Resourceful traveler: Specialty travel and guidebooks
By JUNE SAWYERS
Change Your Life through Travel," Footsteps Media, $14.95; ISBN: 978-0-9770168-0-8
"Walking San Francisco," Wilderness Press, $17.95; ISBN: 978-0-89997-419-4
San Francisco is one of the world's great walking towns. Every part of the city is covered in this guide from the most tourist-saturated to neighborhoods that visitors usually stay away from. Author Tom Downs has divided the city into 30 neighborhood walks. Each of the highlights is clearly marked and the distance (from 3/4 mile to 51/2 miles) and difficulty (from easy to strenuous) determined. The neighborhoods include the Embarcadero, Chinatown, North Beach (including North Beach bars), Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Fisherman's Wharf, Pacific Heights, Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park. Gay bars, Painted Ladies, the Gold Rush, the Summer of Love, earthquakes, literary streets and alleys (such as Jack Kerouac Alley) -- Downs covers, if not quite everything, certainly many of the city's highlights.
Can travel change your life? Author Jillian Robinson firmly believes so. A travel documentary filmmaker, she has followed in the literary footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Isak Dinesen, D.H. Lawrence and others. And then there's the not-so-famous: ordinary people who she has met during a life on the road. How can travel change your life? She offers specific ways. Among other things, it can raise self-esteem (being on your own, she reasons, allows you to discover the confidence that you didn't know you had); in an increasingly risk-averse world, travel gives you the opportunity to take calculated (or not-so-calculated) risks, even if it means something as simple as trying one new thing each year or seeing your hometown through a new lens; travel is the time when you live in the moment. At its most transcendent, she suggests, travel can deepen your understanding not only of the world but also of yourself.
"Bad Karma: Confessions of a Reckless Traveller in Southeast Asia," Academy Chicago Publishers, $17.95; ISBN: 978-0-89733-565-2
Tamara Sheward represents a side of travel writing that is the opposite of what we have come to expect of the genre: rather than playing the role of the respectful, deferential visitor she represents the flip, sarcastic and politically incorrect foreigner in a strange land. The funny thing is Sheward, a twenty-something Australian writer, loves venturing into unfamiliar territory -- the more unfamiliar the better. As she makes clear early on, she never had any interest in visiting Southeast Asia. Her ultimate travel goal was to (1) to escape from her fellow countryfolk and (2) to avoid the backpacking, pseudo-spiritual, self-righteous sorts. Alas, this was a road that led her straight to Asia. Off Sheward and her equally acerbic mate Elissa go. Humor is subjective, of course, and some people will be turned off by Sheward's profane and flippant attitude, but to this reader, "Bad Karma" is an absolute hoot -- rude and uncharitable it may be, but it is also the funniest travel memoir I've come across in recent memory. I won't even begin to describe the duo's absurdist, surreal adventures. But I don't think Sheward will be hired any time soon by the Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese or Cambodian tourist boards. Guaranteed, though, you'll learn several new words, including "farang" and "oop." Don't ask. Just read.
"Mexico 2008," Fodor's, $21.95; ISBN: 978-1-4000-1792-8
Some things most everyone knows about Mexico, such as Day of the Dead celebrations, strolling mariachi bands and tortillas (according to the book, the average Mexican eats nearly a pound of the ubiquitous staple every day). In this hefty guide, you will also find plenty of information on other aspects of Mexico: diving and snorkeling, colonial architecture, ancient cities and ruins, and off-the-beaten track locations. Virtually every Mexican city or town has a main square. The largest in Latin America is the Zocalo in Mexico City, which receives fairly extensive coverage here. Arts and arts-related subjects also receive the royal treatment. Two of Mexico's most famous artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, get their own special section, including descriptive listings of Kahlo and Rivera museums. Pottery and ceramics, crafts and monasteries, Baja spas and specialty shopping in Puerto Vallarta are all covered too. Chichen Itza, one of the most famous of ancient Maya cities, is lovingly described. Safety issues and other practicalities are also addressed. Includes an extensive chronology.
"Belgium & Luxembourg," Lonely Planet, $21.99; ISBN: 1-74104-237-5
Every country has its unique set of challenges. Belgium is no different. Some are familiar worldwide problems (an aging population, affordability of social security), others are less universal (integration of migrant workers into a country not typically known for the diversity of its population). And then there is the sensitive political issue of the language divide (Flemish vs. Walloon). All of these serious topics are discussed with thoughtful consideration. And then there is the fun stuff, including an entire chapter devoted to beer, beer and more beer. If all you know about Belgian beer is Stella Artois, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Beer quaffing is a national pastime in Belgium. Every beer arrives in its own glass, "uniquely embossed and specially shaped to enhance the taste and aroma." There are Trappist beers -- made by Trappist monks -- lambics (considered the champagne of beers), golden ales and specialty beers made by small-production breweries. And then there is tiny Luxembourg (pop. 469,000), a country with three languages (French, German and the national tongue, Letzebuergesch) and a mostly rural setting with forests, vineyards and medieval castles.