Choosing the right book that can be the difference between a great holiday and a truly memorable one. A good travel book provides context for the things you see, and knits your experience into a wider story about the country. And it’s a reciprocal relationship. A book is so much better when you have a reference point for what author is describing – such as the comforting smell of palo santo wood, or the turquoise glow of Pacific reefs.
When researching books for my recent trip to the Galapagos, I had two criteria. Firstly, I wanted something that made me feel like an explorer: the best travel books haven’t just taught me things; they’ve given me tools to discover new things for myself. Secondly, they had to be short, or easy to read. I’m not a fast reader and I pack light, so I didn’t want any thousand-page tomes.
Of the titles I settled on; one is fiction, one historical and one scientific, giving three very different view of the country. Ecuador is a diverse and wonderful place, with plenty of history, culture and personal stories to discover. These books helped me to dive into that world; I hope they do the same for you.
By Kurt Vonnegut
Image source: harpercollins.co.uk
Vonnegut’s book is about an unlikely group of strangers who end up trapped on the Galapagos whilst the rest of the world is in turmoil. The majority of the story is set in a hotel lobby in Guayaquil, but I chose this book because Vonnegut’s descriptions of the Galapagos really capture their profound strangeness. Such as how the animals got there in the first place – it’s still a bit of a mystery. The Galapagos are too young to have split off from the mainland, and a thousand kilometres is a long way for an animal to float by accident. And yet here we are. Science suggests that the current inhabitants arrived on reed-beds that drifted in from the mainland. That sounds sensible when you read it on Wikipedia, but until I read it in a novel, I didn’t appreciate how improbable that is. It makes their existence all the more special.
Reading facts in the context of a story helps imbue a sense of wonder that you mightn’t get from reading them online. This book is loaded with little titbits on the Galapagos’ history and wildlife, so it’s a great way to passively learn about the islands whilst enjoying a good yarn.
Ecuador – Portrait of a People
by Albert B. Franklin
Image source: Amazon.com
Here’s a recommendation you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. I came across this title as a footnote in a travel guide, and was surprised to find it hardly existed online. When I asked around, I found only one person who’d heard of it: a Salvadorian friend told me it had been on her family bookshelf when she was younger.
Albert B. Franklin was a American living in Ecuador in the 1930s and 40s, and was very much inducted into the rhythms of daily life. His book is a journey through the country by land and boat, with stories from the people he meets along the way. Whether that be the wife of a wealthy land-owner who’s been usurped by a younger mistress, or an American engineer working for a mining project up-river. Through each of these individual stories, Franklin weaves a comprehensive tapestry of life in Ecuador, covering both the plight of the individual, and the nation’s political battles.
As someone who lived in Ecuador, Franklin writes this book not just as an account of his daily life, but as a love letter to his temporary home. He sets a good example for how a curious traveller might uncover this Ecuador’s cultural riches, not just in the 1930s, but in the present day as well. So I recommend you grab a copy of this book if you can find one.
On natural Selection
by Charles Darwin
Image source: Penguin.co.uk
Only the most determined or fanatical naturalists are likely to get through The Origin of Species – Darwin’s seminal book on evolution, not renowned for its brevity. But there’s good news for the rest of us. Penguin Publishing do an abridged version, featuring only the best bits, and totalling less than a quarter of the original’s pages. It’s still Darwin’s original words, but where there was once a tangent on geology or husbandry, there’s now a modest […] symbol.
Darwin’s theories are simple and powerful, and you certainly don’t need to read this book to get them. But what you will get from this book is an appreciation of Darwin’s incredible knowledge of the natural world, demonstrated by his countless anecdotes and examples. These examples help you to find your own examples in nature, so that you can start to see the patterns of natural selection for yourself. In that way, the book fulfils my first criteria – it gives you the tools to discover the wildlife for yourself, making you feel like an explorer.
Though it’s short, it’s still at times a slow read, but since it’s only 100 pages you don’t have to slog much before finding something inspiring. Because the book is small, you can work through it in mouthfuls - it can be kept in the back pocket, ready to be deployed in an airport queue, ferry terminal, or taxi seat.
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