A solo trip means taking the time to expand, contemplate and gain a new perspective. And there’s no doubt books can do just the same. So I’ve made a personal reading list of books for a solo trip: the stories I think will make me curious about the world around me; the travel writers that have the potential to inspire my journey; and the books that will hopefully provide a narrative for my own trip.
But first, some books that inspired my trip
Some books, if read at the right time, help you make sense of a chapter in your life. They can also plant ideas in your mind that are asleep somewhere in your psique for a while, until they wake up and start directing you along certain courses of action.
In retrospect, I think there are at least 5 books that have played an important role in making me want to wander for a while. Maybe they’ll do the same for you:
1. ‘Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle’ by Dervla Murphy
In my mind, I have crowned Dervla Murphy as the queen of solo travelling. There’s no doubt that reading ‘Full Tilt’ has pushed my appetite for travelling, as I found Murphy’s desire to travel contagious.
‘Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle’ starts with Murphy cycling East from Dunkirk (Ireland), having her lifelong dream fulfilled, as she states on the prologue:“On my tenth birthday, a bicycle and an atlas coincided as presents and a few days later I decided to cycle to India”.
It was January 1963 and a cold wave had swept over Europe, but she decides to start her journey nevertheless. Through the first 18 pages, the kindness of strangers on snow storms, the attacks of wolves in Yugoslavia and the convenience of carrying an automatic weapon for scaring away uninvited men promise Murphy will cycle on a rough, windy and slippery road.
In ‘Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle’, Murphy’s grit and endurance are a message: they tell the reader to put away any fears and take the first steps on the path you want to walk.
2. ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ by Joseph Campbell
In this breathtaking study of comparative mythology, Campbell analyses the myth and narrative of the hero in a number of cultures around the world.
In brief, Campbell states that there’s an archetypal narrative around heroes which literature and folklore tales around the world follow: a hero departs from the ordinary world and, through completing a road of trials, he receives a boon which he takes back to his ordinary life.
In other words, the myths all include a Departure, an Initiation and a Return.
Myths have been explaining the world since a time long forgotten by humans, and their basic messages endure up until today. Although ‘The Hero of a Thousand Faces’ works well as a metaphor (somewhat blandly put by today’s insipid “get out of your comfort zone”), I have decided to take it literally and see where it takes me.
3. ‘Istanbul’ by Orhan Pamuk
I took this book from the library before having picked any travel destination. After reading it, I decided this city would be my final stop (on a somehow winding itinerary). The writer’s capacity to mix his personal life with the history of an age-old metropolis provide a fascinating narrative.
Personally, Pamuk’s ambiguous feelings towards Istanbul and its many literary connections made me too curious about the city.
4. ‘Jung and Tarot’ by Sallie Nichols
When I was still considering whether to take a solo trip or not, I had a friend read tarot cards for me. The cards were all pointing towards change and a positive experience in that change.
Because I wanted to explore the meanings of the cards I got, I took this book. I found it a great resource to find the psychological meanings of each card and contemplate your mind’s workings through a new perspective.
5. ‘The Tiger’ by John Vaillant
Vaillant investigates the “roaring rampage of revenge” (quoting Kill Bill here) executed by a Siberian man-eater tiger in Russia’s Far East.
This is not only an exceptionally well written and well documented book about a fascinating story so sensational that it feels like a thriller. In time, I’ve realised I read it as a metaphor.
‘The tiger’ analyses this feline and the meanings it has sparked for humanity. Tigers represent fear and danger. But Vaillant also explores how native populations revered this creature as a God to be respected. And how William Blake in his ‘The Tyger’ poem saw this creature as the fierce soul that doesn’t fade.
3 books for a solo trip: a reading diary
1. ‘In Ethiopia with a mule’ by Dervla Murphy
First, I chose the queen of solo travelling to join me on my own solo travel. ‘In Ethiopia with a mule’ is an exceptional book by an exceptional woman traveller who stimulates the reader because of her constant endeavour to put herself out there.
