A Traveling Bibliophile

I would consider myself something of a ‘bibliophile’—someone who loves books. My personal library takes up many bookshelves (and boxes) and I can’t say for certain these days how many of the books of that collection have yet to be read. I try never to travel without a book. Back in the days before e-readers, this meant I would normally carry 1-5 books with me on any vacation, certain that I would finish them. Sometimes I’d have to buy more books while on a trip since I would inevitably run out of things to read!

Peter Dutton on Flickr

Back when I was studying abroad in France, I didn’t even bring a book. (Or if I did, I cannot remember it!) My “reading for fun” in France consisted of reading Harry Potter books in French that one of my friends loaned me with my dictionary and notebook handy so that I could translate unknown words and phrases. As it turns out, this is far trickier when the book involves made-up words to begin with. While I love Harry Potter and it was a great way to practice reading French, it made reading seem like homework. I craved English words.

 As I sought out books in English with a ferocity normally reserved for cake and ice cream, I found myself downloading PDFs to read on my computer. This made for an unpleasant reading experience due to the bright screen and constant scrolling. I sometimes would change the settings so that the screen would rotate and I’d hold my laptop on my lap as if it were a massive, brightly-lit book.

Needless to say, as I kept reading books in PDF form on my computer and searched for English books in the local bookstore, I decided that I should get a Kindle before I traveled next. The thought of having multiple books with me was appealing, especially if I could collect my favorites into a portable version of my real-life library.

When I came back to the States, a Kindle went on my wish list almost immediately. I didn’t get one until around the time I graduated from high school almost a year later, and promptly downloaded several books from Project Gutenberg. That summer found me traveling often– road trips, plane rides, and more road trips. Sean Kelly on Flickr

While I brought some books with me on one of those road trips (and when I say “I”, I mean my dad brought some books which I borrowed to read during the long car rides), they did not last long. Without my Kindle, I would be stuck re-reading the same book over and over, or buying a new book when we stopped somewhere. While that would be somewhat tolerable if we were driving everywhere, I had a few flights in between trips. I’m one of those travelers who attempts to avoid checking baggage, and not carrying around a bunch of books is necessary to this. I read too quickly to bring a single book, even if it is one of those books that is more like a brick than paper.

Later on that summer, my Kindle proved itself as a versatile travel accessory. At a state park in Maine on a rainy and chilly night, my family retreated to the tent just as I finished the second of three books in a series. I was desperate to read the next. The state park happened to have WiFi that I could access from the tent, though the presence of WiFi at a state park seems hilarious and rather pointless. Instant gratification and a few more hours of entertainment were the strangest and best things at the time. That book lasted me through the rest of the trip.

I love my Kindle all the time, but I especially love it when I travel. While I love the feel of real books, the smell, the texture of them… my Kindle makes reading easy and convenient. I love being able to download a book immediately, try out new authors (check out Pixel of Ink for deals!), and being able to download classics for free. I tend to stock up on books I want or love when they’re on sale, so I rarely pay more than $6 for a book.

I rarely read just one book at a time, so being able to switch between classics, random free books, and old favorites like the Harry Potter series with a few clicks makes reading more accessible. I never have to worry that I’ll run out of books. The battery lasts so long that I have rarely encountered the problem of the battery dying on me. I don’t have to make decisions about what books to take or leave for trips or worry that I’ll be stuck without a book, bored and craving words or entertainment. Best of all, I am never far away home– these familiar stories have been with me for so long that reading them again, even on a screen, is a homecoming.

How do you feel about e-readers? Do you have a favorite book to read while traveling?

Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global. 

Travel Snobbery

Recently, a friend shared an article titled “Your Wanderlust Is Inauthentic: The Real Difference Between Travel And Vacation”. While the article made some good points, those are shrouded in what I can only describe as Travel Snobbery. To the author, there is only one right way to travel, and doing otherwise cheapens the experience and makes it into a “vacation”, which has little merit.

