To put it politely as I can: Albert Podell is a son of a bitch. I say that admiringly, incredulously, and enviously. Truly, deeply enviously. He’s a been a Playboy editor (back when Playboy was new and breaking all the rules), lawyer, a 60’s ad man, and a few other cool careers. He’s an avid outdoorsman—he skis, climbs mountains, camps, catches big game fish, scuba dives, and more. He used to be quite the ladies man, although now that he’s snagged a gorgeous Russian wife forty-nine years his junior, that’s in the past. And he’s visited every single country. Every one. And a few that don’t exist anymore.
Like most travel books, Around the World in 50 Years ($23) is a little bit of everything—some adventure, some culture, some history, some political economy. It’s a touch more honest than I suspect most Canadians are comfortable with—Podell gives most places the benefit of the doubt, but he’s pretty honest when it comes to pointing out problems. He’s also pretty comic. For every moment of bravado and danger, there’s something absurd, silly, or deeply humiliating. Example: Podell nearly gets lynched by an anti-American mob during the Indo-Pakistani War, but he escapes after demonstrating violent diarrhoea and getting rescued by a friend.
Shameless? Oh yes. This is a man, after all, who made a world-record longitudinal drive around the world despite having little money, a chronically broken camper van, and a route through the Middle East during a period of almost constant conflict and high anti-American, anti-Israel feeling. Oh, and did I mention that Podell is both American and Jewish? He makes a point of eating matzo balls in front of the Pyramids. And he has the picture to prove it.
The fun thing about Around the World in 50 Years is it remains a fast-paced romp even when Podell’s travelling pace has ground to a crawl. Bribes, corruption, ramshackle airlines, and Murphy’s Law make a travel yarn ring true, and Podell manages to make these things entertaining. Favourite misadventure: nearly missing a once-a-week flight out of Kiribati thanks to the arcane details of Australian visa rules, and efforts to remedy the situation thwarted by the island’s lack of taxies, the Australian embassy, a spotty internet connection, a lousy printer, an island-wide power outage, an AMEX screw-up, and a last-minute dash to the airport. Fun times, in retrospect.
People of a certain disposition might consider Around the World in 50 Years a cautionary tale. Travel plans plagued by civil strife, disease, war, natural disaster, angry wild life, and grumpy bureaucrats? I’m sure many think: no thank you. Personally, I’m inspired. I’m trying to imagine a way to beat him—although if I only get half as far, it’ll be a pretty amazing life.
Dave Robson is the editor of DailyXY. He spends his time reading books, drinking Scotch, and smoking cigars.