Bad Lands by Tony Wheeler is a good read
"Bad Lands" is a good read.
As co-founder of Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler has not invested a massive chunk of his life travelling to nearly every country on the globe without something stirring his political libido.
He's a keen observer, astute and perceptive, is generally lucky with guides and drivers, and seeks out the right ruins and people in the know, even in failed states and rotten kingdoms. He always has an eye for what qualities there are - just in case they ever open up. In a word, Wheeler is an optimist.
"Bad Lands" is not a guide book. It's a physical and political travelogue through some of the less savoury countries on this lonely and overcrowded planet where "people, not nature, had made the wrong turn" - including Afghanistan, Albania, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Some bad lands Wheeler has already visited and knows well - like Burma - where he loves the people, but loathes the junta. Ditto Iran. Charming, hospitable, ancient, educated and proud, but run by a maniac and advised by the downright dangerous.
But what makes the book particularly interesting are his views on Saudi Arabia, which he hated, North Korea, which he found so preposterous he couldn't stop giggling, and sleepy backward Albania, which has the worst drivers and some of the best crumbling castles in the world.
"Of course, our food is all organic," Wheeler's Albanian tour guide explains, "because our farmers can't afford chemicals and fertilisers."
And then there's Gadaffi's weird, trash-strewn Libya and amazing Roman architecture.
"Its dishevelled and tatty buildings make Libya look a much poorer country than the statistics indicate, and even the statistics aren't too exciting.
"Like Saudi Arabia, Libya is a country with so much money sloshing around that it clearly should have better figures in everything from infant mortality to literacy. So Gaddafi's school report isn't going to be a glowing one: 'tried hard, but easily distracted and end results not impressive.' "
Saudi is no place to be a woman and the worse place to have an accident if you are a foreigner.
"Don't have an accident here, you'll always be at fault," an English resident advises.
"This is his country, he belongs here, you don't and had you not been here the accident wouldn't have happened."
It was also a running joke during the Kuwait Gulf War that you'd a get US$1,000 (Bt34,500) prize if you spotted a Saudi carrying anything heavier than money.
The end of the book is perhaps more revealing than intended. Wheeler devotes a small chapter on what he calls his "Evil Meter" - that is, just how bad does a country have to be to get on it? And finally "Other Bad Lands" is a chapter actually packed with countries with dubious systems and hypocritical policies.
And let's face it, it's almost impossible to name a country that doesn't have something wrong with the way it runs its government or treats its people. But then Wheeler, humorous as ever, always expected the worse and hoped for the best.
"Tirana [Albania] has been a much brighter, livelier and more orderly town than I'd expected. The potholes in the street haven't been as big as I'd been looking forward to and on the way back to my hotel even the street lightening is better than it should be."
Tony Wheeler has probably seen more, done more and met more people in his life, than the rest of us can only dream about. He is often asked where his favourite destination is, and his honest answer is, "The departure lounge."
REVIEWED by ROGER BEAUMONT