If you’re like me, up until a few weeks ago you had plans. Spring was here, summer was on the menu after that, and you had travel slated through both—or at the very least you expected to be going outside.
I had all sorts of plans. I was in Bangkok when the virus first spread from China to Thailand, where I was working on—and I kid you not—a supposedly fictional book about a pandemic that originates in Eastern Asia before spreading around the globe. I arrived in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, and news of the virus began trickling out of China two weeks later. Talk about timing.
Much of my work involves writing about travel, so from there I jumped to Vietnam to research an article that never ended up happening. After that I planned on heading to Italy and Spain for the summer, and obviously that’s off the table. Things were getting weird fast in Hanoi, so I decided to bail and head to the beach in Mexico, where I could at least wait this whole thing out someplace where I spoke the language.
The reality is that until there is a vaccine that has been more or less globally distributed, travel isn’t much of an option. So get cozy.
Getting from Vietnam to Mexico was not easy. Airports were closing fast, and one ticket after another was canceled. When I finally got on one of what seemed to be the last flights out of Hanoi, I barely made it through my connection in Moscow before they grounded flights there. And I do mean barely. I was on the third to last plane before Russia cut off all air travel in or out of the country. Then the airport in Amsterdam was practically abandoned. Mexico was just starting to take precautions when I arrived there, and in a month its airports will be questionable at best.
At this point—for all practical purposes—travel is over.
I am where I am, and you are where you are, and we are where we are, at least for the time being. There’s been hopeful talk that things will loosen up by summer, but that’s wishful thinking. The reality is that until there is a vaccine that has been more or less globally distributed, travel isn’t much of an option. So get cozy.
In the meantime, we all have plenty of time to binge all the shows we missed, finally tackle that project we’ve been putting off, escape our families and roommates to scream in the car, and read. So. Much. Time. To. Read.
To that end, here are a few great books you can escape into and feed your hunger for travel.
The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller
While Henry Miller is best known for his lascivious novels like Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring, his travelogue describing his time in Greece—the Colossus of Maroussi—is an oft overlooked gem that I would argue stacks up against his best.
The year was 1939, and war loomed as the Nazis began grinding their gears in earnest. Miller had spent the decade in France and was looking for a change of pace, so he joined fellow author Lawrence Durrell for a trip through Greece. After nine months his visit was cut short by the outbreak of World War II, and Miller was forced to flee the continent and return to the United States, where he penned his reflections on his time in Greece, expressed his bitterness at having to leave, and bemoaned the feeling of isolation that was imposed on him by becoming suddenly more or less trapped in America. A circumstance with which it has become strangely easy to identify.
Among the Tibetans, Isabella L. Bird
The Victorians Era wasn’t exactly renowned for gender parity, and it seems reasonable to assume that women with “world adventurer” on their resume were substantially rare. One woman who challenges this assumption is Isabella Bird.
The first woman inducted into the Royal Geographic Society, Bird traveled through and wrote about a slew of destinations that were relatively obscure to 19th century European society, such as Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains, Persia and Kurdistan (modern day Iran and Iraq), Japan, China, Korea, and Tibet. Her book on this last country describes how she rode some 800 miles on horseback (“like a man” rather than sidesaddle—heavens to Betsy), and provides a unique look at regional landscapes and customs while casting a critical eye on British colonial actions in neighboring India.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck
By the 1960s, John Steinbeck had established himself as one of the greatest American writers. Actually, bigger than that. He was one of the greatest writers of all time. The majority of his work had focused on California, but in ’60 he decided to take an epic road trip throughout the entirety of the United States. And he brought along his poodle, Charley.
His trip spanned some 10,000 miles from Maine to the Pacific Northwest, south to Southern California, then East across Texas and the Deep South before heading north to New York. He made the journey in a custom-built camper he dubbed Rosinante (after Don Quixote’s famous steed), experienced a wealth of adventures big and small, and had many an intellectual conversation with Charley.
How much of the book is a work of non-fiction has been a topic of much debate, but true or not, the book is funny, often touching, and rich with inspiration.
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
In 1948, James Baldwin was disillusioned by American racism, so he packed up and moved to Paris where he felt he would have a chance to experience himself outside the prejudice he’d known all his life. At the same time, he was hoping to come to terms with his confusion over his sexuality.
From this period emerged Giovanni’s Room, a book about a young American living in Paris who is struggling with his attachment to a girlfriend who has run away to Spain and his romantic entanglement with an Italian man who is in trouble with the law. The book is one of the great post-war novels about Paris, providing a vivid portrayal of the city, and of the challenges inherent to poverty and questions of sexual identity.
Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, Tom Robbins
Like all of Robbins’ books, this is a weird one. It’s hard to explain.
Spanning four continents, a wheelchair-bound CIA agent named Switters on the search for the Third Secret of Fatima experiences love, danger, psychedelics, cybernetics, and a parrot named Sailor Boy who must be released in the “too god damn vivid South America.” He’s obsessed with taking his 17-year-old stepsister’s virginity, is in love with a 46-year-old nun, hates the government yet serves it faithfully, and is a vegetarian who loves ham gravy.
I told you—it’s a weird one. But it’s also a great book; one of Robbins’ best. And it certainly covers a lot of geographic (as well as psychic) territory.
It’s a perfect read for anyone who is stuck indoors and in search of escape into the furthest reaches our collective mental space has to offer.
And when this whole craziness subsides, it—and the other inclusions here—will hopefully inspire you to get out and make the most of our rediscovered freedom of movement.