Bad Lands (Book Review)
Bad Lands – A Tourist on the Axis of Evil. By Tony Wheeler. #1741791863, 327 p., $15, Lonely Planet Press, c2007
How bad does country have to be, to be "really bad"? What is it that makes a country "evil", really? How much of what is known to outsiders is myth and how much is history, per any closed or restricted society? These are some of the starting points for Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler's recent project that took him to what are, allegedly, the most repressive, if not dangerous, regimes in the world. Wheeler posits that his book is not an account of the world's most dangerous places, mostly because he's "...careful, cautious, and has a low tolerance for pain." So, the work is certainly not to be confused with offerings like Robert Pelton's danger-now projects ( www.comebackalive.com ).
As he acknowledges, not every destination is on the so-called "Axis of Evil" (and, no, Wheeler didn’t toss Ortega’s new Nicaragua into the mix). Wheeler sets off across nine countries, or “bad lands”: Afghanistan, Albania, Burma [o.k., Myanmar], Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Not all of the countries were selected for the same reasons. The fact that (with the possible exception of Burma & Cuba) these destinations could not possibly be any further removed from the average tourist’s destination map, only serves to make the book more interesting - and not just for armchair travelers.
Wheeler has his own not-so-impressive "evil meter", designed to measure what he sees and experiences. It measures how a country treats its own citizens, if it is involved in terrorism, and if it is a danger to other countries (and using this meter alone he has not necessarily visited the most evil countries in the world, and until recently he had a Lonely Planet office in one such country). The meter, while more than a literary curiosity, might just serve to exaggerate differences that are not always the most important, while helping to overlook anything that doesn't register on the fictitious handheld (North Korea ends up labeled a gulag run by Monty Python, etc.) - but the book is much more than the meter.
The countries Wheeler had visited earlier in life prove more interesting per his commentary today (Iran, and especially Afghanistan). Though far from a successor to P. J. O'Rourke's "Holidays in Hell - In Which Our Intrepid Reporter Travels to the World's Worst Places and Asks, What's Funny About This?", there is something remarkably insightful, sad, superficial, and comical about the adventure and most of the stops on it. The work was sometimes criticized for having been poorly edited. As with his "Unlikely Destinations", there are comments and brief sections that are tangential and not always rewarding, but a few in 300+ pages is nitpicking. The conversational-like entries did not detract from my reading of the volume. In fact, this sort of narrative seemed to match well with an on-the-road work like this. While sometimes criticized for taking himself too seriously, or for not being serious enough, the work, given the subtitle, is on target (after all, it was not an attempt at investigative journalism or Pulitzer Prize-winning history). For what it is, and the author states this quite clearly, the work is well done, original, and worth reading - regardless of whether or not you have any real intention of visiting these places, or agree with Wheeler, politically (often, I don't).
*** Tony Wheeler is also the author of “Rice Trails: A Journey through the Rice Lands of Asia and Australia” (with photographer Richard L’ Anson), "Time & Tide: The Islands of Tuvalu" (with photographer Peter Bennetts), "Chasing Rickshaws" (again, with photographer L' Anson) and, most recently, "Unlikely Destinations - The Lonely Planet Story"; he is the co-founder of Lonely Planet, and though he has handled dozens of different titles, to this day he remains the LP guidebook author (or co-author) for the following recent titles: "East Timor", "Falkland & South Georgia Islands", "Tibet", "Paris", "Britain", "San Francisco", & "Tahiti". ***