Books In Flight: Our Common Ground

I was a bitchy teenage daughter to my mom. I think back on my behavior now, and cringe.  At times, I was argumentative to the point of being down right hostile.

The two of us battled on a daily basis (on the days, of course, that she was in town and wasn’t traveling).

But, we had one common ground, an area that was neutral territory, that we could talk about without causing any friction: reading.

And, because my mom traveled so often, she would feed our shared addiction with a continuous supply of books she had purchased at the airport and read on her latest flights.  My bookshelves are full of these books from her, books she would hand to me after she finished them.  We would talk about them with warmth, and without any fear of tripping each other’s sensitive emotional landmines.

We read all kinds of these books, but the most common were: Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Robert Ludlum and John Grisham.

To this day, when I go into an airport bookstore, these memories make me smile.  And, that smile is especially bittersweet if there is a new book from one of these authors, since I know if my mom were still alive she would have already beaten me to buying and reading it, and would be waiting for me to finish it so we could talk about it.

Love Letter To Mali Part II: Bamako

Before heading to Mali, I read Poisonwood Bible by Kingsolver and The Shadow of the Sun by Kapuscinski. My trip to Mali was my first experience of Sub-Sahara Africa (not counting South Africa), and I was excited.

Those books prepared me well, for some of the cultural experiences in store for me.  And, mostly, they opened my mind and set me expectations to be even more “go with the flow” in my attitude than usual.  This was all immediately useful.

In Bamako, there wasn’t anyone waiting for me at the airport.  Which was unfortunate since there were a crowd of guys trying to provide me a taxi ride (or sim card, or whatever I needed).  I stood out like a sore thumb, being a blond, blue-eyed, American woman traveling alone.  I joked around with the vendors in French, trying not to look like I was at all concerned with the situation.  The situation being that I was alone in a country and continent that I was unfamiliar with, with no clear Plan B in place for when my transport didn’t show up.

I had hired a porter at baggage claim, since it seemed like everyone was hiring porters.  Go with the flow.  And, him standing beside me somehow made me feel more secure, which I know is silly since I had only met him 10 minutes earlier, and I hadn’t even paid him yet.  But, he was at least a head taller than everyone else in the entire airport, and I liked thinking he had my back.

I pulled out my cell phone and called my local contact numbers.  But, I kept getting recordings.  Hmmm.

Just as I was starting to think about options, someone walked up “Cynthia!!”.  It was the owner of the tour company.  He explained that my flight was earlier than expected.  No worries, just happy to see him.  I met the guide, Oumar, and driver, Camara, I had for most of my visit to Mali, and we were off to the hotel.

I was feeling very satisfied with myself that I got through the first little hiccup without breaking a sweat.

I think of all those friendly vendors.  Sure they were trying to sell me something, but when it was clear I wasn’t buying they were also content to stand around and joke with me while I tried to get my bearings.

When I read that the current President of Mali was attacked in his office, went to France to get medical attention, I wonder:  how many of those men have been directly affected by the coup?

Even when I visited, Mali had its problems; it is among the poorest nations in the world.  How is everyone coping now?  Would they be as quick with a joke today?  Somehow I imagine not, that today, survival is first and foremost on everyone’s mind.

It’s a Small, Small World

One of the wonderful results of traveling to places is the sense of affinity I now have with that city/state/country.  After I’ve been there, whenever I see it in a newspaper or magazine, or hear it discussed in the news, I listen with more rapt attention than I would have before.  And, when I am reading a novel, or watching a TV show or movie that is set in that locale, I am that much more tuned in and engaged.

Even history takes on more meaning for me.  I was recently reading a biography of Catherine the Great.  When the places in Bavaria, Turkey, the Baltics, Poland and across Russia were mentioned, I was personally invested because even though I wasn’t alive during the time being discussed, I have been to those places and felt a sense of kinship with the events that I wouldn’t have felt if they were just names in a history book.

Travel makes the world seem smaller, and more personal.  And I love that.

But, beware, this means that even sad, scary or horrific things can feel closer to home.

It is a lot harder to watch a natural or man-made disaster unfolding in an area where I have been.  I know it is probably wrong of me, and I should feel just as much empathy for people in places I’ve never visited, but I don’t.  In South America, I read the details of all the stories about Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Chile.  Its not that I don’t care about the rest of the continent, but I usually don’t make it past the headline and first paragraph in stories about the other countries.

The same holds true for me when it comes to Africa.  I have been to South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Mali, Senegal (in transit), Ethiopia and Tanzania.  I read stories about those countries in detail, imagining the impact taking place on the people I came in contact with.  And, it often breaks my heart.

Over the last several months, I have been watching with dismay the events that are unfolding in Mali.  When I read about the violence and food shortages, I can picture all the people I met suffering, being scared and hungry.  I feel sad, and frustrated that there’s not really anything I can do to help them.  They are in my thoughts and prayers.

