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January 15, 2010

Book Notes - Chuck Thompson ("To Hellholes and Back")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Chuck Thompson is one of my favorite travel writers. His latest book, To Hellholes and Back, visits travel destinations with the worst reputations and offers his truthful, unprejudiced viewpoints. Thompson has the odd talent of being funny, honest and sincere in his observations, and his often hilarious self-deprecating storytelling style lets his own personality color the book.

To Hellholes and Back is as much about misconceptions and irrational fears as bad places to go on vacation, which makes it an invaluable tool for me as I plan my next getaway.

In his own words, here is Chuck Thompson's Book Notes music playlist for his book, To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism:

A playlist for any occasion, but particularly applicable for To Hellholes and Back, a book about confronting traveler paranoia and places with crappy reputations.

Introduction: The Four Horsemen of My Apocalypse

"Are You Man Enough" — The Four Tops

I never tire of this song — I still have the seven-incher I stole from a store in Palm Springs, California in 1973 during my short-lived juvie shoplifting period. Originally a blaxspolitation-era ode to ghetto grit, in the context of To Hellholes and Back it functions as a summation of the worry and note of challenge I tried to strike in the intro.

Chapter 1: The Funniest Joke in Africa

"Ndozvamaida" — Thomas Mapfumo

My favorite African pop track of all time. The lyrics are indecipherable to me — says the narrative takes the side of a woman unjustly wronged by her husband — but the propulsive beat and cheerful melody reflect my decision to search for the lighter parts of the Congo, rather than embark on the timeworn quest for the "Heart of Darkness." This song never fails to put me in a good mood — I hope the woman in it got her revenge.

Chapter 2: In This Way Children Are Fed and Girlfriends Kept Happy

"Picture Me Rollin'" — Tupac Shakur
"Liar's Bar" — The Beautiful South

My encounter with a 2Pac doppelgänger in Botswana actually occurs in chapter three, but this piece of machismo urban bravado — "Picture Me Rollin'" goes in and out of the top spot in my list of Pac favorites — reflects the attitude one quickly acquires in the Congo as a means for coping with the never-ending series of bribes and confrontations with soldiers and cops.

This is also the chapter in which my slippery Euro fixer Henri really hits his stride, so I also mention "Liar's Bar," from the outrageously undervalued catalog of The Beautiful South, whose defiantly British founders Paul Heaton and Dave Rotheray are the best pop songwriters of the last 25 years.

Chapter 3: The Most Beautiful City in the Congo

"Kupanda" — Madilu System

This is from a CD I bought just after a couple of teenagers tried to rob me in the streets of Matadi. In an effort to re-establish some good vibes and keep Matadi off my shit list, I found a CD seller on a nearby street and began chatting him up about local music. Madilu System — a heavyset Congolese dude — was among his recommendations.

I buy a lot of local music wherever I go and this one turned out to be my favorite from Africa. It's from a CD called La Bonne Humeur. Madilu System is associated with "soukous," the genial dance music of Congolese origin sometimes called "African rumba."

Chapter 4: We Have a Winner

"A Change is Gonna Come" — Sam Cooke

History comes into clear and unsettling focus when you come face to face with people whose ancestors we know primarily as terrible statistics from history texts and cinematic recreations of the slave trade. All across the continent, I was consistently moved by the unexpected familiarity of the African people and the instant "American" kinship we shared. In a weird way, this often made me feel at home in a very foreign place.

Talk to Me — the Don Cheadle biopic about Washington, D.C. deejay Petey Greene — showed on my Delta flight home from Johannesburg. This Sam Cooke song was used to great effect during scenes of the DC riots after MLK's assasination — it was also used in the movies Malcolm X and Ali — and provided a surprisingly emotional airplane moment for me on the flight home. The whole difficult trip kind of came flooding back at me during this scene. Outstanding movie, by the way.

Chapter 5: Heretics in the Temple

"Milan" — Karsh Kale

India intimidates in a lot of ways — terrorism, rampant GI viruses, fried curd balls — but guys like Karsh Kale keep alive the wanderer's dream of hypnotic Indian wonder. This swirling, orchestral instrumental runs 8 minutes and 54 seconds, yet every time I hear it I think it ends too soon.

Chapter 6: The Unyielding Indian Workforce

"In the Wild" — Hoodoo Gurus

Crossing the Thar Desert in the dead of summer with the windows of your Tata hatchback rolled down is pretty much like sitting in a rolling pizza oven while someone blasts your face with a hair dryer. The only thing worse than making this journey with a Hindu fatalist behind the wheel cranking the Best of Bollywood Duets for seventeen straight hours is making this journey with a Hindu fatalist behind the wheel cranking the Best of Bollywood Duets for seventeen straight hours while your wife is in the backseat starting her period.

