Conover, Ted. THE ROUTES OF MAN: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010 Pp. 333. Hardcover, $26.95; paperback, $15.95.
Conover analyzes how technology—highways, in this case—change people’s lives through six detailed stories, interspersed with short essays about roads in general. The first two stories concern places where a road does not exist, a lumber town in Peru and a remote village in northern India. It seems apparent that a proposed highway to the lumber town will damage the environment, not only by the actual road construction but also by promoting destruction of the forest. The village in India is a Shangri La-like place tucked between high mountains. During the five months of summer a dirt track is passable. Otherwise, the only route in or out is along a frozen river. Conover accompanies a group of teen-age students leaving the village for schooling, pushing through the snow, avoiding soft ice over the river. In many ways, the isolated village seems like paradise—peaceful and sustainable. A planned road would alter village life greatly, and to some western observers the alterations would not be beneficial. From one perspective life without a major connecting highway is not bad; however, one gathers that the people who live in these villages favor the proposed roads. The next story concerns the Mombasa-Kampala highway, mostly in Kenya. It is generally thought that AIDS first came down this road from central Africa, carried by truck drivers to the port of Mombasa and then to the rest of the world. Still today AIDS is a major concern to some of those who frequent the road and to public health officials. The protagonist of the story, a Kenyan driver, has a wife and family at either end of the highway, knows about AIDS, and yet has not gotten himself tested. Roads carry more than goods and passengers. Roads have a military function. In the West Bank, checkpoints and roadblocks are a mechanism of brutality for Palestinians. Beyond the inconvenience and the delay are the humiliations. An Israeli officer is concerned about the effect on his men of the cruelties they believe they have to perform. Roads enrich leisure. In China new highways have made “self-driving tours” sponsored by auto clubs practical. The author took a seven-day tour from Beijing to the Three Gorges dam with a fast-driving, cigarette-smoking factory owner. For the people on the tour “Driving is our right.” The last story is about ambulance crews in Lagos. Lagos was chosen because it is one of the mega-cities gaining people but not infrastructure. Ambulances are not quite accepted in Lagos, perhaps because originally they were used for carrying corpses. Despite the equivocal feelings, the ambulance point (station) the author joined was busy, partly because people came on foot to ask the nurses for minor treatments. In any case, traffic conditions made getting to an emergency slow. Lagos has no less than five different kinds of police, and the ones nearest the author’s ambulance point seemed to spend their time hustling—harassing—drivers for small bribes. The road system reflects the uncontrolled development and how people adapt. It is hard not to enjoy these stories with their many lessons.