I’m always a bit divided on true-life travel stories. On good days, tales of the indomitable human spirit triumphing over adversity and tough terrain uplifts my soul and inspire me.
But on bad days, when getting out of bed is a major battle and surviving until lunch without returning to it in tears looks unlikely, the last thing I want to hear is about some smug git who cycled across Antarctica blindfolded. I am feeling sorry enough for myself already without comparing myself to some little boy with no limbs and a burlap bag for a body who STILL managed to climb Mount Everest to raise money for orphaned kittens with sore paws.
Using only his teeth. In a blizzard. While on fire and being chased by goats.
Which may be why more personal books such Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love appealed to me. I’m late to the party on this one, I admit. Everyone I know has already read it, Julia Roberts is starring in the movie of it, I feel like the kid who finally persuaded her folks to let her get a mobile when all the other kids have moved on to iPhones.
So, why is it so popular? Gilbert’s book is more travelogue than triumph story, 350 pages or so of navel-gazing, documenting her round-the-world search for happiness and inner peace and finding love in the process. It is all about her, but the light tone, funny moments and travel tales give a great insight into her personal journey without creating a book that comes across as being as self-absorbed as a sponge that has just peed itself. She strikes the balance of conversational and humourous well to a good effect, and the fact that this book became a best-seller shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s not the first tale of travel and self-discovery out there, and to my mind (and sorry, Elizabeth) it’s good, but not amongst the very best.
My Family and Other Animals is one of my personal favourites. Gerald Durrell was 10 when his family decided they could no longer endure the damp English climate, and they did what any sensible family would do: sell their house and relocate to the sunny Greek isle of Corfu. Some years later, and now a naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, he set out to write about the natural history of the Greek island of Corfu, but made the “grave mistake” of introducing his family into the book in the first few pages.
“Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I manages to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.”
Durrell’s wry and witty description growing up with a family plagued by their own follies, fires, firearms and eccentric hangers-on (as well as his habit of bringing home house-guests such as toads, scorpions, geckos, and the aptly named puppies Widdle and Puke) make this book a classic that is justifiably still in print and popping up in people’s “must-read” lists nearly 60 years after it was published.
Looking for a more local read than one based in Corfu? A great place to starts is Down Underby.
Written by the always entertaining Bill Bryson, this book is the story of his travels in Australia in 2000. It’s always intriguing to see your home country through the eyes of a visitor, and even more so for me as I am recent immigrant to Australia. (More five grand Irishwoman than 10 pound pom, it must be said.)
Bryson – like me – is thoroughly smitten by the Lucky Country; “the people are cheerful, the food excellent, the beer always cold, the sun nearly always shines.” From catching the Ghan first class to getting lost in Canberra, his travels in Australia as entertaining as they are useful as a guide.
Looking for a guide for further afield written by an Australian? Try reading anthing by Peter Moore, whose trips are less first class and more an experience in hilarity. The Full Montezuma – his account of touring Central and South America (with a hapless new girlfriend who was expecting a slightly more luxurious trip) is required reading that I am taking on my own trip to Central America. Particularly enjoyable is reading about their adventures in Casa del Cockroach, battling food poisoning and local vermin, when you have decided to learn from their pain and book a hotel with running water and clean sheets.
As you can see, I prefer travel memoirs that make you laugh, not feel guilty that about enjoying a read instead of building orphanages whilst meditating on the true nature of the Infinite. What are your favourite travel tales, and why?