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A Haunting Journey Through African History

March 22, 1998|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INTO AFRICA: A Journey Through the Ancient Empires by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle (Key Porter Books, $30, hardback).

In parts of Africa, people believe in spirits and the power of the dead. So it makes a certain sense that this book, in its way, reads like a collection of ghost stories.

The authors explore the continent's multifarious now as prelude to examining the complexity of past empires and kingdoms. As a Westerner who is--typically, I think--largely ignorant of African history, I find it hard to imagine a more encompassing and entertaining primer.

De Villiers, an Afrikaner, does most of the actual traveling while Hirtle handles the history. De Villiers' barge trip down the Congo River offers a good snapshot of the approach. Crammed into a tiny space on an overstuffed boat, he promptly becomes part of the moving micro-society that on-the-cheap Third World travelers know well. The informal clique in his corner fights off interlopers together, drinks warm beer, and feasts on barbecued crocodile.

And, as it always does, the physical journey takes him back through time. Before boarding the barge, for instance, he sits in a dugout on the river and ruminates: " . . . I imagined I could hear the distant thunder of the Kanem-Bornu conquests . . . the Luba expansions to the east seemed to ring as faint as their rulers' ceremonial double bells through the mists of time."

In an early chapter, De Villiers quotes a Ghanaian professor on white people's sole contribution to Africa: "the idea of money." Later, he describes a raucous, prostitute-crowded truck stop on Zambia's "AIDS highway"--a thoroughfare that's helping to spread the pandemic.

The problem is grave. "Everyone knows what to do: spend more money on education, more money on medical care, more money on everything. But where is that money to come from?"

*

NEW ORLEANS by Bethany Ewald Bultman (Compass American Guides, $18.95, paper).

N'Awlins, New Oy-uns. However you say it, it's as fine and foreign a town as the continental U.S. has to offer, and this book stirs a longing.

Every guide waxes poetic on the Big Easy's food, and this one, too, will leave folks bickering about the best restaurants (I'm glad to see the author mention Uglesich). But there are reasons beyond ingredients why this town's food tastes so good, and that's hinted at here too.

Last summer, my family and I kicked back in a French Quarter cafe, rhapsodizing over our boiled crayfish and muffuletta while watching a steamy downpour drench the streets. Bultman is kind enough to offer a resonant quote from Tennessee Williams:

"Don't you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't just an hour, but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands, and who knows what to do with it?"

Quick trips

THE UNOFFICIAL GUIDE TO CRUISES 1998 by Kay Showker with Bob Sehlinger (Macmillan Travel, $19.95).

The only thing bigger than "Titanic" these days is the cruise industry. The age of packaged, mass-marketed cruising began in 1966; now, more than 5 million people a year take cruises. This book is as fully loaded as the new ship that boasts an 18-hole miniature golf course.

THE ESSENTIAL LITTLE CRUISE BOOK: Secrets from a Cruise Director for a Perfect Cruise Vacation by Jim West (Globe Pequot Press, $7.95).

If the above book is a Royal Caribbean superliner, this is a boutique-style sailing ship. Booking. Tipping. Insurance. All here.

Sipchen is a writer for The Times' Life & Style section. Books to Go appears twice a month.

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