"The Routes of Man"
By Ted Conover
Knopf, 336 pages, $26.95
It was a bad night for sleep: En route to Uganda from Kenya and staying at the apartment of the truck driver he was accompanying, Ted Conover was kept awake by a wall clock just overhead, which not only ticked loudly but played a few bars of music every hour, all night long. With a start, he realized that "I had been plagued by the exact same model [clock] at a thatched-roof settlement" on another continent, in Peru on other travels.
In Conover's new book "The Routes of Man," this Chinese-made clock is a small but potent testament to globalization. Conover's trips, undertaken to investigate the effect of roads on varied societies, brought him to South America, the Indian subcontinent, east and west Africa, the West Bank in the Middle East, and to China itself, "factory to the world." While Conover examines troubling issues that road-building can entail - pitting development against environmental concerns, or isolation against connectivity and possible erasure of local cultures, for example - it is his strong sense of life's clock ticking all around him that lifts his reporting above the ranks of travel-as-usual literature.
Major sections of "The Routes of Man" originated as magazine articles in venues including "National Geographic," "The Atlantic" and "The New York Times Magazine," so the sense of an assemblage is inescapable here. Some parallels between the parts exist naturally, and Conover attempts to develop common themes and use small intervening road riffs (on the growth of Broadway, say, or the paths radiating out from New Mexico's Chaco Canyon) to help foster the sense of an organic, integrated whole. "The Routes of Man" never quite gels as that, but its polyglot sections are individual gems of journalistic work.
Conover begins with a New York cabinetmaker but jumps quickly to Peru, covering opposite ends of the global market in mahogany, in which the United States is the world's largest consumer and Peru a principal supplier. (Caribbean and Honduran mahogany have already been largely exhausted; this concerns big-leaf mahogany found in Brazil, Peru and Bolivia, also in danger of over-harvesting.)
South Americans' eagerness for a cross-continental highway to surmount the barrier of the Andes is implicit here: Such a road would reach Brazil's highway network and eastern ports, but also speed products of the Amazon basin west, to the Pacific, on larger trucks. Conover's investigations leave him in the thick of a develop-or-die debate and probing black-market trade in mahogany, in which his hands-on account is revelatory.
Conover rides down the backside of the Andes on a fuel tanker that carries passengers on top as well, whose driver, Braulio, he points out, was piloting "a highly explosive bus." Through local contacts, Conover manages to visit a mahogany camp in the jungle, most likely in protected terrain where cutting is illegal - it was best not to ask, he was told when he pressed the question. Such camps "abounded anyway, and were almost always involved in cutting mahogany," where a raft of boards, rough-cut, strapped together and floated downriver to transportation depots, can be worth $16,000.
"The Routes of Man" leaps to northernmost India next, to a remote Himalayan village named Reru in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, reachable via a road that is only seasonal. The Indian government's project for a year-round road has been slowed by difficult terrain and a shortage of manpower, but the rationale for it hinges partly on national consolidation, since the people feel more kinship with Tibetan Buddhists nearby than with India itself. Here most poignantly we see the tension between isolated local life and the wider world, with the elders dressed in traditional heavy maroon wool robes and the young in multicolored nylon jackets and fleeces. Conover accompanies a party of teenagers from Reru on a trek toward a new life for themselves, an exit made by hiking forty miles on a frozen river. He muses that little before Western cultural influences "ever inspired a generation to abandon its ways of dressing, of trading, of religiosity."
The most gripping portion of "The Routes of Man" brings the reader face to face with the struggle between Palestinians and Israeli forces in the West Bank, in an atmosphere that bears hallmarks of low-intensity warfare. "The battlefield is no longer a highly militarized beachhead, plain, or jungle but a road, a checkpoint," Conover writes. Intent on gaining a view from both sides, he ends up accompanying patrols of the Israeli Defense Forces and taxiing around with Palestinians to submit himself to the checkpoints.
"The arbitrariness of checkpoint rule enforcement makes life miserable for Palestinians," Conover observes, more than once detailing humiliating circumstances. Omer, the commander of an elite IDF unit and one of those who squires Conover around, concedes that in Israel's occupation, "the collateral damage in moral terms is unbelievably problematic," but he also considers the West Bank's main north-south 60 Road to have become "a thruway for terrorists."
Elsewhere in "The Routes of Man," Conover travels with a Chinese driving club, in a nation whose passenger car numbers quadrupled between 2000 and 2008, from 6 million to 24 million. "Car culture is taking root in China," he remarks, "and in many ways it looks like ours." He also journeys from the east coast of Africa to the interior, partly to find what customs and beliefs prevail when it comes to AIDS, and spends time on the west coast in Lagos, Nigeria, in a separate report. In Lagos (which before long will be the world's third most populous city) he rides with ambulance crews and finds a city bulging beyond formal control, crime-intensive and with a bevy of police forces that contend with each other. A cautionary highway sign in pidgin there warns, "Life No Get Duplicate." That's something Conover understood before he hit the road, and brought back to show us.