“Shadow Trails – Adventures in Dark Tourism”, by Tom Coote (self-published, 2017), 119 pages.
This is an almost “coffee table book” (just a bit smaller that the classic size) that is both travelogue and photo book, with picture sizes ranging between full double pages and small boxes half a postcard size. It's good for just leafing through as a picture book, but the texts are also more than worthwhile reading. In fact they are arguably the more important element. The various chapters, too, vary in “size”, i.e. text length, to a considerable degree: between just a single page with three short paragraphs to more than ten full pages.
I had read another book by the same author before (“Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves”, 2013) and so was already familiar with his particular style of travel writing – which I am very fond of! It's a very readable mix of personal travel anecdotes, thoughtful cultural insights, and a good dose of historical-political background for context without ever being overwhelming on that front. Overall, the personal travelogue style is in the foreground, but it's based on a solid factual foundation and flavoured with the right amount of critical evaluation. And the same applies here.
The author makes it clear in the Introduction that the book, or indeed the travels it is based on, were not initially planned to be specifically about dark tourism, but that it rather emerged naturally as he went along. It just turned out that those dark destinations “seemed the most interesting to write about” (p 6).
The final paragraph of the introduction is one of the best justifications of his type of dark tourism that I've ever read anyway, so I give it you in full here: “Many might feel uncomfortable with the concept of 'dark tourism' but it is important to remember that as well as a desire for the money that international tourism often brings in to neglected areas, and the need to feel connected to a wider world, that both sellers and consumers of 'dark tourism' are also often driven by a desire to bring these dark realities to light.” (p 6). Spot on. I couldn't have said it better.
From these remarks, however, one characteristic of this book already indirectly emerges: namely A) that there is a focus on unusual destinations, some of which may not see much tourism at all, and B) that not all of what is covered in the book is actually 'dark'.
This already applies to the title page, which features a photograph of the “Sun Voyager” monument in Reykjavik, Iceland – a country that doesn't even feature in the book. Nor can I see how the image is supposed to relate to dark tourism … but never mind. It looks mysterious, so the title page does its job as an attention-grabber.
The places covered inside the book are indeed a wide mix, ranging from top-notch “big name” dark-tourism sites, such as Chernobyl or Ground Zero in New York, to places where I struggle to see any connection to dark tourism at all (such as Leptis Magna in Libya or climbing to a mountain monastery in Ethiopia).
The first topical chapter is about a day trip to Chernobyl, Ukraine, and it's one of the short-to-mid-length ones (five columns of text, amounting to ca. two whole pages worth). Woven into descriptions of what the author got to see are brief historical summaries of what happened in 1986 and in the aftermath, plus a short look back at how hysterically overblown some of the media reporting on the accident was at the time. In the process he clarifies a few myths (that there was no nuclear explosion, that Chernobyl does not mean 'Wormwood' and that the giant catfish are not mutants but, just like other wildlife in the Zone, thrive because of the absence of humans). Many of the impressions from Pripyat, the NPP and the Zone in general reported are pretty much like mine, except that I never got the alleged “deja-vu amongst many visitors” because images from the Pripyat ghost town have featured in “first-person shooter video games”. Since I've never played any such games in my life, that angle is unfamiliar to me, and to be frank, I'm glad about it, because I didn't get that kind of distraction from the reality of the Zone. The photos accompanying this chapter are all very evocative – though, interestingly, none show any of the familiar icons of the Zone (the sarcophagus of Block 4, say, or the famous Ferris wheel in Pripyat).
The next chapter (two pages) is about a destination that really is hard-core dark tourism: Murambi in Rwanda, the most drastic of all the memorial sites about the Rwandan genocide. This was interesting for me because the author's visit was a bit more recent than mine, and so included a description of the modern museum part (curated by the same organization that also set up the Gisozi memorial site in the capital Kigali), which was still under construction when I was there. By the time this author visited it was apparently still not quite finished yet either but already open for visitors. Interesting, too, is that it seems to be planned (by now perhaps realized) to move some of the infamous white corpses into display cabinets inside the exhibition. The author then gets a guided tour through the rest of the complex, which includes seeing those hundreds and hundreds of semi-mummified exhumed bodies, some of them small children, with expressions “frozen into eternal Munch-like screams” (p 18). He too encountered the strict no-photography rule (hence the accompanying photos do not show Murambi but just everyday scenes in Rwanda), and more or less the same narrative I was also given when I was there. I was a bit surprised to find that the author didn't seem to have to struggle emotionally as much as I had at this site. But maybe that's because at the time he was suffering from a bad back … And of course one's own pain will always force itself into the foreground.
