Hikes near Madrid: a new guidebook shows you the way (in English!)

Every year, thousands of English speakers visit Madrid on holiday or to teach English. Most never explore the many hikes near Madrid, and that’s a shame. The Sierra de Guadarrama offers some challenging and varied routes, and the lowland areas of the Comunidad de Madrid offer pleasant rambles. One of the best spots is La Pedriza, which can be a tough slog and easy to get lost in.

One of the reasons these hikes go unexplored by visiting Anglos is that there wasn’t an English-language book dedicated to them. That’s changed with the publication of Take a Hike: The Best 50 Routes in the Community of Madrid. The book is the result of two years of research and walking by expat hikers Beau Macksoud and Cynthia Blair Kane, who also founded Madrid’s only English-language hiking group, Hiking in the Community of Madrid.

I’ve been on several hikes with this book and I can say that it’s accurate and clearly written. Unlike the book I used to hike near Faringdon, Oxfordshire, the maps in Take A Hike are professionally done and easy to follow. They look like they were adapted from Spanish government topo maps. I’ve never understood why some hiking guides think they can get away with sketch maps. In Oxfordshire it’s annoying; in Sierra de Guadarrama it would be downright dangerous.

Take a Hike offers a variety of hiking experiences for all skill levels. It also touches on the history and culture of the area you’re walking through, mentions any local festivals, and even gives you a quick Spanish lesson with a list of hiking and sightseeing-related vocabulary in the margins.

So if you’re headed to Madrid, pick up a copy of this, put the tapas and vino to one side for a day, and go Take a Hike!

[Photo courtesy Ediciones La Librería]

Travel Read: The Coffee Story

As a writer, I read many books by authors I know. As a traveler, I read lots of books set in places I’ve been. The Coffee Story by Peter Salmon gave me the rare chance to read a book about a place I love written by someone I met there.

For the record, I don’t review books by friends because that’s both unprofessional and unwise. Peter isn’t a friend except in the Facebook sense of “I got drunk with this guy once and have his email address”.

I met Peter while I was living in Harar, Ethiopia. Peter’s novel is set in Harar in the 1930s and just weeks before it was published he visited for the first time. That’s right, he visited Harar after he wrote the book.

To 99.9% of his readership that doesn’t matter since they’ve never been to Harar. I have and it did. The book is laden with mistakes. For example, Peter has Harar surrounded by jungle when in fact it’s surrounded by rocky hills and cultivated fields, and where the hell did the Jain community come from? He also uses the G-word for the Oromo. While I suppose this epithet would have been in common usage among whites living in Ethiopia in the 1930s, it will do nothing to endear him to Ethiopian readers.

But this isn’t really a story about Harar, or indeed about coffee. These are simply backdrops with which to tell the story of Theodore Everett, heir to a huge coffee business, now dying of cancer. Most of the action takes place 70 years before, when he’s a kid on his father’s plantation in Harar, where the best coffee in the world comes from. Ignored by his greedy and abusive father, Theodore falls under the sway of an Ethiopian Marxist and other locals, as well as a mysterious white girl who emerges from the jungle one day.

Theodore tells us right off that he’s “not given to suspense” and a terrible showdown is inevitable between the Marxist and his father. To steal the title of a wonderful film, there will be blood. It’s a tribute to Salmon’s excellent storytelling that the final showdown, when it comes, is nevertheless laden with suspense. We have an inkling of what’s going to happen all along, but like two cars veering towards a head-on collision, it’s terrible to see them hit.

While there’s no sense of place beyond a stereotypical “deepest, darkest Africa” worthy of some old Tarzan flick, most characters are brilliantly drawn and often hilarious, and the prose loops and curls in on itself. Like many old men, Theodore repeats himself constantly. This gets a bit irritating but the characters and narrative tension kept me turning pages. The prose is rich (bonus points for using “flibbertigibbet”) and the characters spring to life the first sentence they’re introduced.

I give this book three out of five stars. Sorry Peter, I know it’s my round, but while you’re an excellent stylist and a sharp wit, the whole thing veers a wee bit too close to neocolonialism. You put Harar in a jungle because Africa’s all jungle, right? The Ethiopians all sound like Europeans with a bit of earthy spiritualism thrown in for color, and the only female Ethiopian character is oversexed and two-dimensional. Although she’s sleeping with the underaged protagonist, Theodore’s One True Love is the only white girl he meets in Africa. And the blackface scene made me embarrassed even though I wasn’t the one who wrote it.

There’s an old adage among writers: stick with what you know. Set your next novel in England or Australia and you’ll write a masterpiece.

