When I was in my twenties, I had the enriching experience of living several years in Europe. I worked there, made friends, participated in all aspects of the culture, learned a couple of languages and immersed myself in the environment. Most of us do not have that opportunity. Such travel is more desirable and growthful than the shorter trips we take where we are mainly observers and rarely have the opportunity to be participants in the activities that go on around us. Living abroad (Peace Corp, foreign placement, study programs, and other such options) is the deepest and most informative kind of travel available because it enables us to become more aware of our own culture by truly experiencing alternative ways of dealing with life tasks and challenges.
The problem with shorter trips is that it is hard to really get to know the nature of the cultures where we travel; we tend to find ourselves looking in from the outside. If we do not work in our new locale, we can only watch other folks work. If we do not speak the language well, we do not have easy communication. If we do not stay with families, we do not learn what families do and what they value.
Since the majority of travellers have to opt for shorter trips, it is important to make these as meaningful and enjoyable as possible. When I decide to go to a particular destination, one of the things I do very early on is seek out books by authors (for the most part, novelists) who write about the place I will be visiting. Good novels are wonderful sources of information about the nature of the societies the story takes place in. Reading about other locales is a way to learn about the world even if we are not travellers but reading skilled, descriptive novelists also makes for deeper understanding on the voyages we undertake.
When I was thinking about going to Bahia in Brazil, I came across novels written by Jorge Amado who lived in and wrote about that area. His books were an intriguing introduction to Afro-Caribbean culture, the religion and politics and music that characterize life in that part of the world. When I left for Bahia, I sought out to understand more deeply many aspects of the country that he introduced me to and I felt his writing had enriched my travel extensively. Llosa's War of the End of the World provided additional insight into that region of Brazil. In preparation for a recent trip to Eastern Turkey, I read Orhan Pamuk's Snow which turned out to be a fascinating story set in one of the cities I was to visit. As I travelled through one village after another in West Africa, I found it extremely valuable to have read the novels of Chinua Achebe, the wonderful writer from Nigeria. His characterization of the struggles of West Africa and the nature of life in the villages markedly enhanced my travels. Nagib Mahfouz led me through the streets of Cairo like an invisible guide walking by my side. My trips to India were likewise made more meaningful by an abundance of authors like Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiry and Rohinton Mistry.
I could go on and on about the relationship between reading knowledgeable authors and traveling to the settings where their stories take place. That combination has helped me to partially cross the bridge between being a superficial visitor and travelling as an insightful observer. In earlier entries to my blog, I suggested a number of ways to make trips richer, more entertaining and more informative. Reading about your destinations is high on my list of recommendations for pre-trip preparation and also for productive activity while you are away. Just as reading before you go makes the travel more promising, reading as you go along makes the books you choose more relevant and enjoyable. It works both ways.