I have a feeling that traveling for pleasure will not be possible for the foreseeable future, because, even if it is allowed, who wants to spend a couple of weeks in quarantine upon arrival, or be unsure of being able to return home?
Therefore, now’s the time to turn to the inexhaustible pleasures of literature, in order to visit places one would love to explore—or, even better, places where one wouldn’t dream of setting foot in, except from the comfort of an armchair.
I know that nowadays you can see everything live on a screen: endless documentaries, some absolutely marvelous (thanks, David Attenborough—and again, some in places where you wouldn’t set foot in even if you were paid). Films set in exotic locations, YouTube videos, even Google Earth. You can go everywhere without leaving the house.
However, the attraction of reading is not to be underestimated: you have a more intimate insight into the writer’s reactions and thoughts, and your imagination is allowed a much freer rein.
Travel writing has existed since the depths of time—for Greeks it probably started with Homer, the Odyssey being the primordial record of a sea voyage. And there are also the memoirs of Herodotus, who had traveled over almost all of the ‘known world.’
But if the Greeks have a healthy dose of seawater in their veins and have always been obsessive traders, no one can beat the English as far as exploration for its own sake goes (although they too were traders, of course.)
I have just finished Daughter of the Desert, the biography, by Georgina Howell, of Gertrude Bell, who thought nothing of traveling for 10 hours per day through the desert on a camel, dressed in a split skirt and a keffieh. Alone except for her servants.
The sheer discomfort of her days bogles the mind until, that is, one reads of worse travails. At least Gertrude Bell could rely on a nice bath upon setting up camp, in her custom-made canvas bath packed by her servants and carried by the camels in her caravan. This was usually followed by dinner served on white linen, with silver and crystal. She also had trunks full of evening gowns which she wore to visit the tribal sheiks she met on her travels.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard was 24 when he signed up to join Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Polar expedition in the Antarctic, in 1911. When he got back he went off to fight in the Great War. Years later, he wrote a memoir of this unforgettable voyage, called The Worst Journey in the World. During the whole expedition, the discomforts and privations the men suffered were unimaginable—they had decided to take ponies and, when these were impractical, they manhauled their sledges—but they still managed to enjoy the stunning scenery, and ‘geologise’ by gathering rock and mineral specimens which only added to the weight they had to pull— and they even packed Christmas puddings and books to read in the interminable Antarctic winter.
The ‘Worst Journey’ in the book’s title refers to a trip Cherry-Garrard made with two companions to Cape Crozier on Ross Island during the austral winter, in order to bring back an unhatched emperor penguin egg. This was to help scientists prove the evolutionary link between all birds and their reptile predecessors by the analysis of the embryo. However, in the book he describes the whole Scott voyage, from the meticulous preparations onwards, ending with his thoughts of why the expedition failed. The Brits were pipped at the post by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who shunned any scientific pretensions and relied on dogs and skis to arrive at the South Pole a month earlier, traveling light and fast. A compelling and thrilling account of a different reality.
Another fascinating book on my short list is In Patagonia, by the inveterate traveler Bruce Chatwin. Patagonia is one of the most remote and beautiful places on the planet. Chatwin paints a lovely picture of the boundless scale of the landscape and the lost specks of astonishing human endeavour in this vast, lonely region. But most of all, he peoples his tales with a varied and astounding cast of wild and eccentric, if not downright crazy, characters, who were attracted from all over the world to this stark and unforgiving land. He is most interested in describing what he used to call internal landscapes.
Bruce Chatwin wrote the introduction to Sybille Bedford’s book, A visit to Don Otavio, a splendidly humorous tale of two middle-aged ladies traveling in Mexico (see the cover in the first photo). A little old fashioned but delightfully irreverent, the book reads more like a novel. Bedford’s prose is dazzling, and her insights enchanting. As she herself said, ‘Of course it’s a novel. I wanted to make something light and poetic…I didn’t take a single note when I was in Mexico.’
And, last but not least, a book I keep giving to people as a gift, because of how much it amused me (I’ve no idea whether any of them read it, actually.)
At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, by John Gimlette, (even the title is delightfully eccentric) is a book about his travels in Paraguay. A beautiful and captivating country, one of the most exotic and extreme in South America, but not a place for the timid tourist. According to Gimlette, the place is teeming with dictators, ex Nazis, fraudsters and missionaries. It is a stage for utopian experiments and violent coups. As the Amazon synopsis describes it, ‘The beguiling Paraguayans, despised and feared by their neighbours, are unfathomable. They adore Diana, Princess of Wales, as if she were still alive and hundreds volunteered to fight for Britain in the Falklands War. Their politics are Byzantine but when the Vice-President is murdered, they call in Scotland Yard.’
If any one of these books does not transport you out of lockdown for a few hours, I will eat my hat. Happy reading!