Touring the most polluted places

VISIT SUNNY CHERNOBYL: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places. By Andrew Blackwell. Rodale. 299 pages, $26.

Hong Kong, Paris and Istanbul no longer fascinate traveler Andrew Blackwell.

So in “Visit Sunny Chernobyl,” he decides to visit what the Blacksmith Institute, a new York nonprofit dedicated to “fighting toxic industrial pollution in developing countries,” calls the Earth’s most polluted places.

Some of these include: Chernobyl, Ukraine; the Yamuna River, flowing partly parallel to the Ganges in India; the Eighth Continent, the enormous “ecosystem” of trash floating in the Northern Pacific; and Guiya, China, a town whose “economy is based on tearing apart old electronics and reselling the components and raw materials.”

Blackwell’s purpose in visiting these places is to do vacation-like activities. However, once he arrives at his destination, he isn’t sure whether to call himself a tourist, which is not true, or a reporter, which is.

He is writing a book after all. In fact, once he’s convinced his companions in each country that he’s “just a traveler,” he starts looking around and asking pointed questions about how bad the pollution is.

One gets the feeling that Blackwell wants to boast that he has been where few are welcomed or allowed and wants to be shocked by the conditions he finds.

In the title chapter, the author explains for the general reader the steps leading up to the disaster at Chernobyl. It is clear that the accident was avoidable and that it was the equivalent of children turning off the smoke detectors while they experimented with fireworks and explosives.

While Blackwell’s version of “eco-tourism,” might not be popular, it is a thought-provoking and worthwhile reason for writing a book. Fans of travel literature will have three main reasons to read it.

First, one can learn about these relatively unknown places, and Blackwell locates them clearly on maps. Second, one is reminded of nature’s ability to renew itself despite human contamination. Third, one meets a variety of people who believe in a less-polluted future and befriend Blackwell despite his awkward questions.

Reviewer Hayden Donehue Shook, English as a Second Language program manager at St. Matthew’s Church