The next chapter (ca. four pages of text) takes us to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. It is a weird place, and that is well brought across by the text, yet the author's main focus is on visiting a kind of wacky amusement park in the city. The only vaguely dark aspects here are an apparently not very well designed ghost train ride, another ride that was positively scary (health-and-safety considerations clearly not a priority here) and the general observation that the whole park was designed for huge crowds but was largely deserted. Sadly, the author did not venture into any of the city's weird museums, let alone on an excursion to Turkmenistan's No. 1 dark site, Darvaza. The photos in this chapter show one of those OTT Turkmenbashy monuments, a military poster, a mosque and a couple of images from that amusement park.
The very shortest chapter is next: a three-paragraph snippet about climbing (precariously) to the Debre Damo Monastery in Ethiopia. There aren't even any photos to accompany this. So it feels a bit like a superfluous filler that the book could easily have done without.
It gets more relevant in the next chapter about Colombia (ca. two pages of text). It's entitled “Crime and Punishment” and mentions the much publicized tourism that has developed around the legacy of former drug baron Pablo Escobar. The author provides a bit of historical background and states that Escobar-themed tours have controversially become popular especially in Medellin, but he does not himself embark on any of these. Instead he stays in Bogota and seeks out the fabled graffiti of this city (featured in several photos for illustration). The darkest aspect of this part of the travelogue seems to be the security situation, with nightly curfews and plenty of armed guards around, given a still worrying crime rate.
What follows did give me a bit of a deja-vu, as the next chapter (again ca. two pages of text) is about the author's trip to Togo that already featured in his 2013 book (see above) about West Africa. It's a fascinating read, because of the unusualness of the destination (Togo is hardly a prime tourist country) and the anecdotes about the people he meets there. The main focus is on a visit to a fetish market in the capital Lomé. This is accompanied by a good overview of the cultural and also political dimensions involved here, which to most Westerners will be truly exotic and revelatory. I'm still not one-hundred percent sure if this is really dark tourism, but I suppose you could argue the superstitions underlying such fetish trade and the beliefs in witchcraft do have dark aspects about them ... The two photos in this chapter seem to be unrelated to those topics, though, they're just of traditional buildings.
I was very intrigued about the next chapter (ca. three pages of text), as it is about Harar in Ethiopia, and includes the legendary Hyena Men of this ancient city. These have habituated two packs of hyenas so that you get a close encounter with those fascinating animals at night, feeding them – literally face to face. It's something that's high on my wish list for when I finally make it to Ethiopia (which I nearly did: I had a plan for the end of 2018 but, sadly, had to postpone). The hyena scene in this chapter is fairly short, though, if intriguingly worded. The rest of the chapter is a mix of travelogue, personal anecdotes and observations of local customs, including the chewing of chat, the local drug of choice. The author has a dabble at it himself, but remained unconvinced by the taste and unmoved by its (absent) effect. Unfortunately there are no photos of the hyenas, only of various Ethiopian street scenes.
The next chapter – consisting of three pages with text strikingly typeset in such a way that it forms the shape of a Christian cross on each page – is about the Philippines. This is pure travelogue and anecdotes, including apparently being scammed, but there is no real dark tourism. The hanging coffins of Sagada are mentioned but not visited and about the “darkest” bit reported is the experience of eating some very, very icky food speciality (I'll spare you the details). No photos accompany this chapter (meaning, thankfully, none of that “Balut” either …).
Perhaps the most off-the-beaten track destination covered in the book is that of the Begrawiya pyramids in Sudan described – and beautifully photo-illustrated with eight stunning images! – in the next chapter (ca. two pages of text). The travelogue is also engagingly written – yet I'm again not sure if this qualifies as dark tourism. It's extremely exotic, seriously off the beaten track, yes, but does that alone make it 'dark'? Maybe in so far as pyramids are ancient mausoleums of sorts, but they fall way outside the usual time frame for dark tourism (see concept of dark tourism), otherwise the much more famous Great Pyramids in Egypt would also have to qualify. And I do think that is outside dark tourism proper. But it's debatable perhaps.
