]