Staying at home? Here are 5 amazing travel books to read

During this period of the coronavirus pandemic, most news outlets are thrusting at us a substantial dose of doom and gloom about the current crisis.

Yes, it’s not bad to stay informed, but we need to balance our information intake with some inspirational travel tales to stay sane. Like most catastrophes that have ravaged humanity before, this, too, shall pass. And life will go on.

Here is a collection of some of the most inspirational travel books you can read during this time of either forced or voluntary isolation as you ready yourself for life after coronavirus.

The White Pumpkin by Denis Hills
British academic Denis Hills comes across as one of the most intrepid travellers of the last century. A compulsive wanderer of the 1960s and 70s, Hills left his home in Britain as an expatriate teacher, traveller and writer, first roaming Poland and Turkey before exploring postcolonial Uganda, where he spent his life from the mid-60s to mid-70s.

Published in 1975, The White Pumpkin mainly focuses on the author’s daring travels in Uganda, a country which had just got its independence and was under the rule of one of the most brutal dictators in world history: General Idi Amin Dada.

From spending several nights atop lion-infested hills in northern Uganda to hobnobbing with Karamojong villagers in northeastern Uganda and having a brush with death after he was convicted and sentenced to death by Amin for referring to the general as a “village tyrant” in the first manuscript of this book, The White Pumpkin reveals Hills as a restless and inquisitive traveller, determined to see things through without recoiling.

One reviewer described The White Pumpkin in The Guardian: “Without artifice and with little discernible organization, Hills records the raw elements of his travels and daily material existence in Uganda. The world depicted is occasionally awesome, often ugly, always infested with energy, but seemingly poised on is the brink of dissolution.”

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of my best travel writers of all time. Having traversed the African continent for over 40 years while working as a journalist for the Polish Press Agency, Kapuscinski’s Shadow of the Sun is the truest portrayal of life on our continent.

During his many years of reporting on various issues in Africa, Kapuscinski witnessed 27 revolutions and coups, was sentenced to death six times (but still died of old age in Poland), was a guest of traditional cattle keepers in eastern Uganda, wandered through the Sahara desert under the scorching sun that beat down “with the force of a knife”, and drove through the jungles of East Africa where he came face-to-face with the most dangerous of wildlife.

The Shadow of the Sun is jam-packed with endlessly captivating, sometimes horrifying travel tales. Like the writer’s brush with the deadly Egyptian cobra in the Serengeti, which he “never suspected there could be so much power within a single creature. Such terrifying monstrous, cosmic power”.

In this amazing hoard of 40 years of travel experiences across Africa, Kapuscinski describes his daring journeys in lucid and crisp prose. “It’s all improbable, incredible. As if one were witnessing the birth of the world, that precise moment when the earth and sky already exist, as do water, plants, and wild animals, but not yet Adam and Eve,” he writes.

Travels in a Strange State by Josie Dew
British traveller and writer Josie Dew shines and sparkles in her 1994 book, Travels in a Strange State, in which she shares her experiences cycling for eight months across the vast United States of America.

Dew takes her readers with her on a rather improbable journey, revealing the wonders and worries of the United States of the early 1990s: the race riots in Los Angeles, the American English that was harder for her (an Englishwoman) to understand than Polish, the sexual tantric seminars in Hawaii, and the scorching heat in Death Valley.

With Dew’s over-the-top prose, attention to detail and captivating witticism, Travels in a Strange State makes for a highly entertaining and deeply informative read if you are interested in a virtual exploration of the United States. Travelling like a local and shoving American life and landscapes at you with palpable candidness, the writer gives you a completely different image of the United States as portrayed in the media.

Travels in a Strange State is a timeless masterpiece written by one of the best travel writers of our generation.

The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley
The Zanzibar Chest is an African memoir written by a white Kenyan called Aidan Hartley, an ex-Reuters stringer who spent a big part of his career reporting on the despicable atrocities that characterised postcolonial Africa.

Hartley reported on wars in Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Somalia and Ethiopia, among other countries in eastern Africa, which offered him a chance to frequently traverse the region — and these are the experiences he candidly shares in The Zanzibar Chest.

Born in Tanzania and raised in Kenya and England, Aidan Hartley settled in East Africa after graduation because it’s the place he considered home, and, most importantly for him, he badly wanted to forge an identity in Africa.

Coincidentally, when he got a job with Reuters, it was at a time when conflict was brewing across the continent after former cold war powers had withdrawn aid to Africa. So, on most of his expeditions, his job requirements aside, “I was looking for a war that I could call my own – a complete experience that would define me as the son of my father and involve me as an insider.”

In the book, Hartley takes the reader back in time, to eastern Africa’s horrible past, which was marked by endless, yet unnecessary wars as postcolonial Africans fought for power.

The outcomes were always too ugly, and Hartley describes his experiences in tenacious prose. In Mogadishu, for instance, he lucidly describes victims of the wars as people who ended up with “brown rags, slack breasts and callused feet in the greenish gloom. Long teeth, white tongues, sunken eye sockets, alien heads, rib cages showing the crocodile-skin ridge of vertebrae poking up through the back”.

Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa
Unlike the aforementioned books, Moses Isegawa’s Abyssinian Chronicles doesn’t fall under the category of non-fiction. Nonetheless, the Ugandan author’s ambitious novel tells us a lot about the carnage and chaos of post-independence Uganda, mostly under the rule of President Idi Amin Dada and Dr Apollo Milton Obote.

In the book, Isegawa cleverly melds Uganda’s history with myth and metaphor. His Abyssinian Chronicles narrator is Mugezi, who was born in 1960 at a time when Uganda was about to get its independence.

Mugezi witnessed Opolo Milton Obote’s 1966 state of emergency, his fall in 1971, and his return in 1980 and ultimate ousting by Yoweri Museveni in 1986. But most compelling is the rise and fall of Idi Amin, the brutal dictator who ruled Uganda for almost the entire 1970s.

In a nutshell, Isegawa’s Abyssinian Chronicles shows you how Uganda’s history, in extravagant imagery, “wrote, erased and rewrote itself”. Tales of the endless coups, the civil wars, the start of the HIV/Aids scourge and the expulsion and return of Indians make for a fascinating read from one of Uganda’s best authors.