A somewhat longer chapter follows next, and it's about Algeria. This is pure travelogue with several nice-to-read anecdotes, but includes nothing that would firmly fall under the umbrella term of dark tourism, unless you count an excursion to an oasis town in the Sahara desert as such. But it didn't go as far as In Ekker & Regane (I would hardly have expected than anyway) nor are any of the dark sites in Algiers mentioned. So the only vague association is probably that Algeria is one of those countries whose name, due to recent instability and cases of tourist abductions, has a certain dark ring to it. The non-dark nature of this trip, however, is also reflected in the photo illustrations, which include a number of snapshots with the author's wife posing in front of scenic backdrops. The rest are more or less scenic landscape and city life images.
The short (one-and-a-half page) next chapter about Uzbekistan is another filler of sorts, accompanied by just a single photo (of something that I'm not even certain actually is in Uzbekistan, since it reminded me very much of a place across the border in Turkmenistan). It's just a short anecdote of a transfer through this desert country, but no dark sites are covered (e.g. no Muynak, at the desiccated Aral Sea).
The following chapter (one of the longer ones at ca. five pages) on Libya is similar to that on neighbouring Algeria in that no actual dark tourism sites within this country are covered, but the name alone of course conjures up very, very dark associations. Yet the author visited briefly in 2011, before the current chaos ensued that makes the country more or less unvisitable these days. Nor does anything associated with the country's former dictator Gaddafi feature. Instead the main site the author heads for is the fabled Ancient Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, which would be major mainstream tourism if this was located anywhere else, such as Tunisia or in Rome, Italy, itself. So it's exotic, but not really dark tourism in terms of sightseeing.
There's more of dark tourism in the next chapter (two-and-half pages of text), which is about Vilnius, Lithuania. It kicks off with a short account of visiting the city's controversial “Museum of Genocide Victims” (meanwhile renamed “Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights”). Some background about the city's Jews' fate in the Holocaust is explained too (but none of the associated sites visited), yet the main destination the author's after is Uzupis, the self-declared “independent” micro-nation to the east of the city centre, an artistic quarter with a famously wacky “constitution” (including lines like “every dog has the right to be a dog”). Again, it's the anecdotes about people the author met that are the most entertaining part of this chapter. The author also mentions the bust of Frank Zappa and the reverence for this iconic American artist within Uzupis, even though he fails to mention that the bust isn't actually in that district. I also take issue with describing Zappa as “with distinctly Jewish features”, when he's actually of half Arab, half Italian ancestry. Only two photos are included in this chapter, one of the “Angel of Uzupis” monument, the other a suitably artistic Vilnius city scene shot.
The next chapter is relatively short (one-and-a-half pages of text) but at last takes us back into prime dark-tourism territory: it's about “Ground Zero” and the 9/11 Memorial in New York, USA. It's illustrated with a few New York street scenes and one large photo featuring the new WTC One skyscraper. The author visited only the memorial site but not the 9/11 Museum inside, as the admission fee deterred him. At 24US$ it is indeed not cheap, but by American standards not all that excessive (compare that to the whopping 54$ admission to San Diego Zoo, for instance). He admits to later having regretted not seeing the exhibitions, but doubts it “could have compared to to experiencing [9/11] live on television” (p 89). Sure, but it would have significantly complemented it! The rest of the chapter is again more anecdotal and also features some critical remarks about America, and especially its (lack of a proper) healthcare system.
We stay on firm dark-tourism ground with the following chapter (three pages of text), which is about Belfast, Northern Ireland. The author goes on one of those Black Taxi Tours, and about ten of the (in)famous political wall murals in the Shankill district are featured in photographs. It is in this chapter that the text passages containing historical background and critical evaluation are the most interesting of the entire book, in my opinion. And: you get a rare glimpse into the author's own biography, when he states that “growing up in England in the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of terrorism was almost exclusively associated [with the] Catholic IRA”, adding that the fact that the same didn't apply to Protestant terror groups “says a lot about British media at the time” (p 92). He voices his surprise that neither the guide nor other visitors apparently understood some of the Biblical references in some of the murals, and concludes: “a lack of interest in religious meaning seems to go hand in hand with defining [oneself] through religion” (ibid). He reports having encountered the equivalent in Pakistan with regard to Islam.
