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The Routes of Man

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Last February, I read reviews a week apart of two new travel books and thought both would be good reading on a trip to the east coast I would be taking during the first week of March: Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World and Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory. But which to bring?

As I explained in a post last April, I bought, and brought, both. That’s one of the benefits of the Kindle. Weight and space aren’t issues. Unfortunately, as I also mentioned, one of the Kindle’s weaknesses is its poor display of maps, and what’s a travel book without maps? Using a Kindle for such books is inevitably a compromise.

Once I boarded the plane for my trip, I immediately began to read Conover’s book. It has six chapters, each describing a different trip, each originating as an independent magazine article. Between chapters are shorter pieces in which Conover reflects on roads. The various parts don’t quite cohere into a single book, but they are individually engrossing and together offer a fascinatingly varied assemblage.

For whatever reason, I read the first two pieces during my trip, started a third, and on my return put the book aside. As other books came and went, I kept meaning to get back to it. While reading Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia in December, I decided the time had come. But first I had to read the new books I had pre-ordered that would be coming out earlier this month, Robert Crais’ The Sentry and Paul Clemens’ Punching Out. Which I did. With those books done, last week I picked up my Kindle and returned to the road between Mombasa and Kampala. Conover had joined a trucker to learn about the commercial traffic between Kenya and Uganda, following up on a visit years earlier in which he had investigated the spread of AIDS by truckers.

I wrote about the first chapter last April. It finds Conover “tracking of the source of mahogany being used for expensive furniture in New York, from New York backwards to the Peruvian coast, over the Andes, and down into the Amazon basin.” I would say, having finished the book, that that was one of my two favorites. The second chapter describes some villages in the Himalayas that the Indian government is slowly building a road to, and that in the meantime use the traditional winter route down a frozen river through a magnificent gorge to reach larger towns.

The fourth chapter is by far the most powerful. In his matter of fact manner, Conover describes the main north-south road through the West Bank, connecting all the major cities from Nablus to Hebron, now broken up by a myriad of Israeli checkpoints. The political issues of occupation and Israeli settler expansion are not discussed in any great detail by Conover himself, but rather laid out through the eyes and voices of Israelis and Palestinians, with Conover switching back and forth in perspective, and drivers, between Israeli military forces and ordinary Palestinians.

We get to relax a bit in the next chapter, an account of a tourist trip in China with a group of car owners traveling together under the auspices of an auto club. The intensity returns in the closing chapter in which no great driving journey is taken. We just stay in Lagos, making short journeys through a seemingly impenetrable, hopelessly crowded city. Anyone reading the chapter may be less than enthusiastic about booking a trip to Nigeria. I remember a delegation from the University of Port Harcourt visiting the university five years ago and, as part of their itinerary, meeting with a few of us for an hour in the dean’s office. They invited us to visit and, when I asked, assured us that all was safe, contrary to what I had been reading some days before. Safe or not, Lagos seems to be beautifully situated. Maybe, some day, … .

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