Books, The Real Ones

I love to read and I read constantly. Every single day I’ll try at the very least to read the headlines and maybe a few stories from my staple sources such as Al Jazeera (English version), BBC, NY Times and The Bangkok Post. Oh, and sometimes I might look at CNN if I’m curious what front page headline worthy story there is about Lindsey Lohan’s latest social escapades — you know, real world news. Of course I would be burdened with 10 kilos of paper every morning if I actually subscribed to and had these delivered to my home, so unfortunately most of my daily reading is done online. However, I do actually have a physical copy of the NY Times with me most days thanks to my employer’s subscription. Yes, I do the crosswords. No, I can’t always finish them, but sometimes I do.

One of my favourite things when traveling is to grab a local newspaper from the city I’m in and start from the first word on page one and read through to the last word on the last page. I’ll occasionally even grab newspapers printed in Korean, Spanish, Italian, Thai, Nepali or Hindi if I see them just to look at the different symbols and languages, especially Asian languages. Silly? Maybe. But I like it so I do it. At least the Spanish ones I can read through for the most part. I love different perspectives on familiar stories and hopefully I never find myself thinking in the horribly narrow views as seen through the filtered eyes of US news sources.

So yes, I love to read and yes, a lot of what I read is online simply because I cannot get my hands on the physical publications of the things I like to read. I unfortunately haven’t seen too many Al Jazeera newspaper boxes outside of Starbucks or Amante Coffee here in Colorado.

The one place I haven’t compromised the physical element of my reading materials is with books, especially when traveling. As cutting edge and convenient as friends and advertisers make it out to be, I just can’t acquiesce and procure a Kindle, iPad or Tablet (or whatever the gadget de jour is), even with the knowledge that it can store hundreds, if not thousands of books in one tidy little place. Efficient? Yes. Almost cost effective? Possibly. Appealing? No.

Now, as I’m making ready to set off for more far away travel in the coming weeks, I find myself looking for books to help me while away the hours during the mind numbing hours of flight time. As such, I’ve been collecting a few books to take along. I know some people can turn up at the airport fifteen minutes before departure and dash into an overpriced newsstand and grab a crappy novel with Fabio on the cover and a stack of those excessively cerebral celebrity gossip magazines and  be satisfied.

I’m not one of those people. I have to put thought into my reading materials and I’ll honestly spend weeks thinking about what I want to read during my travel time. I’ll spend hours querying my friends from all over the world, researching topics and endlessly perusing the shelves of my local bookstore (non-chain store, thank you Boulder Bookstore). The hunt for the perfect book is just as gratifying to me as reading it.

When my friend Jason and I were cavorting about Southeast and South Asia last year, we’d invariably find our way into bookstores regardless of city, languages offered or size of shop. The more off the beaten path, the better. We both love bookstores for the same reasons and the ones with international offerings are preferable.

I know for a fact there was never a day in two months where we didn’t have at least two paperback books in our backpacks. Similarly, there was never a day that passed where we weren’t sitting late into an evening writing in our journals or reading a book by headtorch or candle. One of the best of those memories came from high in the Himalaya when we were lying in our sleeping bags in our tiny, sparsely furnished teahouse room, eating dark chocolate KitKat, reading by headtorch with the silhouette of some impossibly huge, moonlit peak just outside our window.

Some of the best shops were in obscure villages in rural Nepal or less trafficked neighbourhoods in big cities such as Bangkok or Kathmandu where the shop owners would take great measure to help us find suitable books and even better, would ply us with masala tea and engage us in fun, broken language conversations about our respective lives.

One of our favourite little shops was in Kathmandu and was called The Little Tibet Bookstore. Sure, just down the way in Thamel there was a big bookstore called Pilgrim Books which offered an endless selection of books from all over the world and a lifetime supply of cheap trinkets (think gawdy images of Buddha or Ganesh). Despite its relative rusticity and popular location in the heart of filthy Thamel, it still felt like a Nepali version of Barnes & Noble. Okay, I’ll admit it was pretty rad that you could browse books, drink masala tea and have a plate of momos all under one roof, but it still felt like a stale Barnes & Noble — also probably due in part to the fact that tour busses barfed out people in front of it every half hour or so.

