The guru of extreme tourism sets out to face his worst fears in Africa, India, Mexico City, and--most terrifying of all--at Disney World
In the widely-acclaimed Smile When You're Lying, Chuck Thompson laid bare the travel industry's dirtiest secrets. Now he's out to discover if some of the world's most ill-reputed destinations live up to their bad raps, while confronting a few of his own travel anxieties in the process. Whether he's traveling across the Congo with a former bodyguard from notorious dictator Joseph Mobutu's retinue or diving into the heart of India's monsoon season, To Hellholes and Back delivers Thompson's trademark combination of hilarious stories and wildly provocative opinions, as well as some surprising observations about America's evolving place in the world.
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December 01, 2009
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Excerpt from To Hellholes and Back by Chuck Thompson
Introduction: The Four Horsemen of My Apocalypse
I thought Americans were supposed to be stupid about these things. Ignorant of foreign cultures. Disinterested in international affairs. This, I've always figured, was particularly true of Africa--Americans presumably have trouble distinguishing between the Kalahari, Sahara, and Luxor on Las Vegas Boulevard. Jay Leno hits the streets to prove what a bunch of insular jackasses we are, and even someone like me, who's never once laughed at that condescending bit, has to admit he's got a pretty deep reservoir of stars-and-stripes stupidity to trawl.
Which is why it surprises me that when I begin e-mailing friends and family about my upcoming trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I receive in reply a storm of dire and frighteningly specific warnings. Americans, at least my Americans, appear to be quite impressively informed.
From buddy Dave Malley: "The current Atlantic Monthly has a thing about a British biologist who died in the Congo after contracting an illness from monkey feces. Thought you might want to know."
From sister Amy: "You're aware there's a civil war going on there, right?"
From Glasser in Japan, a man hardened to life's inequities first as a foot soldier in Vietnam, then as a jewelry salesman in South Central Los Angeles: "The Congo, and you may quote me, is Hell. Only without the interesting people. Pay for a week at the nearest rifle club. Train on an M16 or AK-47. Takes a monkey about two days on either one to begin shooting like Clint Eastwood. Your M16 tends to jam up if you don't keep it clean, but AK ammo weighs a ton, something to think about when you're humping through a croc-infested swamp with your mortally wounded local guide slung over one shoulder. But don't even think about bringing guns into the country. They're cheaper at the Kinshasa 7-Elevens."
From cousin Michelle, intrepid sufferer of Peace Corps and invasive-parasite abuse: "Do you know about guinea worms? They bore into your skin, then burst and release larvae and infecting cyclops, better known as 'water fleas.' If the worm is wrapped around a tendon or so deep that it's not possible to extract it surgically, you have to wait until 'normal emergence' occurs. This means waiting for the worm to burrow out on its own. When I was in Senegal I saw a woman with multiple worms in her leg, breast, and vagina."
From Dr. Bahr, a man I'd claim as my personal physician had I not personally witnessed his collegiate heyday. "In lieu of your latest effort to impress I don't know exactly who with your carefree spirit of misadventure, I'm pasting some information from the State Department's Web site: 'The Department of State again warns U.S. citizens against travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Armed groups and demobilized Congolese troops in parts of the country, including Eastern Congo, are known to pillage, carjack, and steal vehicles, kill extra-judicially, rape, kidnap, and carry out military or paramilitary operations. Travelers are frequently detained and questioned by poorly disciplined security forces at numerous roadblocks throughout the country. Public Health concerns also pose a hazard to U.S. citizen travelers for outbreaks of deadly viruses and other diseases which can occur without warning and many times are not rapidly reported by local health authorities. During the months of August-October, lab confirmed cases of Ebola were found in the Luebo area of Kasai Occidental Province.' "
Perhaps because he wastes more on- the-job Internet time than anyone who doesn't have an addiction to fantasy football or two girls, one cup, my infamous Asia expat buddy Shanghai Bob began slamming me with daily e-mail warnings featuring links to archived New York Times stories bearing headlines such as "Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War" and "African Crucible: Cast as Witches, Then Cast Out." The latter story dealt with a contagion of Congolese and Angolan children who were being persecuted as witches. One concerned father reportedly injected battery acid into his twelve-year-old son's stomach in an effort to encourage the boy's evil spirits to find a new home. Later, Bob would keep me informed of proceedings concerning a roundup of Congolese sorcerers accused of shrinking men's penises with special curses.
