How reading can inspire a love for travel
I was a completely unabashed bookworm as a kid. Nothing brought me greater happiness than a trip to the library where I could load up with a stack of books to devour. Long before my first international trip, my curiosity about the world around me was piqued by the books I read over and over. Today’s young adult fare of Twilight and The Hunger Games are completely lightweight compared to classics like The Jungle Book and Rikki Tikki-Tavi which transported me to the jungles of far away India or My Side of the Mountain, a mesmerizing how-to guide to solo travel in the form of 12-year-old Sam who runs away to live in the wilderness of the Catskill Mountains.
When we started learning about ancient cultures at school, I couldn’t get enough of the Aztecs, Greeks, American Indians and Mayans, cultures so entirely removed from my own. Without photographs, my imagination was free to fill in the details. My parents happily indulged me on a budget trip to Cancun, my first international trip, where they dutifully rented a jalopy of a Volkswagon Beetle (complete with manual windows and no air conditioning) and drove me more than two hours to the ancient site of Chichen Itza. Standing in front of the ball courts and the Sacred Cenote where human sacrifices were made turned all that history into reality. It was powerful to know that places I read about truly existed in real life and that I could spend the rest of my life searching them out.
Now, while I can afford to travel much more, travel reading still satisfies my wanderlust in between trips and helps me make the most out of my next one. While guidebooks are great for getting an overall idea of a place, they often don’t get updated for years between editions. If I’m researching a destination, I gravitate towards blogs and forums which are more current. Sites like www.travelpod.com and www.travelblog.org allow you to search for blog posts based on destinations. Of course, you’ll need to weed through many pedestrian entries (painfully chronicling every bit of minutiae of someone’s day) to get to the rare well-written gem, but overall blogs offer the most up-to-date info and often present an unglossed, authentic reaction to a specific place.
BOOK YOUR TRIP
For travel whimsy, I turn to glossy travel magazines, my travel crack. I’ve subscribed to Conde Nast’s Traveler since I was a teen. Great photography and insightful prose never go out of style and while I fully realize I’ll probably never travel to 90 percent of the places I read about, glossy magazines provide a cheap and wholesome escape with lots of travel tips. Then there are specific travel writers who I follow. When I’m in the mood for Old School, I’ll pick up something by American travel writer Paul Theroux (probably best known to the masses for his book-turned-movie, The Mosquito Coast) who describes the people and places he comes across in unbelievably rich detail.
I remember reading Dark Star Safari as I was traveling through Africa, comparing my experiences with his, and doing my best to notice individual people around me in the same way as he does. And I dare anyone traveling by train to read The Great Railway Bazaar about a four month train trip through Europe and Asia and not feel like you’re taking the most mysterious, romantic form of transportation ever. When I’m in the mood for a dose of travel reality, I reach for Sebastian Junger or Jon Krakauer, best known for their non-fiction accounts set in places like eastern Afghanistan or the summit of Mount Everest, equally fascinating and terrifying places I’d never dare go myself. One of my recent discoveries is author Chris Colin, a young’ish American writer, a little like Paul Theroux in his vibrant descriptions, but more contemporary. His articles appear in publications like Afarand The New York Times and range from renting a friend in Tokyo to spending a raucous weekend in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Whatever I pick up, though, needs to entertain me, transport me, and stoke my wanderlust to get out and see the world with new eyes, whether that be simply a trip to the corner com tam place or some far-flung corner of Earth.
While I’m a Vietnamese living in Vietnam, books on Vietnam still inspire me. Tim Doling’s historical guidebook Exploring Ho Chi Minh City has inspired me to walk the city and see beyond its façade. And Geoffrey Murray’s Vietnam Culture Smart! has encouraged me to try to understand the reason behind cultural differences I see on a daily basis. Just a few weeks ago, Saigon-based writer Barbara Adam released Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips and a Guide to Living and Working There . The 208-paged book isn’t a guidebook per se, but bridges the gap by including tips only someone who has lived in Vietnam for years would know, all with a good dose of humor thrown in. “Wave one arm above your head to make sure people have noticed you,” she writes on crossing the street. “The waving will probably make you feel like a twit but it’s effective.” She also explains that weird extra long fingernail some Vietnamese men inexplicably sport: “For some, a grow-your-own-Q-Tip is a way to save money on ear-cleaning fees. For other men, the super-long fingernail is a sign that the bearer is not a manual labourer.” Having a Vietnamese husband means that Adam has insights into both sides of the cultural divide. “It’s also not rude to pick your nose or squeeze pimples in public in Vietnam. If it offends you, look away,” she advises with all practicality.
So whether it’s a guidebook or a magazine or a blog post you read, let it inspire you to see the world. After all, as Augustine of Hippo noted almost 2,000 years ago: “The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”
BIO: Having visited nearly 60 countries as a travel writer and award-winning photographer, James Pham blogs about his adventures at FlyIcarusFly.com