Are you looking for travel inspiration — something that will get you packing your bags for your next adventure?
Sometimes, books can inspire you more than photos or films. These are only snapshots. A book is more — it immerses you in another world. You slowly turn the pages, soak up all that rich detail and imagine what it’s like to be there.
For example, One Hundred Years of Solitude, a literary classic by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
When you read that, rural Columbia comes alive in your mind, as you follow the surreal fortunes of the protagonists. You are there — in the dive bars and the fruit plantations, finding those argumentative yet heroic men.
That book made me want to go to Colombia. It will probably make you want to go there too.
The same as Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana makes you want to go to Central Asia. It’s an epic journey the author makes, from the Middle East to Afghanistan.
This book is different in style, because it’s a travelogue, but I love how Byron gets into the details of the different cultures and lifestyles. After reading that book, I understood in amazement that Central Asia is a whole mishmash of different cultures.
And what I loved was that this book was published in the 1930s, way before a lot of the other travel inspiration — such as Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Another one in that bracket would be Alex Garland’s The Beach.
You may have seen the film with young Leonardo DiCaprio, but the book is way better. It inspired countless people to travel in Southeast Asia, to search for a hidden beach utopia (probably an utopia that does not exist anymore, because the region has become too popular).
Another inspirational book is Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger.
He too was an old school adventurer, and he went on journeys across Middle Eastern deserts, interacting with tribes that no one had heard of before, developing friendships with people that had mostly unknown stories.
Thesiger’s sense of adventure made me ask myself, where can I go that’s different? Where can I go where a story has not been told? Can I sail down the Amazon River on a canoe, or can I cross Papua New Guinea on foot? Can it go to places, like Thesiger did, and discover new things and then write about interactions with the people?
Travel books are not always travelogues, though. They can be completely different.
One book that changed my perceptions in a lot of ways was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
It’s a very important book in terms of African literature. And it was the first time I’d read a book on Africa that was told from a local African perspective.
The book tells us about a small village that is slowly and irrevocably taken over by the colonial English. It shows the amazing disparity between the local perception of how things are, and the imported way of thinking.
For example, I always thought there’s seven days in a week. But you read this book and realize that in that community, there were always four days in a week — why would it be seven?
Things Fall Apart inspired me to realize that there’s more to Africa, and that I needed to find out more about this continent.
It started off my exploration of different African countries. And even though now I’ve travelled a lot in Africa, I’ve only been to 18 countries there — and there are 54 in total. There are 2000 different tribes. There’s still so much to discover there.
Another great book is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
It’s a crazy road trip that makes your own life feel so dull. When you read Hunter S. Thompson, you think, “I don’t think I could, but I wish I would have lived his life.”
It’s the carnage and the chaos and pushing the boundaries of possibility.
It’s a book about a road trip, and it’s reporting, so I’m going to put it down as a travel book. But it’s definitely not a travel book in the same way as Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road or Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar — books that are specifically about travelling and that encourage travel in a different way.
Another book on that line is Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. He truly captures the peculiarities of the UK, and there’s a lot of humour in there.
Bryson has written very accessible books, exploring various countries around the world, including the US and Australia.
Then, there are the real epics — travel books that give you an idea of adventure, of just going somewhere and not knowing what’s going to happen.
The preeminent book to read when you’re travelling in India is Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. It’s about a thousand pages, so it gets pretty heavy in your backpack (but I imagine most people have it on a Kindle now).
Shantaram is about an escaped Australian criminal starting a life in India. It spans Mumbai slums, village life, corrupt prisons, gangsters, high life, and pretty much everything in between.
Perhaps if Roberts didn’t have such a strong love interest, he could have cut the book in half. It would have been an improvement.
But despite its faults, Shantaram really gets you thinking about India. It’s impossible to read it and not be booking a flight — you just want to experience some of what he’s writing about.
Henri Charrière’s Papillon is in the same vein.
Again, he’s a criminal — he escapes a penal colony in the Caribbean and goes to Colombia. But the way he writes about his adventure and his perseverance makes you think, “Yes, let’s just do it. Stop thinking about it, just do it.”
I’ll finish on a bizarre one.
It’s called An African in Greenland, by Tété-Michel Kpomassie.
It’s the story of a Togolese boy who dreams of moving to Greenland to become a hunter. But what it really is about is the disparity between the destination that you hold in your head, and that destination as it is in reality.
It’s a book about the challenges of following travel dreams.
It’s also a book which says that if you really want to go somewhere, there’s nothing stopping you from going there.
By Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.