Let’s be clear on this before I start. Yes, I am well-traveled. That does not mean, under any conditions, that I am using this piece to claim that I am the world’s greatest traveler. There are quite a few places I have not visited, quite a few traveling goals that I have not achieved and might very well likely never achieve. You’ve been on a cruise? There you go: you are one up on me in that department. Never done it and not likely to do so given my current position in life. That is the ground rule for this essay. I am not bragging and I am not more experienced than you.
Having settled that, let’s go back to the second sentence. Yes, I am well-traveled. I have seen, and indeed spent considerable time, in all but ten of the US states. I have seen and spent considerable time on all the continents save two – sorry Australia and Antarctica, just never managed it. And really you guys, aren’t you islands pretending to be continents?
Here is a list of countries, if memory serves and it often does not, where I at least set foot and more than likely at least spent the night. In fact, I sometimes lived there for quite a while. The list: Mexico, Spain, England, Belgium, France. Japan, Scotland, Germany, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Marshall Islands, Egypt, Switzerland, Micronesia, Palau, Pohnpei .. and for crying out loud that is enough. Yes, there is more to be said but by this point in the list, I am dredging the depths of memory rather than reporting meaningful recollections.
Now, what is the point of this long introduction? I want to connect travel with books. I will try to do it here, but I am frankly more interested in what blog readers have to say. In other words, I will connect my travels to a few books, but I think my readers have more interesting things to say on this topic. I need to have inhabited the place and read a book or two about it. Other than that, I have no rules. Both fiction and nonfiction are allowed. This covers many decades so my memories of both the books and the places may not be as clear as I would like.
Island nations. I spent two years traipsing about the Pacific living, primarily in a place called The Marshall Islands. I visited Palau, Pohnpei, Micronesia and the US territory of Guam. If this sounds like a form of tropical bliss, I can promise you, it was not. It was a long slog through the many disadvantages of what are euphemistically called “developing” nations. As a general rule, if you need or want something, anything at all, you are not getting it. I recall spending a couple weeks trying to find shoelaces, a trivial matter of course. However, you’ll go through the same effort to get basic healthcare. When I was forced to consult the local hospital I discovered that it had one working restroom with no soap, no paper towels, no paper of any kind, if you get my drift. Clearly the place required a tougher soul than mine and that tougher soul is Paul Theroux, an excellent novelist and also one of the best travel writers of modern times, possibly of all times. For the Pacific, I suggest this title: The Happy Isles of Oceania. The “Happy” is a bit ironic. However, I also suggest any and all travel books by this writer. He has been everywhere; he has seen everything.
Egypt. My introduction to Egypt required paying a bribe to a fixer whose job was to guide me through customs. The word for this is baksheesh. To get normal business done, you always need a little baksheesh. After I got through customs, I met a driver from the American University of Cairo, my destination on this trip. Before he engaged the engine of the car, before we entered Cairo traffic, he looked at me and said in plain and clear English: “Please do not be afraid.” – and away we went. No, I had not done enough reading for this trip. I was utterly unprepared. I suggest anything by Nobel winning writer Naguib Mafouz. His was quite prolific so there is a large menu: 35 novels, hundreds of short stories, movie scripts, plays, op-ed pieces. His writing career was about 70 years so he had plenty of time to produce the work. He almost the last decade of work because, when he in his 80s, he was the victim of a murder attempt. He was stabbed in the neck in 1994 but survived and lived until 2006. When you ever have doubts about the power of the written word, this 80 year old writer was considered, by an extremist of course, to be dangerous enough to assassinate.
England. Well, really, the options are too many here. You might think of anybody from Shakespeare to Churchill. Yes, Churchill. He did not win a Nobel Peace Prize for guiding the globe through World War 2. Instead he won a literature Nobel for his history works and his speeches. However, my memories of England are more about diversity than just about anything else. The most commonly available street food is curry. My best friends were from Nigeria and Zaire – which is no longer called that by the way, but still had the name when I lived in England. So, for this location I pick a British book by a British citizen who has a name that does not sound British: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. This book is a strong candidate for my favorite novel of all time. Concerning the repressed emotional life of a very high end butler, it is very British indeed. My suggestion on this book is as high as I can emphasize. Ishiguro, by the way, is another Nobel writer.
I have only one option for Las Vegas and it is an obvious one. To be consumed in either book or movie form it is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. Thomson is an acquired taste, not for everybody by any means. However, this weird combination of journalism and fiction does offer a strong metaphor for America at a specific point in history. Bonus: if you manage the odd nature of the film version, you’ll get a brief cameo by the real Thompson.
Let’s do one more, shall we? Japan. Given all my travels, given all the places I have lived, Japan might be my number one choice for a permanent home. Why? For me, it provided just the right combination of the familiar and the odd. I could quite easily recognize elements of my comfy and spoiled Western style life, but it was frequently skewed in some way. That same description applies to the novels of Haruki Murakami. I suggest The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84. But all his books have delightful quirks. No Nobel prize for this guy just yet, but if there is any justice in the world of literary awards, then it is coming.
As usual when I compose these lists, I have left more off the page than I ever had hoped to put on the page. In fact, this one was a little painful when it came to making hard choices. I have zero books for France? Of course not! Nothing for Germany? No way. I do however have both limited space and time, so some blog posts will have to be delayed into the future. Besides, as I already said, I am really more interested in what you have to suggest.