Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon by John Hemming

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This enthralling book brilliantly describes the passionate struggles that have taken place in order to utilize, protect and understand the wonder that is the Amazon. Hemmings riveting account recalls the adventures and misadventures down the centuries of the explorers, missionaries, indigenous Indians, naturalists, rubber barons, scientists, anthropologists, archaeologists, political extremists, prospectors and many more, who have been in thrall to the Amazon, the largest river in the world, with the greatest expanse of tropical rain forest and most luxuriant biological diversity on earth.

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The Panama Hat Trail: A Journey From South America by Tom Miller

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This 15th anniversary reissue of writer/humorist Tom Miller’s travel classic follows the making and marketing of a single Panama hat from the basement of the third world to the penthouse of the first. It’s a captivating story of cultures in collision, raw capitalism, “bus-plunge highways,” and Miller’s unending search for a drinkable cup of coffee. The Panama Hat Trail: A Journey from South America explains that Panama hats don’t come from Panama; they are made two countries away, in Ecuador. (The headwear became popular when gold-rush veterans returning from California to the eastern U.S. snapped up the Ecuadoran straw hats they found on sale in Panama.) Tom Miller knows that, because he traveled there to track down the hat’s origins. His account – a fascinating look at South American culture – relates an exotic and humorous journey that Miller also reported in a four-part series for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” The Panama hat trail leads from the Ecuadoran capital of Quito to the boisterous port of Guayaquil, where tropical indulgence is a way of life; from the village of Deleg in the Andes, (where half the adult males have gone to work in the United States) to Lago Agrio in the Amazon (where one-fifth of adult females are prostitutes). He learns of Catholic missionaries seeking converts in a country that is 98 percent Catholic; tries not to think about his chances of surviving bus rides over mountain roads; and profiles some of the last Jews living in Ecuador. Oh, and did we mention the hats? Miller investigates everything from the harvesting of straw in the jungles of Ecuador (where straw-cutters load up their donkeys with sacks of silky fiber) to the remote villages where skilled artisans painstakingly weave each Panama hat by hand (only to sell it for 70 cents) to the chic boutique in downtown San Diego where a well-heeled American purchases the finished product for 35 dollars. Much more than a mere adventure, this book is a study in both culture and the workings (and failings) of global commerce.

Viva South America!: A Journey Through A Restless Continent by Oliver Balch

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Simón Bolívar once inspired a continent to rise from its serfdom and throw off the shackles of Spanish rule, setting the course for independence, freedom and equality. ¡Viva South America! sets out to discover if that dream lives on. Is it fair to describe a land as ‘independent’ while poverty still enslaves millions, where violence lurks in the shadows and where lawlessness gnaws away at progress? Did the Liberators fail? Or are leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales resurrecting those long-ago ideals? Armed with a reporter’s notebook and an open mind, the author hits the road in search of answers. With the ghost of Bolívar as guide, the quest takes the reader off the tourist trail and into the weird and wonderful worlds of South American culture and society. By stepping into people’s homes and into inmates’ prison cells, by climbing onto dance floors and over road blocks, Oliver Balch unearths untold stories from the front line of South America’s contemporary fight for freedom.
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The Gringo Trail by Mark Mann

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Asia has the hippie trail. South America has the gringo trail. Mark Mann and his girlfriend Melissa set off to explore the ancient monuments, mountains and rainforests of South America. But for their friend Mark, South America meant only one thing: drugs. Sad, funny and shocking, The Gringo Trail is an On the Road for the Lonely Planet generation – a darkly comic road-trip and a revealing journey through South America’s turbulent history. Drama and discovery. Culture and cocaine. Fact is stranger than fiction…
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