Paul Clammer
(Lonely Planet)
A couple of years ago, we received a travel book on Molvanīa. We wrote, "For those who want to get off the well-beaten track, here is the answer of your dreams: the scarcely-known, rarely-visited country of Molvanīa:"

    It is one of those mysterious places in East Central Europe which might be just a blank for many.

Under a photograph of a sizable cactus was this caption: "The fzipdat of serrated thistle is the floral emblem of Molvanīa, a sharply thorned cactus, traditionally thrown at Molvanīan brides."

    Its leaves have an astringent, bitter taste, making it a popular ingredient in local dishes.

And one of the country's historical figures, Antonin Vllatvja, "studied here from 1491 to 1495."

    A keen astronomer, has been widely acknowledged as the first scientists to hypothesize that, rather than the sun revolving around the earth, the earth in fact revolved around Neptune ... [Later] he was called before a Papal inquiry in Rome where charges of heresy were dropped. He was, however, condemned to death as an idiot.

Molvania did give us a few uneasy moments, especially the photographs: Blurred out shots of rocky flatlands of stubble are, it is noted, "The Great Plains, recently granted UNESCO World Heritage status as a site of significant monotony."

§     §     §

We confess to a similar dis-ease when we received Lonely Planet's travel guide to Afghanistan. Who? The cover shows cheerful bearded guy lounging back, talking with a kid. There are thirty-three color photographs --- girls playing, a bird market in Kabul, the colorful Shrine of Hazrat Ali, five hearty Afghans lighting a fire under their truck on the Salang Pass "to thaw their vehicle's frozen engine." Editor Clammer says the best time to visit Afghanistan is late summer, and he speaks of the fruits of the market, sweet grapes from Shomali and "fat Kandahari pomegranates and melons everywhere."

We have to love this one because of the editor's affection for a loony country ... made even more loony by armed interventions from abroad. We also have to applaud his willingness to overlook a few problems that some of us might class as scary, if not downright dangerous. Kabul, he says, "is generally a calm city, with the greatest risk to personal safety being the insane traffic," although if you drive, it is suggested that you keep "all doors locked."

    We don't recommend walking in Kabul after dark because the broken pavements present a genuine accident risk.

There is also the problem of the air, "thick with pollution from the traffic, thousands of generators and the endless dust." It results in "Kabul cough," and one is advised ultimately to seek "fresh air outside the city."

One of the reasons Molvanīa came to mind was this item that was boxed under Kabul's "Festival & Events:"

    The first snowfall of winter is called Barf-e-Awal. Many Kabuls play surprise games (barfi) on their friends at this time, sending them riddles in an Afghan variant of trick-or-treat.

One of the trick or treats they offer visitors to Afghanistan is booze. Or maybe not. Who knows? The author doesn't. "Changing domestic politics could quickly lead to the bars and restaurants we've listed here running very dry."

Get out of town? Travel on the road even to the Kabul airport can be "tiresome due to the large number of concrete roadblocks outside embassies that turn roads into obstacle courses." Fine, let's go to Herat. Well, outside the hazards of war, there's the climate: "Hot and dry ... dominated by Bad-e Sad o Bist (Wind of 120 Days).

    Summer temperatures can reach 38° C, dropping to just below freezing from December to February.

How about Mazar-e Sharif off to the northeast? The summers there can reach 43° C and the winters, minus ten. The locals call it paka o posteen --- "fan or fur coat." In the fairly extensive language section the word for war ... jang ... seems to be the same in Dari/Farsi and in Pashto. "Shame on you" is listed only in the former; "Are there landmines?" appears in both, but is phrased slightly differently.

The author is obviously brave, and obviously in love with Afghanistan. We think he and Lonely Planet deserve a joint prize for putting this one out: one of the Pulitzers they reserved, in the old days, for the likes of Ernie Pyle, Bill Maudlin, or Ernest Hemingway.

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