on September 11, 2005
I am not a huge fan of anthologies of articles because they often lack the narrative flow and coherence of a book written by a single author. With that being said, Traveler's Tales Central America is a cut above the standard anthology for several reasons. First, the articles focus on a single, relatively small geographic region-Central America (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama). The narrow geography of Latin America bind the stories together much better than say, the stories in the Best American Travel Writing series, which cover all corners of the globe.
Second, many of the articles did not appear in mainstream travel magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure, Budget Travel, etc. Instead, Larry Habegger and Natanya Pearlman, the book's editors, have gone out of the way to find some interesting pieces written by relatively obscure authors.
One of my favorites is a retired Pan Am pilot named Joseph Diedrich who writes about an encounter at a hotel with a beautiful woman who enjoys smuggling jaguars to the United States from Guatemala simply for the thrill of it. Another memorable one, "The Rainbow Special" by Cara Tabachnick, describes a hilarious gathering of hippies on the shores of Lago Atitlán in Guatemala where everyone finds spiritual truth in a simple bowl of hummus soup.
In addition to some obscure gems, Traveler's Tales Central America also includes pieces written by writers at the top of their game such as Tim Cahill and Paul Theroux. Cahill's essay about a drive in Honduras is ho hum, but Theroux's chronicle of a train ride through Costa Rica ranks as one of the best articles in the book, especially since the train he took no longer exists.
Traveler's Tales Central America ends with some stories that still haunt me. Jennifer K. Harbury tells the story of her first encounter in the rugged mountains of Guatemala with her husband Everado, a guerilla who was ultimately abducted and murdered by the CIA. In "Deceptive Moonrise," a female backpacker reveals how a tropical paradise became a nightmare one night on an island off the coast of Belize. Traveler's Tales Central America, in short, is not just fodder for readers with short attention spans, but an exceptionally well-crafted collection impressions of a region of the world close in proximity to the United States but culturally very distant. I can't wait until the publisher comes out with a similar book for South America.