David Randall: Fodor's guidebooks reveal what spooks do on their holidays

Four corners of the world
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The Independent Online

A certain amount of spinsterly shock in American tourist circles last week when, on the 75th anniversary of Fodor's guides, it was reported that their content for a long time owed something to CIA connections. The claim, first made in 1974 by Howard Hunt of Watergate break-in fame, was that the guides' founder, Eugene Fodor, worked as a spy during the Second World War and for several years afterwards, and also allowed CIA agents to use researching guidebooks as a cover for their other activities.

This is partly true. Fodor worked in army intelligence during the war, principally because he could speak five languages well, and was proficient in four others. He denied he was a CIA agent, but acknowledged using agency operatives to write parts of his guidebooks, enabling them to combine a little light espionage with extolling the charms of, say, Florence's antique statuary.

He once said, referring to the CIA: "I told them to make sure and send me real writers, not civil engineers. I wanted to get some writing out of them." Thus did these resourceful undercover chaps maintain his books' reputation for bringing good writing to travel guides, as opposed to merely listing churches, museums and post office opening times. Fodor's guides also built their reputation on updating every year and so being able to write about hotels and restaurants. And what better assessor of these than the invisible ink brigade, a stoical body of men and women who spend so much of their lives sitting in cafés and eateries waiting for their contact to drift by and utter the password.

* Afghanistan has about a dozen women's refuges, and Hakima is a typical resident. At 13, her father gave her to a street vendor in settlement of a debt of about £400, and she became the man's wife. He kicked her, beat her with electric wires and, every morning, locked her in the house.

After a year, she ran away and slept at the homes of several relatives before entering the shelter. For women and girls like her, such places are the only hope of a life free of beatings and rape. But not, perhaps, for much longer.

A draft law is being considered which would make any woman seeking sanctuary first face a government panel that will decide if she should be admitted to the shelter, jailed, or returned to the home and the violence from which she fled. And so, bit by bit, the country for which so much blood is being spilled, is returning to the ways of the Taliban.

* Land leasing – where rich nations rent tracts of territory in poor ones, usually for agriculture – is becoming worryingly prevalent. Africa and Central Asia are the regions most affected. Last week, China signed a deal to lease a bit of Tajikistan, and there are rumours it will rent a million hectares in Kazakhstan. This trend has trouble written all over it.

* We take you now to Albita, on the Romania-Moldova border, where the underhand things going on explain one of the minor mysteries of European life.

Some of you may have wondered why EU member Romania is still not part of the passport-free Schengen zone. The explanation lies with the border guards, who are paid £296 a month. This is not a lot of money – especially when compared with the £207 they get in bribes every shift.

Their foreman takes the backhanders off cigarette smugglers and the like, and then divvies it out among the lads and lasses at the end of the day. Some 40 guards were charged over alleged bribery last month, but, until corruption on this scale is effectively dealt with, Romania will remain only partly in, and partly out, of the European Union.