Visit Sunny Chernobyl
And Other Adventures in
The World's Most Polluted Places
Blackwell calls himself an "eco-tourist." Only with a difference. He looks for the most debased, ruined, vile, pitted, stinky, rotten, vulgar places in the world. Thus when he makes it to Linfen in the Shanxi province of China, he is in eco-disaster heaven. He says,
The most polluted city in the world. We are downtown now. There was dust everywhere, thick on the cars, thick in the air, coating the buildings. Finally, I thought, Some place really grim. A polluted place that isn't nice. A place I can point to and say, Yes. It's even worse than you can imagine.
In the course of this book, he visits, stays in, gets to know the seven most disgusting places on the planet. He talks with the homefolk, explores the edges, does his homework. This takes him to the oil sands region of Northern Alberta, the great Pacific garbage patch, a deforested area of the Amazon, the most polluted river --- the Yamuna, in India --- and to Chernobyl.
Just getting to Reactor #4 is no lark, and it becomes a part of the story. Like the unexpected jumping off point:
Kiev is a beautiful city, a true Paris of the East, a charming metropolis whose forests of horse chestnut trees set off its ancient churches and classic apartment building like jewels on a bed of crumpled green velvet.
He visits the Chernobyl Museum, thinks on the rarity of a place to commemorate an industrial disaster, says it is "surely the best of its kind." He explains the principle of nuclear power plants in engagingly simple terms for those of us who flunked high school physics ... and then tells of the impossibility of finding a radiation counter in Kiev.
"Measuring radiation didn't seem to be much of a priority among the citizens of Kiev. Maybe they just didn't want to think about what lay a short way upriver." Blackwell then devotes a page or two to the "three flavors of radiation: alpha, beta, and gamma." The radiation and dosage can be confusing: "There are rads and rems, sieverts and grays, roentgens, curies and becquerels, around which buzz a swarm of attending coulombs, ergs, and joules."
And once in Chernobyl, he finds that indeed there is a starting place for all of us who want to visit the center of the world's worse nuclear disaster area (outside of two obvious examples in Japan). The only problem is that Blackwell wants his visit to be "not so much as a journalist or a researcher, but as a tourist." For instance, he asks his guide where he could find "a good picnic spot in the Exclusion zone." If not possible there, what would be the next best thing?
I pointed to Strakholissya, just outside the zone, a town that I had identified while poring over a map the night before. What about that?
"Yes, this is a nice place," said Dennis. "You can go fishing here."
I was making progress. Fishing?
Dennis also suggests Teremtsi. "This is a good place for fishing," he said. "I went once. Mostly I go there to collect mushrooms."
I stared. Mushrooms, because they collect and concentrate the radionuclides in the soil, are supposed to be the last thing you should eat in the affected area. And Dennis gathered them in the heart of the Exclusion Zone.
"You collect mushrooms? And you eat them?" There was awe in my voice.
"Yes, this is a clean area, I know. There is no problem."
I couldn't believe my luck. A total newbie, I was already teamed up with a guy who used the zone as his own mushroom patch and trout stream. I wanted to abandon our itinerary. Who needs to see a destroyed nuclear reactor when you can go fishing just downriver?
Who needs to see a destroyed nuclear reactor when you can go fishing just downriver? As you can see, Blackwell isn't just your regular disaster tourist. He's what that philosopher Paul Harrison called a mixer. He wants to go fishing! In Chernobyl!
§ § §
A travel book should delight, amuse, please. It should not only make us want to follow in our author's footsteps, but make us want to be with the writer on his next journey. This is our pleasure in reading the travels of Mark Twain, perhaps the earliest and best of the perplexed (and amused) voyager. Twain and Judson Jerome and S. J. Perelman, whose Westward Ha! should be the standard by which all travel books are measured, at least those that want to go along the route of the exasperated traveler.
Blackwell is, like these, the Everyman of journeys, slightly eccentric, at times devilish, often weary and heartbroken (a recent love affair has gone wrong, and it becomes one of the funny-sad threads that binds Blackwell's visits to Chernobyl, Alberta, Port Arthur and the other four disastervilles).
He's in Guiyu, on the coast of China. This city is where many of the world's discarded old burned-out out-of-date uselessly-ancient computers are put out to pasture. Why here? Well, there's the obvious advantage of those who work for practically nothing. Then there is a laissez-faire local and national government in place, turning a blind eye on the poisons in the land, in the water, and most of all, floating about in the air (the factories and the city are knee-deep in smog).
He points out that one of the reasons Guiyu gets all our washed-up computers is because of "the volume of empty shipping containers returning to China. Incredible amounts of manufactured goods are sent from China to the West in shipping containers, and since the conveyor belt must run both ways, sending freight back is cheap."
The result is that we don't really buy our electronics from China after all. We just rent them and then send them back to be torn apart.
"India and certain African countries, including Ghana and Nigeria, also get in on the game, but China is the e-waste importer par excellence, and Guiya is the industry's crown jewel."
§ § §
Blackwell has the knack of not only being a trickster in his writing, he appears to be equally at home pulling chains. He seeks out the most beastly places on earth and --- contrarian that he is --- makes us think that we could willingly visit awful villages, sewage-infested rivers, smog-laden cities, oily deserts, denuded forests, smelly outbacks, and vast oceans of desolate garbage. We get caught up in his story because we get snagged in his net of derring-do.
Some of these trips are a flop. He tells us so, and tells us why. To find the Great Garbage Patch, he boards the Kaisei, a "steel-hulled, square-rigged, 150-foot-long brigantine." In the weeks they wander about the Eastern Pacific looking for these miles of plastic and inorganic waste and discards, he learns first-hand that a ship can devolve into a mass of haggling, nagging, fighting, dissidence, openly hostile battles that sour everyone. Worst of all, in their ten days voyaging aimlessly through the Gyre seeking disgusting trash --- they don't even manage to find it. It's a tee-total waste of manpower, a washout.
On the last day, Blackwell is sitting at the bowsprit, "a good place for a morose crew member to cheer himself up." He spots a "stripe of garbage several meters wide that ran toward the horizon."
It wasn't solid. No carpet of trash. But it was the densest, most localized stretch of debris that I had seen all voyage.
He calls the wheelhouse on his two-way radio to tell them what he has seen: after ten days, at the time that they are returning to San Diego ... they finally found it. Or rather he did.
And the reaction of the captain, the crew, the representative of the organization that is trying to bring world-wide attention to the Garbage Patch is: Everyone is so frazzled by the ridiculous war games going on board that no one responds. They "motored on toward San Diego."
And Blackwell? His reaction?
Instead of finding degraded ecosystems that I could treat as though they were beautiful, I was just finding beauty. The Earth had gotten there first. I went looking for a radioactive wasteland and found a radioactive garden. I went looking for the Pacific Garbage Patch and found the Pacific Ocean.