This post may not be exactly what you are expecting and it is certainly very different to most of the posts I have written. It is however a story I wish to tell and if there is any kind of meaning or learning to be taken from this, for me it’s that inspiration for travel and exploration can come from a variety of sources.
Some people get the travel bug in their youth whilst others catch it later in life. I had both. As a child my imagination was fired by the books I read and as I grew up and ended up living and travelling abroad I found new inspiration in the experiences I had. This bred an unquenchable thirst to see and experience more and I firmly believe that this is a defining feature of my life and makes me a better person.
In this post, I want to focus on the stories that sparked my interest in travel and adventure.
The books I mention here vary considerably, both in their content and in their genre; they may not all be about travelling per se but what they all share is their impact upon me at various stages of my life and those key concepts and ideals that have inspired me to broaden my horizons, explore the world and fuel my constant love of adventure.
I didn’t set out to write book reviews or even necessarily discuss the contents, but as I wrote this I found this to be both unavoidable and surprisingly enjoyable as the emotions and feelings that these books elicited from me came flooding back adding further justification for me to write this post.
I’m not suggesting that any of these books are seminal works of travel or adventure literature or even that anyone should follow my lead and read them. Rather, I’m hoping to show you what has inspired me to be who I am and maybe they will bring back some happy memories of your own as you reflect on the books or other things that have inspired your lifestyle.
As with most people I must credit my parents, especially my Dad for my earliest enlightenments. As a young child, my Father would read me stories from classics like “The Legends of King Arthur” by Sir James Knowles. Any kid would love these stories, full of adventure and battles. Oddly I was affected more by these chivalrous Knights who travelled far and wide, exploring new lands and completing quests than the battles they fought. These quests often had their own hidden meanings and often amounted more to the character’s personal discoveries than their physical achievements.
The Knights had a code, something many travellers like myself do. If I’m able to help a fellow traveller out as many have done for me in the past I will, I try not to take advantage of the people and cultures that have welcomed me and where I can, give back in some way. Perhaps that’s something that I could explore further in another post about my personal Travel philosophy.
I dreamed of great adventures and quests and these dreams were only encouraged by similar tales such as “Ivanhoe” & “Robin Hood”. As I grew older I started to read these stories myself and one in particular felt as if it widened my concept of the World. Many of the classic tales I read were based in the UK, often only hinting at travel to faraway lands.
In the end, it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island” that showed me just how big the world was and that if I could imagine so many amazing adventures in my own land then just how many were there in the rest of the world to explore.
Later I would read “Around the World in 80 Days” by the French writer Jules Verne. Around the World is interesting as it felt more grounded in history, despite being a work of fiction. It also made me think about the reasoning behind the great adventures I had been dreaming of.
Unlike the heroic Knights and their noble causes Phileas Fogg was a far different creature. On the face of it his adventure was based simply on a whim, a chance conversation led to a wager of what would these days be the equivalent of almost £2 million if he can complete his journey within the required time. As a child, I initially reasoned that monetary gain was his primary reason for undertaking his quest. As the story progressed I realised that it was his stubbornness, a refusal to fail and personal pride to prove his friends wrong that kept him going. At the start of the story Fogg is presented as a semi-recluse man of simple tastes who carefully plans and manages his life. His wager is based on his personal opinion and calculated maths rather than the challenge of the undertaking. By the end of the story Fogg is an entirely different person having been deeply affected and moulded by his experiences.
Right I’ll keep this next bit short and hopefully I won’t lose you here as it all gets a bit genre bending.
In my early teenage years, I was starting to read more Fantasy and Science Fiction novels and this was when I came across Terry Brooks. Brooks’ work has often been compared to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series and there are certainly many parallels.
I’ll never forget the day I purchased my first book, it was also the first time I think I had used my pocket money to buy anything meaningful. My parents were both avid readers and my Dad has always loved visiting second hand bookstores and markets in search of new books.
