Disclosure: I’ve never actually read Shantaram. I’m sure it’s a great and life changing book. It’s just been mentioned to me so many times that I’ve been thoroughly turned off.
Shantaram. The Beach. Eat, Pray, Love. The Alchemist. Into the Wild. On the Road.
What do all those books have in common? They’re on every single ‘favourite travel books’ list you’ll ever find. They’re obviously popular for a reason, but it makes finding alternative travel reads pretty difficult.
So I thought I’d share some of my favourite travel books, in the hope of offering something a little different. I don’t think these books are ‘off the beaten track’ when it comes to reading. Yet they’re not ones I’ve seen on a lot of ‘favourite travel book’ lists.
The Kabul Beauty School is one of my favourite travel books. Deborah Rodriguez arrives in Afghanistan as part of a humanitarian mission, but she seems to have little to offer. However, she realises that her skills as a beautician could be used to help the local women, and sets up a beauty school to offer some financial independence and boost their confidence. The cover of the book makes it look like fluffy chick-lit, but it’s much more than that, dealing with domestic violence, a patriarchal society and government corruption.
The thing I enjoyed most about this book is that it’s a really great example of how solo female travellers can get an insight into a conservative and patriarchal culture. The opening chapter is a fantastic example of this, with the preparations for Roshanna’s wedding being beautifully described and given cultural context. Deborah is able to interact with both genders, offering insights and experiences which would be impossible for a male traveller.
I really enjoyed reading a book about Afghanistan from the perspective of an outsider. Deborah’s ideological outlook is similar to those of most Western women, which means she identifies and considers topics that will most interest her audience. I found I could really relate to her regarding the things she found surprising, and it’s humorous to see how a Western woman reacts to some of the stranger aspects of Afghan life.
The only thing I dislike about the book is the storyline about Deborah’s marriage. She meets Sam through friends, and they marry after 21 days despite not speaking the same language. Oh, and Sam has a wife and seven children in Saudi Arabia. Considering Deborah seems to firmly believe that Afghan men treat women with disrespect, it’s incomprehensible that she would marry a man with a wife and children stashed away in another country. However, it’s a minor concern in an otherwise wonderful book.
If you prefer books that have a more broader approach to travel, you should consider another of my favourite travel books: The Geography of Bliss. A man whose surname rhymes with ‘whiner’ who has spent most of his life working in war zones decides to turn his attention to happiness. Eric wants to know if happiness is caused by the expected things such a money and good health, or if it something deeper and more philosophical. In his quest, he visits the Netherlands, Iceland, Moldova, Bhutan, Qatar, the United Kingdom, India, Thailand and the United States. Don’t expect a scientific study, by the way- this is a humorous look at people and how where they live affects what they think.
One of my favourite things about this book is the level of interaction that Eric has with the local people. Having a ‘quest’ to carry out means that rather than spend his time marvelling at natural wonders, he is getting to grips with the locals. His studies into happiness means that rather than merely observe their day-to-day life like most travellers, Eric actively attempts to penetrate their philosophies.
The book is also interesting in that it visits many countries that aren’t often on the tourist radar. Bhutan, Qatar, Moldova and the Netherlands are examples of countries which are often overlooked, either because no one has heard of them, or they’re considered ‘boring’. I found the insight into Bhutan particularly fascinating.
It’s also refreshing to read a book which is happy to criticise and examine a country. Most travel writing these days focuses solely on the positives of a place. I think it’s largely an audience problem- many readers these days see a negative opinion on a place they love as a personal insult, and declare that the write ‘just doesn’t understand the culture’. Eric has no such compunctions, as Qatar have learned.
Although I say that willingness to acknowledge negativity is refreshing, it does sometimes stray into the extreme. I sincerely hope the citizens of Moldova feel that they have been caricatured here, or else a humanitarian mission to remove all the sharp objects from the country might be necessary. Likewise, his portrayal of Brits as being relentlessly cold and depressed and Icelanders as being daffy grinning elves strays towards cliché. But even in these incidences, his interactions and observations are still interesting.
If you’re interested in the history and politics of the places you visit, Viva South America will interest you. Although billed as a travel through the South American continent, this is not just someone’s travel diary. Each chapter deals with a different country, choosing one socio-political issue. Of course, we are treated to descriptions and opinions on various cities and locations along the way, but the heart of the book is looking at the people and how their lives play out.
Some of the themes he chooses are obvious: Colombia and violence, or Brazil and racism for example. And yet it never feels like Oliver is merely repeating the stories that everyone knows. By talking to local people and giving them a voice, he instead works in tandem with the reader’s prior knowledge to paint a more rounded picture. An encounter with a displaced man in Bogotá is particularly shocking, and will linger in your memory for a long time afterwards.
This is also one of my favourite travel books because I adore facts. It felt like every two minutes I was annoying my travel partner with a surprising fact, and I definitely learned a lot from it. I particularly appreciated this when it comes to countries such as Venezuela and Paraguay, which I knew almost nothing about. A couple of the topics he picked for certain countries also surprised me: I had no idea that Peru was filled with Christian missionaries, nor did I know the issues that arise from this. And I was in Peru when I read the book!