This time, Murphy chooses Ethiopia and she walks the country with an unrivaled companion: Jock, a fearless mule who displays his own character and helps the author throughout the book (and named after the traveller’s editor).
From vertiginous cliffs to the always-looming bandits on the trails, Murphy keeps walking through what, through her eyes, is portrayed as a really magical place: many religions coexist in a place that, up until her visit, had proved quite difficult to visit for foreigners.
While some misfortunes occur (including a robbery by the famous shifta bandits) Murphy shows enough grit to carry on and finds human compassion, warm receptions filled with talla and humour in the most remote of places. Her new found love for Ethiopians emanates out of every single page.
Murphy decided to travel to this country in 1966 inspired by a romantic idea born out of childhood stories of Prester John and the Queen of Sheba. Her book does just that to contemporary readers and sends a message: keep being curious and keep going.
Also, travellers who love books should take good note of Murphy’s warning in the book’s prologue:
“The preparations for a walking-tour are simple. I only had to buy a large rucksack, a strong pair of boots, a one-gallon plastic water-bottle, a Husky outfit of jacket, pants and socks that was light to carry but warm to wear, a few basic medical supplies, half-a-dozen notebooks and a dozen ballpoint pens. To maintain contact with my own civilisation I also packed a Shakespeare anthology, Tom Jones, W. E. Carr’s Poetry of the Middle Ages, Cooper’s Talleyrand and Boros’ Pain and Providence. Unfortunately other books inexplicably accumulated in my rucksack between London and Massawah and when climbing to the 8,000- foot Eritrean plateau I found myself carrying a weight of fifty pounds.”
2. ‘Phantom Africa’ by Michel Leiris
This book presents unfiltered stories of an anthropological mission in search of sacrifices, orgies, funerary rites and anthropofagia, all through the lens of a surrealist poet and writer.
First published in 1934, ‘Phantom Africa’ constitutes the author’s diary, where he shares every detail of his two-year journey from West to East Africa, from Dakar to Djibouti.
Without any previous ethnographic experience, young Leiris had been known as a poet and a contributor to the surrealist art magazine ‘Documents‘, edited by Charles Bataille.
However, he didn’t hesitate to take the chance to embark on this mission, led by friend and expert anthropologist Marcel Griaule. As the author admits in the book: “When coming to Africa, I was hoping I would finally gain some courage”.
As they complete their mission, they also raise hell: if let loose, they steal sacred fetishes, enter forbidden caves and take part in alcohol-fueled rites. The result is a honest and raw diary, where magic is always round the corner and the dreams of the author intertwine with outside action”
Take this excerpt:
“I asked the camp guard where they hid the knife for cutting boys. When he didn’t understand I was talking about circumcision, he answered that they used to do that before the French arrived, but it isn’t done anymore”.
Readers should beware, though: Leiris insists on objectifying almost every woman he encounters, which makes the reading awkward at times.
Plus, his approach to a diary is unfiltered: every tedious detail is registered. This is why the story unfolds slowly for the reader. But perhaps only this way it can provide a true analogy to what travelling really feels like (especially on past long-term adventures in the past): sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s full of wonders.
(All translations my own from the Spanish version pictured above)
3. ‘The Red Tenda of Bologna’ by John Berger
Perhaps the most addictive thing of travelling is its capacity to untap the potential for intuition: when you move in unknown territory, instinct and the unconscious might become your biggest asset.
Rebecca Solnit addresses this when, in her book ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ says one must “leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go”.
To me, ‘The Red Tenda of Bologna’ symbolises this: it’s a book I didn’t know existed before I saw it on the shelves an unknown bookshop of an unknown city. The shop was De Revolutionibus and the city, Krakow. The book served as an itinerary to then visit Bologna, and experience its red streets and its red tenda.
John Berger uses a memory (his beautiful relationship with his now defunct uncle) as an excuse to travel to Bologna. In just 56 pages, the author mixes autobiographical notes, symbols and travel writing to describe “an improbable city (…) – like one you might walk through after you’re dead”.