Six great trips in “Routes of Man”

Ted Conover closes his fascinating new book with a Springsteen quote from “Thunder Road,” and that’s not even the best thing about it. I couldn’t put this book down, and every page was enlightening and surprising. In fact, it made Springsteen seem like a hack — what with all his wonderful stories about freedom and youth and love and hopes and dreams. OK, so I still love Springsteen, but Conover travels some less familiar roads for the stories in his book.

“The Routes of Man: How Roads are Changing the World” shines six spotlights on stories of globalization.

First, Conover follows illegally harvested mahogany lumber from Peru to a Park Avenue condo. After writing articles for home improvement websites about buying local, sustainable wood, the chapter offered a very different perspective on imported hardwoods. First, protections against illegal harvesting are poorly enforced at best. Also, Peruvian villagers don’t need to be saved by d0-gooders, thank you very much. The author doesn’t find much backing in the country for the push by NGOs and environmental groups to block deforestation and new highways that would allegedly destroy their way of life. With a currently desperate way of life, they would be glad to see some change.

In the middle of Asia, he finds a group with a seemingly harder lifestyle who are seemingly less enthusiastic about globalization. In a northeastern, largely Buddhist region of India, the only way in and out of some villages is to walk down a frozen river through a steep gorge. Despite a treacherous, brutal traverse, many villagers were not anxious to see the completion of a promised road to their village.

Due east of the village, Conover takes a different and less dangerous trip with a “self-driving club” of newly middle-class car owners in China. No matter how many similar stories I read, I can barely comprehend the staggering speed of progress in China. The country added 20,000 miles of highway and 18 million  new cars between 2000 and 2008. By 2035, China plans to significantly exceed the 46,000 miles of U.S. highway, which has taken more than 60 years to build. The “self-drivers” are giddy about their new toys, and proud to flaunt their wealth — and accelerator pedals.

Accelerators don’t see much use in Lagos, Nigeria. Two familiarly dark chapters take place in Africa. One retraces the possible spread of AIDS through trucking routes in east Africa. Prostitution is still widespread, and condoms are still not. Interestingly, the efficiencies and computerization of the American trucking industry has spread to a country with otherwise intermittent electronic and technological infrastructure. Safety has not. The roads are treacherous, and co-pilots (“turnboys”) are not navigators or companions as much as security guards.

Still, Kenya and Uganda seem like safe havens next to Lagos, where traffic crawls among corrupt cops, brazen youth gangs and reckless drivers.

The best chapter is his trip through the villages, checkpoints and constant boiling tension where Israel meets Palestine. He spends a couple of days at a time trying to commute and travel as a Palestinian, then a couple of days manning the checkpoints and monitoring Palestinian travel as an Israeli soldier. Both tasks seem crushing, but Conover remains almost impossibly fair and cool. I was almost grateful to glimpse some human frailty when he finally snapped after an Israeli and a Palestinian had each offered stupidly racist comments.

Throughout the book, Conover does a great job of writing in first person without inserting himself in the story. He’s ridiculously ballsy, but it’s barely acknowledged throughout the book. The closest he comes is an admission that the State Department, adventurous friends and even his gut instinct tell him it’s crazy to travel to Lagos. He also pulls off the difficult narrative journalism trick of showing, not telling, his opinion about some tough, ugly situations.

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