Although I haven't reviewed many for this blog, I am a big fan of travelogues. I think perhaps it's that I'm such a big traveller myself (I'm writing this entry, for instance, on a train from Edinburgh to London after an impulsive holiday) that I enjoy reading the things that happen to others when they travel. There is nothing quite like experiencing new cultures and places and travelogues are the closest we're ever going to get to a real life adventure.
In Blackwell's book, a quest of sorts develops after a trip to a very polluted town in India at the tail end of a vacation. Seeing the way this town has been ravaged, he nonetheless finds it the most interesting part of the trip and so the theme of this book is founded: Blackwell is going to become an ecotourist of the world's most polluted places.
Treating each trip like a vacation, Blackwell visits places renowned for their ecological problems: Chernobyl, the oil sands of Northern Canada, Port Arthur, Texas and the like. At each place, he treats the disaster as any other tourist trap, something to investigate and enjoy. Through this, the reader gets to understand both exactly what is happening at that point of the world and also a view of what it's really like, not just what the news portrays.
The book starts a bit slow and, surprisingly, I found the chapter about Chernobyl to be one of the weaker ones. Perhaps it is that, as the trip continues, Blackwell throws more of himself into each subsequent trip, making the quest more and more personal as it goes on. It becomes more than a trip; it becomes something that he can cling to when his fiancee breaks off their engagement.
That is one of the things I found most interesting about this book: there is an entire story told in perhaps fifty sentences total spread throughout the book about Blackwell's life outside the adventure. He proposes to his girlfriend, she says yes, the wedding is planned and upcoming and then she breaks it off. Although it is barely discussed in the novel, there is a definite undercurrent through the writing that intensifies as the travelogue goes on. I found this a very powerful device and it helped me get even more into the narrative.
Each chapter, as well, is memorable for different reasons. The Amazon chapter is entertaining if only for Blackwell's guide, Gil, who is such a ridiculous character. The chapter he spends at sea trying to find the giant pit of garbage in the ocean was perhaps my favorite, playing up how much Blackwell wants to be a sailor and written more like a captain's log than a narrative chapter. I was completely pulled into that chapter and was sad when it was over. I really enjoyed pretending to be a pirate with Blackwell.
Blackwell has a great style, telling each story with humor and empathy. He doesn't pull his punches and he definitely isn't afraid to hide anything. He comments on everything he sees and really seems to appreciate the trouble everyone is going to to help him out in the quest. He forms real bonds with the people he meets in each country, to the point where I could see him keeping in contact with them for a long time. It's things like that that really make travel diaries.
Although it's a bit slow at times, Visit Sunny Chernobyl! is a fun exploration of worldwide problems. It's fun and interesting, a great combination. I would recommend it for those who enjoy travelogues and those who enjoy reading about the environment.