Forget Travel Writing, I’m All About Travel Reading
I recently stumbled across an article entitled “Ten Travel Tips on How to Travel Local.” The article focused on various ways a traveler (not tourist) can have a more authentic experience when visiting a new location. Some things could be accomplished in a relatively short trip – shop in the supermarkets, spend time in public places, rent an apartment instead of a hotel. Others required more of a time commitment – including number one on the list, “Take the time and commit to it.”
One item on the list resonated with me more than the others, however, because it is a rather unique approach to understanding a culture. “Read a book about the destination.” When planning a vacation, the books most people reach for are local guidebooks. While a guidebook can be great for planning the day to day stops of a tourist, it does little to guide a traveler to a greater understanding of a location. A guidebook is a great checklist of things you should see, but doesn’t begin to tell you how you should see them.
There are a handful of books I’ve read that have guided the way I’ve experienced an area. Before I left for Australia in the winter of 2009, my aunt and uncle gave me a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. I also brought a copy of Bill Bryson’s Walk About, along on the trip. While I didn’t spend any time in the outback, or anywhere either of these books took place, they gave me a greater understanding of Australia, its people, and how the areas I did visit fit into the context of the entire country, both culturally and historically.
Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was also an interesting book to have read while traveling in Spain. While I wasn’t drinking from wineskins or watching bullfights, I sat down in cafes and bars with a slightly different mindset. I went from going into a cafe with a goal of getting a drink or something to eat, to walking in and sitting down with a goal of experiencing a meal, of interacting with the place, and of appreciating my surroundings.
I’m currently working on Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley in Search of America. It’s a fantastic book, and I’m thoroughly enjoying comparing my perspectives on places with Steinbeck’s reflections. It’s reminding me of some of the great road trips I’ve taken and stirring my desires to take another. It makes me want to buy an old truck and drive across the country. I have visions of sitting on the tailgate of the truck, looking out over the ocean, drinking coffee.
If you have an upcoming trip, I encourage you to set aside the guidebook and pick up a book that is set in that place. Gain a greater understanding of how life is lived there, so you can experience that as well. If you don’t have a trip planned, grab a book anyway, one that is set in a specific place that is not where you are, and find some inspiration to travel. If you can’t settle on a single place, then maybe you’re destined for a road trip like mine. If that’s the case, Brendan Leonard put together a pretty great list of road trip books you’ll want to read first: The List: The 9 Best Road Trip Books.
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