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In an irksome Covid calm books offer awesome journeys in the mind

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaStalled by Covid? Here are some travel books to open fresh horizons while also stemming cognitive decline and helping you look cool.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Boats lazily plying the Ganges River, India, at Benares

An atmospheric snap of boats lazily plying the Ganges River, India, at Benares. Eric Newby's 'Slowly Down the Ganges' (1966) complements 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' (1958).

GROWING up in a house entombed in books I felt I always carried about a clingy odour of damp paper, leather, and dust. On rare occasions when I got to see my father on a break from his clattering Underwood typewriter, I’d add to my musty aromatic collection a whiff of Old Spice aftershave. The rows of books arrayed in neat white shelves rose sombrely to the ceiling covering every nook and cranny not claimed by a painting or a daguerreotype of grim-faced forebears blissfully unaware of their impending decorative immortality.

My father encouraged my brother and I to read as much as possible. Indeed our home was a treasure trove of material that far outclassed the school library, encompassing everything from the deliciously subversive ‘Down With Skool’ and the savage whimsy of Saki, to Mahatma Gandhi’s simple, unadorned autobiography that rubbed shoulders with the foreboding, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’. Crowding the shelves were biographies, essays, tomes on philosophy, theology, politics, economics, history, and books authored by my parents, both prolific writers.

I suppose we had no choice. My brief flirtation with Superman comics in the early Sixties came to a swift end as it was feared, perhaps rightly, that our vocabulary would shrink to just, “Wham, zap, pow, bam…” This was prescient as I found myself dealing with a similar conundrum when MSN chat arrived to corrupt my son’s English. Not Gr8.

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Now, in the enforced Covid calm, it’s back to books again. Apart from keeping that grey matter humming – be it a Kindle, a newspaper, an audiobook, or a weighty hardcover like Obama’s ‘A Promised Land’ (a gift from my son) – words are back, offering instant escape from the confines of four walls to once again feel the wind in the hair, savour tropical sunsets, and brush up on antidisestablishmentarianism or Ouagadougou.   

Sitting back with a good travel book certainly beats chasing about for a Covid-19 test, moon landing gear, and doctor’s certificate for a two-hour flight and a 21-day quarantine. So here, in no particular order, are ten books dripping with wanderlust and nostalgia that I have enjoyed over the years.  

{This seemed doubly astounding – first that Australia could just lose a Prime Minister (I mean, come on) and second that news of this had never reached me

Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ (1957) is as good a place as any to start your journey through American postwar Beat counterculture, packed with sex, drugs and jazz. “The fellows at the Loop blew, but with a tired air, because bop was somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis.”

In ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ (1975), a perceptively dazzling Paul Theroux journeys by train across Asia. “If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travellers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to.” More steam and grit in his, ‘Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China’.

In the slim but hard-hitting ‘Into Thin Air’ (1997), the 1996 Everest ‘traffic’ that claimed eight lives is breathlessly narrated by Jon Krakauer who accompanied one of the doomed expeditions up the mountain. “The plain truth is that I knew better but went to Everest anyway. And in doing so I was a party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time.” ‘After the Wind’ (2014), by fellow climber Lou Kasischke is another thoughtful account of that ill-fated push to the summit while ‘The Climb’ (1997), by legendary Russian mountaineer, Anatoli Boukreev, who heroically continued with rescue efforts after others had pulled out, offers another perspective on how that tragedy unfolded.

Bill Bryson’s breezy 2000 travelogue ‘Down Under’ (released as ‘In a Sunburned Country’ in America) is peppered with his usual humorous insights and anecdotes. “I passed the time on the long flight from London reading a history of Australian politics in the twentieth century, wherein I encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the Prime Minister, Harold Holt, was strolling along a beach in Victoria when he plunged into the surf and vanished. No trace of the poor man was ever seen again. This seemed doubly astounding to me – first that Australia could just lose a Prime Minister (I mean, come on) and second that news of this had never reached me.”

