The Elliott Interview: Author Chuck Thompson

Chuck Thompson is the author of the just-released book, To Hellholes And Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism, a follow-up to his wickedly funny Smile When You’re Lying, a takedown of the travel writing business. So where are the hellholes?

Congo, India, Mexico City and — “most feared of all,” Disney World.

Contributing Editor Christopher Elliott asked him elaborate.

What’s the common thread between your designated ‘hellholes’?

On the most basic level, they’re all places that have earned extremely negative reputations with people who have never been there. Taken together, they represent the whole spread of traveler paranoia — from crime, disease and bloodshed to standing in long lines in the Florida sun next to little Caitlins and Coopers waiting to get on the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith.

India’s death-or-glory salesmen and promise of GI infections intimidated me personally, but as a global outsourcing hub and magnet for terrorists, it neatly packages the worst economic, cultural and political fears of modern America. So, a book covering these places seemed like it would have both personal meaning and universal relevance.

What’s the point you were trying to make by visiting these places?

I didn’t start off with any point in mind other than to confront some of my own biases and see what happened. I try to approach everything I write about with as agnostic a mindset as possible, which, sadly, is not much the fashion these days.

The predictable and perhaps natural way to go into a project like this is to assume that you’ll come out at the other end with a cheery, hands-across-the-sea message of global brotherhood and a stern lesson about judging others from afar. But I went to these places willing to call a spade a spade. If my experience supported it, I was fully ready to say, “You know what? I was right. This place really does suck. This society is completely screwed up.”

What I finished with was something in-between. The Congo and its ubiquitous AK-47s I never need to experience again. But I gained more respect for Miley Cyrus than I would have thought possible.

Of all these destinations, which one scared you the most?

Easily the Congo. For one, just the genuine threat of violence. I mean, there’s a civil war going on there.

But more than that, the complete lack of information was alarming.

It turns out virtually nobody goes to the Congo. Consequently, it’s almost impossible to get an accurate idea about what’s going on there, how to get around, and so on. Even the major guidebooks devoted to Africa include only a few perfunctory pages about the country. And all the Africans I spoke to said, “Do not go to Congo under any circumstance!”

For a while I thought I’d have to abort the trip. Then I found Henri, who got me through the country, but turned out to be an adventure in and of himself.

It seems as if you’re saying as much about tourists — specifically American tourists — as you are about the destinations you visit. What are you trying to say?

My general point about American tourists is that by and large I think they’re pretty polite and open-minded and no worse than any other travelers and not at all deserving of that old “ugly American” tag.

The larger thing I discovered while traveling for this book is that while everyone seems to love bitching about the Americanization of the world — from McDonald’s to Disney to gluttonous consumerism — the reverse seems to be much more the case these days. The world is influencing America far more than America is influencing the world. And often not in a good way.

Political corruption essentially taken for granted. Religious intolerance. Municipal bankruptcy. Enfeebled currency. Military adventurism. Toothless media. In one section I used the dismal ascendancy of soccer in this country as a symbol for all of this social decay — which I know will get a lot of people thinking I’m an ass in the same way that I angered Eric Clapton fans by dumping on him in Smile When You’re Lying, but to me it’s an apt and sort of funny metaphor.

You seem to have laid off criticizing travel writing in this book, for the most part. Do you feel as if you made your point in your last book, or do you still have something to say about travel writing?

If so, what is it?

I suppose I still have plenty to say about travel writing and much of it isn’t complimentary. But, yeah, I got a lot of that off my chest in Smile and so it seemed pointless to cover the same ground again.

Most tourists try to stay away from danger. Yet danger seems to be a character in this book. Should we fear danger? Or does it make for a more interesting vacation?

Sure, danger makes for a more interesting story, but I’m a tourist who enjoys a beach resort in Cabo as much as the next guy. I can have fun without danger.

But “fear” really is an interesting part of travel. In part I did want to make the point that all of these “official” and not-so official warnings about how dangerous the world is outside the United States are just plain dumb. No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be. Government bureaucrats are more concerned with covering their asses by issuing ludicrous “warnings” than with disseminating accurate situation reports.

I just got back from Cambodia. One travel advisory I looked at before going, which claimed to be quoting the U.S. State Department, told its readers never to get inside a tuk tuk or open taxi. What a joke. Tuk tuks are a perfectly reasonable way of getting around. It’s inconceivable to me that anyone who has been to Cambodia could possibly have written such nonsense.

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A lot of travelers hardly leave the safety of their hotel rooms any more, and when they do, it’s to visit a guidebook-approved tourist trap. What do you think people miss when they vacation in that kind of a bubble?

They’re not missing anything more than the backpacker or adventure crowd is missing by not experiencing the gratis champagne service in first class or the sunset view of the Grand Canal from a suite in the Hotel Danieli in Venice.

To be honest, I’m pretty weary of this idea that luxury or package travel is somehow less authentic than couch surfing or backpacking or showing up in a Third World country and taking outdoor baths in plastic tubs with water dragged up from the river. Backpackers love getting their noses in the air about the legitimacy of their travel, as though the scumbags up the hill in their air-conditioned four stars are somehow not having a real cultural experience. All travel is authentic.

Captain Cook always had his own stateroom with feather pillows and silk sheets, he hobnobbed with the upper crust everywhere he went, he was a stickler for hygiene and never left home without a few cases of good port tucked away on the foredeck — and no one ever accused him of lacking for an adventurous spirit or authentic contact with the locals, what with discovering Australia and being hacked to death by natives in Hawaii and all.

Do you think you’ll ever return to any of the places you visited for your latest book?

Congo almost certainly not. India, maybe, if you paid my way. Disney World, yeah, but only with a kid in tow. Mexico City I’ve already been back to and am going back again in March. What a fantastic city, right up there with London and Hong Kong among my favorite oversized world cities. Mexico City was definitely the big surprise of this book for me. I could live there.

Is there a larger lesson about the world we live in that you want readers to take away from your book?

I make a few arch points in the epilogue, but mostly I just want people to laugh and be entertained. You know what one of my favorite things in the world is? A quick, funny, entertaining, easy read that can get me through a couple of three-hour flights without giving me a headache or boring the shit out of me. For travelers, that’s a valuable and rare commodity and it’s what I go for on every page of the book. If my stories and opinions keep readers engaged for those brutal, endless hours in coach, I’m happy, whether they care about my larger lessons or not.

Chris Elliott is a syndicated travel columnist. You can read more interviews on his travel blog.

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