The Beach – Alex Garland
The movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio is pretty decent but the book is way better. This is a book that is great at depicting backpackers and their search for an unexplored paradise or land off of the beaten backpacker trail. The novel’s narrator, Richard, thinks he’s finally found that piece of unknown paradise but in the end ultimately realizes it was all an illusion.
The story’s backdrop is Thailand and Alex Garland does a great job of making you feel like you’re right there on the island. It’s generally an awesome read for anyone heading to SE Asia or just looking for a great tale about backpacking.
The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, And One Unexpected Adventure – Rachel Friedman
One of the first books that really made me realize a life of travel and adventure was possible was this book. The memoir is about Rachel, the quintessential “good girl,” who has done everything right in her life until she decides to randomly spend a summer in Ireland at the age of 20, completely freaking her parents out, of course.
Rachel’s story begins there but takes the reader throughout three continents as she becomes friends with a girl from Australia who makes Rachel realize the standard 9-5 American lifestyle isn’t so standard where she’s from.
The book is encouraging, insightful, and very humorous at times and is a great book for anyone thinking of embarking on a trip alone. Rachel’s tale of adventure gave me the strength to know that the upcoming international trip (my first alone) would be filled with uncertainty and struggle but well worth the hassle and filled with reward.
Wild: From Lost To Found On The Oregon Trail – Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed had just lost everything. Her mother’s recent death left her family torn and scattered across the country and Cheryl was heading towards her own impending divorce. With nothing to lose at this point Cheryl decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail completely alone, despite having no previous hiking or trail experience.
The trail took her through the Mojave Desert in California to the Sierra Mountains, through Oregon and Washington State. It’s an incredible tale of struggle and survival and an honest piece of writing that looks at both the loneliness and beauty of traveling alone.
For anyone who seeks travel out as a way to heal themselves this is a great book to pick up.
Behind The Beautiful Forevers – Life, Death, And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity – Katherine Boo
Unlike the other books on this list this isn’t a feel good story. In fact, it’s quite the opposite but it’s an important read of narrative non-fiction especially for anyone thinking of traveling to India.
Katherine Boo tells the story of those living in the Annawadi slum over the course of four years. There are three ways out of the slum: education, politics, or an entrepreneurial niche (like scavengingfor scrap metal). It’s a brutal existence for the underclass and an eye opening look at how they try to survive and get ahead in a 21st-century economy.
While this book will make you feel horrified over the daily struggles you’ll also find inspiration from the hope that resonates in each character and how strongly they believe they will eventually rise to middle class. Even if you have no plans to venture to India this book is a page turner and one that will make you think differently about your own travels to underdeveloped countries and the locals you meet on your journey.
Dark Star Safari: Overland From Cairo To Cape Town – Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux is by far one of the greatest travel writers of our time but I never knew that until I found this book at a used bookstore in Chicago one afternoon. This travel memoir recounts Paul’s time traveling from Cairo to Cape Town in 2000 by rattletrap bus, armed convoy, ferry, train, and more. 35 years previously he had worked in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer and finds the continent worse off than when he had last visited.
As he attempts to understand the current state of Africa he talks to everyone from Africans to aid workers, local guides and missionaries and writes incredible reflections on what he experiences. Paul is very opinionated about the AIDS work that is being done and questions the legitimacy of it all.
The only problem with this book is how Paul tries to play off as being a budget traveler but he isn’t above helicopter rides, drinking champagne in his private train compartment, or eating gourmet meals. He has a holier than thou attitude and his narrative comes off as a bit condescending at times. Regardless, this is an informative and highly detailed, entertaining read.