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Back to Belgian Africa, Laughing and Screaming

April 25, 1993|COLMAN ANDREWS

BACK TO THE CONGO by Lieve Joris, translated from the Dutch by Stacey Knecht (Atheneum, $22 hardcover).

A Flemish Belgian journalist who lives and works in Amsterdam, Joris had an uncle, Albert, who served from the 1920s through the 1960s as a Catholic missionary in what was then the Belgian Congo. His visits home, and the letters and exotic presents he sent, created in her a fascination with the place. Some years after Albert's death, Joris decided to visit the former Belgian colony--now the independent nation of Zaire--to see for herself what Albert's world had looked like. There, present-day missionaries took her to the village where Albert was stationed and where he is fondly remembered. She met his former colleagues and converts--even his old cook, Tata Ferdinand, who had learned to make French fries and mayonnaise (a peculiarly Belgian combination) for the priests. Then, on her own, Joris moved on to Kinshasa, the capital; to other cities, and into the bush. She even got arrested briefly for mistakenly straying into military territory.

In this account of her trip, she vividly describes the country, both its good and bad sides. Her prose is sometimes a bit choppy (perhaps a question of translation?) but is mostly easy and pleasant to read, and her tale quickly becomes thoroughly engrossing. As a critic, she spares neither her fellow Belgians nor Zaire's own corrupt regime, and her book is hardly likely to prove a boon to tourism here. But her portrait of the country is ultimately a positive one, I think--a picture of a fledgling nation with ancient roots, in which every scream is balanced by a laugh or a flash of wisdom.

CAJUN COUNTRY GUIDE by Macon Fry and Julie Posner (Pelican, $14.95 paper).

"Cajun Country," write the authors, "is a land of black coffee and bayous, steaming crawfish and swamps; it is a place where the wheezing push-pull of an accordion hangs in the air . . . like a blanket of humidity." A thick, irregular slice of southern Louisiana extending from the Texas border to somewhere south of New Orleans, with Lafayette as its major population center, the Cajun (or Acadian) region is, note the authors, mostly flat and wet. (If you were to trace the indentations, bays, inlets and such along Louisiana's Gulf Coast, the apparently 400-mile-long stretch would measure 6,952 miles of actual shoreline!) Fry and Posner are clearly at home here. They offer an exhaustive but not-at-all exhausting guide to its towns and cities, rivers and lakes, sports facilities and cultural monuments, hotels and inns, food, music and sense of life. If this doesn't make you want to visit the Cajun Country, you need another cup of black coffee.

THE COMPLETE GUIDE to College Visits by Janet Spencer and Sandra Maleson (Citadel Press, $19.95 paper) and ON CAMPUS USA AND CANADA: Budget Accommodation for Tourists and Groups by Don Fotheringham (Key Guides, $5.95 paper).

Every year, a considerable number of the high-school juniors and seniors of America and their parents embark on pilgrimages to various parts of the country to look at various institutions of higher learning. "The Complete Guide," as hefty as a first-year biology text, is hardly complete: It lists only 250 of the thousands of accredited colleges and universities in the United States. But it looks very useful as far as it goes. State by state, for those 250 schools it gives academic schedules, tour and interview schedules, availability of overnight dormitory stays, flying and driving information, a short list of local hotels and tourist attractions and more.

"On Campus" might be of use to college-touring families, too, but it's aimed more at travelers seeking to use low-cost college dormitory and residence hall facilities for non-academic purposes. Many schools make these available, sometimes at astonishing prices (two can stay at William and Mary University in Williamsburg, Va., for instance, for $30 a night), and this small book, in effect a series of bound charts, lists more than 200 of them.

THE 100 BEST SMALL TOWNS IN AMERICA by Norman Crampton (Prentice Hall, $12 paper).

This volume, which carries the hefty sub-title "A Nationwide Guide to the Best in Small-Town Living--From Culpeper, Virginia, to Elko, Nevada, to Red Wing, Minnesota!" isn't really a travel guide. It's more a sourcebook for the would-be dropout from big-city life, offering such data for each municipality as population, growth rate, climate, notes on school and health-care facilities, average cost of a three-bedroom house, cost of electricity and natural gas, and the number and names of local churches. Boosterish statements from selected residents are appended. If you don't plan to move to Hicksville, but are planning a cross-country drive, "The 100 Best Small Towns" might still be of interest: Many of the entries sound like right-nice places to visit, at least for an hour or two.

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