Travel Read: The East Highland Way hiking guide

Last year for my annual “Oh crap another birthday I need to prove my youth” long-distance hiking adventure, I chose Scotland’s East Highland Way. It runs 78 miles from Ft. William through some beautiful countryside to Aviemore. The route had just been created by hiker Kevin Langan, and was so new there wasn’t a guidebook. Kevin was kind enough to send me maps and a summary preprint of his book and I set off. Check out the link above to follow my adventures.

Now Kevin’s book has been published by independent Scottish publisher Luath Press, Ltd. The East Highland Way is a detailed guide to the route with lots of information on wildlife and history. It’s also richly illustrated with clear maps and photos of Scotland’s beautiful countryside. Full disclosure: I contributed several photos. I didn’t ask for payment, and I don’t receive any royalties. I gave Kevin free photos because I believe in promoting this trail.

I’ve never read a guidebook after going somewhere, yet this strange experience didn’t diminish my enjoyment. Kevin gives lots of detail about side trips I missed and information about Scotland’s nature I wished I’d known before I headed out. I highly recommend the book. Of course, if you’re planning on hiking this route there’s no other book about it, so my recommendation is unnecessary, but it’s nice to know the only game in town has been well played.

The East Highland Way starts at the junction of the West Highland Way and Great Glen Way, both very popular (some would say too popular) routes. It ends at the start of Speyside Way, another popular route. If you want an enjoyable hike that isn’t overrun by walkers, consider the East Highland Way. When I went last year I hardly bumped into anyone. The only other person I heard was doing the hike was a German guy walking a day ahead of me. I never caught up with him and that’s just fine. I loved having the Highlands to myself.

Travel Read: Culture Smart! Ethiopia

I’m headed to Ethiopia soon and I’m busy reading everything I can get my hands on about the country. Thus I eagerly picked up a copy of Culture Smart! Ethiopia. The Culture Smart! series offers insights into the customs and cultures of dozens of different countries. As a first-timer to sub-Saharan Africa I hoped to get lots of insight into a very different world.

Sadly, I didn’t.

The book’s main problem is its brevity–168 small-format, illustrated pages. This means pretty much every section is superficial. For example, in the “Ethiopia’s Cultures” section, the Amhara, Gurage, Oromo, and Tigray, making up two-thirds of Ethiopia’s 79 million people, get one paragraph each. The rest of the country’s numerous and varied cultures are lumped into a single short paragraph. In these thumbnail sketches we’re treated to such statements as, “Gurage people are traders and know the value of money.” Perhaps this is true for a large number of individuals, but it’s simplistic to the point of stereotyping.

The space problem is made worse through frequent repetition and bland statements. In the two-page section on children we learn that parents want them to be educated and will send them to private school if they can afford it, hardly a startling revelation. What we don’t learn is how to interact with children. Do we shake their hand? Kiss them? Tousle their hair? All of these actions are acceptable in some cultures and considered odd or even insulting in others. Is it OK to play with them? Bring them gifts if their parents invite us to their homes? Are boys and girls treated differently? Behaving correctly with children is one of the best ways to do well in a foreign culture, and messing this up is one of the easiest ways to cause offense.

The book is made worse by occasional mistakes and typos. The Italians didn’t “misinterpret” the 1889 Treaty of Wuchale, leading to the Battle of Adwa in 1896, they deliberately mistranslated it in an attempt to gain control over Ethiopia’s foreign affairs. And titling the section on Eritrea “A Thorn in Ethiopia’s Side” is unnecessarily provocative and ignores the numerous periods when the two regions have been united.

Other sections can be quite good despite the space constraints. The sections on driving and doing business in Ethiopia provide a useful primer. Also, there’s enough basic information in the book as a whole that someone who hasn’t done any other reading would find it of value. So if you’re only going to read one book besides your guidebook, you might want to give this a try. But if you’re serious about being “culture smart”, you’ll be reading a lot more than that.

Have you used a Culture Smart! guide? Tell us what you think of them in the comments section.

Step Back from the Baggage Claim: Good airport behavior could change the world

Back in April, Gadling reviewed Step Back from the Baggage Claim, a book Jason Barger wrote about human behavior based on a seven- day trip he took to seven airports without leaving any of them.

For the entire week he observed how people conduct themselves in airports and on planes–places he sees as metaphors for life.

This video, just released yesterday, encapsulates what Barger was looking for when he went airport hopping and what he hopes might occur because of his experiences and the book he wrote as a result of them.

Yes, dear Gadling readers, according to Barger, if we learn to behave at the airport, we might change the world.

Along with Barger’s message, this video captures airport bustle and interactions in a nutshell.

Stay tuned tomorrow for an interview with Barger. All airports are not created equal.