Book Review and Interview: To Hellholes and Back

Adventure Travel, Africa, Health & Safety, India, Mexico, Travel Books & Movies, Travel Philosophy — By on January 11, 2010 at 6:00 am

By Patty Hodapp
LG Deputy Editor


Chuck Thompson, former features editor for Maxim and former Editor in Chief for Travelocity Magazine, calls the four destinations he never wants to see-Africa, India, Mexico City and Disney World-the four horsemen of his apocalypse.

In his second travel memoir, To Hellholes and Back (Holt Paperbacks; Dec 09) Thompson lists specific reasons why he doesn’t want to visit these places: Cholera, Yellow Fever, hyenas, 18-hour plane rides, famine, rebel attack, war, genocide, AIDS, and national spicy dishes that have you curled up in the fetal position on some seedy cot in the back room of some seedy hotel clenching your stomach in pain, retching and screaming for a swift and sure death, to name a few.

And then, Thomspon decides to visit these four locations anyways.

Perhaps his decision to bravely face “his horsemen” is truthfully a cold, hard case of reverse travel psychology. He says Americans have grown soft, himself included, and he must prove his travel writer toughness by going places he doesn’t want to go. In To Hellholes and Back, Thompson delivers a fairly harsh, only slightly exaggerated judgment of Americans-albeit partly true in my opinion.

He writes, “Our edges have been beaten away by trophies handed out just for showing up; schools that no longer make kids memorize multiplication tables; doctors who pass out brain meds like Skittles; and therapists who indulge the public’s every impulse to whine and wallow in self-obsession.”

In To Hellholes and Back, foraging through the Congo seems like a last ditch effort to bare his teeth and growl in the bathroom mirror to assert his tough-guy-travel-writer-manliness in the face of our pill-popping, pussy breeding culture, as he so gently puts it.

Offended yet?

Don’t be. You’ve never read anything like Thompson before, trust me. His writing is a hybrid of a Bill Bryson memoir (goofy guy gets himself into goofy foreign situations) and a sexually charged Maxim feature.

Thompson has an opinion about everything from African whores to Indian beggars, girl-on-girl brawls in Mexico to the Soarin’ motion simulator at Disney World. And he’s not afraid to express them those opinions in colorful, crude language, littered with curse words and quirky metaphors. But rather than being crude just for the sake of a quick-and-easy joke, the Thompson-personality that emerges here is refreshingly honest and funny. Once you get past the uncomfortable first feeling of “what would my grandma think if she caught me reading this..?” the memoir evolves into a humorous send-up to these four disparate, but fascinating destinations.

If you’re looking for a good laugh, To Hellholes and Back is a must-read. It’s dirty, scandalous, and it’ll give you a completely fresh perspective on travel, travel writing, and the travel industry apart from the glowing review of four-star resorts and beach clubs.

It’s real, and you feel like a real traveler reading it.

Purchase the book now!!


LG Exclusive
Meet the Writer: Chuck Thompson

LGWhy do you travel and what do you get most out of your trips?

CT: I usually travel to spend time with people I don’t get to see enough of – family, old friends, pedicab drivers in warm countries with spicy national cuisines. I used to work for a travel magazine whose editor-in-chief wrote a monthly column called “The Inner Journey.” As the title suggests, the column had the sort of navel-gazing “travel broadens the mind and teaches us about global oneness” hippie hook that you’d expect from the global trekker set.

I loved that editor and still respect him immensely and can buy into that point of view to some degree. To be honest, though, mostly I travel because I’m bored and curious. I think that’s what a lot of travel decisions come down to for many people. It’s good to drink somewhere else for a change.
LGIf you could go one place you haven’t been yet, where would you go and why?

CT: My current wanna-go list: Spain, Laos, Greece, Ireland, Point Barrow (Alaska), and Maine, which is the only state I have never been to. Like your “favorite movies of all-time” list, this one evolves and shifts from week to week. But those places are all mainstays. Spain because I’d like to see if the cities and people are as beautiful as I’ve been led to believe. Laos because I’ve just returned from Cambodia and wish I were still in Southeast Asia. Greece because what kind of travel writer has never been to Greece? Ireland, same reasons as everyone else. Barrow: I’m from Alaska and have been all over the state but never up to the top where all the money comes from – and Alaska’s North Slope is epic, the stark tundra.
LGDescribe your ideal travel partner. What would he or she be like?
CT: My wife reads most of these interviews and this is the equivalent of the “Does this dress make me look fat?” or “Which one of my friends would you most like to sleep with?” question. The answer is the one and only Joyce.

LGWhat are three things that you always bring with you, no matter where the trip or assignment?

CT: Notebook and crazy large supply of gel-ink pens, lots of dollars in small denominations, and dental floss.

LGWhat was the toughest part about writing this book?

CT: Planning and leaving. I hate the logistics of travel and the triumph of the “book your own” ethic makes planning trips about 30 times more time-consuming than it used to be. Great for cheapskate travel companies, hell for travelers. The choices are overwhelming and a month trip now means almost as much time in front of a computer. I spent about three times as much time prepping for the Congo as I actually spent in the country.

Also, it doesn’t matter if I’m leaving for two days or two months, I get horribly homesick for a day or two before any trip. I hate it. Some sort of separation anxiety, I suppose. I’m usually fine once I get somewhere and get moving, but I can’t stand leaving anywhere.

I just left Hong Kong after a five-month gig there and it was like a kindergartener leaving his mommy on the first day of school. I was a mess. But it’s good to be home.

Purchase the book now!!

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