Spots of Time

November 04, 2003

Literary Escapism In Paradise

My body was floating down the Mekong River, somewhere between the Laos border town of Huay Xai and my destination the World Heritage protected town of Luang Prabang. Sitting on hard wooden benches in a slow boat whose cargo consisted primarily of cigarettes and tourists, we passed through lush green countryside, perfectly remote, with only the occasional bamboo village or working elephant pleasantly interrupting the tranquility of the scene.

My mind, unfortunately, was missing most of this. My mind was in the United States of America circa 1860 - and jumping between Connecticut small towns and California farm country. I was reading Steinbeck's "East of Eden" and so engrossed in the lives of the Trasks and the Hamiltons that my seat mate had to nearly shove me overboard to point out the elephants.

I was not alone in my escapism. Toward the back of the boat, a group of three was simultaneously visiting Japan through "Memoirs of a Geisha." One of my travel companions was imagining India through tales found in "A Fine Balance" while the other was contemplating destiny in small town America in "A Prayer for Owen Meany." Next to them a British man of Indian decent was making the social rounds of 19th century London in "Vanity Fair," while the woman in front of me was questioning the once scandalous "Lady Chatterly's Lover" in today's society.

It may sound unbelievable to think that people lucky enough to be traveling in exotic and exciting locations would purposely remove themselves from the moment and "lose" themselves in another place and time - often decidedly more common place. But everywhere from Fijian beaches to Italian small towns, from the Andes mountains to the Mekong River, books are the faithful companions of the the holiday traveller.

Americans are frequently heard complaining that they simply don't have the time to read in their daily lives - work, family, and social life take up too much time. Instead, they play "catch up" during their vacations - reading everything from fluffy Danielle Steel romance novels to dry books on investing and financial security to classical literature they never got around to reading in school.

Used bookstores around the world include the usual beach reading paperbacks and past and current best sellers, but surprisingly common additions include Jane Austin, John Steinbeck, and Charles Dickens. I've also seen biographies of French prime ministers, wives of American presidents and corporate CEOs - side by side with the usual science fiction, romance and adventure. Holiday reading clearly isn't all fluff.

As American vacations are usually rushed two-week affairs, another common complaint is not having time to do more "education" reading prior to departure. The Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia are amazing - but even more so when you can see and understand the Hindu spiritual influence visible in the intricate carvings. Machu Picchu in Peru is majestic - but more so with the knowledge that it was never located or conquered by the Spanish.

The American couple traveling with me on the Mekong had planned their travel education better than I. In anticipation of their trip to Nepal and China, each had read "Video Nights in Kathmandu" by Pico Iyer (a collection of travel tales from China, Thailand, and Nepal) and "Arresting God in Kathmandu" by Samrat Upadhyay (a Nepali author writing about love and marriage in his homeland). Closer inspection of their boat books made me feel slightly better about my own unrelated reading material - one was reading a book set in India, the other, set in New Hampshire.

There are times when available literature on a local doesn't mesh with a reader's interest. Books about Laos, for example, are scarce unless you happen to read French or find exposes on covert American CIA activities compelling reading. And, choosing a book based solely on location without regard for personal interest can equal disaster - even when the best of intentions are taken to heart.

Several years ago, while traveling through South America, I chose "Origin of the Species" by Charles Darwin as my holiday reading. The Galapagos Islands were an intended stop, and boning up on the scientific theory inspired by the island seemed a worthy endeavor. I never made it past the first chapter. The book was scientific stream of conscious, overly detailed and the driest bit of reading I have ever picked up. I abandoned it in a guesthouse when no one would trade with me.

Lucky for me, my second book, "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, turned out to be a winner. Though as far from South American life and culture as you could get, the tale of the poor Russian student who snaps (read just a few months after my own university days had ended) was easy to identify with and, at 600+ pages, lasted me for weeks.

In an ideal world, my travel reading would include one topical narrative (historical, cultural or literary) about the country or region I was visiting - and one book just for me and just for fun. The truth is, no matter how idyllic and perfect your vacation surroundings, 10 hours on a plane, train or slow boat wears on both your body and your mind. A little distraction - related to your surroundings or not - is a welcome respite from the journey.