The Little Tibet Bookstore was fortunately located on the outer edge of Thamel on a quiet little side street, near the eastern part of the ring road, and was owned by this lovely Tibetan lady, who I regret never asking her name. The shop was clean, well organized and conveniently located just down the way from one of the only places in South Asia that served a decent cup of drip coffee instead of the omnipresent Nescafe with chemical based creamer and a minimum of three tablespoons of sugar per 6 oz. serving. Seriously, we’d ask for “black coffee” and the aghast response from every proprietor was basically equivalent to asking him if he would urinate in our cups. Black coffee?….What?…Absurd!…It’s unheard of! Silly Americans. Sometimes despite our early morning, desperate pleas for black coffee, we’d still get the creamer and sugar. Things just work that way in Nepal.

A funny story about coffee is that after we’d been gone from Kathmandu for over a month, we returned to this same little coffee place and the owner immediately recognized us, vigorously shook our hands and said, “Yes, yes, black coffee! I bring! “. Nothing like becoming a legend based off the love of legal stimulants. Truly one of the most heartwarming highlights of all our travels.

Anyhow, The Little Tibet Bookstore was probably no more than 80 square metres in size, maybe three head-height, two-sided shelves in the middle and the walls shelved to the ceiling. About a quarter of the shop was dedicated to English language books, probably half to Nepali and Hindi language and another quarter to various languages such as German, French, Spanish and Eastern Asian languages. When we’d come in, which was often when we were in or around Kathmandu, the owner  would always recognize us, always respectfully greet us with her hands gently pressed together, a slight bow, and softly say, “Tashi Delek”, to which we would return the pleasantry.

The shop was seldom crowded, meaning no more than four or five people at a time, and the owner would go to great lengths to be of help to everyone. There were various niches around the shop with the ubiquitous photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as burning incense and a freshly snipped marigold nearby. It was a comfortable place and Jason and I spent countless hours in there. Oh, and just outside the door to the shop, the same ancient lady was always there, sitting on the cold concrete, selling masala tea brewed in a battered aluminum pan on a tiny, grimy little propane stove. She always smiled, pressed her hands together and simply said, “namaste” as we’d go in. I miss that so much.

I think all told, we read close to eight or nine books each during our two months of travel. As I mentioned before, we’d usually have a couple of books with us at any given time. Sometimes we’d exchange with each other if we finished them quickly. Sometimes we’d exchange them with other travelers we’d meet in hostels and sometimes we’d simply leave them at our guesthouse or hostel for others to enjoy. In fact, some of the best books I read were found at hostels, monasteries  or teahouses where we’d stay — free if we’d leave one in exchange! We’d also exchange them at local bookstores when we’d stay in one place for more than a few days.

If available, we’d almost always buy used books, something I always do here in the States too — or at the very least buy from the clearance table. I like to imagine used books have a life and I’m just part of their journey. One book I brought back from Asia was purchased in Kolkata, India. I read it on the flight back to the States and not too long after returning took it to a bookstore and exchanged it for something else. Inside the front cover was a small sticker with the name of the bookstore there in Kolkata. I’ve often wondered if whoever bought it will see that sticker and will stop and think about where that book came from and imagine the story of how it traveled half way around the world and ended up here in Boulder, Colorado. Perhaps it will add something to their reading experience? I want to think it would. It would for me.

I don’t know, for me there’s still something intrinsically comforting about the interaction and relationship with a physical book and a local bookstore that just won’t let me jump over to the Kindle-iPad obsession. I love the smell of books, rifling through pages, having a favourite bookmark (usually a boarding pass), looking through all the titles in a certain section in a shop and the inevitable out-of-the-blue discovery of a book that hits the mark for being “travel worthy”. Spending time in a bookstore is much like travel itself, if you’re willing to go exploring on your own, with an open mind, and are patient enough to let the experiences come to you, you can usually wind up going on journeys you never even dreamed of.

As of now, this is my reading list for our coming travels:

·         Train to Pakistan, by Khushwant Singh (okay, I’ve kind of already started this one so I’ll probably have to get another before I leave)

·         Lessons From the Road, by Alastair Humphreys

·         Dreaming in Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich

·         In Patagonia,  by Bruce Chatwin, (if I finish Road to Pakistan, which is likely)

I’ll likely get two of these read on the long, 20+ hour flight over. Then, ideally, within 24 hours of landing I’ll have located a little independent bookstore, exchanged the books for others and be ready to read my way through another country or two. If I finish those, maybe I’ll leave them at a coffee shop along the way and pick up another in like kind exchange. Since we’ll be driving a campervan in a circuit and will return to that same town in the end, it would be great fun to return to the first shop and exchange those books acquired from the road for another couple for the long flight home.

Books are cool.

Ski fast. Pedal hard. Climb high. Travel far. Live big.

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