Traveling through Nigeria, China, or Peru?writer Ted Conover learned a lot by being on the road?literally. He speaks with anchor Marco Werman about his new book, ?The Routes of Man ? How Roads are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today.?
MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, this The World. Writer Ted Conover traveled many a road on the way to his new book, The Routes of Man. He rode with Peruvian truckers who were shipping mahogany. He rode with Nigerian truckers on a road that played a role in the spread of AIDS. And he rode with reckless drivers in car loving China. The subtitle of The Routes of Man tells you what Ted Conover was after. It's How Roads are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today. Ted Conover joins us from New York. Ted this book isn't just about roads is it?
TED CONOVER: Because it's about roads it's about a lot of things. It dawned on me late in the project; roads are sort of the best metaphor we have for talking about life. And so when you talk about roads you talk about patterns of development, the transmission of disease and the pros and cons of being connected. So it's a way into all of these big issues.
WERMAN: So part of your task is showing how roads connect people. For instance you start on the upper east side of Manhattan where the wealthy are buying very expensive mahogany and then you voyage to the rain forests of Peru where that mahogany comes from. Tell us what that journey was like.
CONOVER: The mahogany's journey begins on one of those original roads, the river, way up the Peruvian Amazon, past where its actually legal to cut mahogany anymore. So these guys way, way up there cut it quietly. I went up to a camp where they were doing that and then floated down the river with the mahogany. They're all very happy to have a road that's about to connect the two coasts of South America, the Peruvian and the Brazilian coasts are about to be linked by at least one road. That makes it easier to get the wood out. So the poor people down there are happy about that. The wealthy people in Manhattan will be glad, I'm sure, the supply of cool wood like that is not interrupted. But then as with every new connection, there are downsides. The supply of that wood is not unlimited and when we connect to other people almost always some bad things happen along the way.
WERMAN: Right. I was going to ask you what that trip told you about how roads separate two worlds and also bring different kinds of worlds into conflict.
CONOVER: Yeah, well one thing you see if you just get up in an airplane in the Amazon is how, as soon as there's a road going through, the land on either side of it is cleared very quickly. The road provides the means to exploit the natural world around it. Here in the developed world there's a huge feeling against roads, generally, because it seems we have the main ones we need, but if you're in a place that doesn't, where the only road you have turns into 12 inches deep of mud several months a year, you think differently about roads. It's hard to fault people in a place like Peru for wanting a road that will get them where they need to go when they want to go there.
WERMAN: That's an interesting idea that you bring up. Are roads essentially the domain of the wealthy?
CONOVER: They certainly are more accessible to the wealthy. I think in many ways they are preconditioned to wealth. Economies can't develop without a rich infrastructure of roads. There seems to be no way around it. I'd say good roads, yes for better or worse, are mainly the domain of wealthier people.
WERMAN: Right and certainly one place that's experiencing this to the max is China right now with a lot of people encountering new found affluence. I love this chapter. You go on a self-driving trip in China, these excursions that are organized by AAA meets Cannonball Run. The phrase self-driving tells a lot about how novel car culture is in China.
CONOVER: Exactly because ten years ago if you were wealthy enough to own a car you would have a driver. But now all these people can own cars and hey, let's drive them ourselves and not only that, let's drive with friends. They are excited and I've got to say if you were on this trip, you might feel excited about driving again too. We're all kind of jaded and blase, but it made me feel like a teenager back in my first car.
WERMAN: Right. You went with this guy Jiao, who I'm sure, helped you get in that teenager frame of mind. What I found surprising, though, was the idea that the self-driving trip, eight days on the road, ten to twelve hours per day behind the wheel driving, in this case, with something of a madman, spending the downtime with strangers from other cars in the convoy, they consider this relaxing and their idea of vacation.
CONOVER: Yeah, that's the amazing thing.
WERMAN: What was that whole trip like?
CONOVER: It was exhausting. First of all it was frightening because my driver, Xu, will pass on the shoulder at any opportunity. The shoulder is often where you'll find human beings in orange jumpsuits with old brooms sweeping the litter away. So we'd go from 40 miles an hour behind a truck to 80 miles an hour passing him on the shoulder to a dead stop as a crew of work people appears. At first it was terrifying, and then I thought oh you can't be scared for the next two weeks, better just get used to it. Then it was sort of like a video game, a driving game. Fortunately he was a good driver and he faulted me when I finally took the wheel one day when he was just too tired. He said well, you're a good driver, but you're too careful. You need to be brave.
WERMAN: Now, in Lagos, Nigeria, it's an entirely different scene. I was there last year in March and I actually like Lagos quite a bit, but it was the traffic that drove me absolutely insane. I was glad to leave it because of that traffic, but maybe you can tell us why you thought that looking at these crowded roadways of Lagos was a really good way of understanding the social culture there.
CONOVER: My plan for the book was to go from a really simple road in the Amazon and then to the West Bank, I'd go to East Africa, to China and then I wanted to go to a place that was complex. In Lagos you've got a place that's growing so fast it's going to be the third largest city on earth in a very short time with many others like it soon to follow. I thought, how do I tell this story? It's so complicated and I hit on the idea of finding an ambulance crew that was posted at the intersection of two of the city's big highways and they wait there for calls and then they attempt to respond.
WERMAN: Yeah, it's incredible what you described. It's just amazing.
CONOVER: We're used to red lights in traffic meaning get out the way. Unfortunately those red lights in Lagos have been abused so that every government official with any clout at all gets a red light for the top of his car and people have stopped getting out of the way. Sometimes there's simply no room. Several times I was on a highway that probably should have had a divider in the middle. Instead, there was this zone of dirt between the paved lanes on either side and when traffic got heavy that zone would fill up with extra lanes of people going the predominant direction. It's like a game of brinksmanship because they will fill the space in the middle of the highway, even up onto the opposite side of the highway if the volume supports it. It's very eye-opening.
WERMAN: So, finally Ted, you use the road as a metaphor for the increasing connectedness of our world. But roads, you also argue, brought us conflict and environmental trouble and disease. Do you see a time when better planning will solve some of these problems?
CONOVER: I think planning will help. But I think the problems and opportunities of connectedness have been a feature of human civilization since the Romans and before. You build a road to make things better for people, to grow your economy. Most of the time it works out okay. But as the Romans know, then those same roads that helped send your soldiers out to the far reaches of the empire are the ones the invaders take to destroy you. It always cuts both ways. I'm sure we won't stop building them. I hope we will build them better and I hope we'll find better machines to run on them so that this largest human artifact doesn't play such a role in fouling the planet anymore.
WERMAN: Ted Conover, the author of The Routes of Man, thanks very much for speaking with us. Very interesting.
CONOVER: Thanks Marco.