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An American Family's World Tour Sheds Light on Banality - Theirs

Family Travels:

Around the World

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in 30 (or so) Days

By Richard Reeves and Family

Andrews and McMeel Company, 1997

343 pp., $22.95

Who wouldn't envy former New York Times journalist Richard Reeves and his family?

They journeyed around the world in 30 days or so on a route that includes a succession of luxury hotels, exotic shopping sprees and sightseeing, and audiences with the likes of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and United States ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale, so that the Reeves family could "get to know each other a little better."

"Family Travels" is the group's journal of this experience, but it is likely to induce groans in the reader, especially those who have been accosted by Americans abroad who ask, as if their lives depended on it, "Where's the nearest McDonald's?"

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The Reeves family may be good, upper-middle-class liberals who thrive on cosmopolitanism, but one cannot help suspect that this trip affirmed their American, rather than their familial identity.

Their rapid global jaunt is punctuated by their encounters with the export of American pop culture. We are continually treated to such banalities as: "This place is just like America, except everyone is ________;" and, "There is still a yawning culture gap between them and us. But, like most peoples of the planet, they are becoming more like us ..."

Or when the natives are decidedly not quite "one of us," the representation of them is straight out of Hollywood: "a whole lot of bearded, turbanned, shifty-eyed men who were speaking a language with a lot of a's, I's and that "kh" sound they make where it sounds like they're clearing their throat."

Admittedly most of these comments come from Conor, a 25-year-old rock musician and the stepson of the book's narrator. One of the few pleasures of this book is anticipating his political incorrectness.

Encountering one of the wonders of the world generates such surfer-dude understatements as "the Taj Mahal was really cool," while watching ESPN at an American checkpoint in Pakistan provokes this comment: "I was moved truly to tears, it was a wonderful thing." Conor's impressions confirm the suspicion that all "globalization" means to Americans is that they never suffer from homesickness when abroad.

The book's observations provoke some laughter as well as groans, however, especially when Fiona, the 10 year old, is involved. She is mischievous and has an ability to upstage her elders. Her insights, too, are fresher than those of her mother, Catherine, a self-described "do-gooder" and nongovernmental organization veteran.

Richard, when space allows it, reveals that he is a good journalist. He is skeptical of India's much-hurrahed economic liberalization program.

It is clear to him, in this passage, who benefits from most economic reform: " 'Emerging market' then is the new jargon, the emerging market of 70 million [middle-class] Indians. Reading that number in a magazine one day, my wife, a former official of the International Monetary Fund said, 'That leaves a 'poor class' of about 700 million Indians.' "

The narrative is at its best when the family slows down. The chapter on Pakistan where they are among old friends contains vivid accounts of life among the Pakistani elite and especially on the status of women in this conservative society.

And the portrayal of Benazir Bhutto, the Harvard- and Cambridge-educated former socialist turned capitalist, is an instructive freeze frame of where Pakistan is in the world. She is described as serving Diet Coke in gold-trimmed wine flutes to her guests, bemoaning illiteracy yet justifying Pakistan's huge arms budget.

Alas, these passages are only an oasis for the reader. Most of the time the narrative is crowded with Catherine's discourse on international affairs, and scenes are reminiscent of National Lampoon rather than Jules Verne.

The Reeveses' travels might have made lively after-dinner conversation but do not make good travel writing. The image on the book's cover of the family photographed in Egypt is telling. The Sphinx stares enigmatically at the tanned and smiling group, while they use it as a decoration for their photo album.

* Kashmira Tumboli Baldauf is the Asia-Pacific editor at the Monitor.

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