Thursday, February 12, 2009

Top 10 Travel Books Read in 2007 and 2008 continued

This is Part 2 of my list of the 10 Travel books that I read in 2007 or 2008 that I can recommend to any travel enthusiast.
Books 1 through 5 can be found in Part 1. I will post Part 3 (honorable mentions) soon.

Title: Marco Polo Didn’t Go There
Author: Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts, the guy who brought the term vagabonding into mainstream travel vernacular, is back with his second book – a collection of his travel stories. Rolf used to write for and so I had read a few of the pieces in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There before.

The re-reading was even more enjoyable. His description of the tantric sex ashram and how he tries to gate crash the shooting of the movie 'Beach' were just as funny the second time around. But the real value of the book (and the reason I am including it in this list) is the unique behind-the-scenes look that this book offers.

At the conclusion of each story, Rolf shares with us some of the decisions he had to make while creating and presenting the story. Why he included certain aspects, which ones he had to leave out, how the story developed are very illuminating to read. Sometimes, a travel writer has to take a few liberties (for the sake of the narrative) and he tells us where he had to do so.

Please note that these are great stories in their own right, but reading about Rolf’s thinking makes us appreciate them even more. (This is similar to viewing the director’s narration in the Special Features part of a movie DVD.)

All travel writing aspirants (and travel bloggers) should definitely check out this book. Be sure to check out his The Art of Writing a Story About Walking Across Andorra which is very post-modern and very funny.

Title: The Age of Kali
Author: William Dalrymple

For a travel book to really succeed its author should not be completely enamored or infatuated with the place. This is definitely true of Dalrymple, the English journalist and historian who has lived in India for long periods and writes about it.

Surely, the fact that I hail from India is one reason I picked this book over many others. By the way, Indians will recognize that the title refers to Kali Yug (the final epoch) and not to goddess Kaali.

In 2008, for 10 days I got to travel around Rajasthan in India as a tourist. The resonance of reading this book while traveling in Jaipur and Udaipur was wonderful.

Dalrymple really mixes it up in this book and providing vignettes because India is simply too vast of a subject otherwise. This is a fairly small paperback and the pieces can be read individually and in any order. He writes about Bollywood socialites, the vestiges of the ancient practice of Sati that still linger and about the unfortunate women of Vrindavan. He visits Imran Khan in Pakistan and a few LTTE camps in Sri Lanka.

Whatever his chosen topic, I always learned something from each piece and enjoyed the whole book. I am hoping to read his City of Djinns or In Xanadu soon.

Title: A Sense of Place: Great Travel writers talk about their craft, lives and inspiration.
Author: Michael Shapiro

This is more a book about travel writers than a travel book. There is a decent-sized profile about each travel writer followed by an interview/discussion with that same writer. Michael Shapiro is a true travel devotee, and it is his discursive Q&A in which he gets the authors to open up is why I liked this book. It often does feel like we are sitting down next to our favorite authors and listening to them.

Interestingly, almost every other author in my top ten list has been interviewed in A Sense of Place. I also learned about a few authors that I had not read and ended up adding to my travel books to read list.

The stellar list of writers interviewed includes Paul Theroux, Jeff Greenwald, Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson and Jan Morris and a number of others. I particularly enjoyed the discussions with Rick Steves and Arthur Frommer, both of whose guidebooks I have long benefited from.

When leading travel writers talk about their craft, lives and inspiration, all we have to do is listen.

Title: Wanderlust: Real-Life Tales of Adventure and Romance
Author: Don George

Any book created by Don George is a safe bet. Don George used to have a column in titled Wanderlust. He would tap some of the very best travel writers and they contributed in first person narrative about their adventure and romance. The best of those have been collected to create this book. The common theme among all these stories is romance, love with even a hint of lust.

The usual travel ‘name’ crowd shows up here as well – Pico Iyer has written the foreword and also about his surreal experiences in Bali. And there are contributions from Tim Cahill, Tony Wheeler, Peter Mayle, Isabel Allende, Po Bronson and Jan Morris.

Don’t miss Simon Winchester’s piece on how he takes a hotel receptionist on a ride in his borrowed Rolls Royce. Rolf Pott’s ‘Storming the beach’ makes an appearance in this book as well as in his Marco Polo book, mentioned above. Laura Fraser writes with candor and vulnerability about finding a lover in Italy after her marriage dissolves. From London to Mozambique, this book covers a lot of ground.

These pieces were written for an Internet audience and that makes them very immediate and accessible. These stories might have all been lost in the depths of internet archives, but thanks to this book (a good sized paperback) we can now enjoy 40 wonderful pieces.

Title: Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet story
Author: Tony Wheeler

Purists may feel that Unlikely Destinations is not a travel book. They have a valid point: it is certainly about travel and it actually blurs the line between a travel book and a business book. I’ll ignore the purists because this is a very good book and a lot can be learned from reading it.

As I compile this list it occurs to me that I might be a little obsessed about the behind-the-scenes in travel. This book is the Kitchen Confidential for the great guidebook empire that Tony & Sara Wheeler built.

By far the biggest debt I owe in my travels is to Lonely Planet guides. I don’t think I would have survived or had anywhere near as much fun, if we didn’t have an LP guide with us at all times. It is inconceivable to leave the US without one (often several) LP’s about each trip's destinations.

So how did one guidebook corner the entire world market? What is the story behind its creation? Tony and Sara Wheeler’s story is the story laid out in Unlikely Destinations. Tony is UK born, was raised partly in Pakistan, resided in the US and settled down in Melbourne.

It is perhaps easy for many to envy Tony today because he heads up Lonely Planet and gets to jet-set around the world all year long. But this book tells us of all the years and the difficulties and sacrifices that it took for him and Sara (with two young children) to get to where they’ve reached.

Reading this book we appreciate how complex it is to bring out a travel book about a place. And that can only add to our awareness and enjoyment the next time we set out with a LP in hand.

And this book is also a good place to end my list. I had to leave some really good books out because I restricted this list to 10 books. I will mention those in my next post.


  1. hey there!

    some great reviews here. I've been looking around for some new authors and titles, may pick some off the list from here!

  2. Thanks, N.

    That was the idea, to introduce others to these books that I have really enjoyed.

    Start with any of the anthologies and you will never run out of books to read your entire life.

  3. Hey Ram,
    nice Blog. Very aesthetically done and pretty informative too.