by Stephen Benz
Review by Jessica Kuzmier
In the last decade or so, eco-tourism has become a trendy way to travel. Spending thousands to see rare species in Costa Rica with your own private tour guide or going to Galapagos to reenact Darwin's fateful journey are just some of the options opened to the green traveler nowadays. It's all the rage to buy carbon credits to offset your flight to Zimbabwe's jungles.
One of the first travelers to set this trend was the writer Stephen Benz. In the early eighties, Benz was one of many independent journalists trying to break into the business by capitalizing on the various Central American civil wars, which in Benz's case, happened to be tracking Peru's Shining Path. Unfortunately for Benz, even with the glut of violence, there wasn't enough to go around for all of the aspiring writers and stringers. So he thought of travel writing. Incas sounded like a great idea, at least at first. Again, unfortunately for Benz, writing about the Incas was another oversaturated market that didn't need another enterprising voice. So what was an aspiring journalist to do?
Searching through guidebooks, Benz noticed a small asterisk of hope for his career. With all of the usual tourist attractions becoming more dangerous due to guerillas, countries such as Peru and Brazil were starting to market their natural attractions for those who wanted to explore. Noticing the various tours and not wanting to leave Latin America, Benz decided to give this side of journalism a try. Thus was born Stephen Benz's career as an ecotourism journalist, and the industry would burgeon under his watch as others writers joined his rank.
"Green Dreams" is Stephen Benz's journey through his career over the years as an ecotourism journalist, as well as an account of some of the travels he took to Latin America. Some of his stories are about his early jaunts through Amazonia, how he secured a "real" adventure on a canoe down the Amazon rather than going with the more expensive tour boats. He ventures to the Mosquito Coast before Harrison Ford publicizes it on the silver screen. In all this, he becomes one of the premier writers depicting the wild world that needs to be visited before it disappears.
A decade and a half later, Benz returns to Central America to revisit the landscape and the industry that he in part helped to create. It's gotten bigger and more glutted, something like the industry of war correspondence that he was turned away from. He discusses the ethics of traveling light upon the earth and what that really means when eager tourists descend upon a fragile ecosystem, and wrestles with himself about whether this whole thing was a good idea to begin with or not.
Benz is both an entertaining and informative writer. He can cover a topic with journalistic breadth and yet have it read like a yarn told amongst friends over a fire and a beer. The book is not a humor narrative, but Benz has a sense of humor and doesn't take himself too seriously as a writer. He creates narrative arcs with subjects as vague as people standing on a line waiting for an attraction, building punchlines in what otherwise might have read as descriptive pose. The encounters he has with people stand are memorable descriptions, as in his encounter with a German tourist he nicknamed Steppenwolf. Benz is introspective without seeming narcissistic and descriptive while being part of the scenery, which creates a decent balance where the narrator doesn't seem aloof or indifferent, nor does he get in the way of his own story. Educational entertainment, entertaining education: Benz brings to light the scene of ecotourism while understanding the needs of his audience. It's a great read for anyone who is interested in ecotourism, the Central American travel scene, or anyone looking for a satisfying travel narrative.
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