The author also visits the Falls Road murals and observes a “chaos of political sloganeering” lacking “logic or consistency” (ibid), e.g. in the association of the IRA with the PLO or the loyalist use of the Star of David in response, or the inclusion of a depiction of Nelson Mandela to represent Amnesty (even though AI refused to support Mandela and his ANC at the time of its militant fight against apartheid). In addition to the political taxi tour the author also reports from a visit to Crumlin Road Gaol, which I found especially intriguing since I hadn't managed to see this myself when I was in Belfast in 2012. Two extra photos from the interior suitably illustrate this grim place, and the stories associated with it do the same in prose form. I especially liked the observation that despite the popularity of “paranormal evenings” and “ghost tours” there “seems little need for invented horrors” (p 96) given the reality of the horrors that actually happened inside this prison, including executions (a photo of a noose is included). For me this Northern Ireland chapter constituted the highlight of the book!
But there is one more, final chapter. And this is by far the longest of the entire book (ten pages). It's about Israel & Palestine. The chapter switches back and forth between pure travelogue and sections that provide historical background and plenty of political comments too. As this chapter is overall longer, so too are those sections, and they do indeed include plenty of very thoughtful insights and evaluations of the extremely complex situation in this troubled part of the world. It is sections like these that are my favourite bits of Tom Coote's writing. Too often travelogue writing lacks this level of depth (e.g. this one), so it's very welcome … for me at least. I also especially like the little sideswipe about the term 'anti-Semitic', which he observes is actually “nonsensical”, given that 'Semitic' is a cover term for “a whole group of ethnicities” (and I'd add: languages) “that includes both Arabs and Jews” (p 106).
The actual sightseeing the author does, first in Tel Aviv and then Jerusalem, on the other hand, has little to do with dark tourism other than being set in this troubled region. Oh, and the fact that an actual terrorist attack happened while he and his wife were there, indeed just up the road from where they were staying in Jerusalem. Does that qualify as dark tourism, then? I'm not sure. They were hardly looking for anything like this. What they do and see includes Jaffa, the Bauhaus districts of Tel Aviv, local markets, and in Jerusalem, of course, the fabled Old Town, including the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Temple Mount – which I was unfortunately not able to see when I was in Israel during another time of increased tensions in 2006. However the description of an excursion to the Dead Sea & Masada reads very similar to my experience back then, including the realization of how much the extreme briny water of the ever-receding Dead Sea can sting even the tiniest of skin scratches.
The rest of the chapter (which unfortunately also features a much higher typo rate than the rest of the book) includes accounts of more side trips, to Bethlehem, Haifa and Acre. The reader is told some local myths as well as established religious narrative/history and there's yet more travelogue story-telling involving weird characters and being scammed. The trip ends where it had begun, in Jaffa, and then, basically out of the blue, the chapter suddenly ends.
And so the whole book, somewhat abruptly, fizzles out. There's no epilogue, summary or afterword. It just stops. At the back is merely an ad for two of the other books by the same author, but no index, bibliography or list of other sources either (this is not a criticism; a book like this doesn't require an index or bibiliography, I just mention it for the record). Some kind of rounding-off would have been nice, I thought. But never mind.
The book is very well written and mostly well edited too, despite a few slips, e.g. wrong/missing letters/apostrophes/words here and there, but nothing too major. An odd editing fault is that only parts of the book come with a footer stating page numbers.
The many travel anecdotes are very entertaining to read, and some of the additional background information provided is quite educational, especially at the more exotic, less well known locations.
The images don't always relate all that much to the texts and the dark aspects mentioned therein, but are mostly nice to look at. The printing quality is adequate, though it could probably have been heightened through better paper quality/printing technology, but I guess only at significantly higher costs, which would have made the book too expensive to have any chance on the market (the author is quite bleak about that prospect in any case, as he makes clear in the Introduction – it's more a work of passion than for profit!).
My main criticism is that some of the destinations covered hardly qualify as proper dark tourism. But then again, 'dark tourism' features only in the subtitle of the book, and the author makes it clear from the beginning that he didn't only do dark tourism. After all, the same applies on this website (namely in the “non-dark combinations” sections of all full entry chapters). So maybe I shouldn't have such a big gripe with this point here.
If you like amply illustrated travelogues with a dark-tourism slant (but not full-on dark only), and generally enjoy reading tales from the road and anecdotes of people and experiences in far-away locations, plus some unusual topical insights, then this book will be for you. Recommended!