While it’s almost impossible to travel anywhere now and perhaps for the near future, we can still travel through books. With that in mind, here are several great books I’ve read that take you through a journey through time and across the length and breadth of specific countries. I especially enjoy country books because you get to know a lot about a country and its many places and attributes. Most of these books focus on travel, but they also feature history, politics, cultural commentary and personal and family narratives, which provides a richer and more in-depth account of countries and places. If you have any suggestions yourself, let me know.
Elephant Complex– John Gimlette
One of the most somber travel books I’ve ever read, Elephant Complex is a fascinating book about the South Asian country of Sri Lanka. Despite its small size, Sri Lanka is a land of complex history, identities, and conflicts. The country boasts some of the finest historical monuments, wildlife, and mountain scenery that you’ll ever see in a country of its size, but it is its human history that stands out. While going through the different parts of the country, Gimlette unpacks its colonial history (Portuguese, Dutch and British), its civil war and ethnic tensions between its majority Sinhalese and Tamils, and how this co-exists uneasily alongside the country’s tourist-friendly image (I visited it myself in 2016).
Swiss Watching– Diccon Bewes
While strictly not a travelogue, Swiss Watching explores the alpine country of Switzerland and reveals its personality and quirks. I’d always thought Switzerland was boring given that it’s famous mainly for watches, chocolate and political neutrality, but there is much more to it. From grassroots democracy to a complex mix of identities (four official languages, strong local pride and local rivalries), Swiss Watching shines a spotlight on this supposedly boring nation. Bewes is an English transplant to Switzerland so he presents the view of a longtime resident, not a visitor.
Indonesia Etc– Elisabeth Pisani
Indonesia must be one of the world’s most unique countries, being an archipelago made up of several giant islands and thousands of smaller ones. Across this reside over 250 million people of different ethnicities, languages and faiths (though Islam is by far the most prevalent) that are held together by 20th century ideals crafted after Indonesia’s independence. Pisani travels the length and breadth of Indonesia, also foregoing the big cities, while examining issues like corruption, feudalism, and political history. She also looks at Islamic extremism, which has only gotten more noticeable in recent years (the book came out in 2014). Indonesia Etc is a great mix of travel and history and commentary, though at the end, Indonesia will still likely a mystery to most readers.
Formosa Moon– Joshua Samuel Brown, Stephanie Huffman
Taiwan is the island country I’m proud to call my home in Asia (and where my mother is from). But I haven’t traveled to that many places in Taiwan so reading Formosa Moon was a fantastic way of finding out about a lot of the country. The book’s premise was that Brown, a longtime Taiwan expat, wanted to show off Taiwan for Huffman, his romantic partner, so she could understand what she was getting into before moving to Taiwan (the two, both Americans, met in the US). They travel around Taiwan, visit all the touristy and some not-so-touristy ones, such as historical cities, an arts village, Taroko gorge, a mountain kibbutz, and an aboriginal settlement. It’s a really fun and touching account of the authors’ relationship with each other and Brown’s with Taiwan.
Looking for Transwonderland– Noo Saro-wiwa
Nigeria is not exactly a top travel destination but it sure is a complex, bewildering country. In Saro-wiwa’s case, she visits her birth country not just for travel but to reconcile with it after the state executed her father, activist Ken Saro-wiwa, in 1995. As such, it’s a little different from the usual good humor and adventure you find in some travel books, with Saro-wiwa not holding back on her views especially regarding major problems. Saro-wiwa travels to the different regions of Nigeria, including the southern oil-rich delta, where her family is from; the Muslim north, and several states. One of the most fascinating is when she visits a mountaintop village that retains a primitive “stone age” lifestyle but is free from modern problems. She also goes into Nigeria’s history, politics and ethnic issues, which is a huge cause of tension. The book will leave a lot of readers wanting more.
Engel’s England– Matthew Engels
Another book that is not exactly a travelogue, Engel’s England does actually cover the entirety of England, specifically 39 counties and London. Engels is a born and bred Englishman, so he brings the perspective of a local getting to grips with his own country. In this sense, there are some peculiar things that non-English people like myself might not really understand such as local (by this, I mean very local as in village or county) customs and festivals. Engels truly does cover off the beaten track, mostly foregoing major cities in favor of the surrounding countryside villages and small towns, which gives the book a lot of character.