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.

Where the Hell is Matt—the book version, a perfect read for 2010

This time last year, Matt Harding was named traveler of the year by World Hum. His video, “Where the Hell is Matt?,” the one funded by Stride gum had gone viral earlier that year. No wonder. If there’s a secret to world peace, Harding had found it.

Start dancing a silly, but engaging dance and people will dance with you-most people. The guard at the DMZ in North Korea won’t dance.

In his book Where the Hell is Matt? Dancing Badly Around the World, published earlier this year, Harding tells the stories behind the video. The book is as real and honest as the video version. What makes Harding’s brand of world travel work is his lack of pretense.

This is a guy who likes people who people are drawn to by the droves.

What is made clear in the book is that Harding was as surprised by his success as anyone. He merely started out dancing at various spots around the world and filming his flailing. It was a spontaneous gesture. Once that video gained recognition, Stride gum approached him about round two and that’s when Harding’s life changed.

His book, as well as being an engaging and humorous look at the stories behind the story, delves into issues that can haunt the traveler using the people in various parts of the world for personal gain.

Harding, along with his girlfriend Melissa who held the camera for part of the video, was uncomfortable knowing that he was earning money for his efforts while some of the people he filmed were living in dire conditions. A guy with heart, Harding came up with solutions he–and Melissa, could live with. For example, at the school in Madagascar, Harding made a donation to the school as thanks for allowing the children to participate in his creation.

Making a video of dancing badly is not the easiest endeavor, even though the dancing looks as easy as pie. The shot snorkeling in Vanuatu was a feat in perseverance where a couple of minutes are, thankfully, all that was needed. That’s just one example.

The book also makes clear that Harding had no idea what a treasure he was creating. Even after the video was finished and Harding began promoting it, he had no idea. It wasn’t until he sat down one night to watch it over and over that he knew. When Harding saw his creation from the rest of our eyes, he did what most people who saw it did. He cried.

If there’s a book that will keep you engaged and give you the motivation to keep up the good work of honest, open world traveling in 2010, it’s this one.

Talking Travel with Avalon travel writer, Joshua Berman

Avalon travel writer, Joshua Berman, whose Moon Belize guidebook (8th edition) hit book stands in October, took time from his busy book tour to answer a few questions about travel, writing, and living and breathing idyllic Central America.

Don’t forget to enter the Gadling Giveaway of the latest edition HERE (you only have until tomorrow to enter!), or read my glowing review of Moon Belize HERE.

Enjoy the interview!

GAD: Not that I’m criticizing your choice here, but how did you end up in Belize? In your mind, what makes it such a special travel destination?
JB: It was a natural northerly progression, beginning in Nicaragua in 1998, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; followed by Honduras as both a trip leader and guidebook researcher. Then one day my publisher asked if I would take over Moon Belize from Chicki Mallan, the book’s original author, who was retiring. I said yes.

GAD: Based on your experiences living and traveling in Nicaragua and other parts of Central America, how does Belize contrast with its neighbors?
JB: Belize is less crowded, more diverse, more expensive, and just as tranquilo as Guatemala, Honduras, or Nicaragua. Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America and its heritage as a British colony also makes it stand out from the rest of Central America (including Belizeans’ unique affinity for dark beer and stout).

GAD: What are your favorite things to do in Belize, and how do those activities reflect who you are as a traveler?

JB: I like to hike, paddle, and meet people. I also like to run into old friends, which happens every time I visit Belize. My favorite is when these activities all combine, like when I run into people I know atop Maya pyramids, on rivers, or in caves. It speaks to how small and special a place it is.

GAD: Can you tell us something about Belize that the less knowledgeable traveler may not know?
JB: Belize has one of the biggest cave systems in the world, the highest waterfall in Central America, and the planet’s first (and I think only) jaguar reserve. It also hosts one of the world’s longest and most grueling canoe races every March, La Ruta Maya Canoe Challenge.

GAD: With ever increasing eco-tourism and travel advancements in Belize, what kinds of changes do you see for the country as a travel destination within the next ten years?
JB: Belize is constantly walking the line of sustainability when it comes to tourism. There are always massive projects being proposed to increase cruise tourism, the airport, and the size of the developments on delicate islands and wetlands. But when it comes down to it, more than 70 percent of Belize’s 500 or so hotels have 10 rooms or less. That means small structures, family-run hotels, and lower impacts on the environment than big resorts and mega-hotels, which are standard fare just up the coast in Cancun. Also, I’d like to think that there are just too many forward-thinking people involved in Belize tourism to let it go astray. Belize recently hosted the third annual World Responsible Tourism Conference, which is a big deal. Ten years from now, I think Ambergris Caye and Placencia will continue to be built up, but the rest of the country will remain wild and small. We’ll see.

GAD: Based on your bio, I gather you split your time between Central America and the Rocky Mountains. How is this lifestyle and do you see it changing?
JB: I teach Spanish in Colorado during the school year and I travel to Central America on jobs during my breaks. Sometimes my family gets to tag along (here’s my two-year-old, Shanti, on her first backpacking trip to Nicaragua). It’s a tricky juggling act, but so far it’s working out, and it allows me to get my travel fix every few months while maintaining a home, job, and family.

