Shelf Isolation: Travel Tales to Get You Through
2020: global travel bans, entire fleets of commercial airlines grounded, borders shut, entire cities in lockdown worldwide. Not exactly a great year to be planning a big trip. Everyone reading this will have had to cancel some sort of plans this year, and as difficult it is for perennial travellers to stay put, you will literally be saving lives if you stay at home, and read a book.
In lieu of your next big trip, here are some sweeping travel sagas and shorter yarns you can live vicariously from the comforts of your bed.
Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser
Laura Fraser is an Australian creative living in Sydney. Ravi Mendis is an IT professional in Sri Lanka, his father is dead, his mother is struggling to get by. Laura travels the world with money from an inheritance, returning to Sydney to work for a publisher of travel guides. Ravi dreams of being a tourist until he is driven from Sri Lanka by devastating political events.
In Questions of Travel these disparate narratives alternate until they intersect, drawing in an array of people, places and stories, all influenced by travel. From Theo, whose life is played out against the long shadow of his past, to Hana, an Ethiopian woman determined to reinvent herself in Australia, Questions of Travel is a novel of globalisation, divided identities and home. Returning over and over again to the question of, ‘Where do I/we belong?’, it is an epic of time, place and the interconnectedness of humanity.
Michelle de Kretser has won the Miles Franklin Award twice and wrote Questions of Travel, in part, as a response to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem of the same name.
Full Tilt – Dervla Murphy
In 1963, Dervla Murphy decides to ride her bicycle from Ireland, through frozen Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan and into India during one of the continent’s worst winters. She gets attacked by wolves in Siberia, has three ribs broken by a rifle butt in Afghanistan, is bitten by scorpions and snakes, weathers blizzards and rides through India in the height of July.
But nothing seems to phase her.
Full Tilt was Murphy’s first book after she ‘resigned’ herself to writing about her travels. It is full of wonder and eyes wide open observations. Full Tilt is Murphy’s collected diaries: they are unfiltered and — to “not seem more learned” than she was — unpeppered with encyclopaedic facts or preconceived notions of where she is travelling. Full Tilt focusses on her journey through Iran and Afghanistan, where she is humbled by the hospitality time and time again. Whilst the narrative sometimes slips into the patronising language of European travelogues of the 1960s, Dervla Murphy has undeniably been a pioneer for solo female travellers.
Now 88, Dervla Murphy is one of Ireland’s most prominent travel writers, and has penned 26 books across 40 years.
Ox-travels – ed. Mark Ellingham
If you have found your attention span to be splintered by a combination of scrolling and the news, Oxfam have curated this essay collection from their favourite travel writers. Edited by Mark Ellingham, the founder of Rough Guides, Ox-travels features 25 stories themed around a life-changing, affecting or amusing meeting from contemporary travel writing greats.
Mark Ellingham established Rough Guides right after Uni, on a trip to Greece. After running out of cash to continue his travels, with true Hobo initiative, he secured a publishing contract with Routledge for the first guide and convinced them to pay an advance on the publication so he could complete his trip. You won’t read Mark’s story in this collection, but will be treated to yarns from Michael Palin, Sara Wheeler, William Dalrymple, Jan Morris, Rory Stewart and more.
All royalties from this book go to Oxfam, so if your cash flow allows it and you want to buy this book, do so from your local indie bookshop.
The Motorcycle Diaries – Che Guevara
You may notice this list is absent of the white guy goes solo On the Road or Into the Wild on his boozy hippie adventure oblivious to the wake of people that care about him.
An epic roadtrip that isn’t that is Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. Before Che was a communist best known for appearing on t-shirts, Ernesto (Che) Guevara and his best mate Alberto Granado, were medical professionals on a mission to treat lepers in San Pablo, Peru. The Motorcycle Diaries is Ernesto’s memoir of their journey to Caracas, Venezuela from Buenos Aires, Argentina, crossing via the Andes into Chile on a breaking-down 1939 Norton 500cc bike.
If you’re planning a big South America trip, their itinerary is still a very workable route today, and is listed with approximate travel times in the back of the book.
As the title suggests, these diaries are scribbled observations of the people, places and politics Che and Alberto encounter. Notable shifts in the narrative occur when their bike finally carks it, and they resort to hitchhiking North. Che writes about the working conditions of miners in the USA owned copper mine in Chile, and after observing the living conditions in the leper colony in Peru, his notes shift from medical to socio-political. The Motorcycle Diaries has themes of colonialism, racism towards the Indigenous population, notes on police brutality and the effects of dictatorships at a human level, all of these gradually leading to Che’s rising belief in communism and the beginning of his revolution.
The Motorcycle Diaries is the South American roadtrip Kerouac couldn’t have written.