In one of the earliest travel accounts in English – ‘Where Three Empires Meet’ (1895) – Edward Frederick Knight, a barrister turned journalist, toured Kashmir, Gilgit and Western Tibet. He plays golf in snowy heights watched by puzzled tribesmen who feel the sport is sheer nonsense without ponies, marvels at automated religion as prayer wheels churn in rivers and in windy passes getting the job done expeditiously without pause, and ponders eyebrow-raising polyandry among Ladakhi women while Muslim women are shielded from public view.

Intrepid English adventurer Eric Newby made time for a spot of mountaineering in Afghanistan, brilliantly chronicling the grind of the journey in ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' (1958). “We had been on the march for a month. We were all rather jaded; the horses were galled because the drivers were careless of them, and their ribs stood out because they had been in places only fit for mules… there was no more sugar to put in the tea, no more jam, no more cigarettes and I was reading The Hound of the Baskervilles for the third time; all of us suffered from persistent dysentery. The ecstatic sensations we had experienced at a higher altitude were beginning to wear off. It was not a particularly gay party.” Also look out for the later 'Slowly Down the Ganges' (1966).

The Motorcycle Diaries’ (1992), by a young not-as-yet-revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, catalogues his travels through Latin America with a friend and moments of profound epiphany. “I now know, by an almost fatalistic conformity with the facts, that my destiny is to travel... I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I will be with the people.”

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ (1974) by Robert M Pirsig was a massive cult classic during my college years, read by just about every lost, long-haired, philosophy-spouting Beatnik. It’s a chatty, at times profound, exploration of metaphysics and human values as the author rides with his young son from Minnesota to California. “You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV… On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”

But the granddaddy of all peripatetics was the Moroccan Berber, Ibn Battuta (AD 1304-1369). ‘The Travels of Ibn Battuta’ (or ‘The Rihla’) cover his extraordinary journey from the Iberian Peninsula through North Africa, to Arabia, Central Asia, India (where he was appointed a Judge in Delhi by the monstrously whimsical Muhammed Bin Tughlaq who also generously cleared all his debts), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Southeast Asia, and China. He started out as a young man on a pilgrimage to Mecca that ended 27 years and 120,000km later. Of India, he writes: “When I had got to the house prepared for me, I found it furnished with every carpet, vessel, couch, and fuel, one could desire. The victuals, which they brought us, consisted of flour, rice, and flesh, all of which was brought from the mother of the Emperor. Every morning we paid our respects to the Vizier, who on one occasion gave me two thousand dinars.” Who needs frequent flyer miles?

More hoary tales in the ‘Travels of Marco Polo’ (‘Book of Marvels of the World’, circa AD 1300). The Venetian explorer travelled from Constantinople to the court of Kublai Khan, the fabled Mongol emperor in what later was to become Peking. He describes Kublai’s efficient postal system, paper money, and unusual matrimonial practices. "Now every year a hundred of the most beautiful maidens of the tribe are sent to the Great Khan, who commits them to the charge of certain elderly ladies dwelling in his palace. And these old ladies make the girls sleep with them, in order to ascertain if they have sweet breath (and do not snore), and are sound in all their limbs. Then such of them as are of approved beauty... are appointed to attend on the Emperor by turns."

Last but not least is the liberating and immensely readable ‘A Fortune-Teller Told Me’ (1995), by the endearingly eccentric Tiziano Terzani, a veteran Italian news correspondent based for long years in India and the Far East. In Hong Kong a fortune-teller warns him not to travel by air during the year 1993. “Don’t fly, not even once.” Terzani took his advice and switched to cars, buses, trains and steamers, thus inviting all manner of adventure, chuckles, and bizarre experiences as life slowed down to a crawl. “And then, the idea of not flying for a whole year was an attraction in itself… a challenge, first and foremost. It really tickled me to pretend an old Chinese in Hong Kong might hold the key to my future. It felt like taking the first step into an unknown world. I was curious to see where more steps in the same direction would lead. If nothing else, they would introduce me, for a while, to a different life from the one I normally led. “

In case you didn’t know, reading helps slow cognitive decline, builds empathy, and MRI scans have shown that varied reading lights up different parts of the brain. That workout is necessary. Apart from anything else, a book in hand always looks cool on the park bench.

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