By no means did I intend to tackle a comprehensive bibliography on any of the places I planned to visit. Nonetheless, several books came to my attention the more I talked about the idea of traveling around the world.
One book that quickly sparked my imagination was the Lonely Planet guidebook, “Istanbul to Kathmandu,” which traced the ancient trade route popularized by hippies in the 1960s and ’70s and made its publisher a household name among legions of off-the-beaten-path travelers. The book is out of print now, but I tracked one down on Half.com.
Wondrous though the route sounded, I find guidebooks to be clunky reads at times. This one was no different, but I thoroughly enjoyed picturing myself making my way along the waypoints it lays out. Two of my favorite blurbs were about the Khyber Pass connecting Pakistan and Afghanistan (“It’s well worth securing a permit and armed escort to venture out to this rugged frontier”) and Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park (which “offers the most likely chance of coming face to face with a two-tonne one-horned rhinocerous”).
Next was Sarah Macdonald’s “Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure.” The book opens with the narrator flipping off an Indian fortuneteller who predicts she’ll return — for love — to a country she vehemently swore off. Naturally, it follows with her returning as a newlywed whose journalist husband is deployed to cover breaking stories in the region for much of their first year together and her inner journey to make sense of the strange land in which she then finds herself.
Macdonald has a knack for detail and creating composite characters, with the added benefit of time to let the sights, sounds and smells soak into the cultural portrait she paints as an outsider.
Although I crossed Australia off my list early in the planning stages, I still thoroughly enjoyed Bill Bryson’s “In a Sunburned Country.” Though his prose seems occasionally overwrought, Bryson does a fantastic job of weaving together a description of this wondrous land and its lethal dangers with some terribly fascinating trivia about Oz.
One particular tale that struck me was about Australia’s former prime minister, Harold Holt. One day in 1967, the politician went for a swim in the notoriously wild ocean waters and simply disappeared, presumably drowned.
It pleased me greatly to have retained a piece of useless information about a place I’ve never been. (Not surprising, considering I twice qualified to be on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” but was never randomly selected to appear as an on-air contestant.)
Such was my pride that I mentioned it to Nick, who is Australian, the night I received his and Elizabeth’s wedding invitation.
“He was murdered,” Nick said without missing a beat.
Of course, that later sent me on a Google hunt for more on the circumstances Bryson presented as merely quaint. Conspiracy theories abound, ranging from a faked suicide and a secret mistress to a more nefarious allegation that involved the CIA and Holt’s opposition to a U.S. military base.
Finally, because of the original scope of my trip, I also plowed through Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” in couple of afternoons. It was enjoyable, compelling and informative — especially when I managed to ignore the narrator’s whiny, self-obsessed rants. The book’s descriptions of Italy, India and Indonesia came across as genuine, informed and rewarding.
Any other recommendations, suggestions and must-reads are always welcome.
(Thanks to Lisa for recommending her friend Sarah’s book, to Nicole for lending me Bryson and Gilbert and to Kathryn for guest-editing this piece for me despite her own considerable time constraints.)