Travel bestows many gifts but one of the most precious is the gift of time. It's very easy for travelers to become overwhelmed by this newly inherited wealth of minutes and it's often tempting to hunt down activities for every second of these minutes. Hungrily devouring as many experiences as one possibly can. This is not an inherently evil desire. If you have the opportunity to party on Frenchmen St till 3am in NOLA, or SCUBA in the Red Sea, or sky dive...anywhere...you should. But don't allow these more extravagant adventures to strip you of the simple joys.
One of the simplest joys of travel is reading.
Whether it immerses you further into a culture, cures some lingering homesickness, or teaches you a few timely skills, a good book can add tremendous value to any trip. Need some ideas? Below you'll find a list of 5 types of books that can enrich your travel experience.
1: Travel Inspo/Tip Book
Maybe you haven't traveled much before, maybe it's been awhile, or maybe you just don't feel as passionate or sure of yourself as when you started. In that case maybe you need some straight up inspiration. Books like Rolf Pott's Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel or Henry David Thoreau's Walden give you some basics to get started in long term travel, but more importantly, they provide a philosophical foundation for traveling with a sense of freedom and joy.
If you're not so down with that touchy feely stuff, something like Matt Kepnes' How to Travel the World on $50 a Day: Revised: Travel Cheaper, Longer, Smarter will break down the mechanics of travel (e.g. travel credit cards, packing tips, discounts). Books like this are great for giving your trip longevity cuz let's face it, the more money you save on unnecessary expenses, the more freedom you have to spend it on the good stuff. Guide books are also great for this but that's a post for another time...
These are the books that reinforce the tastes, smells, sounds, and rhythms of your journey. Like that song that was playing during your first kiss, or that movie that takes you back to when you were a kid running through the sprinkler. These are the books that include you in something bigger than yourself.
You may not be hiking to Dolpo in the Upper Himalaya...but that doesn't mean you can't appreciate Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard on your week long trek. What better way to spend some leisure time in a "banana republic" than to read Cabbages and Kings by the guy who coined the term.
3. Childhood Books
Shoshin is a Zen Buddhist concept that means "beginner's mind". To experience the fullness and richness of travel requires an openness, an eagerness, a sense of Shoshin. What better way to cultivate a beginner's mind than to return to our very own beginnings?
There's something surreal and beautiful about reading childhood books to prepare for a trip or to ease the pain of a homesick heart abroad.
When you're surrounded by a culture so different from your own (admittedly a feat that becomes more difficult with each passing year), the voice of a childhood author may be just what you need to give you both a feeling of grounding but also to highlight the differences in culture and history. Which brings me to the next item on the list...
4. Historical Books (Your Own History)
History books have provided some of the most soul nourishing experiences of my life abroad. You may not be a big fan of history but I'm not asking you to read a bunch of text books...there are some great authors that have worked hard to make history come to life for readers.
There's nothing like resting your head against a thousand year old temple in SE Asia as the sun sets while reading about the creation of the comparatively young US of A. Believe it or not our founding fathers and leaders throughout history were quite the travelers themselves. Reading love letters between John and Abigail Adams may mirror your own long distance romance. Or maybe the free wheeling socializing of Franklin in coffee shops of London or Malcolm X's thirst for justice and recognition of peace and unity abroad is more your style.
In the end, don't force yourself to read some boring history. But don't let the idea of dusty old books scare you away from some of the most enriching literature that has the bonus feature of being true!
5. Spiritual Texts
Thomas Merton said "words get between us and people." Yet sometimes our only method of reconnection are the very words which are known to divide.
Some say that during our lifetime it's possible (maybe even certain) that we will breathe the same molecules as those that lived in the times of the Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed. If you believe that these were historical figures than we even have the potential to breathe the very atoms that passed the lips of such influential figures. Regardless of whether or not their transcendence is authentic, to read the words, walk the same ground, and breathe the same air that these men once spoke, strolled, and inhaled is an extraordinary (or extra-ordinary) experience.
Headed to Jerusalem? Grab the Gospel of John for the teachings of Christ or a copy of the Tanakh to delve into the tradition of the Jewish people. Lumbini, the Buddha's birthplace? Meditate on his proverbs in the pocket size Dhammapada as you saunter through the many stupas and gompas erected in his honor. It's hard to imagine a spiritual text that westerners are more ignorant of than the Quran and a region more misunderstood than the Middle East. Even if you're barred from travel in locales like Iran or Pakistan there are plenty of Islamic nations (e.g. UAE, Turkey, Qatar) that open their decidedly hospitable doors to travelers. So what are you waiting for?
What better way to get inside the head and hearts of your newfound neighbors than to read the spiritual texts of the land. Spirituality and religion season the cultures we live in with a heavy hand. We do ourselves a disservice if we abstain from partaking.
Travel can be so much more than a vacation if you let it be.
Allow yourself to slow down. Embrace the culture. and pick up a book.
When's the best time to start you ask? Well...