A lousy place to visit but ...
LONELY Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler has spent a lifetime travelling and building a publishing empire that lifts the lid on places where you may want to spend your next holidays. His latest book, Tony Wheeler’sBadLands:ATouristontheAxis of Evil (Lonely Planet, $29.95), covers the polar opposite.
Wheeler poses three questions: How does a country treat its citizens? Is it involved in terrorism? Is it a threat to other countries? He waves his evil meter over the globe and comes up with the nine most unwanted: Afghanistan, Albania, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Burma, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. You could certainly argue the toss over Albania in its postcommunist, post-Hoxha phase, and even Libya is trying to be nice, but for the most part these are the bad and the beastly, the outcasts of the international community.
Wheeler’s ground-level look beyond the stereotypes is a useful exercise. He devotes a lot of space to the historic framework in pursuit of the question of how these countries get themselves in such a mess.
But it’s the street-level detail that provides the book’s momentum. Afghanistan has appalling roads and a Toyota fixation; Albania has a concrete bunker for every four of its people and, until recently, a penchant for pyramid-selling schemes. Cuba has no soap and indeed not much of anything unless you are packing greenbacks. Iranian ladies are flirtatious, while their Saudi cousins are invisible. When a girls’ school in Mecca caught fire, Wheeler reminds us, the fleeing students were forced back into the inferno by the mutawwa , the religious police, since they were not properly covered.
What his rambles reveal is that contact dissolves even our most cherished prejudices. Wheeler is a diarist, but there’s a little too much of the grit of travel here: dull road journeys, losing one’s way, finding an internet cafe or a taxi driver who speaks English, the boredom of border crossings. Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq has a surprisingly good museum, Wheeler tells us, twice in the same paragraph: a non-observation that one hopes Lonely Planet’s writers are not allowed to get away with. He remains an embedded traveller, and this is redemptive. Despite an income that would allow him to spend the rest of his days at an Amanresort, Wheeler has chosen to keep it real. He travels with eyes wide open, never losing his affection for the weird and the wondrous and the capacity of the world to dish up surprises. Michael Gebicki
Intrepid voyager: Tony Wheeler