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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine November 2008 Issue

Top Eight Travel Narratives

by Living Abroad Contributing Editor Volker Poelzl

For this month’s book review, instead of discussing just one book, I would like to recommend eight of my favorite travelogues, which I have treasured over the years.

I have always found that reading historic travel narratives is a great way to prepare for a trip. Travel has become relatively easy today, and by reading historic travelogues we can travel back to a time when there were no paved roads and airports, and when travel was still a true adventure. Historic travelogues add a new and almost magical dimension to your travel experience. You can see the Inca Ruins of Machu Picchu through the eyes of Hiram Bingham who discovered them for Western archeology, and you can experience the South Pacific Islands from the viewpoint of Robert Louis Stevenson who chose to retire there. There is a heightened sense of authenticity and adventure, as we follow the authors on their journeys around the globe, often journeys that were the first of their kind or were so extraordinary that readers are still fascinated by them to this day.

If you have the time, I recommend reading about your travel destination ahead of time, but I have discovered that reading travel books after you return home is equally rewarding, since you can relate better to the country and its culture after having traveled there. What kind of travel literature you choose depends on your interests and the kind of travel you prefer. Unless you are an aficionado of Gothic art and architecture, you probably wouldn’t choose Henry Adam’s “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres” (1913) as your travel companion to France, even though it is a magnificent book.

So here is a list of my top eight favorite travel narratives:

In the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is an account of Stevenson’s trip to the South Seas in 1888. The book offers some great insights into local history and culture, and was written on the island of Samoa where Stevenson retired and subsequently died.

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux

Theroux is known for his unconventional travels, and this account of a railway journey from Boston to the southern tip of South America in the late 1970s is my favorite book by the prolific travel writer. With his exquisite observation skills, opinionated narrative, and great sense humor, he takes readers along with him on this long and eventful journey while offering an insightful introduction to the cultures and ways of life in Latin America.

Cloud Forest by Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen traveled from the high Andes down to the Peruvian rain forest, and “Cloud Forest” is the travelogue of a great journey undertaken at a time when few white people—let alone tourists—traveled in these parts of South America.

Lost City of the Incas by Hiram Bingham

Bingham’s account of his discovery and excavation of the Inca Ruins Machu Picchu is a must-read for anyone planning to travel to Peru.

Following the Equator by Mark Twain

“Followings the Equator” is a humorous and perceptive account by Mark Twain, which he penned during his lecture tour around the world in 1895. His journey takes him from Paris to New York, the South Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa. He describes the countries, people, customs, and traditions he encounters along the way with his usual wit and piercing observations.

Sad Tropics by Claude Levi-Strauss

French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss is primarily known for his groundbreaking work in structural anthropology, but he also wrote a magnificent travelogue describing his trip to Brazil’s interior and the Amazon in the early 1930s. The book chronicles his journey through the Brazilian hinterland and takes an honest and critical look at a country in the throes of change.

Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah by Sir Richard Burton

Sir Richard Burton was an accomplished diplomat and avid explorer from 19th century Great Britain. Among his most famous books is a travel narrative about his pilgrimage to the holy sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina. He disguised himself as a Muslim and thoroughly studied Islam beforehand so that his true identity would not be detected. The book is an account of Burton’s adventures and the dangers he faced on the pilgrimage from Pakistan to the Arabian Peninsula.

The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo

This is one of the oldest travelogues still in print. Marco Polo’s enigmatic account of his travels to China in the late thirteenth century was a best-seller during its time, even though the printing press had not yet been invented and books were copied by hand. Marco Polo describes the long and arduous journey to China, where he meets Kublai Kan, and he describes in detail his experiences and observations along the way.

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