Travelling around the world is best accompanied with a reading partner. I’m talking about books, of course. And this is a backpacker’s dilemma. They don’t fit in your millimetrically packed backpack, especially if you’re an avid reader. But if you’re into books, you’re probably into the pleasure of leafing through pages and sensing the smell of old and rusty paper. An ebook is useful, yes, but…

This Christmas spent far from home I’ve read a 2003 copy of Norman Mailer’s ‘The Deer Park’. Its decoloured paper, the inexplicable age of the book itself and the place where I found it, a cute and chilled out hostel near the river in Ayutthaya, Thailand, made it a very special anonymous Xmas present. I found it by chance there, and in my mother tongue… he’s one of my favourite authors, so what where the chances?

The solution is, again, aligned with your travels. You discover new authors and an infinity pool of titles. The world is too big to see, and the same applies to books. The world is too big to read. So there is no right choice, not a single shortlist, that could encapsulate the perfect lines to capture a country and also your taste.

A man looking for books in Brighton, England. Photography by Clem Onojeghuo

The richness of book exchanges

So, as a backpacker, you’ll probably wander around with a pocket sized book. Once its finished, you’ll go to the reserved shelve of your hostel that features the rich and unpredictable universe of book exchanging. This is, precisely, a very personal way to complement your visits to any country in the world.

In my case, I always try to find a novel about the countries I will visit. Without being too straightforward, you’ll get a sneak peak on whatever place you are discovering. You’ll see a lush green field in Vietnam and stare incredulously into the beauty of it. That could’ve been the shit field, the place where a US soldier lost his life swarmed by a thunderstorm and a river of human sewage. Hey man, what the hell are you talking about now?

Let me explain. In my month in Vietnam I had the time to read two novels. One of them was Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’. That’s where the anecdote of the shit field struck me. I was seeing a gorgeous scenery, but you can’t understand a place like Vietnam without knowing these revolting details that a book can offer.

Reading books in a coffee shop in Ubud, Bali. Photography by Guille Álvarez

Another example. What’s the point of visiting Cambodia without knowing its recent history? That’s irresponsible and unfortunate, and I’ve already met a lot of foreigners that actually thought that Angkor Wat was Siem Riep’s number one pub (which it is if you actually spell it right: Angkor What?)

My RTW trip has a land route and then a cloud route conformed by books. It started in El Prat, Barcelona. I didn’t have any distractions for the plane, so I had to go with a quick fix that introduced me to Andrea Camilleri and his Inspector Montalbano. I bought the book because I knew it would be my bargain coin for future reads.

Montalbano, a huge character in Italy, lasted until halfway Malaysia and I quite enjoyed it. I then read something I have forgotten, which probably means it wasn’t worth it. That book made it to Cambodia, and I remember I was in a remote area of Koh Rong when I found a cool beach hut with a book exchange shelf in it. Yes, books appear in the weirdest places. There I found my first Vietnam novel. It was a war novel, because what else could they talk about after 20 years of conflict? ‘The Sorrow of War’, written by Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese Army veteran, painted a harsh and blunt reality of Vietnam’s past and, for that fact, the Southeast Asian region, since most countries suffered from similar conflicts.

I was in Cambodia at that time, a country where one fourth of the population perished in a few years of brutality under the Khmer Rouge regime. There I watched the excellent portrait movie called ‘The Killing Fields’, based on the book by the same name written by Christopher Hudson. Films are also a good way to introduce more thoughts about a country in your mind, now that I think about it.

Cambodia's Killing Fields are featured in a great amount of books on the country. Photography by Guille Álvarez

Anyways, I’m not gonna take much longer, since I’ve already made my point today. Books are always relevant, books always broaden your mind and, most importantly, since this is a travel magazine, books also have the magic ability to take you to new places.

So if you’re home now, daydreaming of your own worldwide adventure, you might as well find a good bookshop and look for writers of diverse nationalities. You will discover great literature and you will visit new places, even when you’re unable to flee your reality.

The next time you catch a plane, don’t forget to pack your books.