Travel Right
  The South American Handbook
     by Dan Buck (Peru 1965–67)
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Travel Right

ONE DROWSY AFTERNOON a quarter-century ago in Caracaraí, Brazil, on the upper reaches of a tributary of the Rio Negro, I was waiting for theSouth American Handbook next barge to Manaos. An elderly German couple stepped off the daily bus from Boa Vista carrying a small suitcase, a camera bag, and the South American Handbook. The next day a Dutch couple appeared, on the first leg of a journey around the continent. Propped on the dashboard of their dusty Volkswagon Sirocco was the South American Handbook, with its trademark red cloth binding and gilt lettering. Those scenes have been repeating themselves for more than 75 years, ever since a British steamship company decided to get into the guidebook trade.

An English Publication
The SAH was launched as a successor to the Anglo-South American Handbook, a vade mecum for commercial travelers begun in 1921 by William Henry Koebel, a prolific writer of the period on topics Latin American. After Koebel’s death, his guide was purchased by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., and it reappeared in 1924 as the South American Handbook. In 1929, a World War I veteran from Wales, Howell Davies, came on as editor, a post he held for a marathon four decades.
     During World War II, the SAH somehow scavenged enough paper to publish without interruption. Communications from its Latin American correspondents successfully evaded enemy torpedoes. The 1941 edition “owes its very existence to the efficiency of our shipping services,” Davies exulted, “and is, in its way, as positive proof of victory over the German submarine as anything that could be cited.”
     The Royal Mail ceased its passenger service to South America, and in 1971 John Dawson, the SAH’s printer, bought the guidebook, rescuing it from all but certain demise.

From Sea to Air
A new editor, John Brooks, entered the picture, and made a number of changes, chief among them a shift in focus from sea to air travel. He also jettisoned the red cloth binding in favor of a glossy pictorial cover. (The SAH, ever weight conscious, became a paperback in 2000.) Brooks, a banker by day and editor by night, stayed at the helm until his sudden death at age 62 in 1989, at which point the editorship was assumed by Ben Box, who has a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese studies from London University.
    Although airplanes displaced ships in the SAH’s attentions, other traditions were maintained and improved. Kept in the field was the army of “voluntary contributors,” as the SAH’s users are known, who had long peppered the editors with quirky, penetrating, caustic, and enthusiastic annotations. The earliest editions had relied heavily on dispatches from the Royal Mail’s network of agents, as well as on representatives of other businesses, and extracts from government publications and commercial journals. (The 1925 edition does carry one eyewitness account, from American explorer M. Richard Marsh, on the “presence of a blond Indian tribe with tawny flaxen hair and blue eyes in eastern Panama.” For reasons that remain obscure, explorers of the era sighted blond Indian tribes with alacrity.) Brooks not only beseeched his readers for contributions, he festooned the text with their notes, anticipating by several decades Internet chat rooms, and cited their names in tiny print in endless acknowledgments.

Maps & More Maps
With Box’s ascension, the selection of maps, long an SAH deficiency, grew dramatically. Early users had to make do with a single foldout map of all of Latin America. Now they can feast on a cartographic cornucopia: More than 200 maps, grids, and plans of countries, cities, zones, and trekking trails.
     Box and his editorial team have also presided over the guide’s greening, a reflection of the changing outlooks and interests of modern travelers. A passage in the 2001 edition on “Responsible Tourism” discusses the adverse effects tourists can have and cautions that not all travel agencies advertising themselves as green are in fact environmentally sensitive. This shift in outlook can be seen in the segment on Brazil’s Pantanal wildlife preserve (which was first brought to the SAH’s attention by alert readers). Several pages on touring the Pantanal, in the Mato Grosso region, are preceded by introductory remarks on flora and fauna, conservation, and choosing the right guide.

With age has come virility
If the patriarch of South American guidebooks is feeling its three-quarters of a century, it doesn’t show it. Indeed, it’s been remarkably virile of late, siring volumes on several of the continent’s individual countries. (In 1989, the SAH’s publisher, now called Footprint Handbooks, began issuing worldwide titles, from Tibet to East Africa and from Laos to Israel.)
The South American Handbook and the Mexico & Central American Handbook, which was spun off in 1990, together approximate 3,000 pages (printed on what is proudly described as “our now-famous ‘bible’ paper”), as compared to the 1924 inaugural edition, which covered the same universe in a single volume one-fifth that length.

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