A surprising thing British journalist Nicholas Coleridge discovered as he set out last year to duplicate Phileas Fogg's fictional 80-day circle of the globe by land and sea is that the trip's no faster or easier now than it was back in the heyday of the British Empire.
In fact, when Fogg, the Jules Verne creation, made his legendary journey, two-thirds of his route crossed British territory. Today, the same path "meanders," as Coleridge puts it, "through virtually every no-go area on the map. Wherever there is now a terminal visa problem there went Fogg."
Fogg also could count on regularly scheduled passenger-carrying ships to take him across the world's oceans. But jet aircraft have all but eliminated these transports. Twice Coleridge had to sign on as a temporary officer aboard cargo ships that don't normally take passengers. And he literally hitchhiked passage from Honolulu to San Francisco on an American sailing yacht.
What with the scarcity of sea berths, balky immigration officials and Third World trains that halted unannounced in the middle of nowhere, Coleridge's ingenuity, like Fogg's, was tested repeatedly in the constant pressure to maintain a tight and calculated schedule. He survived narrow squeaks, sometimes by minutes, that could have doomed his fanciful project.
The result is, Coleridge's real-life journey is every bit as suspenseful as Fogg's fictional one, and, in its own way, as entertaining.
The author, who turned 27 somewhere in the Pacific between Yokohama and Hawaii, is a witty, intelligent writer, and this is a funny book. Incapable, because of an accident, of lifting anything heavier "than the heart of a globe artichoke," he was assured by friends that "there is always a porter within tipping distance." But, "They were manifestly wrong: Porters are like policemen, petrol stations, pissoirs, and prostitutes, you can never find one when you need one."
A product of Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he gives the impression of being quite as urbane a traveler as David Niven's movie portrayal of Fogg -- Coleridge wore an off-white linen tropical suit and carried an Edwardian carpetbag and a swordstick cane -- but without any of Fogg's stuffiness.
His 19-nation around-the-world journey in 1984, as he sums up, "covered just under 30,000 miles at an average speed of 375 miles per day. I had passed through 38 different customs ports, crossed 11 seas and oceans, taken 9 trains, 10 ships, 3 rickshaws, 1 elephant, 40 taxis and as many false turns." Ultimately, he arrived back at London's Reform Club, Fogg's departure and return point, "with 38 hours and 10 minutes to spare."
Visa complications forced him to take an extended taxi ride from the Sudan along the Red Sea coast of strife-torn Ethiopia to the port of Djibouti. The taxi skirted towns, and whenever a uniform was spotted, Coleridge dropped to the vehicle floor. Inevitably, he was stopped by a police patrol, who tossed his luggage onto the roadway and ordered him and the driver out of the car.
But luck was with him. The police chief turned out to be a pop-music fan and let Coleridge proceed in subtle exchange for a David Bowie tape. Later Coleridge boarded a motorized African dhow, crossing the Arabian Sea to Bombay with what he suspected were animal skin smugglers.
Rarely did Coleridge spend more than a day anywhere, so urgent was the need to keep a good pace. In Yokohama, at Day 50, he was a full eight days behind Fogg's schedule, time that had to be made up if he was to succeed. His haste may be the reason for an irritating fault: He makes unfair judgments on some places seen only from a train window.
Such is the case of Reno, which "reeked of brassy blondes who would slit your wallet while they picked your throat . . . "(sic). All of the train's "lowlife," he says, disembarked in Reno. It's been a while since I was in that city, disembarking from an auto, but if it remains anything like Las Vegas today, the gambling halls are filled more with gray hair than blond; and for most of the occupants the pursuit is innocent recreation, not mayhem.
Two geographical errors also reflect his haste. Eastbound by Amtrak from San Francisco, Coleridge wakes up in Nebraska hours before arriving at Salt Lake City. Obviously, he means Nevada, a perhaps understandable mistake by someone unfamiliar with state names. He also puts Grand Junction, Colo., within the nearby borders of Utah.
But these are quibbles in an otherwise delightful book. Certainly, there's more pleasure to be found in touring the world at a leisurely pace. But, as Coleridge proves, it is also fun to zip around the globe as fast as you can, just for the hell of it.