Will you be vacationing at an exotic locale this year or staycationing in your own backyard? If your journey is limited to armchair explorations, consider these four travel memoirs, reviewed with tips to help you find the perfect read, be it a dip into history or a high-speed adventure.
FUN ON TWO WHEELS
Amsterdam is widely known for its relaxed laws where drugs and prostitution are concerned, but it’s also heaven on earth for cyclists. In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist recalls Pete Jordan’s simple plan to spend a semester abroad, which immediately gets complicated when he falls in love with the city and its bike-friendly ways. Instead of returning to his wife, Amy Joy, he convinces her to move to Amsterdam and they work at building a life and starting a family. While Pete enjoys their freewheeling moves from one sublet to the next, Amy Joy discovers an aptitude for bike repair that leads first to a job, then a place to stay, and ultimately a family business.
Travel Tip: The memoir is at most 10 percent of the story here; this is really a meticulously researched history of cycling, in both Amsterdam and the U.S. Dig in for the stories of bike theft (even Anne Frank wasn’t exempt from having her bike stolen) and the wartime use of bikes to ferry the injured to safety. Before long you’ll be dusting off your Schwinn and trying to “dink” your sweetheart on the back (that is, carry her seated sidesaddle behind you). Just watch out for fire hydrants.
GLOBAL ROAD TRIP
When Dina Bennett felt the intimacy fading from her marriage, it seemed like throwing herself into a project with her husband, Bernard, would be the perfect fix. Some couples take up swing dancing, some study gourmet cooking; these two chose to participate in an 8,000-mile road race from behind the wheel of a 1940 Cadillac LaSalle. Peking to Paris: Life and Love on a Short Drive Around Half the World follows the pair as they break down and rebuild not just the car, but their ideas about one another. Bennett agrees to the rally despite having no mechanical aptitude and a propensity for carsickness. When it’s all over, she misses the cramped quarters of their beloved Cadillac (nicknamed Roxanne) so much that they take to the road again—this time in a rental car. The camaraderie between participants in the race is a secondary character: “I look around the table and note Americans, Swiss, French, Dutch, Greek. And the one nationality we now have in common: Rally.”
Travel Tip: Start at the end. The book’s glossary and numerous appendices spoil nothing, but give you a clear sense of what goes into a project like this, which only enhances the fun once you actually hit the road. And get out a world map, just to put one finger on Peking (Beijing) and one on Paris to visualize the distance these cars crossed, often over no road whatsoever.
A PERSONAL JOURNEY
As the author of the Frugal Traveler column in the New York Times for four years, Matt Gross focused on getting where you want to go as cheaply as possible. In The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World, his concerns are more philosophical as he examines why we travel and what our travel experiences can tell us about ourselves. The narrative gathers stories from his stops all around the globe, but strings them along a continuous thread: the tale of his first solo sojourn after college, a trip to Vietnam where he lived for a year and began to eke out a living as a writer.
Travel Tip: While this book makes more far-flung stops than any other here, it’s less about any of the people and places Gross visits than about how they shaped his growth as a man, a writer and a traveler. What has kept him on the go for so long? “I want to be uncomfortable, to be an outsider not just in my own mind but in the eyes of everyone who glances at my awkward, bumbling self,” he writes. His accounts here bear much of that out, from engaging the services of a Southeast Asian prostitute to suffering through numerous bouts of giardia, a vicious intestinal parasite. There are sweet moments as well, as when the Turk of the title refers to the author as both friend and brother after their brief time together. After confirming the meaning of the second word by consulting his phrasebook, Gross is suitably wowed.
ONCE MORE TO AFRICA
The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari follows noted travel writer Paul Theroux on a final tour of the African continent, winding north from Cape Town into Botswana, Namibia and Angola, often despite warnings not to bother. At the age of 70, Theroux reflects on changes he’s seen in Africa—for every improvement in one area, the poverty and pain seem to have grown elsewhere—while also taking stock of himself and his fitness for further travel. Initially dismissive of travelers who go “animal watching in the early morning, busybodying in the afternoon,” he revises his view after visiting Tsumkwe, an outpost long ignored by the Namibian government, whose language and oral history would not have been preserved but for the efforts of outsiders.
Travel Tip: Theroux is a master storyteller; his prose seems workaday, but every scene is alive on the page, and he delivers travel and memoir in a near-perfect balance. Read this book if you enjoy getting lost in language as much as scenery. You’ll hate coming to the end, but it’ll be a beautiful journey.