When we’re planning a trip the last thing I reach for is a guide book.
There is no doubt that a trusty guide book is irreplaceable in the travel planning process.
They are the meat and potatoes of travel planning and are the go-to resource for detailed information about accommodation, restaurants, transport options, and those not-quiteaccurate maps, but they are not the first place I look when dreaming of getting away.
My first stop is the library, bookstore, or on-line travel book resource to find a novel set in the places I plan on visiting.
Why would I want to read a novel when all I really want to do is break free of my cubicle and start my vacation?
Novels help me explore the culture of a place.
1. Exploring the Culture
I find stories set in the countries, cities, and towns that I want to see. The characters in these books help me understand how people interact with each other, what the local customs are, and how the country views itself.
I read mysteries, romances, dramas, popular fiction, and comedy; they all help me round out my knowledge and understanding of how a culture works.
I often will research who the countries best author is and seek out their novels as they are considered to be the writer who best represents the place.
I also like to examine the history of the region. Not from dusty, old, history books but
by reading historic fiction and the memoirs of those who lived there.
I can’t rely on the historic details in these books, of course, but for general history they are good.
Set in Bombay in the mid-1990s, Family Matters tells a story of family love and obligation, of personal and political corruption, of the demands of tradition and the possibilities for compassion.
2. Examine the History
I can learn why Laos has some of the best baguettes I’ve ever had (because they were colonized by the French).
How different countries interpret war victories and losses (the Vietnam War is called the American War in Vietnam).
And discover some countries that no longer exist (Biafra was a secessionist state of Nigeria for three years in the late 1960’s).
Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war.
3. Discover the Food
One of my favourite ways to connect to an upcoming trip is to discover the food!
I, of course, visit all the local restaurants that offer Thai, or Indian, or Italian, or Greek cuisine, but I also find cookbooks from the area too.
Cookbooks are more than just collections of recipes. They are often a window into the culture and history also.
Some have stories about where the recipe comes from, whether it’s an ‘old world’, traditional, dish or a new take on an old favourite.
Others take the reader on a journey through the region showcasing how cooking, and eating, changes from one place to another.
If I’m lucky, there might be a shop in my area that specializes in the unfamiliar ingredients needed. Here I can meet the, usually expat, owners and chat about the preparation of the dish and get some tips at the same time.
Saraban – a chef’s journey through Persia, offers a rare glimpse into a fascinating country that remains elusive and enigmatic to the Western world.
4. Learn from Others
To get a real sense of what travel in a place might be like I like to learn from those who’ve been.
I’ll pick up a couple of travelogue books to really get a feel. I try to find those written by travelers who travel as I would; I don’t want to read about luxury travel as that’s not in my budget, and I don’t want to read about bare-bones backpacker travel either (I’m too old for that!).
On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, 27-year old Pittsburgh native and grad student Benjamin Orbach traveled to Amman, Jordan, in search of answers.
Often these books contain stories of escapades and shenanigans, humorous anecdotes, and grand adventures but in-between all of that I can see how traveling there really is.
Is the food horrible and expensive, are the people friendly and welcoming, is the transportation reliable and cheap?
Did they have trouble finding places to stay? Did they have fun? Can I see myself there in those stories?
So, yes, of course you should pick up a guide book but remember these other ways that travel books can enhance your travels.