Books That Changed My Life, Pt III: My Travel Guides

3 04 2012

I gave a clue in my last post that today I’d be writing about travel. Cheating here and including every travel guide I’ve ever read.

A lot of people scorn travel guides. You’re not a ‘real’ traveller if you have your nose buried in a Lonely Planet / Rough Guide to Wherever. I don’t subscribe to that view. Also, I don’t believe in rigidly following what travel guides set out. A lot of it is common sense and by the time the books hit the shelves, out of date.

That said, some guidebooks have changed my life. Researching my first ‘big’ overseas trip in 1996, I found a one way ticket to Amsterdam which came with a huge bonus: two free flights anywhere in Europe. I hadn’t really thought about where I wanted to go beyond the UK and the Republic of Ireland and figured I’d wing it from there on, but the flight deal was too good to pass up. I checked out my mammoth Lonely Planet Guide to Europe and hit upon an idea: why not squeeze the lemon for all it was worth? I went to the travel agent (hey, it was 1996) and we looked at a KLM flight map. Win. KLM flew to Istanbul … and the airport counted among its European destinations – so that was as far south-ish as I could get. Now for the second leg … just how far could I stretch the friendship eastward? Double win: St Petersburg was on the map. Booked the ticket. The rest I’d figure out as I went along.

The Istanbul leg was pretty simple at first … travel down the coastline and get a flight to Cairo. I’d always been fascinated by the Middle East (well, since hearing of Anwar Sadat’s assassination and asking my Mother if World War III would break out. Yes, she looked at me in a ‘what the actual eff is this child on?’ way). Pouring through my guidebook in my bedsit in Cardiff, Wales, another idea.  Why fly to Cairo when there was so much else to see? Result? Travelled overland from Istanbul to Ankara, got a visa to Syria and from there, worked south through Jordan to Egypt, south to Abu Simbel, north to Alexandria and south-west to Siwa before returning to Cairo and the minibus from hell trip across the Sinai to the border into Israel at Rafah. Well, crossing the border into Gaza. Talk about life changing.

I had to fly out of Istanbul and back to Amsterdam to fly to Russia. What the hell: get a cheap flight to the Turkish holiday resort of Antalya, skip around the Greek islands and head north from the Peloponnese. Athens, of course, but a guidebook convinced me that I couldn’t miss the Great Meteoron Monastery. What a thing of wonder. Mind you, there’s nada in a guidebook (as far as I can recall) about my hare-brained scheme of thinking I could walk across the Greece / Turkey border as I had done from Turkey to Syria. That would be USD10 in a taxi for a 50 metre trip.

Turkey for the third time. Did the pilgrimage to Çanakkale, returned to Istanbul and flew back to Amsterdam. Flew to Saint Petersburg. Utterly amazing city, so amazing you just wander around, slack-jawed, at its scale and grandeur. Time to turn west; a train ticket to Moscow was quoted at tourist rates (you can ask for things in Russian, but at that time, your shoes were a dead giveaway). Estonia was an unexpected delight and still one of my favourite countries; Lithuania will always be bittersweet for me. Beautiful place and people, but the guidebook made me curious to learn more about Vilnius’ past as the ‘Jerusalem of the North’. An elderly man guided me through ‘The Green House’ (the Holocaust museum). I learned more from him than I had at Israel’s Yad Vashem. Thinking about the room only brings memories of the commitment to honour the dead. The true horror of Vilnius (for me) was to come at the former KGB headquarters, now genocide museum, where we stood in line to be shut in a dank, pitch solitary confinement cell. I almost started screaming as the guide closed the door. The place was just as the KGB had left it a mere six years before.

This is becoming like a travelogue – apologies. The rest of that trip – Latvia, Poland, and the-then Czech Republic ended with me broke and needing to get back to England and find a job in a hurry. The great thing about travelling for that length of time is meeting people from all over the world. I stayed in a central Prague apartment thanks to a woman I met in Jerusalem. A Danish guy I met in Estonia made a trip to Copenhagen almost a freebie … and so my reliance on travel guides lessened. I didn’t buy books for a six-week sojourn to France and Italy in 2005, but I still bought a book for later adventures in India – mostly because the Indian tourism office’s range of free material was bloody hopeless. This time, I scoured it (and the internet) for at least a month, then left it at home.

The last travel books I bought were in 2010. I had a stack of leave and was ‘encouraged’ to take it. My entire office weighed in on my destination before I settled on New York, with a brief side trip to Washington D.C. My travel guides changed – I wanted to suck the marrow out of the ‘greatest city in the world’, so I bought books on architecture and a small moleskine city guide, with little maps of the different districts and plenty of space to plot my daily walks around Manhattan. After a few days, I looked purposeful enough for people to ask me the way to subway stations. I’ve seen a lot of the world, but never felt a city itself so alive. The streets hummed with energy. I rented an apartment in the West Village and felt at home. This was the place I was meant to be. My trip to Washington ended up as a mad dash between monuments. The only time I felt at peace was at Arlington National Cemetery. Armed with a map from the tourist centre, the best laugh I had in ages was trying to find the graves of the ‘Supremes’, in particular Chief Justice Earl Warren. I did, eventually, but not before asking a guard. “Justin Warren? Sorry ma’am, I’ve never heard of him.” Suppressing a scold and a giggle, I blamed my accent, which had never been a problem in NYC. In my hotel near the Capitol, I was asked by a fellow lobby barfly whether I spoke English after I quizzed the bar staff about the best bars to move on to. I probably did roll my eyes at that. The local tips were great, but I found the Washington bars cliquey, impenetrable, so I left ‘Marvin’ and a couple of other of the recommended bars before finding a home (and a friendly bartender) at The Saloon. Protip: tip early, and large. You will be richly rewarded. Free shots and straight out asking other patrons to buy the Aussie girl on her last night in America a beer. I barely remember the obligatory late night visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl and struggled, hungover and late, to make my train back to New York.

I haven’t travelled overseas since that trip. I probably won’t travel for a while (which KILLS me). What gets me through? Sometimes it’s scrolling through my travel guides (I’ve kept almost all of them) … but most of all, re-reading the best travel guides in the world: my journals.

Until tomorrow …

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3 responses

3 04 2012
laurenetrim

Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes! :). Sill haven’t made it to America – one day. Next, India and Tibet….probably other way around. So true though. There’s something about holding a book that shows others and reminds you that the world is a bigger place than the petty drivel we deal with. I hope you get a few more stamps in the passport 🙂

3 04 2012
Denis Wright (@deniswright)

A great demo of how to turn Travel Guides into real travel! I never had any snobbery about Lonely Planet, which saved me from sleeping in a doorway in Venice and provided me with cheap, almost livable rooms in Karachi. I also found places I should visit that I might otherwise have missed (and would have much regretted not seeing) by about 100 metres.

The other institution I learned not to spurn was the Organised Tour. There are places in the non-English speaking world where you save heaps of time, expense and hair by being picked up at a decent hotel, ferried to a site with pre-paid tickets, given an indifferently prepared but edible meal, and returned to the hotel all in one piece.

I’m thinking your next trip should be a three week cruise down the Danube with a mature group of grey nomads who will look after you and keep you safe.

4 04 2012
the referral

You were doing so well until the grey nomads on a boat idea …

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