The Ridiculous Race, by Steve Hely & Vali Chandrasekaran, is two comedy writers from Los Angeles who take the summer hiatus to race each other around the globe, without using airplanes. Well, that was the rule. Vali Chandrasekarana decided to cheat early and often, and flew wherever he could. In fact, he was so enamored of flying that he first drove to Mexico to rent a jetpack from a 45 year old Mexican entrepreneur named Juan Lozano with no formal engineering training, who builds jetpacks and makes the industrial grade hydrogen peroxide needed to power them. Senor Lozano has 4 jetpacks: two prototypes, a pink jetpack for his daughter, and his own Elvis-like pack. Unfortunately for Vali, his dreams of flying solo across the ocean were dashed when he learned that 30 seconds is the maximum amount of time the jetpacks will fly before refueling. Oh, also, due to repeated crashes, none of the jetpacks were in working order. And it had seemed like such a good idea.
Steve Hely hitched a ride on a container ship from Long Beach to Shanghai (“Be Vigilant in Pirate Areas”) and then proceeded to drive across China while eating dubious sea creatures in unknown sauces. “Chinese gas stations are exactly like American gas stations, except your gas is pumped by teenage girls wearing matching blue jumpsuits and burdensome amounts of makeup. You’d think when you pumped gas for strangers and wore a grease-stained blue jumpsuit, you wouldn’t bother too much with the lipstick and so forth, but these girls were done up for a Dallas prom. “
Vali’s trip highlights (in my mind) include a motorcycle taxi tour of the largest favela (shantytown) in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The tour guide is a former Rio lawyer who found that work unsatisfying; they know him in the neighborhood so you’re safe with him. You can photograph anything ….except “anyone holding a gun”. (You can see favelas in the excellent movie City of God; also in the Michael Jackson video “They Don’t Care About Us.”)Vali also visits the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia, described as the most amazing thing he’d ever seen in his life. My favorite trip of Steve’s was in Mongolia, where he went on a cultural overnight stay with actual nomads. (Please rent the movie Mongol – it’s great.)They wore fleece clothing (do I sense the hand of J. Peterman here?) rather than yak furs, but were tough people likely descended directly from Genghis Khan, given that he fathered 1000 children. In your face, Utah polygamists!
Steve and Vali had obvious advantages in this journey over the average person, such as (1) they’re sponsored by a book publisher, (2) they get 3 months off their jobs, and (3) they’re internationally well-connected given their Harvard backgrounds. Not everybody can email a friend in Israel who’s working for a peace-through-basketball program, and then meet up in Jericho that same night. Also, it bears noting that two women undertaking this trip would have significantly different stories, probably involving being mistaken for prostitutes at every turn. Vali’s Indian-American status is sometimes an issue; he feels unsafe in Moscow, and Mexican officials threaten to deport him back to India. Yet in Cairo he blends in as Egyptian, so is spared harassment from street vendors/hustlers, until one figures it out and yells “He’s Indian!” and they immediately try to sell him sandals like Ghandi’s.
The Ridiculous Race mostly moves along quickly, as you’d expect from guys who write for sitcoms and/or David Letterman. If you’re not a traveler, you can get the short version of the world (Paris: beautiful; Sweden:awesome; Siberia: recovering from an apocalyptic human-zombie showdown). If you are a traveler, this book may help you fine-tune your next itinerary. When I visit London (2010?) I am definitely taking the Jack the Ripper walking tour.