To Hellholes and Back by Chuck Thompson

Because in two weeks I’m going to a hellhole.

Well, maybe that’s not a fair label. Azerbaijan has pretty mountains. And pomegranates. And my fiancee, it does have her right now.

But the rub is that this will be my first trip to any foreign country, let alone one that 85-90% of people can’t point out on a map. Kiersten, who’s already been there six months, will prove a fine guide for her American idiot man.

Any skull wearing that hat does appear to smile...

Even still, I want to dip into “alternative” travel literature to give me added perspective on the exotic kind of travel that has Americans wondering not Whom do I tip, but Whom do I bribe?

It would probably be fun to read, anyway. And Chuck Thompson’s To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism is that, for the most part. Thompson is a prolific magazine contributor and editor (Men’s Journal, Outside, Maxim, etc.) who, over the course of a year endeavors to four of the most threatening destinations he can think of: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Mexico City, and Walt Disney World.

The worst place? India. And not because it was dangerous but because it was a nightmarish pain in the ass– in a figurative sense (noise, merchants, and cab drivers) and in a literal sense (the digestive consequences of eating there). After reading about the tourist-stalking salesmen, “wheeler-dealer jackoffs who throw themselves at you in unrelenting waves, like post-modern cinematic hyperzombies,” I’ll let no one deceive me that India is a fun place to vacation.

He’s got a way with words. If you like the hyperbolic style, you’ll have a lot of laughs here. It bothers me sometimes, though, when I feel like a writer is exaggerating his experience mostly so he can turn a phrase. The prose feels forced, but the opinions don’t. You know a writer is being honest with you when he’s not only willing to defend Miley Cyrus’ talents, but he’ll admit to enjoying her father’s hit song back in the day.

Which brings me to the Disney World trip– the punchline to the premise–and it makes for interesting reading in its own right. His initial view of the “The Mouse” was similar to mine: “synthetic American culture at its overcrowded, fake-dreams, corndog-and-cotton-candy-inhaling worst.” His perspective of Disney doesn’t drastically change as a result of the trip, but because their crack hospitality mini-industry takes such awesome care of him there, he’s willing to let the Disney prejudices slide. You’d appreciate their pampering, too, if just months ago you were detained in a sweaty office by Congolese bureaucrats.

This can probably extend to most travel writing in general, but what nags me about this book is that there’s no narrative thrust. He essentially goes to Mexico City to be in Mexico City. And then he hopes that several printworthy things happen to him. Perhaps this is me getting stuck on the expectations of fiction, where travel occurs more as a journey. In fiction, travel usually involves a goal or a search or an escape– some kind of overarching objective turns the pages. The closest thing that Thompson’s book has to that is in the Congo section, where he seeks to discover the funniest joke in Africa. Even then, this “quest” feels like it was written in after the fact.

One gets a vague sense of the author’s disappointment that these destinations didn’t quite live up to their notoriety. And a sense of his relief, too. To be nearly kidnapped, or nearly shot at, would have been ideal.

Not that the trips themselves weren’t eventful, but I think that with more material he wouldn’t spend so many pages scolding Joseph Conrad, awkwardly soapboxing personal philosophy, or relating non-sequiter stories of other vacations. In fact, the Mexico City excursion turns out to be so tame that Thompson has to fly in a debauching friend, “Shanghai Bob,” to join him, which has that same desperate smell of a sitcom adding a character midseason.

He concludes that our fears of these places are somewhat exaggerated. This didn’t particularly surprise him– the point was to confront the regions of the globe that he’s most dreaded. After all, in the introduction he shares the seasoned traveler advice that “no place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be.”

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