Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Review: The Routes of Man, Ted Conover (2010)

If you have ever wondered about how AIDS emerged from Africa, this is the book to buy. Conover went to Kenya twice - once in 1993 and again in 2007 - to chronicle an event that has had immense significance to the world. He takes as his point of focus roads, and how they "are changing the world", as the subtitle of this book states.

But he's not just interested in the route taken by AIDS within the bodies of superstitious truck drivers in this poverty-stricken corner of the globe. Conover's book begins with an in-depth survey of how mahogany is sourced so that it can be used to adorn some of the world's most expensive real estate. To do this, as in Kenya, Conover rides aboard a dilapidated truck. This time it's over the Andes of Peru into the upper reaches of the Amazon basin, where the rare wood is taken illegally from areas of forest the government of the country has declared protected.

In another chapter, Conover hitches a ride with a "self-drive" expedition in China on a site-seeing trip along that country's mostly new highways. We are introduced to the successful Chinese businessman at play.

In 'A war you can commute to', Conover braves the checkpoints of separated Palestine. He subjects himself to these crossing multiple times as he describes the hardships faced by Palestinians living within a virtual prison.

And near the end of the book Conover takes us to Africa's most-populous country - Nigeria - where we come face-to-face with the notorious 'area boys' - homeless youths - who make Lagos' highways their home. In this poor country, roads are a source of income. This takes the form of salvaging dropped items - how the area boys earn a living - and police graft.

Conover is a sympathetic and broad-minded witness to situations that many would find intolerable. He strives to see both sides and his writing is enriched as he attempts to give as complete a picture of the scenario as possible. Already, before writing this book, a well-known story-teller, here Conover excels as he spends weeks, months and years trying to solve riddles that most people would acknowledge in passing, but never put a foot forward trying to answer.

Highly recommended.

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