When I told him I couldn't possibly keep up with his force-feeding regimen of Dark Continent fearmongering, Shanghai Bob wrote me a note that summed up, if in less urbane terms, the prevailing attitude of everyone from my mother to my dental hygienist. (Even the relentlessly chipper Tete from Togo exclaimed, "Africa, it's all bribes!" while scraping my plaque.)
"I'm not trying to scare you, fuck with you, or be a wiseass in any way," Shanghai Bob declared, drawing upon his complete reservoir of personal empathy. "But I think you may want to be kept informed about these things as your trip nears. As Father O'Flaherty always counseled us, there's no shame in pulling out, even at the last minute."
This is the problem with having a lot of educated, liberal friends. Every one of them has an encyclopedic knowledge of injustices and outrages around the world--Congo, East Timor, charter schools--and jump at any chance they get to tell you how bad everything is out there.
More disconcertingly, my friends seemed to be right. Or at least consistent with expert opinion. A few weeks before going public with my plans for a Congo holiday, I'd sought the advice of a highly regarded BBC documentary filmmaker named Sam Kiley, himself on his way back to the Congo to shoot more footage in the North Kivu region, the place where that aforementioned civil war was raging.
I had no interest in being an eyewitness to war, but North Kivu had caught my attention for its mountain gorillas and position at the center of Africa's Great Lakes region. As a friend of a friend, I thought Kiley might be a good guy to tag along with for my first trip to Africa. He immediately rejected my plea to join his expedition, then did his best to discourage me from going it alone. From a twenty-minute phone conversation, here are a few of the more memorable moments:
"Congo's not the end of the world, but it's bloody close. As deep bongo as it can be."
"You can get eaten in the Congo."
"You mean by animals?"
"No, by humans. Try to stay off the menu, mate."
"You're kidding, of course."
"No, I'm quite fakking serious."
"Congo is very advanced fakking horror. Think Marlon Brando in the final scene of Apocalypse Now and then take some acid and you're close to it. I'm properly not kidding."*
"All Eastern Congo is a front line. A full-on war is going on."
"It's not at all rare to come across eight- and ten- and twelve-year-old boys with AK-47s using someone else's intestines to set up a roadblock."
I wanted to go to Africa because I didn't want to go to Africa. And I didn't want to go to Africa for many excellent reasons. Malaria. Cholera. Bilharzia. Yellow fever. Genocide. AIDS. War. Famine. Rebel attack. River blindness. Lions, hyenas, and other wild animals that occasionally maul and kill even dedicated pacifists. Eighteen hours in the coach cabin of an airplane. The aforementioned worms that nest in human sex organs. National dishes such as "foufou" that cousin Michelle reported on from her latest posting in western Africa as "gelatinous balls of yam or cassava with a thin sauce on top, often slimy okra."
All of which made me want to go. Not counting the eighteen hours.
Allow me to explain. While I'm admittedly a person who cowers instinctively from tests of individual resolve, I am at the same time strangely attracted to them. Like walking a little too far out onto a ledge or agreeing to speak at Rotary Club luncheons (where my little act goes down about as well as a hair in your throat), I often do things that I absolutely know I shouldn't. The Thompson coat of arms is, after all, a man being handed a beer while someone else twists his arm.
But beyond being an admitted contrarian-- and, yes, part of the reason I'd chosen the Congo was because almost no one else would-- I believe there's value in doing things the mind cautions against. Two episodes from my adolescent years come to mind. One winter, I agreed to play the part of the little drummer boy in a local Mormon Christmas pageant. (Juneau was small and apparently there were no Mormons in town who could keep 4/4 time.) Several years later, I took mushrooms with my reprobate friend Roger Sinclair and attended a midnight showing of An American Werewolf in London. Trusted advisers had counseled me against becoming involved with either mushrooms or Mormons, and upon making the decision to enter into both of these strange worlds, I was instantly consumed with anxiety and regret. Nevertheless, I plowed through both experiences, found one only slightly more bizarre than the other, and both, once the scarifying events were behind me, at least partially rewarding.
Challenging one's assumptions doesn't necessarily mean refuting them. I became neither a Latter Day Saint nor addicted to psilocybin. Sometimes it's just as valuable to reaffirm your belief system as it is to disprove it.
The larger point is that one should never let one's own moral compass go unchecked for long. The world changes too fast. The worst thing is to become stagnant. Comfort is the enemy of creativity. Or, if you prefer your searching personal philosophy from Saul Bellow (who will appear again shortly in the unexpected role of traveler's aid in Africa), "Trouble, like physical pain, makes us actively aware that we are living."
