Circumnavigating the Globe. In a Car. In the 1960s.
That’s how Albert Podell began his life-long journey to every country on Earth. He and fellow travel writer Harold Stephens found big-name sponsors to fund the trip that took them through nearly 30 countries in the span of about two years. Afterwards, they wrote a book about it, “Who Needs a Road?” and a few of the early chapters of “Around the World…” are adapted from that book.
To me, these were the most fascinating chapters in the entire book. Think about it: two men who haven’t seen much of the world beyond Europe and Canada driving through remote countries pre-internet-age. Many of the people they encountered were still living in much the same way as their ancestors had for centuries. That is a kind of remoteness that we’d be very hard-pressed to find in our modern era.
What’s this book really about?
That having been said, “Around the World” is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, Albert Podell has been to every country on Earth, but he only addresses a handful of them in his book. He chooses to write about the least frequented countries: primarily those in Africa and the East Indies, with one or two stories about Central and South America.
So if you’re looking for a book about popular tourist destinations, this book isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you’re curious about the large parts of our world that often get overlooked, such as East Timor or Somaliland, this is the book for you.
A note about Albert Podell
As a young man, Albert Podell was an editor at Playboy and admits to living the lifestyle that comes along with the job. Though he doesn’t go into much detail about his relationships in the book, he often mentions different women who accompanied him on his trips, and ends the book around age 75 getting married (spoiler alert…sort of) to a Russian girl barely over the age of 20. He has very strong opinions about most things, and sometimes his stories start to feel like tall tales. So if you can take his tall-tale-telling Playboy personality with a grain of salt, there is much to enjoy in “Around the World…”.
Do I think you should read this book?
The short answer: Yes.
If nothing else, there is much knowledge to be gleaned from this person who has dedicated his life to experiencing all the cultures of the world. You’ll learn things like why a person in Ghana would want to be buried in a coffin shaped like a cigarette or that the island nation of Tuvalu may be uninhabitable in the course of a generation due to rising sea levels (read: climate change). You’ll recognize the acronym TIA (This is Africa) and what it represents to the road-weary traveler (delays, bribes, hostile environments, etc) as well as how much a goat is worth to a villager in Ethiopia.
You’ll start to understand a little bit more about the relationships between different nomadic tribes in Northern Africa and the Middle East (and how certain terrorist groups came to be), and that the people of Yemen are a very friendly bunch — so long as they don’t know you’re an American. You’ll also get a good idea of what it takes to travel into and through hostile or remote environments — from planning around a flight schedule that only includes one — completely full — flight a week to being re-routed due to an outbreak of civil war to using “I <3 NY” t-shirts as bribes instead of cash.
In short, there is a lot of wisdom to be taken away from “Around the World in 50 Years”. Though it does drag in certain places — and sometimes the way the book is organized doesn’t seem to make sense — there is so much here you won’t find in any other text: plain, honest truth from Al, the slightly crazy, staunchly opinionated, and mildly debaucherous friend we feel we know very well by the last page.
Full disclosure: I received an Advanced Review Copy of “Around the World in 50 Years” for free from Netgalley. No other payment was exchanged. The Amazon link above is an affiliate link (at no additional cost to you).