For the author, vacations are trips of privilege. These are all-inclusive trips to a resort somewhere tropical and thus, exotic and worthy of bragging about. Vacations do not include public transportation or wandering very far. Vacations are experiences without culture shock or immersion. Because of this, “vacations” and “authentic” travel experiences are two completely different things.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Vacations are not separate from travel experiences.

The definition of “authentic” travel provided in the article seems to exempt the sort of tourist activities that can be an essential part of a trip. In the article, “authentic” travel experiences should be a quest to deviate from “the beaten path” and “search for the elusive history of a country and its people”. If learning the history of a place is your goal, it is not so elusive. People usually want to share their culture with you in ways that are accessible to many. Culture is preserved and shared in many ways– in museums with signs and souvenirs, in brochures at the local tourist office, and guidebooks to name a few. Those are all touristy, but no less important.

Meaningful travel should not keep you from experiencing the well-known, “brag-worthy” marvels of the world. In Rome, does “authentic” travel demand that you skirt the Coliseum to avoid the inevitable touristy atmosphere that surrounds it? Or do you make two trips to Rome? One should be a “vacation” where you stay at a ritzy hotel and travel by taxi to all the Meaningless Touristy Spots. The “authentic” experience would demand a stay in a hostel without air conditioning and stumbling your way through small talk “conversations” in jumbled Italian, walking down alleys that hold neighborhood pizza places, and wasting sleepy afternoons in streets that kind of all look the same. Are you “enlightened” about Italy based on these superficial experiences of Italian culture?

Any experience of foreign culture is based on your perspective as an outsider. An American in Rome will never have the same experience as an Italian who grew up there. Travel allows you to return home with a more well-rounded view of yourself and the culture in which you grew up. It is arrogant to suggest that your presence in another country can in any way impact that country more because you avoided the “touristy” things. Tourists make impacts on countries, especially economically, that are undeniably significant. On a smaller scale, people make connections to each other while traveling, be it through couch surfing at a local’s house or showing kindness to the cleaning person at your hotel.

Experiencing culture can take many forms wherever you visit, and “culture” is not something to be worn like costume. It is not simple, disposable, or made for a traveler to experience. Culture is complex and includes the traditions, beliefs, mannerisms, art, and history of a place or of a people. You will not become part of the culture where you are merely a visitor, no matter how much you try to act like a local.

People go to Paris to see and experience French culture. While it is certainly not representative of all of French culture, in avoiding the tourist attractions, you are missing out on that very culture. By not visiting the Louvre, you are missing out on seeing the masterpieces of French artists, not to mention all the other masterpieces that are collected there. In avoiding the Eiffel Tower (which would be quite a feat), you are missing out on a wonder of engineering. You are missing out on a story that is a part of France’s history.

The beaten path includes some of the most beautiful views and cultural landmarks. While the back roads might give you a glimpse into the life of the people that live in a city, it does not make you part of that city. The laundry hanging from the windows, the overgrown plants in window boxes—those cannot tell you the story of a country and of a people in the same way that their art can. That brief glimpse cannot tell you the history of a proud nation.

There is no right or wrong way to see the world or visit new places. Travel should enrich your life, whether you are visiting a beach you have been to a thousand times or a city that you have only dreamed about.  While it is wonderful if your travels enable you to see the world and people more complexly, traveling with the intention of leaving as a different person is incredibly limiting. Simply allowing yourself to experience and enjoy your trip is enriching on its own, regardless of how much exposure you get to the everyday experiences of the inhabitants.

To the author of the original article, I respect and understand your passion. It is wonderful that the way you travel makes you happy and provides you with enriching experiences. But your experiences aren’t the only valid traveler experiences. Everyone’s experiences are valid, whether or not you choose to travel off the beaten path or if you stick to what is safe and commonly visited. People travel for themselves and will find their own way. Many of them come back with their own passion and a case of wanderlust that is more than just a passing trend.

(Thanks to my friend Laura for helping me with this blog post! Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global.)