We've done a lot to eliminate trouble and physical pain in this country. Like yours, my life is and largely has been too easy. I wouldn't have said or believed this at twenty-five, an age at which I believed high school geometry, female rejection, mean bosses, Ronald Raygun, and the inexplicable hot-rotation popularity of Duran Duran counted as legit personal traumas. In retrospect, I see that I've had far too little to complain about. Aside from the fourteen thousand exposures to "New Moon on Monday" and "The Reflex."
We've become soft. Like Jell-O. You. Me. Everyone. America. Americans. Too fragile to breath in someone else's cigarette smoke, ride a bike without a helmet, or play Texas hold 'em without a pair of wraparound sunglasses. We're turning into a nation of fearful twats, obsessed with supposedly tragic childhoods, lousy parents, career disappointments, social outrages, political grudges, and long lists of personal grievances that until recently were collectively known as the human fucking condition.
Our edges have been beaten away by trophies handed out just for showing up; schools that no longer make kids memorize multiplication tables; doctors who pass out brain meds like Skittles; and therapists who indulge the public's every impulse to whine and wallow in self-obsession. The pussification of America, promoted by corporate empires with an interest in keeping the nation locked in a state of suspended me-me- me childhood, is especially insulting to anyone with a memory that stretches back to a time when comic books and superheroes were cultural mainstays only for those under twelve years old and our national leaders didn't use words like "bad guys" to describe criminals, misfits, and every third unlikable foreigner.
Years ago in the Philippines, I hired a small catamaran to take me a few miles offshore to Hundred Islands National Park. The first mate was the captain's son. Eight years old. The kid ran around hauling jugs of fuel, dragging anchor chains, rigging fishing gear, and tying half hitches and bowlines like Vasco da Gama. I have no doubt that boy is running his own charter operation today; and that if his apprenticeship had taken place in the United States, social workers would have seized him from the abusive father before he'd had time to learn port from starboard.
If I sound angry it's because I'm no less culturally flabby than anyone else. My problem is that I can't afford to be. For travel writers, maintaining an intrepid reputation is vital in the never-ending quest for more work, and my biggest professional secret is an ugly one: much of the world scares me. Or worries me. Or, at the very least, repels me for no better reason than the extreme physical and social discomfort I'm certain a visit will require. There aren't supposed to be limits on "adventure travel," but until now I've privately kept a list of not-for-me destinations where beyond disease, crime, filth, intestinal viruses, and the possibility of rectal bleeding, I'm equally turned off by prejudices against pushy locals, monstrously bad food, paralyzing constipation, and hotel beds with only one pillow (I require two, minimum).
For several years I've been appearing periodically on a Canadian radio program hosted by an amiable iconoclast named Andrew Krystal. Like many others, Krystal reads my dispatches from places like Saipan and Kursk and assumes the best/worst of me. This has led him on occasion to introduce me to the "Krystal Nation" as "Indiana Jones's long-lost son." My limp protests to these pronouncements are meant to project an appealing, boyish humility--"Heh-heh, not really, Andy, but I'll admit that brush with the locals in Pago Pago was a close one." In fact, they mask the stuttering false modesty of a semifraud.
International competence is the stock in trade I've sold to editors and publishers for years, but like anyone else I'm given to wondering how one does manage to traverse the Congo, one of the largest countries in Africa, when it barely has a functioning government or infrastructure? More worrisome than my own wherewithal is the competence of others. Don't stories of airplanes crashing in remote jungles, tourist-laden buses plunging down ravines, and overloaded ferries sinking to the bottom of oceans come all too frequently from the more "exotic" parts of the world? Is it really wise to travel overland in places where car horns double as brake pedals?
And these are just the obvious concerns. Upon reflection, Africa proves to be the mere tip of a blade of personal paranoia that widens like a bloody cleaver on a butcher's block. Beyond the continent of Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin are dozens of places I've heretofore avoided even more assiduously than Dave Matthews albums.
I can probably be pardoned for not getting around to Yak Heritage Days in northern Mongolia or autumn leaf peeping in New Hampshire, but for a guy who's spent years passing himself off as a well-rounded traveler, three other locations stand out as the most shameful holes in an otherwise respectable resume. You wouldn't think that a man in my position could have managed to avoid not only Africa but also give the slip to India, Mexico City, and, perhaps most astonishing of all, Walt Disney World. Yet year after year I have. And happily.