I recall one morning we visited an antiques and book market in Wellingborough, a small town only half an hour from my childhood home. I vividly recall being given the freedom to stroll around the small market on my own. This was an adventure for me and it wasn’t long before I was hunting through piles of old worn books. My eyes finally settled on a book called “The Wishsong of Shannara”. I don’t recall the exact reason I chose this book but I’ll never forget the way it looked and felt and even the smell. I found something magical about holding that book and imagining who had read it before and how far it had travelled. I still have the book to this day and there is something very comforting in its feel and smell. Unbeknown to me this was the third book in a trilogy but it was easy to get into and was disconnected enough from the first two that I wasn’t missing any plot information. The book itself is a classic fantasy adventure, boy goes on a quest to save his sister, journeying through fantastic lands and meeting richly described characters.
This book left me with a sense of individual achievement and a desire to choose my own adventures. My solo exploration of the market was one of my first memories of really being able to head off on my own and buy something without supervision. Luckily, I had chosen a book that turned out to be a great choice and I remember seeing the pride in my parent’s eyes when I showed them that I had purchased something other than sweets with my pocket money. I had started to grow up.
In my teens, my outlet for my passions became more physical. I worked my way through the Duke of Edinburgh Award system so I could get out into the countryside to camp and explore. My Father was a tree surgeon and specialist so I had always loved the outdoors, I found freedom in the wild outdoors and couldn’t get enough of it.
I couldn’t afford to buy many books at this time of my life, or should I say that I and my parents couldn’t afford to buy enough books to satisfy my new-found addiction. Instead I found myself reading an old battered collection of encyclopaedias my parents owned. They were arranged in A-Z volumes and I worked through each one. I was particularly taken by the Greek stories and fables like the Odyssey and by the descriptions of other countries and cultures I found. I found that my lust for adventure was being fuelled by these legends but I also started to become more intrigued by learning and discovering everything about the world I lived in. To this day my travels and adventures have had many different focuses from nature and animals to experiencing a new culture or even culinary adventures although I must give the credit for this to my wife the incredible Baking Backpacker @ickleJo82.
Another big love of mine in my teenage years was the study of martial arts. My Father’s work colleague was a teacher of very traditional Karate and I soon fell in love not just with the physical practice but the history and cultural aspects of the art. Around age 16 my Mother read a book called ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ an autobiographical story by a journalist called Robert Twigger. I’ve never thought to ask her why she read it as it was a million miles away from her usual reads but after she finished she wouldn’t stop telling me how good it was and that I would love it because it was set in Japan and revolved around Twigger’s decision to learn Aikido whilst living in Tokyo and trying to become a writer.
One chapter in and I was hooked, but strangely it wasn’t the Aikido that I found the most intriguing part, it was the whole concept of discovering another culture by living there. Twigger’s descriptions of living in a culture so alien to him fired my imagination and I was determined to follow suit. Twigger’s study of Aikido was borne out of his lack of work and a need to change his lifestyle. Coincidently it was Aikido, an art intricately woven into Japanese culture that led to his deeper understanding and admiration of the country he was living in. I had very similar feelings when I read the Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson later in life. Although there was little to like about Thompson as a protagonist the circumstances he had put himself in led to crazy times and self-reflection.
This is probably where I’ve picked up my habit of throwing myself in and letting the adventure take me where it will. This and my borderline pathological need to face and overcome all my fears and insecurities. I’m probably what they now describe as an Extroverted Introvert.
I started talking about exploring other Countries and cultures with my parents which eventually led to my Mother suggesting that I apply for a Cultural exchange programme with the local Rotary Club. I had become interested in a Brazilian martial art called Capoeira and upon hearing a radio advert in which the Rotary club were looking for students to take part in their first exchange in Brazil she suggested that I apply. I’m not entirely sure if my Mum thought anything would come of it and neither did I; I wasn’t from the same background as the other Rotary students, I hadn’t been to the right sort of school or achieved spectacular grades and I lived on a council estate where-as most of the students were children of wealthy Rotary club members living in big houses in the villages outside of town.
