Books! Travelers share what to read on the road

There’s nothing like a trip for catching up on your reading. Even if you’ve filled your schedule with dawn-to-dusk sightseeing, there are still quiet moments at the hotel or by the pool, not to mention those long flights. So what’s best to read while traveling? On Saturday I’m heading to Harar, Ethiopia, for two months, so this has been on my mind. I asked a bunch of seasoned travelers what’s in their pack. Their suggestions fall into several overlapping categories.

Most agree it’s best to bring books you don’t feel the need to bring back. Not only does this give you a chance to pick up something unexpected at a book exchange, it also frees up space for souvenirs. You can also give reading material away, as Catherine Bodry explains, “I always treat myself to magazines at the airport (People, Runners World, Oxygen, Nat Geo Traveler, etc.) and I usually stockpile a few issues of the New Yorker from the weeks prior to a trip. They also make great gifts if I’m headed to a censored country like China!”

Some people go for light, unchallenging reads. Annie Scott Riley says, “I’ll finish anything I’m already reading; usually fiction, but anything I start on vacation has to be just for fun. For example, the Chelsea Handler books, anything Dave Barry, Chuck Klosterman. I guess I like some pop culture commentary to assess what I’m getting away from.”

Many well-heeled travelers bring books that teach them about the places they’ll see. Mike Barish says, “While in Hawaii earlier this month, I read Blue Latitudes about Cook’s voyages in the Pacific Islands.” Laurel Kallenbach says, “It can be nice to read Yeats in Ireland, Shakespeare in England. I lived for a few weeks in the French village of Ferney-Voltaire, so I read Voltaire’s Candide there–and then toured the author’s castle.”

Many people like to have a variety of books. Mary Jo Manzanares finds her ereader handy. “Before leaving I load it up with a bunch of books from a variety of genres, then I can pick and choose what to ready while on the road. I like a variety of reading–something light for the airplane or on the beach (a mystery or chick lit), something historical when I’m on site, and I can also read blogs, magazines, and newspapers on it as well. Last year while staying in the middle of a vineyard in Tuscany I saw that one of my favorite authors had just released his new book–just a minute later I was able to download and read it. Best of all, I can take all this reading with me and take up no space at all.”Small
With ever-increasing baggage fees, it’s best to bring something small. I prefer mass-market paperbacks, leaving the hefty hardbacks at home. Like Manzanares, Gadling cruise correspondent Chris Owen saves space with ebooks. “On cruises, we read a book a day so long sailings required separate luggage just for the books. iPads changed all that, especially now that our local public library offers books online too.”

So what’s in my pack?
English language books are in limited supply where I’m going, and many tend to be foreign imports at Western prices, so I’m bringing a two-month supply. They are:

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad: A thick, fast-paced classic in a mass market edition that I can leave behind. I can always find another copy.

Eating the Flowers of Paradise: A Journey through the Drug Fields of Ethiopia and Yemen by Kevin Rushby: A fascinating study of qat, the drug of choice in the Horn of Africa. It’s impossible to understand the culture without understanding qat.

The Bible: I’m an agnostic, but as a professional historian I can’t ignore one of the most influential books ever written. I haven’t read it for more than a decade so it’s due for a reread, especially since I’ll be spending most of my time in a Muslim town. Muslims read the Bible too, and I just reread the Koran last year.

Thus Spake Prophet Muhammad: These selections from the Hadith are in a tiny little edition I picked up in India. It can’t hurt to brush up on my knowledge of Islam if I’m going to live in a Muslim town.

Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre: Hararis are a philosophical bunch, and I rarely pick up this sort of heavy reading when I’m at home working. I’m sure someone over there will want it when I’m done.

The Best Stories and Tales of Leo Tolstoy: This is actually an Ethiopian edition I picked up when I was last in Harar. I’m nearly done with it but I want to give it to a friend.

Articles about Harari history and culture: I printed some of these out and have dozens of them on a thumb drive if I want to print out any at an Internet cafe. I also made copies onto two CDs for some Harari friends.

Amharic dictionary and phrasebook

Brandt Guide to Ethiopia

What do you bring to read on the road? Share your bookish habits in the comments section!

Five facts about vacation relaxation: boys drink, girls read and nobody sleeps

Everyone has a different approach to relaxation. Aside from the major activities at a destination, like hitting the beach or wandering the city, there are the things we do back at the room that help us unwind. What you do when your feet are up, however, differs for men and women … shocking, right?

