Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ted Conover’s Roadside Attractions

Photographs and design by Jason Fulford

Story by William T. Vollmann
Published, New York Times: February 16, 2010


How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today

By Ted Conover
Illustrated. 333 pp.
Alfred A. Knopf.US $26.95.

“In cities, roads turn into streets.” To burn Brazilian rain forests, and thereby raise cows and soybeans, “you had to have a market, and to have a market, you had to have a road.” For these and other aphorisms, please voyage through the pages of Ted Conover’s “Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today.” Despite the subtitle, which might have been tacked on by the marketing department, this book offers no general theory of roads, and most of you are unlikely to say, at any given page, “Yes, this is exactly how I live today,” unless you are involved in any or all of the following:
1) Truck transportation of legal and illegal mahogany logs on Peruvian mountain roads sufficiently high and frightening for the gringo observer to get altitude sickness and the driver to light a votive candle at the summit.

2) Walking 40-odd miles on a frozen river high in Ladakh, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, because there is not yet any permanent road in that particular spot — and, by the way, the river might not stay frozen, in which case Lobzang Tsetan, the one-eyed porter from Zangla, will throw a couple of handfuls of dirt onto the narrow shelf of ice that still projects from the side of the cliff, in order “to reduce the chances of falling into the dark deep water that rushed alongside,” then hug the wall of the canyon, after which it will be your turn.

3) Riding one of the truck routes in ­Kenya through which AIDS might first have spread and continues to be spread.

4) Commuting between Palestinian and Israeli zones in the West Bank, with attendant rock-thumpings and checkpoint humiliations.

5) Speeding recreationally and in formation along Chinese highways.

6) Creeping (and paying extortion fees) here and there through the sclerotic arteries of Lagos, Nigeria, which by 2015 may be the third-largest city on earth and which, in the words of the architect Rem Koolhaas, “has no streets; instead, it has curbs and gates, barriers and hustlers. . . . Even the Lagos superhighway has bus stops on it, mosques under it, markets in it and buildingless factories throughout it.”

Conover’s travelogues can be fascinating in and of themselves, and his meditations about roads frequently achieve an even higher order — thoughtful, temperate and generous all at once.
Read more - NYT.

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