My love affair with books

Wanderlust Blog of the Week award

I’ve been very generously given files of books to read on my computer. I’ve got all the classics – from Carroll to Chekhov and from Kipling to Dickens; I’ve got all the titles by my favourite author, E M Forster; I’ve got poetry by all the greats, too.

I’d been desperate for a good read for a while, as English-language books are sparse in South America. I came from England last year with a ration of two books that I managed to stretch out over a few months, but by the time I hit Argentina, I was in need of a novel. The bookshops of Buenos Aires had small sections of ‘Pocket Books’– a euphemism for English books – but my eyes scanned and scanned the spines to see nothing but modern trash written by unknown authors. Finally, on a dusty hostel bookcase, I scavenged a 1986 copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. A young Meryl Streep’s face peering out from the cover reminded me I had seen the film version years back, and somewhat enjoyed it, so the book must be worth a go.

The battered book stayed wedged down the side of my backpack as a mammoth voyage across the continent ensued. When I finally settled in Cusco, had time to unpack, and even more time to sit and read, I at long last opened the cover of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and turned those first, delightfully aged and yellowed pages. I brought the book up to my nose and drank in the musty smell from the antiquated paper. And I settled down into what was to be one of the best stories I’ve read.

Would I have enjoyed it half as much if I read it on my odourless, clinical laptop screen? I don’t think so.

Since bookless, I have made several attempts to start reading my favourite books from their computer files – A Room with a View, Howard’s End, Through the Looking Glass, Wordsworth’s poems. But something just isn’t quite right.

Of all the books I have read in my life, I can remember the physical book as well as – or even as part of – the actual story. I remember my 1970s series of Famous Five books that lined my childhood bookcase; the big old hardback copy of Peter Pan and Wendy with its colour plates; and then I remember my first borrowed copy of Wuthering Heights; and, for me, A Room with a View will always be associated with a sturdy hardback borrowed from the library that I got sand between all the pages as I read it on the beach one summer between college years.

So now I have a vast digital library full of great books, but will I ever read them? I suspect not in that form.

No, not for me the Kindle, iPad or any other electronic device to read my stories; no, I’m going to wait for the next crumpled, fusty tome abandoned on a shelf and with which I can delve deliciously into another time, another place.

Rachel with The French Lieutenant's Woman in Cusco

Rachel with The French Lieutenant’s Woman in Cusco

 

This post appeared as Wanderlust’s blog of the week.

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Montevideo: Expert travel guides

I spent nearly six weeks in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, so you could say I’m something of an expert on the city. I have written a series of guides to the city for Stanfords’ travel blog – Montevideo: A cultural guideMontevideo cafe guide and 11 quirky things to do in Montevideo.

Montevideo's old city gate

Montevideo’s old city gate

The walk that didn’t know it was happening until it did

Originally written by hand at 3.35pm, sitting by a stream at the side of a field.

It’s Friday night back in London. My friends there are heading out to pubs in the city for a night of drinking. I headed out with my book and notebook to sit somewhere quiet in the afternoon sunshine to read and write.

Urubamba doesn’t have many quiet or green spaces – apart from the cemetery – which, nice as it is and as comfortable as I am being around the dead, I fancied being around life on this glorious day.

So I started walking.

I walked to the edge of town, past the cemetery; the road turns to dust here. I walked past the foot of the first mountain outside the town. I walked past schoolchildren on their long trudges home. I walked through the next village. I walked ever upwards past farmers’ fields and nearer the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the Cordillera Urubamba that cut off the end of this valley.

I stopped to sit down in the shade by the roadside and a curious bull appeared on the other side of the road to look at me. I carried on, ever upwards. I stopped to eat the bread and cheese I’d bought in Urubamba. I stopped in another village to buy a 70c bottle of Kola Real. I stopped to write this.

Somehow the mountains have lured me to keep walking along the dusty, stony road in the beating sun, with quite a heavy rucksack full of books. I don’t know for how long or how far I will go, but I do know this must be complete and true freedom as any human being can expect to obtain in this life.

No one knows where I am or what I’m doing, apart from the country folk I pass. I can walk at the exact speed I wish. I can stop when I want. I can smile and greet anyone I care to. I can go on walking as long as I feel like it. I can return home and no one will ever know what I did and what I saw unless I want them to.

Unless I type this up and share it with you.

Urubamba's cemetery

Urubamba’s cemetery

The bull that looked into my soul

The bull that looked into my soul

The mountain valley with children on swing

The mountain valley with children on swing

Walking back

Walking back

Me

Me

Finding paradise

When I talk with friends back home, I get very much the feeling that they’re saying, “Oh you’re alright, you’re out there”. There’s a notion that because I’m in a tropical country a million miles from home, I haven’t got a care in the world. When, in fact, my problems came with me, and if anything they are more lucid. I am completely alone with nothing but them for company in a strange and unknown land. At home my friends have the comforts and securities of the people and places they understand and love all around them; out here it’s just me and my backpack.

Someone dear dying of cancer; the relationship with someone special that I started not long enough before I left, not knowing where it will go from here; my mum entering her 60s; my nan entering her 90s; the unsatisfying career that I need to change; the insecurities and fears that plague my mind…they’re all still here, no matter what amazing sights I might see and exotic experiences I might have.

I remember reading Alain de Botton’s take on this in his brilliant book, The Art of Travel, that I studied at university. When we imagine paradise, he said, we don’t imagine that our minds will be there too.

A couple of years ago I travelled for three weeks with friends in Costa Rica, leaving at home a boyfriend with whom I knew, deep down – though didn’t admit it – that our six-year relationship was breaking. Giving us some time apart, I thought, would help us. Looking back now, I think I knew the relationship was already over, as during the entire trip, I had an overwhelming foreboding feeling. Sitting on a Caribbean beach for the first time, my heart was heavy with memories of him and I on a tropical shore during the intoxicatingly happy early days of our relationship. At dusk, I felt panicked at the long hours of darkness ahead without him. The deeper into the luscious jungle of the country we travelled, the more I wanted to turn back, to him, to us. Now, when people ask if I liked Costa Rica, I say no. But I know it’s not the country’s fault, it’s just sometimes no amount of palm-fringed beaches, jungle canopy tours and baby sloths can help how you feel inside.

So now I will go back outside into the sun, look up and smile at the mountains surrounding me, wander down a colonial street, eat and drink whatever I want for lunch, whenever I want to take lunch, catch a bus to somewhere else if I fancy, but don’t think for one minute that I don’t have anything to worry about.

My bike on a lonely Costa Rica beach

My bike on a lonely Costa Rica beach