Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review of To Hellholes And Back by Chuck Thompson

To Hellholes And Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism by Chuck Thompson (U.S. 2009).

Officials in the Congo play an ingenious scam on travelers, but there’s a mystery at the heart of the con.

When a foreigner arrives in the Democratic Republic of Congo via N’Djili Airport, the main international gateway, a customs agent will stamp an incorrect arrival date into the traveler’s passport. The phony date is not random. It’s a date from several months ago, and – the key – it’s a date which fell prior to the issuance of the official DRC visa already pasted into the book.

The intrepid traveler then spends part of her time in the Congo treating with law enforcement officials who all notice that, judging from the stamps in the passport, she appears to have entered the country illegally a month or two before the visa was issued. That’s a serious federal offence, but, luckily, the situation can be rectified for a fee.

It’s a well-conceived scheme which guarantees that international travelers with enough money to arrive in the Congo by plane are always carrying incriminatory documents which can be used by a string of minor functionaries to justify a shakedown. But, as I read about this stitch up in Chuck Thompson’s new book To Hellholes And Back, a question gnawed at me.

How was the customs agent at the airport compensated for his role, the most important part of the plot?

Thompson doesn’t have an answer because, by the time he was detained by a petty despot demanding $500 to correct the irregularity, he was hundreds of kilometers away from the capital in the care of an untrustworthy Belgian tour operator and his Congolese assistants. On this one occasion, the Belgian came through. A sputtering fit of Francophone threats caused the blackmailer to back down, and Thompson was on his way.

Specifically, he was on his way to more hellholes. The conceit of the book is that Thompson decided to visit four of the places he most feared: the Congo, Mexico City, India and Walt Disney World. Thompson included one of those destinations as a joke. There’s nothing scary about India.

Although the sub-continent has its challenges:

Amid the streams of pleas, promises, and come-ons there are flashes of levity – “Sir, wouldn’t you be honored to visit the shop where Richard Gere, Paul McCartney, and Wes Anderson have all bought spices?” Mostly, though, the pressure comes from wheeler-dealer jackoffs who throw themselves at you in unrelenting waves, like post-modern cinematic hyperzombies – forever approaching, hooting, hissing, demanding, wheedling, pawing, clawing, badgering, hassling, negotiating, renegotiating, reneging, hectoring, flim-flamming, lurking, following, promising, promoting, emoting, up-charging, lying, prying, spying, conniving, and, worst of all, sometimes actually convincing you to buy crap you’ve got absolutely no practical use for. All of which makes India by a developing-country mile the most annoying place in the world in which to be a tourist. Of course, I’ve never been to Egypt. Or Target the day after Thanksgiving.
As you can see, Thompson writes in the easy, conversational style he used in his previous book, Smile When You’re Lying, but the tone never becomes cloying or cute. Hellholes reads like a story told at a bar, but one you actually want to listen to. There’s even a few travel tips if you ever find yourself wondering about your choice of lodging in western Congo.

Mindful of the dozens of broken promises that have already marred the trip, I’ve been silently dreading whatever accommodations might be scared up in Matadi. But the Hotel Metropole is an unexpected jewel – a five-story, dark-stone, Venetian-style palace of porticos, archways, ornamental palms, patios, and balconies overlooking an enclosed tiled courtyard. The hotel was built by the Belgians in the 1920s as a vacation spot for privileged whites; along with Chinese businessmen and government dignitaries, the same clientele keeps it in business today.

Just be sure to check the entry dates in your passport.

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