GAD: What other parts of the world (not Central America) appeal to you – and why?
JB: My wife, Sutay, and I went to Pakistan on our honeymoon. This was in 2005 when it was a little edgy but not as dangerous as it seems to have become. We went north to the Hunza Valley in the Himalayas, which was one of the most spectacular lost worlds I’ve ever seen. It makes me drool to think about the milk tea and the glaciers and the apricot soup and yak-wool hats … incredible spot and very welcoming people.

GAD: What will be your next project as a traveler/travel writer?
JB: I’m putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of my first narrative book. It’s a travel memoir about my honeymoon and is tentatively entitled YOU WILL SOON BE CROSSING THE GREAT WATERS: A Love-Marriage Memoir from Pakistan, India, Ghana, and The Gambia. I’m hoping to publish it independently in the next year. I’m also updating two guidebooks this winter, Moon Nicaragua and Living Abroad in Nicaragua, with my coauthor, Randy Wood. You can always stay updated on my blog, The Tranquilo Traveler. See you out there.

Gadling is currently accepting entries to a giveaway of Josh’s Moon Belize guidebook. Entries are due tomorrow — Wednesday, November 18 @ 5 p.m. EST!!!

While you’re at it, check out my review of Moon Belize, too. You won’t be disappointed!

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

A few months back I heard a fascinating bit on NPR’s All Things Considered about a coffee table book that was recently published called, “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats,” by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. I had been meaning to find it in the bookstore, but like most things in life the intention was lost. Then, earlier this week I stumbled upon the book sitting on a table in my sister’s living room and immediately immersed myself in its contents.

The premise of the book is fairly straightforward: Identify 30 average families from 24 countries around the globe and photograph the family with a week’s worth of food. The results, however, were astounding. For instance, the family in Bhutan eats meals made up entirely of fruits, vegetables, and rice, which by the looks of it barely appears to be enough for its 7 adults and 7 kids. In contrast, the family of four in the United States has a diet almost completely made from processed and packaged foods.

Each family is profiled with illustrations, a back story, as well as a catalog of food items and how much it costs to feed the family for a week. To give you just a sense of the stark contrast, the Bhutan family spends just $5 per week, whereas the family in the U.S. spends about $350 per week. In Chad, though, the situation is quite dire. A family of six (3 adults and 3 children) eat a diet of beans and rice with a small portion of veggies and fruits, spending a mere $1.25 per week.

This coffee table book is truly a fascinating look at what the world eats, and really demonstrates the difficulty for developing nations to provide a balanced diet for its people. Based on my own travels abroad, and my experience having difficulty striking the same healthy balance of eating abroad as I do at home, I found the book to be a very accurate portrayal of how average families can still struggle to eat nutritious meals.

Travel Read: The 10 Best of Everything for Families

With summer coming to a close, don’t despair. Use Labor Day’s respite from work as a time to set your sights on future travel. Pouring over the pages of National Geographic’s 10 Best of Everything for Families by Susan H. Magsamen is an eye-candy path to an ideas bonanza. Having future travel goals can help one feel better about being back to work or school.

When I leafed through this book, it was clear, it could take years to sample even a fraction of the ideas. Close to home or far away, the “10 best of everything” includes 10 several times over. For example, do you want to know where you can find the 10 best sandcastle competitions? The 10 best coastal cliffs? How about the 10 best farm visits? The 10 best African gatherings? It’s all here and more.

Magsamen must have had a time of it keeping track of her notes and figuring out how best to organize this vast body of information. The result is impressive.

The book is divided into thematic topics that first covers the different regions of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, and then tackles the U.S. as a whole. No matter what your pleasure, there are destinations a-plenty with appeal for a multiple age crowd. Keep the book’s organization in mind while you browse. I kept having “Aha moments” as in, “so that’s how this book is organized. Clever.”

For example, categories like the “ten best regional specialties” and the “ten best parks and playgrounds” are repeated for each region in chapter one, “The spirit of exploration.” As you move through the pages, you learn about the regions of the U.S. and their simple to access travel options.

To find out things like the best caves in the U.S., however, look in “ten best depths” in chapter three–“traveling to learn.” Both Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, my two favorite caves destinations, are listed with brief descriptions of each. Plus, there are eight more caves. This chapter is also where you’ll find out about African gatherings, as well as, several other events that are ethnic group related. These are only part of the categories.

If your sights are set past the U.S. borders, turn to chapter five, “see the world.” Here are suggestions of the you can’t go wrong going here type destinations.

The last three chapters of the book, “travel wish list,’ “family memories” and “resources” are a round-up of personal experiences and travel tools.

Throughout the book there are quotes, factoids and travel tips related to each topic that fill out the reading pleasure.

Although this is not a book that will give you all the nuts and bolts of a particular destination, it’s a glorious buffet of ideas to return to again and again. The message of the wealth is that you’d better get cracking because there is A LOT to see–as in 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 . . . Pick up the book and you’ll know what I mean.

Oh, yeah. The most important messages are that family travel is fun, and it doesn’t take as much effort or money as one might think.