Not only have I been to none of these traveler touchstones, I've diligently avoided them, and for mostly lame reasons. My fear of AIDS, for instance, is dwarfed by my fear of standing in line in the Florida sun next to rotund people from New Jersey and Texas who steadfastly refuse to discipline their little Jacobs, Justins, and Caitlins while they run off their Adderall highs in Frontierland.
And food. Being a picky eater is another of my more emasculating confessions. Few pretrip worries weigh on me like the prospect of being the haole guest of honor at some native banquet presented with a steaming bowl of goat ovaries and baked kittens while a klatch of locals watch in anticipation to see if I merely love the national cuisine, or really love it! Or, worse, figuring out what exactly the discerning palate falls back on in countries where chipotle flavoring has yet to make significant inroads.
But this unholy quartet of locations doesn't merely signify my personal hellhounds. Each of them, and for different reasons, are places many Americans spend their lives turning their backs on. Presumably for good reason. Of the dozens of people I've known who have survived India, for instance, not one, not one, has returned without some horror story involving a no-holds-barred bout with a gastrointestinal ailment that rendered them half-blind for days on a damp cot in some reeking backwater "hotel" praying for a merciful and speedy death.
"It's practically a given that a visiting gut is going to go south at some point on a trip to India." This is the lead sentence of the story that introduced me to India's most widespread reprisal to tourists, a piece in Escape magazine by a writer named Andrea Gappell whose Indian stomach cramps were so painful that she made an emergency visit to a doctor in Agra. The doctor informed her that her appendix was about to burst. After emergency surgery and eight days tethered to an IV drip--"Rows of Indian patients stared at me as they lay flat on sheetless mattresses in the dingy ward"--Gappell was released from the makeshift clinic, only to be informed by locals that the doctor who'd operated on her was notorious for running the old "Your appendix is about to burst; we must operate at once!" scam on panicked travelers felled by severe food poisoning.
Colorful anecdotes like this one are a big reason I've never applied for an Indian visa, despite being a big fan of any dish, movie, or stripper with "masala" in the name. No one wants to spend half his vacation laid out in Bangalore. Yet why go to India and not eat the food? Easier just to stay home.
Aside from being a digestively explosive travel destination (though Cond� Nast Traveler runs stories about India all the time, so how bad can it be?), India is even more intimidating as a political and economic entity. The value of its stock market doubled in the mid-2000s. In 2007, the Economic Times reported an annual 14 percent rise in Indian manufacturing, the largest national growth on the planet. The country's stable, well-regulated banks largely escaped the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. Business-Week and The Economist routinely refer to India as a tech giant and predict the balance of power in the world's economy shifting from the United States to China and India in the coming decade.
On a pragmatic level, it's true that I'm worried mostly about myself, but it does seem to me that now is an opportune time to get a close-in look at the challenges we as a nation are up against in the years to come: new diseases; new rivals; new enemies; entitlement seekers pouring across our borders; armies of hypermotivated, tech-savvy workers battling an anachronistic American labor pool whose most potent job-market skill is the self- esteem acquired in "fun" classrooms and on sports fields where everyone's a star and no one keeps score; an international up- from-the-gutter work ethic that trounces "follow your dreams" with "suck it up, get used to a little disappointment, and find a goddamned job that doesn't play to your dumb ambition to program video games and produce hip-hop records." If, as it certainly feels, the world is closing in around us, it seems worth the trouble to have a look at who and what is on the way.
All this is alarming enough and I haven't even factored in America's diminishing reputation abroad. During the week I began planning my daunting year of travel, the reigning Miss USA, a Tennessee stunner named Rachel Smith, was actually booed in a packed theater in Mexico City. Lustily. Not lustfully.
I don't care what side of the political divide you rattle your saber on or what you think of the wondrous Obama ascension, a moment like this demonstrates far more than any flag burning, effigy bashing, or orchestrated protest just how far America has plummeted in the world standings of likable countries (at the moment fighting for last place with North Korea). When one of the quantifiably hottest women out of a population of three hundred million from a country known for flashy displays of its most lurid perversions can parade her perfectly hard, twenty- two-year-old, multiethnic, beauty- queen, bikini- wrapped body in front of an arena filled with partying Mexicans and get booed, you can't help wondering what kind of reception you're going to get when you accidentally wander into the barrio at two in the morning with your head spinning with tequila and Los Lobos lyrics.
