A Review Of The Best American Travel Writing 2012

Tijuana. Chernobyl. Sicily’s mafioso strongholds. Cairo’s Garbage City. The contaminated holy waters of Varanasi, India. Bosnia. Norway’s frozen tundra. These might not be the places you’d like to visit on your next holiday, but you will want to read about them in the latest edition of “The Best American Travel Writing(2012), which came out on October 3.

I’ve been an avid reader of this series, which is edited by Jason Wilson, the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, Obscure, and Overrated in Spirits,” since it debuted in 2000. Each year, there are stories that resonate with me and others that make me wonder how they qualified for such a prestigious anthology. Everyone has their own taste, and I for one, would have featured Jeffrey Tayler’s essay in “World Hum” about the travel memories conjured from an old address book, Gadling contributor David Farley’s fascinating account of his time in Minsk, or any number of other stories that appeared here on Gadling over a few of the selections in this year’s collection.And longtime readers of this series can’t help but notice how it seems to get slimmer and slimmer each year. This year’s book weighs in at just 222 pages, the leanest ever, while most of the previous editions of this series tipped the scales in the 300-400 page range. Bigger isn’t always better, and I don’t know if the trend is a sad commentary on the genre or if the publisher is simply trying to keep the price from rising above the current $14.95, but I hope the collection bulks back up in the future.

But BATW is always worth a read and this year’s edition, edited by the author, William T. Vollmann, has a host of standout pieces. The best travel stories are almost always about the kind of places mentioned in the outset of this post – unlikely tourist destinations – and BATW 2012 underscores that reality. Here’s a brief rundown of my favorite pieces from this year’s volume.

Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden,” by Henry Shukman, Outside

Tourists have been permitted to visit Northern Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone since January 2011, but I still think Henry Shukman is nuts. In the aftermath of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, 2 towns and 91 villages around the site were evacuated and some 600,000 workers engaged in a massive cleanup operation that left many stricken with cancer and other ailments. According to Shukman, some 2.7 million people around the region were affected, but these days, the 1,660 square foot exclusion zone is a “big untamed forest” where wildlife is making a comeback.

Shukman’s research is impressive and he tells a great story, but the highlight for me was his willingness to drink samogon, a local moonshine produced in the exclusion zone. I wouldn’t have done it, but I certainly enjoyed living through his experience.

Garbage City,” by Elliott D. Woods, The Virginia Quarterly Review

I’m not sure I’d want to spend a lot of time in the garbage dumps of Cairo, but Woods’ story about the city’s zabaleen- Coptic Christian recycling entrepreneurs was surprisingly fascinating. According to Woods, the zabaleen turn 80% of what they collect into postwaste, salable materials. Woods’ account of how the zabaleen have survived despite the entrance of multinational waste management firms is a must read.

“My Days with the Anti-Mafia,” by Thomas Swick, The Missouri Review

I have deep roots in Sicily and have traveled all over the island, but I’d never heard of Addiopizzo, an organization that supports businesses which refused to pay protection money (pizzo), until I read Swick’s informative and beautifully written story. Swick takes us to Zen 2, Palermo’s worst slum and introduces us to brave Sicilians who are standing up the mafia, despite the risks.

The Reckoning,” by Kenan Trebincevic, The New York Times Magazine

This essay from a Bosnian refugee who returned home to confront a traitorous neighbor is one of the book’s shortest but most compelling pieces.

The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame,” Bryan Curtis, Grantland

What do you want from Tijuana my friends? You want to meet a girl? As soon as I read that lead, I knew I was going to like this story, and it was actually even better than I bargained for. Curtis’s account of his trip to the now gringo-free T.J. in search of an obscure sports museum is hilarious.

But it’s also full of perceptive observations about how the U.S. media portrays all of Mexico as a “bloody slaughterhouse” rather than dissecting the crime problem as the “complicated, regionalized” issue that it is. Americans have mostly abandoned T.J. but Curtis concludes that the violence that scared thrill seekers off may now be “mostly a creation of the American mind.”

Maximum India,” by Pico Iyer, Condé Naste Traveler

India’s holy city of Varanasi, Pico Iyer tells us, is like a “five-thousand year old man who may have put on a fcuk shirt and acquired a Nokia but still takes the shirt off each morning to bathe in polluted waters and uses his new cell phone to download Vedic chants.” Well then, just how polluted are those holy waters?

They “flow past thirty sewers, with the result that the brownish stuff the devout are drinking and bathing in contains three thousand times the maximum level of fecal coliform bacteria considered safe by the World Health Organization.” Iyer, who lives a reclusive, unconnected lifestyle in Japan, knows how to tell a story and this is a characteristically rich, insightful piece from one of the world’s great travel writers.

Amundsen Schlepped Here,” by Mark Jenkins, Outside

Jenkins has made a career out of embarking on trips that sound dreadful but are great fun to read about, and this account of his 100-mile cross-country skiing adventure across Hardangervidda National Park in Norway with his brother is no exception. Jenkins is the rare writer with the fortitude to persevere against winds and cold that kept them to a pace that, at one point, brought them just 14 miles down the path after seven hours of grueling exertion. The story also contains some thought-provoking insights into the Amundsen-Scott race for the South Pole in 1911.

[Photo credits: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Flickr users Tim Suess Shackdwellers Intl and JPereira]