Albert Podell – Around the World in 50 years (#4 of 26)

Date of Purchase (Delivery): 17th January 2016
Date of Completion : 21st February 2016

Sometimes the story behind why you end up reading a book is just as interesting as the book itself. Well okay, perhaps not ‘just as interesting’ but it can be pretty interesting nonetheless…

My first tryst with Albert Podell, the author of ‘Around the World in 50 years’ was while reading this article online : The Hardest Places in the World to Visit

It’s an intersting article but what I think made me really kicked about this were the comments where Podell toed the fine line between giving insightful answers and hawking his book. I’m a bit of a lapsed-geography nut so it seemed interesting.

As young men and women from this entitled generation with high disposable incomes are wont to do, I looked up the book on amazon.in and the usual Indian e-commerce websites to order it without moving my rear. Suprise, surprise – weren’t available. A bit of digging did show the book to be available on the international (or American) versions. Did I really want to buy this that badly? There are a ton of books I buy which I don’t even read – this could so easily end up that way. But oh well, what’s the point of having coming from a nation of 1.2 billion who generously deposits a portion across the world if you can’t use it when you need to? So I asked my brother if he would be kind enough to buy this for me (and is this an expensive price, which converted into poor ol’ INRs it did seem to be). He agreed, a couple of months later sent it over with someone who was travelling to the motherland (haah, surely we’re not paying for international courier!) and a couple of months later that book found its way across the country from 1 metropolis to another.
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As the tale above would summarise, there was a fair deal of pressure after the effort put in to actually read the book and not consign it to the ‘will be read’ section of that boutique book-shelf that we have. I was reading something else at that point of time (Fredrick Forsyth’s autobiography I believe). On finishing that, I picked up this and read the first chapter – which left me with raised eyebrows and not too impressed. I was beginning to fear an escalation of commitment similar to Graham Greene. Nonentheless, a weekend later I did manage to pick it up and although it took a couple of weeks to do justice to, my earlier apprehensions were more than suitably put to rest.

The concept of Around the World in 50 years is simple. This was a guy who wanted to visit every country on earth. Definitions of ‘visit’ and ‘country’ kept aside – which were quite fair, this is a tougher journey than you’d expect. Podell doesn’t necessarily go chronologically – except at the beginning and towards the end as he starts checking countries off – but takes readers through a reasonably coherent highlight reel.

There are a few things which really really worked for this book for me. The first was that I love geography – especially political geography if that’s a term and this was a wonderful way to revise, remember and look up how our world really is. Quite a lot of people like to travel. A few of them might like to rough it out as Mr. Podell does while others may prefer to yacht around – to each his own (I’m really trying to be less judgmental). Point is most of us will not be able to. We will face hindrances in terms of work commitments, family responsibilities and most of all, the unassailable one – which is a lack of money, especially when you’re not earning in US Dollars (tell me Big Al’, does Playboy magazine pay that well?).

The next best alternative is therefore to live through these experiences vicariously. We clutch at stories from people whom we know who visited distant lands and their descriptions. Podell helps us along this journey. The style is conversational, the perspective is first-world enough to relate to (yes, even we in 3rd world countries live lifestyles closer to the 1st world than our brothers closer home) while not being outdated or elitist (well except for the Potty Paper Rating stuff – you need to understand after a 196 countries that no toilet paper is not necessarily unclean or an indicator of poverty, and is definitely better than bad toilet paper). It is therefore the closest way to vicariously travel most of the world in around 5 hours unless you want to watch documentaries about the each nation on earth.

This is also an educational experience. I really enjoyed the fact that the author seemed to have a strong understanding of the politico-economic scenarios of wherever he visited, took time out to find out and share in this book the background, how the nation and the people have changed, details about languages, flora and fauna, roads, historical points of interests and his 2 cents as well. I find a lot of travel and tourism to be check-marky : go here, see this, do that and fly back home. This is more than that – it’s well written thanks to the army of editors, the vocabulary used is befitting the editor of an illustrious magazine and wherever explanations are provided – are with depth and reasoned out. I’m not saying there isn’t any subjectivity involved – this isn’t an encyclopedia – but it’s balanced subjectivity, without too much political correctness either. Where else would you find out about how Nauru was destroyed by phosphate mining, about species such as the pygmy hippo and large lemur’s in Madagascar, waterfalls in South America, voodoos in Togo, difficulties in getting to a lot of places (air travel still does not cover as much of the world as easily as one imagines!), why various countries are paranoid about giving out visas and many more. Sit down with a laptop to Google, keep an atlas handy and this will be an enlightening read.

One of the peeves that I originally had was that this only seemed to touch on certain parts of the world – the more exotic and challenging ones if you may – but then to restrict the manuscript from a 1000 page tome to a readable 300 odd page book, some compromises are inevitable. Some of the experiences do seem a little exaggerated, however am willing to ignore as well. The one thing that however did get my goat – and this may seem like nitpicking – was that on the one place where I did no something about I saw errors. And that kind of made me question the credibility of the rest of the work as well. Referring to Mizoram as ‘Metoram’ – surely any half decent editor or a Google check could correct this for you, the variety of spellings of Dhaka (I know he joked about it but still…) and putting all the North East states of India under the bucket of ‘likely to secede’ (Sikkim, really?) makes one wonder how much of the rest is heresy as well.
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Definitely not a ‘Crocodile Dundee’ on steroids – I don’t see someone who doesn’t enjoy trivia or esoteric geography to like this book. If you do however, it’s an absolute delight – one that will encourage you to travel more and teach you a lot on the way.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★★

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