If you pay attention to media drumbeats, of course, you already know that testy pageant crowds are the least of Mexico travelers' concerns. The latest orgy of yanqui panic, fueled by more of those totally reliable State Department travel warnings and a blanket recommendation from university presidents around the country advising students to avoid Mexico during spring breaks, feels less like sober assessment and more like a concentrated effort to paint our next-door neighbor as a terrorist narco-state. Current conventional wisdom is that Mexico doesn't simply present the United States with a drug and illegal alien problem, but with a genuine security threat. From Face the Nation's dyspeptic Bob Schieffer to Rolling Stone magazine-- there's actually less of a difference between the two than you'd imagine, these days--there's been a tremendous effort to lump the land of margaritas and mariachi in with the likes of Iran, Pakistan, and Al-Qaeda.
Written by Guy Lawson, the Rolling Stone feature kicked off with an account of a violent drug raid in Mexico City carried out by a hundred federal agents wearing ski masks and armed with assault rifles. It claimed: "The real front in the War on Drugs is not in cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Ju�rez, or in the Sierra Madres, where drug kingpins hide out, but in the corridors of power in Mexico City." Typically, efforts to scare Americans away from Mexico have focused on crime around the U.S.- Mexico border. Now Lawson and plenty of others would have us believe that extreme toxicity also runs wild in the capital. And maybe it does.
"Extreme tourism" means different things to different travelers. It's often associated with billionaire space tourists and bombastic cable TV hosts who pit themselves, alone and ill-equipped, against the Tasmanian wilderness (save for whatever supplies are required to keep union television crews powered, fed, rested, and safe). For those who would complain that some of the places covered in this book might not meet a strict definition of "extreme," I maintain that anything that gets the traveler out of his or her comfort zone, or forces them to challenge their belief system, fits a fluid criterion.
To some, extreme travel might suggest living in a grass hut in Borneo for six weeks, but if you're the sort of person who enjoys spending time in grass huts, what's so extreme about that? No question, prowling the Russian steppe for wolf meat and potato vodka takes a certain amount of admirable grit. Far more frightening to me, though, is the prospect of exploring the comely mermaid fantasy of Ariel's Grotto inside the walls of a twenty-sixsquare-mile temple of consumerism dedicated to celebrating synthetic American culture at its overcrowded, fake-dreams, corndog-and-cotton-candy-inhaling worst, pushing a CEO-manufactured, ultraconformist mass "fantasy" presented fait accompli to American children. If it turns out there's more horror to shrink from in Disney World than in Africa, I for one won't be all that surprised.
While standing resolutely behind my newfound willingness to face down extreme challenges, I don't want to create unrealistic expectations. This isn't a book about dangling from the end of a rope off a nine-hundred-foot rock face along the south ridge of K2. You'll not find me dodging bullets and IEDs as I creep with my aide-de-camp Kareem over the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan.
I don't sleep well in the best of circumstances. I'm in reasonably good cardiovascular condition, but I have the arm strength of a man half my weight. I'm leery of heights. I'm not interested in solidifying my reputation as a wisecracking bon vivant by dying young (relatively) and leaving a good-looking (relatively) corpse. You can make your own fairly accurate assumptions about the mettle of a guy who includes Orlando on his primary list of scary places.
But if there's one lesson I've prized from my years of travel it's this: no place is ever as bad as they tell you it's going to be. Government bureaucrats are more concerned with covering their asses by issuing ludicrous "warnings" than with disseminating accurate situation reports. And our "news media"--if you want to call information largely regurgitated from self-interested corporate and government sources "news"--operates pretty much like your one crazy drunk friend, the guy who has a hysterical public reaction to even the smallest events, exaggerates all of his stories, and gets in a tizzy over every opinion whether he agrees with it or not.
I don't have to be reminded that the world collective is united in its dread of the Congo; that power vomiting on legless beggars is the national sport of India; that Mexico City is a sweltering hole of pollution, disease, cardboard shanties, and homicidal drug syndicates; and that I've got some personal issues to work through regarding Florida in general and Disney World in particular. It's just that for every warning I've ever gotten not to do something, someone has always been around to hand me a beer and twist my arm. And, of course, take my money for the privilege of showing me places and things that, while not always pleasant, usually end up leading to some surprising and enlightening discoveries.
* I love idiomatic British-English. Deep fakking bongo. Properly not kidding. Discussions with people who talk like this always make me feel about ten IQ points smarter. I easily would have been one of the hillbilly rustics suckered in by the Duke and King in Huck Finn.