Visiting a different country can be a somewhat exhausting experience. You want to see fourteen different museums and exhibitions, walk through narrow winding streets hunting for one piece of street art. You want to climb halfway up a mountain, decide it’s too far, come back down again and then spend your evening sampling an entire national cuisine. I sometimes feel when travelling that my only downtime is the twenty minutes staring at my phone screen, laid out flat on my face on a bunkbed (and I wouldn’t be inclined to call this ‘quality’ downtime). But who has the time for reading when you’ve got all these exciting things going on around you?
Well, personally I think it’s time to embrace more book-based travel. Reading simultaneously requires attention and relaxation, focus and a sense of calm. When you’re travelling, it can be a way to settle yourself into your landscape, to take a moment to pause. It may sound romanticised or cliché, but imagine: You’re in another country, perched on a rock looking out over a rolling landscape of green; or leaning back in a wicker chair in a café which serves ‘proper’ coffee; or lying flat on your back on a patch of grass in a park you stumbled across. In your hand is a book. You can take a moment to get lost in this book while sensing the smells, sounds and feel of the place around you. It’s double enjoyment, the same way watching a film is better when you’ve got a bowl of popcorn in front of you. It’s a way to relax, focus and enjoy yourself, to make yourself take a break from your hectic trip itinerary and really appreciate where you are.
Maybe you aren’t sold on these romantic ideals of reading. However, in practical terms, and whether you like fiction or non-fiction, reading literature while travelling can help acquaint you with a place. Books provide context, history and stories which can illuminate a country’s past and present. This is especially true for countries with an entirely different culture and way of life to yours. I decided to read Louis de Bernières Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord when travelling in South America. Although set in a fictional Latin American country, it alludes to the period following La Violencia and the crippling effect of the drug trade in Colombia. The novel paints a satirical and damming picture of this period of political and violent conflict. Of course, this was something I was already learning about through museums and walking tours. However, histories are much easier to understand when told through individuals on a small scale: it humanises the story. Through the lens of a protagonist, I could emotionally connect with the story and history, more so than the statistics printed in the guidebook. Even on a superficial level I felt more connected: reading a description of a character holding a popular Colombia beer brand called ‘Aguila’, while holding one in my very hand made me feel like I’d just been given a shout out.
Reading a novel breathes life into the place you’re visiting. The feeling of foreignness and isolation when abroad can often be attributed to seeing yourself as different. Of course, talking to locals and exploring the culture combats this. But literature can provide a further gateway. Reading about individuals whose culture is so far from your own, but finding you can still emotionally relate and connect to them, can expel this feeling of difference.
But how can you be expected to lug four, five or even six books on your three-month trip? They’re not exactly going to fit neatly into a packing cube. Thankfully, lots of hostels and cafes have free book exchange shelves. Although some hostel bookshelves are brimming with discarded Lonely Planet guides, have a root around and you can usually find a variety of books from different places which wouldn’t be in your standard bookshop. If you’re travelling with a friend, swap books so you don’t both have a heavy load. It will also give you something to discuss two months into the trip when your conversation may have run a bit dry. We do live in the 21st century, so a Kindle makes life a lot easier if you don’t mind reading on a screen (I know lots of book lovers who refuse: I myself was converted to the Kindle world a few months ago).
If you want to improve on the language you’ve learned from conversations, it can also be helpful to read a book (albeit a basic one) in the country’s language. In France, I decided to read a battered copy of French Harry Potter I found in a second-hand shop. With an easy well-known story, I was able to pick up some words that I tested out when speaking or reading some information in a museum. In short, it helped my immersion into the language.
When you’re finally back at home, think of the books as a souvenir of the time you spent away. Re-flicking through the pages, you might be transported back to that hilltop or rickety bus journey all over again.