Either way, something worked, perhaps it was my enthusiasm and passion or maybe no one else applied, but within a few months I was boarding a plane for the first time ever and flew across the world to live in Brazil for a year. My Mother never lets me forget that I didn’t turn around once as I walked through security. I was entirely focused on what lay ahead of me.
That year changed my life and played a huge part in making me who I am now.
For the next few years my influences and experiences became more practical once again, my return from Brazil led me to university in York and after that another year abroad living in China. Not a lot of reading got done during this period but there was lots of travel, exploration and fun. It was at university where I found my love for rock climbing and other outdoor pursuits.
Before returning home from China I decided I would spend some time travelling around South East Asia. The problem with this was that at the time any sort of books in English were pretty much unattainable and guide books were banned as they contained maps showing countries like Taiwan that China refused to acknowledge. Now I know this is supposed to be about how certain books had influenced my travels but in this case I think my time travelling was enriched by not having access to books. China was difficult to travel around with the language barrier, I had become quite confident and adventurous so flying to Singapore and making my way back to Beijing overland with no planning seemed perfectly reasonable.
During my travels, I rekindled my love of reading and I couldn’t get enough of it. Hostels with book exchanges were my only access to books and to this day I love the concept of passing on a book I’ve read and the possibility that it could travel all over the world changing hands as it goes. Eventually I picked up a book called ‘The Beach’ by Alex Garland. Now world renowned after it was made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio (which I’d missed as I was living in China) it was, at the time completely unknown to me. It had only been out a few years and I didn’t even know what it was about when I picked it up. I read the book laying on the deck of a ferry during an extremely long trip in Thailand. To my astonishment, it mentioned Koh Samui at the same time we sailed past it. The descriptions in the book led me to jump off the ferry there instead of carrying onto Koh Pha Ngan so I could explore. Unfortunately, Koh Samui was already more built up than the book described although hardly so by modern standards. Naturally I wanted to find my own untouched traveller’s paradise so I began my search which led to me spending far more time in Thailand than I had first planned.
For all of you that have been grossly offended by my lack of serious travel related novels and guides, hopefully these last two will redeem my reputation somewhat. And I say last but this is an evolving thing, I’m certain there will be more books in the future that provide me with inspiration. Perhaps this post will evolve too as I add more.
So, first up is the absolutely seminal travel story that has influenced thousands of people to embark on American road trips. ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac inspired the beat generation and although in many ways I struggled to identify with the man itself, it did show me both the value of giving yourself over to an experience and the dangers of losing yourself along the way. The book itself was a crazy retelling of his journey across America and although it may not seem serious for much of the time his style of writing is as good as any literary scholar. I fully admit this was a big influence on me during my own road trip across California.
The second was a book I read whilst recovering from an ankle injury. Rather than inspiring me this one was a more reflective experience that also made me strive to seek out similar experiences.
‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, I’m sure most people will agree with me when I say that this book is a great story of a man’s journey across South America. What really struck me reading this book was the author’s vivid recollections of seeing unspoilt places like Machu Picchu. I’ve been there myself and although I was luckily enough to have hiked the Inca Trail in a small group and arrived at first light before the hordes of day tourists I found myself feeling jealous of those people that were lucky enough to have experienced it before it became a famous tourist landmark. I also realised how lucky I had been to visit places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia before it became overrun with tourists. There were barely a dozen people there the first time I visited, my friends and I had three days at the site, camping in the jungle right next to it with just the monkeys for company. I’m constantly searching for places to visit and things to do that will give me the same feelings.
This is already a long post and I could go on and on but I’m going to draw it to a conclusion. I hope that I’ve given you an insight to who I am and how I got like this and perhaps you might even have that warm happy feeling thinking about your own favourite books and influences that I’ve had whilst writing this. I’ve found writing this all down has made me feel like I was looking through an old photo album, often I had intended to write one thing and then suddenly the memories and feelings would come flooding back and I’d end up adding in so much more. It’s been a great experience doing this, I’d recommend giving it a go yourself. It might surprise you.
Now go forward, read, get inspired and dive into your adventures.