Top critical review
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An indispensable but highly irritating companion
on 20 December 2011
First up, let me confess that I dont like Bradt Guides. Traditionally, they are long on highly idiosyncratic prose and short on practical detail. In fact, more like a series of essays. As a result, as a tourist who takes at least 3 guide books with him even on a weekend break, the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide usually do the main guiding and Bradt plays a supporting role. In the case of Ethiopia, the roles are reversed since the LP is thoroughly 3rd rate and RG couldn't be bothered to cover this fascinating country and, incredibly, the Bradt is bursting at the gills with highly practical info (I particularly liked the section on music!). And as a bonus, Bradt does not assume you are a 25 year-old trying to do Africa on $100 and a thousand favours.
So, that's the big compliment: it is definitely the best guide on Ethiopia currently available. Alternatively, it could be said to be the least worst since it is also a puffed-up, self-indulgent, badly edited and opinionated book that will feel like the companion you got stuck with on a long journey and you often wish would shut up. Take for instance, Philip Briggs' comments on Ethiopians' attitudes to Faranji (=foreigners):
"I dont have a major objection to being asked a higher rate than locals when the standard of the room is commensurate. I do resent being asked -nay, being expected to hand over without a quibble - a rate that both the hotel owner and I know is plain silly. And I do resent.........."
Often his opinions are quite sound, but do such self-evident truths and personal commentary belong in a guide book? Similarly, his observations on cultural etiquette go on and on and on, containing rambling thoughts such as "When I talk to other travellers, I sense that many are flipping between two non-convergent ideologies: the perfectly genuine concern of the liberalised West they have left behind and the entirely self-absorbed creeds of budget travel" and when Mr Briggs gets onto Guilt, the self-indulgence meter simply goes through the roof.
Unfortunately, the tangential philosophy frequently leaks out of the usually very insightful grey boxes and contextual sections and contaminates the bits that should solely be concerned with fact, such as this gem in the South Omo section: "This is Africa as it once was, or as some might still imagine it to be....." Fair enough, you might think. But a good editor would have decided that the rest of the sentence could be redacted "............and its mere existence is at once wonderful and scarcely credible. That this surreal oasis of Afro-traditionalism lies within the boundaries of Ethiopia - the least stereotypically African of the continent's sub-Saharan nations - borders on the outrageous.". Why 'Outrageous'? We may never know.
In short, if the editors had done their job properly and removed the pompous, hyperbole-ridden, tangential commentaries, this would have been a much more enjoyable - and quicker - read. 614 pages could have been reduced to 400 and I would have had to spend less of my precious evening after 12 hour days of travelling trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. I might also have had space in my case for another bag of wonderful Ethiopian coffee!
In my opinion, Lonely Planet is simply going backwards in terms of quality and its linguistic pandering to the FaceBook generation, but if this book is anything to go by, Bradt is moving in the right direction. You will find it an indispensable but irritating companion!