Travel the world without leaving home
For those that have a constant ‘Wanderlust’ urge to travel and feel uncomfortable sitting around at home, then help is readily at hand. Let a good travel book do it for you! Travel writing goes back to the 14th century when the Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta toured the Islamic World from North Africa to China. He later recorded his journeys in a chronicle that is still consulted today.
Around the same time, Marco Polo, the Italian merchant, made his epic 24-year journey along the Silk Road to China. He was the first European to write about his travels, and his account inspired others to venture into the unknown, including the early Portuguese explorers and Christopher Columbus.
In modern times, the publication of travel books has transformed little-known places into popular tourist destinations. There are many options, ranging from the Lonely Planet travel guides to Eric Newby’s alarming adventures described in ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ to the wry humour of Bill Bryson in ‘Notes from a Small Island’.
Often without any travel plan, the free spirits who pen these tales plunge bravely into the unknown, endure insane bureaucracy, catch nasty diseases and interact with weird human beings! They skillfully craft their notes into magical stories, full of originality and oozing with the sights, sounds and tastes of far-flung destinations. There is an endless choice of fascinating travel tales. These are four of our favourites:
In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin
This wonderful book, written in 1977, is often said to have re-defined travel writing of the 20th century. Chatwin was a Sunday Times journalist when he announced his departure in a telegram: ‘Gone to Patagonia for six months’. The aim of his quest was to search for remains of the Mylodon, an extinct giant ground sloth.
His meandering journey through Argentinean and Chilean Patagonia was full of strange incidents and bizarre encounters with the inhabitants before eventually reaching the huge ‘Mylodon’ cave in southern Chile. Here he did actually find a few hairs of this ancient beast on the floor of the cave. On route, Chatwin unearthed some surprising facts about the history of the region and its European immigrants. Many of these hardy souls arrived to either begin a new life at the other end of the world or, like the notorious outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, find a place to hide from the law.
He met oddball sheep farmers of Scottish descent – who spent much of their time in a whisky-induced haze – and explored the remarkable Welsh Patagonian community of Chubut Province, which dates back to1865.
But it is his clipped writing style, short sentences and acute observations that make Chatwin such an elegant literary craftsman. The book has many examples. Whilst waiting to hitch a lift in the middle of nowhere, he writes:“Next day hotter and windier than before. The hot blasts knocked you back, sucked at your legs and pressed on your shoulders. The road began and ended in a gray mirage. You’d see a dust devil behind and, though you knew now or never to hope for a truck, you thought it was a truck. Or there’d be black specks coming closer, and you stopped, sat down and waited, but the specks walked off sideways and you realized they were sheep.”
Golden Earth – Travels in Burma – Norman Lewis
Following the demise of the British Raj after the Second World War, Burma was left as a war-torn land with different tribes and political creeds vying for power. Despite many dangers, Norman Lewis travelled extensively around the country in 1951, using any form of transport he could muster. He fell totally under Burma’s spell, discovering a land of breathtaking beauty, complex bureaucratic officialdom and a worrying level of tribal violence.
The Burmese, however, were astonishingly hospitable and showed surprisingly little bitterness towards their previous British colonial masters. His narrative captivates the reader from the very beginning. After arrival by air in Rangoon he writes: “At the airport, the bleak, palely lit buildings, where lines of passengers awaited their interrogation by innumerable officials, were decorated, as if by design, with groups of tiny, silk-clad elfin creatures – unmistakably adult, since some nursed exquisite miniatures of themselves. Here one was bathed in the very essence of the country while waiting to pass through the immigration formalities.”
Lewis makes many astute and humorous observations on Burmese life. He fights cockroaches in his bedroom, endures a three-day theatre performance to celebrate a monk taking orders, explores hill-tribe markets, hitches lifts with the army, is attacked by insurgents on the Irriwaddy River and takes the Rangoon Express from Mandalay – a train which doesn’t go to Rangoon! He effortlessly chooses the right turn of phrase for every occasion and this memorable book is a perfect snapshot of 1950’s Burma.
Motoring with Mohammed – Eric Hansen
In 1978, Hansen’s sailboat was wrecked on an island off the coast of Yemen. He was rescued by Eritrean goat smugglers, but managed to bury his personal notebooks in a sack deep in the sand to prevent confiscation by the police. Ten years later ,he returned to Yemen to try and retrieve his precious journals. This was no easy task and with his trusty driver, Mohammed, he journeyed through the country in an endless confrontation with security forces in an effort to reach the books’ hiding place. He absorbed himself in Yemeni culture and became enchanted with Sana’a, the capital, with its striking mud-built high-rise buildings. He met madcap expatriates, including a Catholic priest who carried a confessional booth in the back of his car, and a man who was analyzing the public toilet habits of Yemeni men as part of a UNESCO project! The city’s most frequently used convenience was to receive an international aid grant for improvement.
Hansen’s intrepid mentor was an English teacher, who when arriving late for their first meeting, quipped: “Sorry, bit of a problem at the language institute. We had a man, a flasher actually, wandering about. A Saudi I guess, from the description. Not a flasher by our standards, mind you, but he was frightening the ladies. He kept leaping out of the bushes displaying his open hand. Across the palm he had written I WANT A WOMAN with a ballpoint pen. Bit of a laugh really!”
Whilst waiting written permission to return to the island, aided by a dubious local ‘fixer’, he decided to explore more of this remarkable country. He got lost on a foolhardy jaunt in the Yemen’s rugged mountains, visited ancient trade route ruins in the desert, collapsed with heat exhaustion in a hammam bath house and attended a Yemeni wedding. The nuptial celebration was an all-male feast where all the guests carried assault rifles – just in case! He eventually recovered his notebooks, but not without further trials and tribulations, including almost being shipwrecked again on his final boat trip to the island.
I Have Seen the World Begin – Carsten Jensen
Carsten Jensen, the Danish journalist, describes his journey through China, Cambodia and Vietnam, all of which witnessed cataclysmic events in the late 20th century – the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields and the bloody Vietnam War. He found civilizations rich in history and culture, with populations under stress from radical change. Whilst in Beijing, he experienced the reverberations from the Tiananmen Square carnage and its subsequent impact upon the democracy movement in China.
After travelling through Shanghai and then by boat up the Yangtse River, he shrewdly observed the people’s expectations for China’s future development. He writes with great sensitivity about the despair, destruction and appalling genocide under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. And finally in Vietnam, Jensen witnesses a conspicuous legacy of colonialism and war and becomes entangled in an extraordinary love affair.
This is a rare piece of literature that aspires to something beyond just being a travel book. In order to find the truth, he never stops asking awkward questions – making enemies as well as friends! The result is a book that is as much about the storyteller’s personal philosophy as a description of people and places. His fluent narrative, eloquently translated into English by Barbara Haveland, brings vivid clarity to all his adventures.
On arrival at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, he writes: “I crossed a wide moat and stepped on to the huge square in front of the temple’s stone mounds. A silence reigned here unlike any I had ever experienced and not a soul was to be seen. It was like finding oneself in St. Peter’s Square knowing that Rome has been evacuated and that its greatest buildings are now no more than monuments to a forsaken, forgotten civilization. Only the great lost cities of Asia have the power to induce in me this feeling of cessation of history, a sensation with which the Asians are familiar and which Europeans fear.”
So instead of hunting for John Grisham or Dan Brown, next time you are in a bookshop, try browsing the Travel Section. You’ll find a treasure trove of literary gems and discover that you really can travel the world without leaving home!
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 13 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.