Sick of Shantaram – My 3 favourite travel books

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.

Favourite travel books

The Kabul Beauty School, by Deborah Rodriguez

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.

 

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The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner

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.

 

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Viva South America- Journey Through a Restless Continent, by Oliver Balch

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!

My First Liebster Award!

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Thank you very much to the wonderful Kendra for nominating me for a Liebster award! It’s rather amusing that this is an award for people with less than 600 followers, considering I have…let’s just say I have far fewer than that. So thank you, Kendra.

For those not in the know, the rules are as follows:

Write a blog post thanking the blogger who nominated you, and link back to their blog.

Answer the 11 questions that your nominator asks you.

Nominate 10 bloggers, under 600 followers, who are awesome and deserving of this honor.

Create 11 questions for your nominees.

Display the Liebster Award logo on your page.

List these rules in your post.

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How to make the most of your visit to Otavalo Market

We had read so much about Otavalo market that we couldn’t wait to arrive. We initially checked into our hotel on the Wednesday, giving us plenty of time to explore the town before the famous market. Otavalo surprised us with how pleasant it was. We’d only heard talk of the market, giving us the impression that the town wasn’t very nice. Actually, it was lovely. Nice and compact town centre, and lots of nature sights to see if you ventured out. Add to that a delicious smelling bakery on every corner and we were in heaven!

Square in Otavalo

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Tale of a big fish and a small town – Guatape, Colombia

We shouldn’t have enjoyed Guatape. We arrived sleep-deprived and exhausted. It took us a while to find the right bus, and even longer for it to leave the terminal. I had a broken toe and was still limping on flat ground, nevermind steps and cobblestones. And despite my deplorable lack of fitness, we were there to climb 750 steps to see the top of a big rock.

And yet, we loved it.

All my favourite colours combined!

All my favourite colours combined!

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Why you should travel in Colombia

Travel in Colombia is a topic that everyone has a view about. Sadly, they’re not all educated views.

Many people had safety concerns when I brought up Latin America. People tend to have a vague idea that it’s ‘dodgy’. I was worried to tell my mum that we went through El Salvador because of its reputation. However, I found out that she didn’t know enough to know she ‘should’ be worried.

But Colombia? Travel in Colombia was different. Very few people were keen on the idea. Didn’t I know it was all drugs, bombs and violence? Ironically, people suggested skipping to Peru, ‘to avoid danger’. Yes, the same Peru which is the number one cocaine exporter. Which exported 50% more cocaine than Colombia in recent years.

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That night in a Thai hooker bar…

Anyone who visits Bangkok has heard of them. The legendary ping-pong shows. Women who can store impressive quantities of ribbons, and even live animals in their hoo-hahs, to be withdrawn for the crowd’s delight.  Women who can shoot darts across a room and write the punter’s name on a piece of paper, all with their hands tied behind their backs.

Somehow, these ping-pong shows have become a backpacker staple. Men line the streets of tourist Bangkok, their mouths making lurid popping sounds as they try and drum up business.  My friend and I decide we want to see this for ourselves, to see if it’s really true that these women can do the stuff of legends.

And that- along with our inherent poor luck when travelling- is how we ended up in a Thai hooker bar.

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