And, yes, I know, the brilliance of Bollywood, but spend all day in a car where the only CD is the above-mentioned collection of screechy "classics" and I promise the tune you'll be singing when it's over won't be "When the Mango Harvest Comes and the British Twats Are Dead, I'll Ululate For Thee."

The Aussie guitar blitzkrieg on this Hoodoo's road-trip narrative comes as close as I can find to a sonic tribute to the Thar Desert epic recounted in chapter six.

Chapter 7: Sex, Rain and 100 Percent Cotton

"Bhangra Fever" — MIDIval PunditZ

I thought about Robbie Williams' "Monsoon" here because I think he's unfairly maligned in the states. And everywhere else, for that matter. But, great as "Monsoon" is, it really has nothing to do with the swampy downpour I endured alongside the trusty Baiju, one of the coolest guys I met in India.

Almost as cool is this classical-Indian-raga-meets-electronica track from New Delhi-based MIDIval PunditZ. I was sent a review copy of this CD in 2002 and it's never fallen completely out of my rotation. I wasn't ever able to interest any publication in a review of the disk, but I've since included this song on a dozen or so mixed CDs I've made for friends. No complaints yet.

Chapter 8: Red Fighters, White Tequila and Cruz Azul

"A Matter of Time" — Los Lobos
"Nogales" — Climax Blues Band

About the plight of Mexicans crossing the border to look for work in the United States, "A Matter of Time" offers gut-wrenching Mexican underclass perspective on the immigration debate. It's one of the most heartbreaking songs I know. Included here to reflect the outrage surrounding America's border policies that fuel a lot of the fear and paranoia many Americans harbor about Mexico.

Honorable mention to "Nogales" by the Climax Blues Band. Not by any stretch CBB's best work, but a funny song about gringos getting tossed in a Mexican prison, another classic fear for traveling yanquis.

Chapter 9: The Electric Shanghai Bob Margarita Acid Test

"Gringo Honeymoon" — Robert Earl Keen

From my all-time favorite Texas songwriter (maybe tied with Willie), "Gringo Honeymoon" works because chapter nine is dominated by the dauntless Shanghai Bob — Blackguard of the Orient, Man of Indiscreet Solutions — who, in addition to sharing my enthusiasm for Keen, appeared at least momentarily headed for his own gringo honeymoon.

At Plaza Garibaldi, while mariachi bands blared and dollar beers popped, an exceptionally good-looking, twenty'ish Mexican woman in low-cut, pube-teaser jeans and tight green top leaped into Shanghai Bob's arms with a feral take-me-now shriek. He spent a couple hours squiring her around the plaza before revealing an unappreciated side of himself — returning her with courtly decency to her nervous parents' arms.

Chapter 10: To Sneer or Not to Sneer

"Dreams I'll Never See" — Molly Hatchet

A lyrically dark, Floridian three-guitar rumble to stand as counterpoint to the "Make Your Dreams Come True" sloganeering invoked like a Profession of Faith so ceaselessly across Disney's Sunshine State dominion that its recipients no longer seem able to distinguish between crude salesmanship and old-fashioned greed. If "following your dream" or "reaching for the stars" involves a payoff, financial or otherwise, that's called ambition, not cockeyed optimism. The desire to become a rock star or a millionaire is not a dream. It's an economic aspiration.


"Still Wishing To Course" — Camper Van Beethoven

A quasi-psychedelic number as tricky to describe as the places in this book. If I'd have thought of it when I was writing, I might have cribbed some of the lyrics:

Wishing in the nightmare, thought's a possibility

Realizing action, courting all the difficulty

What a band. Off the top of my head, my mini-Camper Van mix would go something like: "Good Guys and Bad Guys," "She Divines Water," "Sweethearts," "We Saw Jerry's Daughter," "Change Your Mind," "Still Wishing To Course," "One of These Days," "Where the Hell is Bill?" "The History of Utah," "Take the Skinheads Bowling," "Life is Grand" and a couple Cracker tracks like "Teen Angst" and "Get Off This." Hmmm, next time maybe a whole soundtrack employing only CVB songs?

Chuck Thompson and To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Brave New Traveler review
Jaunted review
Killing Batteries review
The Lost Girls review
Publishers Weekly review

Intelligent Travel interview with the author
Juneau Empire profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist for Smile When You're Lying by the author
New York Post article by the author
The Oregonian profile of the author
Page 99 Test for the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

online "best of 2009" book lists
online "best of the decade" book lists

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics & graphic novel highlights)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks