2020 List of Travel Books: Our Books of Wandering (NL)

Not a good year for travelling.

As we enter a new year (2021) it is time to look back on the books we read in 2020. In this article you will find our 2020 list of travel books. We had thought we’d be reading more books because of covid-19. But in the end we got stuck at a modest 15 books: one and a quarter book per month on average.

Still, we had some great finds and revisited old favourites such as Paul Theroux and Dervla Murphy from our List of Eleven Best Travel Books ever. Some of our Uganda roadtrip memories as well as 2018 Thailand still lingered. So there is also a Uganda and a Thailand read in there. We hope to compile a Uganda and a Thailand reading list at a later stage. Let’s make this a habit for our travel blog!

Let us know in the comments below the books you have been reading !

Travel reads to deal with travel disappointments

Our 2020 travel year included the last weeks of our four week Oman roadtrip in the winter of 2019-2020. And a 3 week Portugal roadtrip during a mid-covid-19 window with lower virus numbers at the end of the Summer 2020. We had been planning on a Turkey roadtrip in June. That trip we cancelled but by then we’d already been searching out some of our travel reading. While our Portugal trip was so last minute that there is no Portugal book on our list.

The huge disappointment of 2020 was that we had to postpone our 3 month trip around the Middle East and more of Eastern Africa to a later time. You will see that our reading list was also aimed to keep those dreams alive this year. We still do not know when we can make those dreams into new plans and real itineraries. We hope 2021 will bring new openings, and we will be reading about the countries we want to visit in the mean time!

But now, first…

… our 2020 list of travel books.

1. Dervla Murphy 3x in Africa

stack of books by Dervla Murphy
books by Dervla Murphy. Image Source: FB-page by https://www.fopl.org
  • category: non-fiction, travel journal
  • year: 1968, 1993, 1998
  • publisher: John Murray / Eland / The Lilliput Press
  • 246 – 281 pages

As we put Dervla Murphy on our best travel books list all times of course we read some of her books this year as well. As we had planned on travelling to Ethiopia in 2020 we started out with the 1968 In Ethiopia with a Mule. In the tradition of her first travel book Full Tilt, she dives in head first in unknown territories. Without much reservation and pleny of humour she writes about her first hand adventures walking across Ethiopia, across highlands, hills and wading across marshes. It’s one of her classics.

Later in the year 2020, we got around to explore two of her more recent travel books. Ukimwi Road (1993) and Visiting Rwanda (1998) have much darker undertones. Dervla Murphy remains true to her writing in the form of travel journals but is confronted by the fact of contemporary history: the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS on her cycling trip from Kenya to Zimbabwe in Ukimwi Road and the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in Visiting Rwanda. This makes for different reads than the casual travel read. These two books leave a deep impression while still bringing across the fun of travelling. Still, they are also interesting as a reflection and reality check for any visitor trying to understand more about travelling in African countries, beyond the Big 5.

2. The Teeth May Smile but the Heart does not forget – Andrew Rice

  • category: non-fiction, literary journalism
  • year: 2009
  • publisher: Metropolitan Books
  • 363 pages

This in depth report on a post-Amin-era search for justice in Uganda has as sub-title ‘Murder and Memory in Uganda’. And, as you understand, it indeed describes a grim, although maybe at times somewhat hopeful, picture of this country. At the core of the book is the quest of Duncan Laki to find the murderers of his father during one of Idi Amin’s purges of local leaders in Uganda’s countryside.

Delicately navigating the minefield of contemporary regional, ethnic, religious and class-based politics in Uganda, the book manages to get beyond the regular horror stories about Idi Amin. Andrew Rice makes this a story about people that lived through the Amin years and still deal with its legacy on a day-by-day basis. At times this book is tough to get through, but definitely worth it to keep on reading.

3. Arabian Sands – Wilfried Thesiger

Book Cover - Arabian Sands, Wiflred Thesiger
Arabian Sands – Wilfried Thesiger

  • category: non-fiction, travel journal
  • year: 1959
  • publisher: Longmans, London
  • approx. 327-368 pages depending on the edition

As we travelled Oman for four weeks, our Bradt guide book kept referring to the travels of one Wilfried Thesiger. He’d apparently been all over the place. And especially in the desert. Back at home we had to put his work Arabian Sands on our 2020 travel books list!

Who thought that even after WW II there would still be some real exploring to do? Wilfred Thesiger sets for himself a unique challenge: to cross the Rub al Khali: The sand desert called The Empty Quarter which lies at the heart of the Arabian peninsula. Arabian Sands is the highly enjoyable read of his multiple attempts. It is also an interesting description of a world in transition: that of nomadic desert life, rapidly disappearing in the 1940s and 1950s due to oil exploration, the aftermath of colonialism and general modernisation. Thesiger travels with Bedu tribesmen make for a fascinating book. We definitely recommend reading it if you’re travelling Oman, the UAE or Saudi Arabia.

4. Celestial Bodies – Jokha Alharthi

Book cover - Celestial Bodies - Jokha Alharthi
Celestial Bodies – Jokha Alharthi
Image source: Tony Walsh, author of the Bradt guide for Oman
  • category: fiction
  • year: 2018 (translation by Marilyn Booth)
  • publisher: Sandstone Press
  • 320 pages

How great was it to find a novel by a female author from a country of which we couldn’t find many books about: Oman. More so as Celestial Bodies proved to be the Winner of the 2019 International Booker Prize. This novel sketches the lives of an Omani family and the complicated relations with its slaves across several generations. It is not only about the different views of man and women about life. But also about a rapidly urbanising country where village life is a world apart from the capital Muscat, and even further away from those countries Omani emigrate to for work. The number of characters can be a bit dazzling and needs attentive reading. But you will be rewarded by having had a unique – though fictional – insight in Oman’s family life.

5. Into the wild – Jon Krakauer

Book Cover - Jon Krakauer - Into the Wild
Into the wild – Jon Krakauer.
Image source: Bookshelf of Emily J.
  • category: non-fiction, literary journalism
  • year: 1997
  • publisher: Anchor Books
  • 207 pages

As we settled into somewhat of a work-at-home and stay-at-home covid-19 routine, we revisited one of our old favourites: Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. This book is on our personal Best Travel Books List. And while we still hold that this belongs there, re-reading the book gave us mixed feelings. The story about Chris McCandless’ journey beyond the borders of ‘normal’ society inspires us, and many with us, to dream about shedding of the burden’s of normality and reach beyond the horizon, to disappear of the radar.

Still, at one point this time, we did feel we got stuck when Krakauer suddenly writes about his own experiences and sometimes tends to go on and on about the details of and controversy surrounding McCandless death. Our memory of the book, of course strengthened by the Into the Wild movie, was much more about McCandless than it was about Jon Krakauer. Anyhow, also after 2020 this book should still be on everyone’s travel book list.

6. Again Two Epic Travel Books by Paul Theroux

Book Cover - The Pillars of Hercules - Paul Theroux

Pillars of Hercules – Paul Theroux

  • category: non-fiction, travel journal
  • year: 1996 & 2008
  • publisher: Ballantine Books & McClelland&Stewart
  • 509 & 496 pages

This year’s choice of Paul Theroux’ books for us were The Pillars of Hercules and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. These books, a little over ten years apart, are exactly what you would expect: a deliciously rambling Theroux one step after another meeting and observing people along the way.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star Theroux retraces his own steps of one of the books that make him break through as a travel writer: The Great Railway Bazaar. And he takes the opportunity to take new routes and of course new trains where he can. The big eyeopener of the book is how Theroux tells about the polishing over of the bad place he was in when writing the Great Railway Bazaar. In the end, the big lesson is that you always bring youself along in your travels.

The Pillars of Hercules

The Pillars of Hercules is a different book, not a train book. In this book Theroux aims to travel along the coast of all the Mediterranean. Much of the book is actually in Europe while the highlight of the book are his ramblings as he trots around on a Turkish cruiseboat also functioning as one of the few liners across the Eastern mediterranean. As an interesting crossover in this reading list of travel books, Theroux actually visits Orhan Pamuk on his trip – read more about Pamuk further below!

7. Three Books about Turkey

We had just booked our tickets for a roadtrip around Turkey when halfway March 2020 the reality of covid-19 set in and the world turned inward on itself. Our tickets got postponed and then cancelled. And we never got to Turkey in 2020. Still, we had already stacked up on books from or about Turkey. And that means there are no less than three books about Turkey on our 2020 travel books reading list. They are actually among the best we read this year! And the to-read-list of books about Turkey before we travel there is much longer still…

Birds without Wings – Louis de Bernière

Book Cover - Birds without Wings - Louis de Bernières
Birds without Wings – Louis de Bernières. Image source: Turning Pages with Trish
  • category: fiction, historical novel
  • year: 2004
  • publisher: Vintage
  • 554-779 pages depending on edition

Maybe my most impressive read of the year, Birds without Wings slowly unfolds as a coming of age story of two childhood friends. Surrounding them is a universe of credible and fascinating characters from the south coast of Turkey. And from mainstream Turkish history. Cultural borders between Greek, Turks, Christianity, Armenians and Islam are all blurred in the slow life of semi-fictional Eskibahçe village. Kids use secret signals of bird sounds on clay whistles to let each other know where they are. A mutilated vagrant lives in the caves above the village. Values based in honour lead to honour killings and banishment.

And then the Big World enters….

Far far away men decide about a population swap of so-called ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ inhabitants to settle a long-running border dispute. Enter right Mustafa Kemal who rises up and makes ‘Turkishness’ a desirable identity. The Ottoman Empire comes crashes down with a serious ripple across Anatolia.

Along the way, The Great War and ethnic conflict leave deep scars in the nation, but in this book particularly in the lives of the inhabitants of this peripheral village. The Gallipoli Campaign is viewed from a Turkish perspective, the stench from the frontline dripping from the pages. In the mean time, in heart wrenching scenes local Armenians from Eskibahçe are marched of to their death.

This book reads like historical fiction. Reading up on Turkish history for the first time, the book is not only a great read, it is also highly informative. But beware, it is not a history book. For the sake of a good story, De Bernières does twist history here and there. So check up on your historical facts with other sources before designating this book as historical truth.

Snow – Orhan Pamuk

Book cover - Orhan Pamuk - Snow
Snow – Orhan Pamuk
  • category: fiction, historical fiction
  • year: 2002, translation 2005
  • publisher: Vintage
  • 463 pages

As one of the last books I’ve read in 2020 this one is still fresh on my mind. But even if it was longer ago, I think Pamuk’s sketch of three days mid-winter in Kars, eastern Turkey would have still stayed with me. As the tragic poet Ka is snowed in in Kars, he gets involved with a local rebellion, a coup d’etat by a theatrical (literally) commander, a murder squad, the Kurdish resistance and the local radical Islamists.

Throughout Snow, Ka is annoyingly melancholic and very much an anti-hero as he dramatically falls in love with Ipek, daughter of an important local man, now hotel owner. Her sister is the leading figure of a movement that claims the right for girls and women to wear headscarves. Ka in the mean time starts of his visit by interviewing the families of ‘headscarf girls’ that committed suicide.

This book rolls on and on tackling big cultural issues of modern day Turkey against the backdrop of the gray city of Kars, made soft in appearance by a thick cover of Snow. The story is big and small at the same time. Pamuk is not for nothing the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature winner. Still, I can imagine the heavy style is not everyone’s cup of tea. I will try another book or two by Orhan Pamuk first before I’ll judge.

Last Train to Istanbul – Ayse Kulin

Book Cover- Last Train to Istanbul - Ayse Kulin
Last Train to Istanbul – Ayse Kulin.
Image Source: Shelly Fry
  • category: fiction, historical novel
  • year: 2002, translation 2006
  • publisher: Everest
  • 414 pages

Last Train to Istanbul was not what I expected. I’d been looking for books about Turkey before we would travel there. But more than a book about Turkey, this is a Turkish take on a piece of WW II history. The (to me) unknown story of this book is that of Jewish people of Turkish decent and their evacuation from nazi-overrun Europe. Not a travel read, but definitely recommended.

At the centre of the book is Selva who has broken away from her family after marrying a Jewish man, and is now stuck in nazi-Europe. Her attempt to come home and bring as many as people as possible makes for an intense and rewarding book, though not really a travel tale. Still, there is plenty to learn about Turkey here as well. For example about tense relations within families between longing for old values of the Ottoman era and modern times. And the book provides a bit of insight into the foreign policy of Turkey during WW II in the background of the main story. Quite interesting to read how and why it tried to remain neutral, squashed between the three major power blocks of Russia, the Nazi Germany – Italy alliance, and the Allied Forces with Britain in the lead.

8. Ghosts – Seinee Saowaphong

Book Cover - Ghosts - Seinee Saowaphong
Ghosts (‘Peesart’ in Thai) – Seinee Saowaphong
  • category: fiction
  • year: 1953-1954/1957, translation in 1999 by Marcel Barang
  • publisher: Thai Modern Classics
  • 208 pages

Together with the books Four Reigns and Sightseeing this book is one of the must-reads to get under the skin of Thailand. Where Four Reigns focuses on a narrative in the periphery of the monarchy and represents a conservative view of Thai soicety, the 1950s book Ghosts is from a completely different order. The book shows a raw image of a changing society where old values, muscle and corruption often wins.

But this novel is not only full of social engagement. It is also beautifully written and translated. The story is that of Sai Seema, a big city lawyer with roots in the countryside. He comes into conflict with od values and social hierarchy when he tries to settle land claims of small farmers in his homeland. In the meantime he is struggling to be taken seriously by the parents of his lover and try to envision a new future based on new, modern values. All of this makes for excellent reading. Highly recommended!

9. A Tourist in the Arab Spring – Tom Chesshyre

Book Cover - A Tourist in the Arab Spring - Tom Chesshyre
A Tourist in the Arab Spring – Tom Chesshyre
  • category: non-fiction, travel journal
  • year: 2013
  • publisher: Bradt Travels
  • 256 pages

This smoothly written travel journal is what it promises to be: a step by step account of a ‘tourist’ trip through Tunesia, Lybia and Egypt as they were just comnig out at the other end from the wave of people’s revolutions in 2011: the so-called Arab Spring, which started in winter time. We didn’t know Bradt published anything other than the travel guides, but if this book by Tom Chesshyre is what they do as well… They should publish more like this.

From bullet ‘mines’ at the former bunkers of Khadafi to the Roman and Greek ruins of Tunesia and Lybia, from Tahrir square to the grand pyramids of Egypt and partying Russians on the Sinai peninsula. A tourist gaze can be a disarming tool. With down to earth writing and an open mind chatting to everyone and their donkeys, Chesshyre took me along for the ride, and I am grateful for it.

10. Sans Famille (Alleen op de Wereld, Nobody’s Boy) – Hector Malot

book cover Hector Malot's original Sans Famille
Hector Malot’s original Sans Famille
  • category: fiction
  • year: 1878 (original in French)
  • publisher: Eugène Dentu, Paris
  • 537 pages

It felt a bit corny to pick up this old tale of a poor boy that was sold by his foster father to an itinerant artist, Vitalis. Or to list it on this 2020 travel books list…. And throughout the whole book I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was somewhat wasting my time reading this book. Still, I couldn’t really put the book down and kept reading in long hauls. In a sense it is a story about living outside society’s normal boundaries and about wandering.

The sob story of the book of course is well-known: of Rémi travelling around France with Vitals, always on the brink of starvation, at risk of being swindled and hopeful to be cared for by a loving family, if possible his birth parents. If you’ve never read it, or read it as a child, and you are looking for a bit of nostalgia, do pick this book up again. But don’t expect the best travel read you’ve ever come across.

Camels in Oman
Camels in Oman

Recap of our 2020 Travel Books List

I hope you’ve enjoyed our reading list of the past year! It was so important for us to get off our mobile phones and read a book. Then how do we look back on this year of reading? Our 2020 travel books list is still heavily populated by male authors. We’re trying to find female authors where we can. And the three that are on our list are definitely writers to keep in mind: Dervla Murphy, Jokha Alharthi and Ayse Kulin.

We are always balancing our reading between travel writers, with necessarily an outsiders’ perspective and writers native to the country we are reading about. Luckily there are more and more translations of good authors available.

For 2021 we hope to be travelling again and extend our 2020 reading list of travel books with much more page turners! What are you reading this year? Let us know!

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