Sunday, July 4, 2021

Books and Travel

Sunday, July 4, 2021

There are certain books that I will never forget not because of how beautifully written they are, how strongly they resonated with me, or how amazing their characters are but because of my experience in reading them. These are the books that stayed with me because I always associated them with when and where I was and how I felt while reading them. They are the books that were with me while on the road, being physically and mentally transported into foreign worlds.

The Bus Ride to Baguio City, Philippines (December 2008)
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Thirteen years ago, on a bus to Baguio to meet D and attend our university’s centennial celebration, I tried to contain my excitement by reading a paperback of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. As the bus chugged along provincial roads, I realized that the book is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Astonished by how deftly the author achieved such a feat, I didn’t mind the seven hours it took to reach the city.

The Bus Ride to Phnom Penh, Cambodia (December 2009)
God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

It was another long bus ride but this time to Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh City. D and I joined an organized tour in Saigon that would take us to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The tour group consisted of couples and individuals from different parts of the world. The book I brought with me was one of Christopher Hitchens’. It’s a bright yellow paperback whose title is written in big and bold gold font that even someone from a few meters away can't miss: god is Not Great. Careful not to offend anyone in the group, I took great pains to conceal the book’s cover. As I myself am guilty of judging people by the books they read, I didn’t want them to think of me as a heathen, which, I must confess, I actually am. As the bus sped along the dusty road and the palm trees rolled by, with D asleep by my side, I felt happy reading that "heathen" book. 

The Flight to Boracay, Philippines (February 2010)
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Many years ago, when my scaredy cat self was still terrified of flying and I was with my friends on a plane to Boracay, I started reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera even before the plane took off. It was to occupy my mind and distract it from its fearful thoughts. By the time we were airborne, I had forgotten we were flying. I was already transported to the world of Fermina Daza, Juvenal Urbino, and Florention Ariza in the enchanting tropical city of Cartagena, Colombia.

At Dar Seffarine, Fez, Morocco (October 2014)
The Twelve by Justin Cronin

I was inside our room’s bathroom in that century old Moroccan dar when I heard D calling me, “Honey? Honey, are you okay?” I lost track of time. I didn’t realize that I had confined myself in that tiny mosaic-tiled bathroom for almost an hour. I was so engrossed in The Twelve, the second book in Justin Cronin’s The Passage Trilogy that I forgot about everything else.

The Long-Haul Flight from Quito, Ecuador to Amsterdam to Manila, Philippines (November 2015)
2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Reading Roberto Bolaño's melancholic and hauntingly magical prose in 2666 aboard that dimly lit plane from Ecuador while people around me were drifting in and out of sleep felt truly eerie. Was it purely coincidental that I started reading a novel about violence and fascism in South America when I just came from there?

At Zen Namkhan Boutique Resort, Luang Prabang, Laos (July 2017)
Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s books usually hold my attention but her novel Surfacing cannot. It bored me so much that I regretted bringing it with me on our trip to Luang Prabang. I was delighted when I saw a shelf full of books at the inn we were staying at. The weather at that time invited curling up in a chair with a book, so I was happy to abandon Surfacing and re-read, instead, Elena Ferrante’s A Brilliant Friend.

At Playa Espadilla Norte, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica (September 2020)
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet

It was already past noon. I was still at my usual spot at Playa Espadilla in Quepos, Costa Rica reading Brit Bennet’s The Vanishing Half. I could feel the scorching heat of the sun on my skin, but I didn’t want to get up and go home. The waves kept advancing forward, almost reaching where I was at, but I wanted to know what happens when one of the twins returns to their hometown, so I stayed at the beach until I reached the last page.


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