The Places in Between


Rory Stewart




Date Reviewed:

November 9, 2006

he Places in Between has lots of praise from pundits, but I did not find it that interesting. It is the narrative told by Rory Stewart, a Scottish traveller who decides to walk across Afghanistan just a few weeks after the Taliban have fallen to the Northern Alliance and the United States Army.

Unfortunately, we never find out WHY Stewart wants to make this dangerous quest. When the natives of Afghanistan ask him why is making such a journey, he tells them "I am following in the footsteps of the ancient emperor Barbur" - but if the natives then ask the obvious follow up question: "Why are you following in his footsteps?", Stewart never records the conversation. He doesn't tell the natives, nor does he tell the reader. But Stewart never gives us any insight to what makes him the man he is, he is content to merely record the bleak countryside he walks through.

The travel is insanely dangerous, there are Al Qaeda sympathesizers every where, most everyone has a weapon and is willing to shoot on a whim, and Stewart is carrying a good deal of cash (at one point he hands out a few hundred dollars to some men who have walked part of the way with him.) Why is Stewart taking this risk? He prefers to travel without bodyguards, so that the locals will talk to him, he is travelling when the winter snow is deep, and the countryside he describes is barren and bleak. The people he meets don't seem that interesting, nor does Stewart seem all that interested in learning their life story - mostly he just wants some food and shelter for the night so he can push on the next day. Stewart insists on walking every step of the way (though he does ride in a truck to ford a river).

There is a curious passage where Stewart stands outside a hovel, waiting to be asked in for dinner. But no invitation is forthcoming, so he loudly proclaims that he will have to move on, that the hospitality of the household has failed him - until finally he is invited into the hut and fed. It seems like a strange strategy - to go forth into an improvished, war torn country and expect that the inhabitants shall feed you, when doubtless they have so little themselves.

At one point Stewart does encounter a minaret of an ancient temple. This would be an international heritage site of great importance, but the locals are digging through the ruins, tearing up everything to find old artifacts that can be sold on the black market. By the time UN scientists can arrive, the entire site has been looted of anything of value.

Nothing Stewart describes makes you want to visit Afghanistan. None of the people he describes are people that you want to meet. It sounds like god-forsaken country, devoid of beauty, violent and gray, depressing in the extreme. This is the opposite of a Bill Bryson travelogue - try reading A Walk in the Woods instead, much more entertaining, and its cheery tone may inspire to get out walking. This book will just inspire you to stay home and watch more television instead.