According to the “Relaxation Report,” by Princess Cruises:

1. Men drink, women read: 32 percent of women read to relax, compared to only 18 percent of men. Liquor, on the other hand, appeals to 25 percent of men and only 15 percent of women as the top relaxation option. The story, in USA Today, also indicates that men will take beer over wine, at 41 percent to 27 percent, with women usually opting to sip wine instead of beer (45 percent to 27 percent).

2. Nobody likes bits and bytes: 97 percent of respondents to the Princess Cruises survey, 97 don’t hit the web as their primary way to relax, with 87 percent eschewing television for this purpose. Keep in mind, however, that this is only as the “primary” way to relax: it doesn’t mean people unplug when they get away.3. Sleeping sucks: 55 percent would rather get up early than sleep late when they’re on vacation. Men are more likely than women to do this, at a rate of 58 percent to 51 percent. I get the reasoning on this: you want to maximize your time at your destination!

4. Natural water is best: 67 percent of respondents like to chill at the beach, with 26 percent thinking a pool is better. This really doesn’t blow me away: beaches are far better.

5. Schedules are unacceptable: do you prefer a set itinerary? Well, you’re in the minority – 60 percent would rather take it easy and see what the vacation gives them.

Swap shelves in airport bookstores – Airplane tip

I’ve been noticing swap shelves in airport bookstores lately. Store owners are starting to encourage frequent fliers to leave a book and take a book. This helps you get fresh reading material for free (or cheap) and lightens your load of a book you’re done with.

A few airports, like Portland International, have used bookstores where someone has undoubtedly just sold back that bestseller you wanted, and you can pick it up for less than full price.

Alternatively, check out The Paradies Shops: they let you return a book you bought within 6 months and receive half your money back.

[Photo: Flickr | jrodmanjr]

Travel Read: Culture Smart! Ethiopia

I’m headed to Ethiopia soon and I’m busy reading everything I can get my hands on about the country. Thus I eagerly picked up a copy of Culture Smart! Ethiopia. The Culture Smart! series offers insights into the customs and cultures of dozens of different countries. As a first-timer to sub-Saharan Africa I hoped to get lots of insight into a very different world.

Sadly, I didn’t.

The book’s main problem is its brevity–168 small-format, illustrated pages. This means pretty much every section is superficial. For example, in the “Ethiopia’s Cultures” section, the Amhara, Gurage, Oromo, and Tigray, making up two-thirds of Ethiopia’s 79 million people, get one paragraph each. The rest of the country’s numerous and varied cultures are lumped into a single short paragraph. In these thumbnail sketches we’re treated to such statements as, “Gurage people are traders and know the value of money.” Perhaps this is true for a large number of individuals, but it’s simplistic to the point of stereotyping.

The space problem is made worse through frequent repetition and bland statements. In the two-page section on children we learn that parents want them to be educated and will send them to private school if they can afford it, hardly a startling revelation. What we don’t learn is how to interact with children. Do we shake their hand? Kiss them? Tousle their hair? All of these actions are acceptable in some cultures and considered odd or even insulting in others. Is it OK to play with them? Bring them gifts if their parents invite us to their homes? Are boys and girls treated differently? Behaving correctly with children is one of the best ways to do well in a foreign culture, and messing this up is one of the easiest ways to cause offense.

The book is made worse by occasional mistakes and typos. The Italians didn’t “misinterpret” the 1889 Treaty of Wuchale, leading to the Battle of Adwa in 1896, they deliberately mistranslated it in an attempt to gain control over Ethiopia’s foreign affairs. And titling the section on Eritrea “A Thorn in Ethiopia’s Side” is unnecessarily provocative and ignores the numerous periods when the two regions have been united.

Other sections can be quite good despite the space constraints. The sections on driving and doing business in Ethiopia provide a useful primer. Also, there’s enough basic information in the book as a whole that someone who hasn’t done any other reading would find it of value. So if you’re only going to read one book besides your guidebook, you might want to give this a try. But if you’re serious about being “culture smart”, you’ll be reading a lot more than that.

Have you used a Culture Smart! guide? Tell us what you think of them in the comments section.

Photo of the Day (12-9-09)

This photo titled “Peace” by jrodmanjr, the fellow who took it, is a lovely depiction of an alley away from the hubbub of a city. As he noted, time away from the souks in Dubai, the city with the tallest building in the world, was well needed.

In the comment section, he also gives details about why he framed the shot the way that he did. If he had moved the camera to the right, “the bright clutter, crates, and trinkets ended up to be too much of a distraction. “

As it is, we become the witness to the life of a man who reads in quiet repose.

If you have captured a quiet moment of repose, or any other sort of moment, send it our way at Gadling’s Flickr photo pool, It might be chosen as a Photo of the Day