I have been wearing the jewelry I bought while I was there as some kind of an impotent attempt at solidarity.  But alas, I am sitting in my condo in Chicago, sipping my Venti Iced Americano, and planning my next trip to NYC.  And so it becomes difficult to pretend I am with them in any real way. But that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about and praying for the people I met.

One of the authors I’ve read a lot is Ryszard Kapuściński.  He was a Polish journalist, who spent a lot of time traveling through Africa, the Soviet Union, the Middle East and Latin America.  I fell in love with his writing.  He has a strong voice, and is really able to bring a place to life.  I wish I had the courage he had to be in areas of conflict and to report what was happening.

I did some research on Ryszard, and I know that he is not universally loved.  There is a lot of controversy about his motives and such.  But, I didn’t know any of that when I was reading his books.  I judged them based solely on themselves, and I found them riveting and, at times, almost poetic.

I imagine the world that Ryszard knew was very, very small.  The more you see the world at large, the smaller it feels.  The same conflicts everywhere, caused by the same universal human failings.  And the same beautiful moments everywhere, sunrises and sunsets, oceans, lakes, rivers and mountains, peoples’ generous spirits.

Reading In Transit

I love reading.  I read everything that’s in front of me, and I constantly seek out new material.

OK, I don’t read everything that’s in front of me.  But what I mean is, I find myself constantly examining cereal boxes, the minute details on boarding passes, the ingredients on my dog’s food package…

But for some reason, I loathe instruction manuals.  I think it has something to do with wanting to figure out “how to”, not being told.  For the same reason I am not really someone who purchases travel guides.  I’d much rather read about a city through history books, biographies or novels, than to be told “how to”.

My inexplicable aversion to instruction manuals aside, I take great pleasure in reading.  So, as you’d expect, I like to read when traveling.  I read in airports, on airplanes, in hotels.  Up until recently, this presented a big challenge:  how could I pack enough material to keep myself entertained for a long trip?

I remember when I went to India with my cousin for two weeks, I observed her approach to this problem.  She had religiously saved the New York Times magazine every week for what must have been six months, all in preparation for our trip.  And to top it off, these were combined with six months worth of New Yorkers.

The beauty of this approach is that she got to discard the material as she read it.  I, on the other hand, had packed fifteen books, and was stuck lugging them with us for the whole trip.  (I cannot bare the thought of throwing books away, and have never figured out how to best get them in good hands on the road). Adopting this wise approach, I was well armed with magazines when my sister and I spent three weeks traveling from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans Siberian Railroad.

I had three duffle bags full of magazines, that we realized weighed 75 pounds collectively when we checked into our flight to Beijing.  75 pounds of reading material, that would steadily get lighter, and then I would eventually have empty bags to load up with souvenirs.  Perfect plan, right? As we boarded the train in Beijing we had to go through security.  I think our bags were something like:  one backpack each of clothes, one giant duffle for food, one backpack for toiletries, and three duffles full of the magazines I had been saving to read during the trip.

As our seven bags were going through the conveyer belt, there were heaps of other travelers crawling all over our stuff trying to get to their bags.  We were a spectacle, trying to collect everything and balance it right, and run to our train (we hadn’t factored in the 45 minutes of security, so we were cutting it close to departure time).  Then, on the way to the train, one of the duffles exploded, sending magazines everywhere.  So, in a sweaty, hot, stressed hurry, we frantically collected the strewn magazines and stuffed them into the duffle. And, my magazine bags were heavy.  Really dense and heavy.  Even without the explosion, it was cumbersome and burdensome to have them.

As we rushed to the train, I could tell my sis was annoyed at me, and, she was right to be.  I had been afraid of the confrontation that would ensue once we got to our cabin, but once we got settled in, she calmly looked at me and said:  “I think we need to rethink our packing strategy.”  And, I loved her all the more for that understated commentary.  I ended up discarding two bags of magazines when we got off the train in Mongolia, which made all the difference in the world in our ability to maneuver.

Fast forward to  last year, when I traveled to Australia, New Zealand, Mali, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Israel, Turkey, Germany, Jordan, Amsterdam.  All with one Kindle.  I grew to love that Kindle.  I had been so hesitant to get one, because I love the form factor of books, magazines, paper.  But, I inherited one from my aunt when she upgraded to a new device, and it didn’t take long for me to become a convert.  The battery life was amazing, so I could take it with me and not have to charge it for a week at a time.  And I filled it up with over eighty books.  Here’s the list of the ones I liked the best:

A lot of these books are about traveling, or travelers.  As someone who is passionate about both reading and traveling, it is easy to understand why those topics appeal to me.  I love reading about far away lands, or close by cities through someone else’s eyes.  I love hearing stories about fellow wanderers, whether real or imagined.  And, I love that now I can do that without having to carry 75 pounds of magazines!!