There’s no question that travel is a life-changing, mind-altering, heart-opening experience. But travel is costly, both in terms of time and money, and many people do not have the luxury of either. Many people are not physically capable of traveling. Some suffer from crippling anxiety preventing them from boarding airplanes or boats. And currently, all of us are dealing with the ramifications of a global pandemic that has crippled the travel industry. Most of us have cut back our travel dramatically, and likely won’t be boarding a plane or ship any time soon.
But have no fear! Just because you can’t physically go somewhere doesn’t mean you can’t still learn about another culture, meet someone from another country, and fill your heart with stories of places far different from home. In fact, all you need is a comfy place to read and a good imagination to “go” somewhere for the afternoon.
The “travel memoir”, sometimes called a travelogue, is one of my favorite genres, and while it might not immediately strike you as your cup of tea, I think you should give it a try. This is a list of non-fiction travel books that I’ve enjoyed over the years, and is the first in a series of Armchair Travel recommendations that I’ll be posting.
The Wonder Trail by Steve Hely
Following the author’s 3-month trip from LA to the tip of South America, this diverting travelogue is full of interesting people, places, and historical anecdotes. You’ll get to visit Mayan ruins in Mexico, cross the Panama Canal, travel through Columbia and the Amazonian rainforest, take a detour to the Galapagos, spend time at a prisoner-run prison in Bolivia, and wind down the edge of Chile until you reach the End of the World. You won’t find any life-changing insights or deep emotional explorations about the meaning of life, but this light escapist read will certainly introduce you to many weird and wonderful places.
The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
This was a great read during which I learned a ton about Denmark. I found it particularly fun to view this country through the lens and voice of a British author. She agrees to uproot her comfortable English life to move to a country she’d never visited when her husband gets a killer job at LEGO. Each chapter focuses on a specific topic — such as weather, taxes, education, child rearing, etc. — as she relates her experience of adjusting to a new culture, trying to understand hygge, and figure out what makes for a happy life.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
This is one of my favorite books of all time; I’ve read it and listened to the audio book, which was a pure delight. The setting comes to life through his memories and comedic storytelling. I loved all of the historical asides and the integration of some of the South African languages in much of the dialogue. This book is a master class in compassion, in empathetic storytelling, in finding humor even in the tragic moments. You’ll learn a lot about life in South Africa during apartheid but you’ll also read a gorgeous love letter to a mother, a woman who went through so much to give her son a life of more opportunity than she was given.
Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald
Written by an Australian, this memoir gives a bit of insight into two cultures — both India and Australia. While criticized for being patronizing, the author still manages to capture the essence of India and explores the vast array of religions and cultures contained within. At times very funny, this book is definitely about the author’s personal spiritual journey, so as long as you can take her embellishments with a grain of salt, you can enjoy this book. It certainly will squash any romanticized ideas you had of India as it doesn’t shy away from describing the pollution, noise, and general squalor that the author encountered.
All Strangers Are Kin by Zora O’Neill
While this linguistically-driven memoir can get too deep in the weeds on Arabic grammar and vocabulary, I appreciated the approach to exploring the Middle East through its language dialects, looking at the similarities and vast differences in Arabic countries, both linguistic and cultural, through the specific lens of this American female author. Part memoir, part linguistic history, part travelogue, this book works on many levels. The author demonstrates personal growth in her approach to learning an insanely complex language, and as a result you’ll come away with a better understanding of the Arabic language and the people who speak it.
Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf
For me, this absolutely readable, eye-opening account of Arab women’s interior lives was educational and endlessly interesting. Much more journalistic than other travelogues, this collection of stories from women across many Middle Eastern cultures introduces you to a wide cast of Arab women. You get to hear, in their own voices, their thoughts on their world. The author does insert her own opinions and thoughts, but they feel pretty separate, so I always felt clear what was the author’s point of view, and what was coming from her interview subjects. Some of the stories are surprising, hopeful, and even funny. Others are so sad, I had to put the book down and read something else for a little while. Others will inspire rage, while others might just inspire you to travel (when we’re able to, of course).
Hitching Rides with Buddha by Will Ferguson
A thoroughly entertaining and educational journey through Japan that made me laugh out loud many times. The author’s insights about Japanese culture were particularly fascinating, and he tells his story with such pacing that he turned a travel memoir into a page turner. The author, a Canadian, decides to hitchhike the length of Japan, following the Cherry Blossom front, and along the way meets so many people, takes a few detours into Japanese history, and paints a complex and welcoming portrait of a country that many of us strive to understand. A few parts may even bring you to tears.
Bears in the Streets by Lisa Dickey
I loved everything about this memoir when I read it, from the structure of how she tells the story, to her smart friendly writing, to all of the people you meet along the way. It paints a contemporary portrait of Russia with enough history and personal anecdotes to really make it come alive. This book is a reminder that Russia is a huge place with many types of people and cultures within its borders. Because she visits Russia three times, over 20 years, returning to the same locations on each trip, she’s able to effectively track changes in setting, culture, and people, providing many insights into Russian life.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost
Some readers find the author to be pedantic and smarmy, but I’ve read all of Troost’s travelogues and find them hilarious, both due to his writing style and to the situations he ends up in. A Dutch-American who follows his wife’s career aspirations to be a house-husband on a teeny tiny island in the South Pacific that none of us have ever heard of called Kiribati (pronounced: Kiribas), the author recounts his misadventures with stifling heat, deadly bacteria, incompetent government officials, and a fun cast of bizarre locals. This is not a place I ever need to visit except from the comfort of my reading chair!
What are some of YOUR favorite travelogues? Where have you traveled from the comfort of your own home? What #ArmchairTravels should I add to my TBR list?