For most of human history, the vast majority of people never had the opportunity to see the world outside their immediate communities, unless they were forced to by circumstance. Those who did travel faced an arduous and dangerous experience, even at the best of times. Now, we live in a world where travelling for recreation, as tourists, is accessible to an ever larger number of people, whether those voyages take them to other countries or local vacation spots.
Before there was such a thing as a tourist there were travellers and explorers, who left written accounts of their adventures and travels. Marco Polo was the first European to leave a detailed written account of his voyage into 13th-century Asia, a 24-year odyssey that took him from Venice to deep into China (ruled by the Mongols at the time) and back. Mark Twain wrote an account of his voyage through Europe and the Holy Lands in 1867 entitled The Innocents Abroad, which provides a good portrait of that part of the world in the 19th century from the point of view of a proto-tourist, and is also quite funny. Freya Stark was another writer and explorer. She wrote many books about her experiences in the Middle East in the 1930’s, and was one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian Deserts.
Today, travelling is so common place, and can be so mundane, that we forget what an awesome thing it really is. Yet there also exists a vast demand for travel literature in the form travelogues, diaries, and guidebooks. People travel, or read about people who do, not only to discover the world, but also to challenge themselves and their perspectives. A simple road trip can be a fun and enlightening experience, especially in North America, which is blessed with both plenty of space and plenty of good roads to ride on. William Least Heat-Moon has written extensively about his travel experiences on the road in the U.S., as well as abroad, and is highly praised not only for the content of his stories but also his command of the English language. His recently-published Here, There, Elsewhere: Stories from the Road assembles selected pieces of his previously published writing, as well as new ones discussing the importance of cars and highways in the American identity, some historical treasures hidden in plain sight (like a sunken 19th century steamboat), and many memorable encounters in South Asia and Europe through decades of travel experiences.
Emilia Scotto is a man who had a dream of seeing the world, and actually got on a motorcycle and made a decade-long, 457,000 mile trip that took him from his native Argentina to virtually every country in the world, and landed him in the Guiness Book of World Records. His tale can be found in The Longest Ride: My Ten-Year, 500,000 Mile Motorcycle Journey, a book filled with photographs and anecdotes about the places he saw and experiences he went through. Some of the stories are actually hair-raising, as he tells of many close-calls and dangerous situations he had to negotiate.
But what about you, you may ask? If you suffer from bouts of wanderlust, or just seek a good vacation spot, World’s Best Travel Experiences: 400 Extraordinary Places is an excellent book to browse through to plan your next trip. The book lists locations all over the world, from familiar cities to the most extreme and isolated (but gorgeous) locations, and organizes them in categories like urban spaces, wild places, and world wonders, depending on what kind of experience a traveller would be looking for. For the more adventurous types, in Once in a Lifetime Trips: The World’s 50 Most Extraordinary and Memorable Travel Experiences, author Chris Santella proposes trips that are all about experiences that are “unique, decadent and off the beaten path” and are intended to be unforgettable. On the menu: exploring the Galapagos islands, diving to the wreck of the Titanic, riding the Orient Express to Istambul, and…yes, it’s in there, visiting the International Space Station on an organized visit. We may not be able to cram all this in our busy lives, but reading about those who did is a thrill of its own.
Even today, though, travelling is far from being a risk-free enterprise, and bad experiences, both big and small, are also part of the experience. Travel writer Chuck Thompson, the “guru of extreme tourism”, has written about the darker side of the travel industry in the past. His second book, To Hellholes and Back, details his experiences travelling to the worst destinations in the world, to see if they deserved their bad reputations, and living to tell the tale. His journeys take him to parts of the Congo, India, Mexico City, and even Orlando Florida and Disney World. Mr. Thompson is never in grave danger throughout his voyages, but he does go places where few, if any of us, would, and manages to be pleasantly surprised on occasions (especially in Mexico City). If you like narrators with caustic humor mixed with genuine curiosity about their subject matter, this book will be an interesting read for you.
Whether you are planning to go on a trip or just read about it, the adventure is out there. Do you have any suggestions for good travel reading?