I don’t re-read books very often, but this time it was an easy decision. I had devoured the hardcover edition of The Routes of Man when it was first published (review here) and enjoyed it—immensely.
When I found out Dick Hill had narrated the audio version of Ted Conover’s latest book, I had to hear it. I listen to audio books frequently (okay, all the time) and enjoy Lee Child as much as anyone. I couldn’t quite imagine the voice from so many taut Jack Reacher tales also taking me through the cultural immersions that comprise Routes.
But Hill’s readings are crisp, precise and energetic and he quickly drew me into Ted’s travels again like I was reading it for the first time. And there’s some real-life tension in many of these pages that would give Jack Reacher pause – the unpredictable Area Boys in Lagos, Nigeria; the brittle ice road in Ladakh, India; hanging on for dear life along the “rules, what rules?” highway with the Beijing Target Auto Club at warp speed.
The Routes of Man is equal parts gripping, insightful and colorful and Conover’s effortless style is made for story-telling. He has such an eye for detail and puts himself into such challenging and diverse situations that it’s hard not to feel like you’re along for the ride.
Ted is a friend (it’s true) but I had three specific questions for him when I finished Dick Hill’s narration of The Routes of Man.
If this isn’t enough to whet your appetite, a few more thoughts follow this exchange:
Question: I’m fascinated by how you managed to keep such detailed notes on your travels – on riverboats in Peru, in cars going hair-raising speeds in China, in crammed danfos in Lagos, Nigeria. Can you describe your note-taking process? Were there were times when you were hesitant to conspicuously take notes (say, at a checkpoint in Jerusalem) and decided to rely on memory later?
Ted: The thing is, most of these experiences are so memorable, so different from my life at home, that they remain vivid in my mind even today. But I do take notes, all the time, to make sure I don’t forget the telling details. Unlike with Newjack, these researches were not undercover, so I was free to write down most anything, at anytime. During the day this usually meant jotting in a small spiral notebook that fits in a back pocket. (I’ve posted a picture of some of my notebooks from The Routes of Man on this page.) But that’s just the first step. Most days would end with me taking out my laptop and not simply transcribing those jottings but expanding on them. So in other words, I use the paper notebooks for writing down key details I might otherwise forget (e.g., names, jokes, numbers); then I use a laptop to elaborate on the larger picture and fill it in with subtler things I might be at risk of forgetting a week or month hence. The laptop is an important piece–I type a lot faster than I can write, for one thing. For another, typed notes are searchable, and easy to duplicate. On the road, whenever possible, I’d email notes files to myself so that I’d still have them if the laptop was stolen or the little notebooks were lost.
Question: When did the “good Samaritan” concept and its relationship to roads and travelling occur to you? Was that an idea you had before setting off on the reporting, or something that came later? Did you think ahead of your reporting that there is a “moral implication” to roads?
Ted: I’m glad you asked this — nobody has before. I had absolutely considered the moral dimensions of roads before setting off to do research. They are probably the aspect of roads that interests me more than any other. But the Samaritan angle didn’t occur to me until the day I went to Nablus with the Israeli Defence Forces and the captain took me through a nearby village that he said belonged to “the Samaritans.” At first I assumed he was speaking metaphorically–good people live here. But then I understood that he was speaking literally. These were the same Samaritans as the ones in the New Testament, their descendants a distinct group in that complicated hodgepodge that is the Holy Land. They have Judaic roots, but in their present incarnation they speak Arabic. Anyway, meeting Samaritans got me thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible. That’s when it occurred to me that the parable took place on a road, and that roads are often the place where people decide how they’re going to act toward strangers.
Question: In the chapter “The Road is Very Unfair,” you return to Kenya and Tanzania and catch up with individuals you had met and written about previously. You point out that you made an effort to stay in touch with Obadiah Okello over the years since you first there in the early 1990’s. Have you had any comments or feedback from any of the people in the other locations in this book since “The Routes of Man” came out? Have you stayed in touch with any others from Peru, Israel, India or China?
Ted: … or Denver? 🙂 I just tend to keep in touch with people. My Christmas card list is pretty long. The people I’ve met constitute, in many ways, my life; when possible, I’d rather keep connections alive. Anyway, to answer your question, yes, I’m in touch with people from all of those places. Li Lu, my translator in China, just had her first baby. Awni al-Khatib is now president of Hebron University. Dorjey Gyalpo in Zanskar finally received a copy of Routes last summer (sent through various intermediaries) and emailed me about it (again through an intermediary) last fall.
The Internet makes all of this easier, of course. One of the great things about a personal website is that people I’ve met can use it to get back in touch. A couple of years ago I got an email from Tiberio Rivera, whom I traveled with in Coyotes. He was in Mission, Texas, visiting a cousin; he sent along a photo of his teenaged son. I live for this stuff.
That “I live for this stuff” pervades every moment of the travels in The Routes of Man. Conover is an enthusiastic journalistic / anthropologist and that oozes through on every page.
On the surface, of course, it’s not the Routes or the roads that fascinate Conover or make this book so compelling, it’s the people he meets and the way their worlds are being changed by the new or being-altered infrastructure.
It’s the people who form relationships and roads—routes—both expand our ability to get somewhere, to connect and also define who is not welcome, who is the stranger riding in from another land.
Read The Routes of Man for some terrific armchair travel and a stirring contemplation of what constitutes progress in this day and age in a variety of far-flung corners around the globe. The epilogue is a masterpiece all by itself.
What’s the audio-version rave version of “I couldn’t put it down” ?
I guess it’s “I couldn’t turn it off.”