Juha's Reviews > Tony Wheeler's Bad Lands

Tony Wheeler's Bad Lands by Tony Wheeler
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's review
Feb 08, 2009

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bookshelves: asia, central-asia, middle-east, travel
Recommended for: travel writing friends.

Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet, set out to visit nine ‘bad lands’ or countries that are essentially corrupt, where dictatorial rulers treat their own citizens badly, and that pose a threat to their neighbours. As Wheeler points out, it has nothing to do with geography or topography, but with how the people who run the country behave. So how did he choose the ‘bad lands’ to visit? Well, he started with what George W. Bush described as the ‘axis of evil’ (now here some alarm bells are starting to ring): Iran, Iraq and North Korea. He added others that are frequently considered ‘bad,’ including Burma (Myanmar), Cuba and Libya, as well as Afghanistan due to its never-ending troubles. He also included Albania, which mended its ways already years ago, as well as Saudi Arabia, which definitely belongs on the list, although it seldom is included because of the kingdom’s oil and seemingly friendly relations with the United States. The list is by no means exhaustive—and some of the countries shouldn’t really even be on it—but the author apparently had his reasons to travel to these selected ones. As the reader finds out farther in the book, the traveller does take a more nuanced view and does not accept the mostly Western stereotypes of these countries as bad or evil.

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. Tony Wheeler is an overall nice guy and his observations are mostly smart and well informed. However, the stories are too often just describing what he did during the days he spent visiting these nations. There are long descriptions of specific historic or cultural sites and museums, the dinners he had. He also compares what he sees today with his experiences visiting several of the same places on the hippie trail decades ago. Some of the observations are interesting, but others seem trivial. Also, the interestingness of the chapters varies considerably, with some being quite absorbing while others are rather tedious.

In all fairness, much of this is not the author’s fault. After all, these are mostly rather closed societies and only accessible through organized tours—we know that’s not Tony’s preferred mode of travel, but what can he do? He talks to local people to the extent possible, but often it just isn’t as tourists are not encouraged to communicate with the natives. Often the conversations are filtered through tour guides, interpreters and political guardians. Some of the countries, like Cuba, are rather open for visitors to explore on their own; others, like North Korea, certainly are not. Yet in other places, like in Iraq, the security situation limits where a traveller can safely wander.

Some of the best parts of the book are when Tony Wheeler ruminates about the historical and political events that have shaped these countries to become what they are. Here he is able to demonstrate his knowledge of history and understanding of the societies acquired over decades of travel and interest in international affairs. His casual way of relating the stories is appealing.

Towards the end, Tony Wheeler introduces his Evil Meter™ that he then applies to the countries that he has visited. The tool measures countries on three basic scales: how well they treat their own citizens, whether they promote terrorism, and whether they pose threats to their neighbours. He then doles out one extra point to countries with significant personality cults. Rated on this scale, North Korea emerges as the worst of the lot and Cuba scores hardly any points. The book was published in 2007 and does not therefore reflect some of the more recent events (for example the Iranian election debacle of June 2009 or the hero’s welcome to Al-Megrahi, the alleged Lockerbie bomber, to Libya). Whether these would change the results in any way is debatable. One could also criticize the Evil Meter for paying too much attention to terrorism and threats to neighbours (after all, these two are arguably related) and too little to, say, oppression of women. Despite its appalling performance on the latter front, Saudi Arabia emerges almost unscathed!

In the final chapter, Wheeler discusses other bad-lands candidates and, rightly, lists many a country that could be perhaps worse than those visited by him for this book. Somalia, Sudan, Zaire/Congo and Zimbabwe in Africa range from failed states to dictatorships where citizens’ human rights are routinely violated. Others, such as Haiti, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, are pretty bad and Wheeler also lists Pakistan as a noteworthy contender for the status. He also speculates about what scores would the United States of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney acquire, but unfortunately doesn’t provide a rating. Finally, and in my mind correctly, he concludes that there is “the combo that is arguably the baddest Bad Land of them all”: Israel/Palestine.

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