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Guest Post: Books that have taught me how to travel by Walter Mason

Destination Saigon by Walter Mason Guest Post: Books that have taught me how to travel by Walter Mason

Todays guest post is by Walter Mason

'If I rest, I rust.' Martin Luther

I suffer that great affliction of all bookish people: Before I embark on any activity I need to read at least one book about it. Perhaps it betrays a lack of imagination, but I think it more likely that it exposes a deep-seated sense of insecurity. I find it quite impossible to approach anything in the spirit of virgin experience. No matter what, I have to study up on it a little.

This propensity has seen me sitting in the office toilet reading Shakespeare before I go and see a production of Handel's opera Julius Caesar, acquiring an unexpectedly large library of books about being an uncle, and spending a rainy afternoon reading a surprisingly fascinating book on The Ageing Cat. And so it is with travel.

Travel is something I do a lot of. Indeed, travel has become my job, in a roundabout kind of way. I have become, quite unexpectedly, a travel writer, and just reading that job description makes me nervous. So I have been driven, time and again, to books to explain to me how to travel and what exactly I am meant to be getting out of it.

I have, of course, been a lifelong reader of travel memoir. But they served, to my mind at least, the same function as paranormal romances might to another reader ' they were sheer fantasy, enjoyable romps and enviable narratives about a life I had never imagined leading. What I needed, when it became clear that I would spend the best part of every year travelling, were instructional books, books that dwelt more in the realm of didacticism. Books that told me what to do, dammit.
So I have collected a mini-library of favourites, a handful of books about how to travel that sit in a cherished corner of my bookshelf and get taken down several times in the course of a year, whenever I start getting nervous about budget hotels, baggage weight limits and the best ways to get to Sihanoukville.

The first I pull down is Phil Cousineau's The Art of Pilgrimage. I am by nature a romantic and also, I confess, a man possessed of all kinds of irrational and thoroughly discredited spiritual beliefs. And yet I continue to hold to my religious convictions, in spite of all the murmurings of wiser friends, and I tend to approach each and every one of my journeys as a pilgrimage of sorts. This beautiful little book is the perfect aid to that end, always reminding me of the small ways in which I can turn a simple trip into a journey of mystical significance.

Cousineau's book is quite inclusive in its description of pilgrimage, and occasionally I turn to a book that is a little more doctrinaire in the way it casts the notion of pilgrimage ' Christian George's Sacred Travels. This book is much more overtly Christian in its point of view, but I still find myself inspired by it and George does remind us that 'pilgrimage [is not] about when, where or how we go. It's about why we go.'

Another book that I find inspires me and gives me lots of great ideas is Kristin Hahn's In Search of Grace. This is more properly a conventional travel memoir, but Grace's description and sense of journeying make it something of a blueprint for my own approach to discovering somewhere new. The same can be said for Joseph Dispenza's brilliant The Way of the Traveler, a book that I have turned into something of a personal good luck charm. I always read it a few days before I embark on a journey, and it always reminds me of the things I should be doing when I am away.

Some of the things that Dispenza recommends for the thoughtful traveller: buy tacky souvenirs; take small gifts from home to give to the people you encounter along the way; and try to sketch some of the things you see, no matter how rudimentary your skills at art.

But probably the book that inspires me the most, and the book that I think is, in its own way, a small and unknown classic, is Barbara Sjoholm's Incognito Street. Sjoholm is a fascinating writer who I discovered through Blue Windows, her memoir about growing up in a Christian Science household. In Incognito Street (subtitled 'How travel made me a writer'), she describes how her own youthful journeys around the world helped her come to terms with her sexuality, her tormented childhood, and her own sense of vocation as a writer.

So I do, in fact, advocate reading about the things you hope to do, and copying the example of those who went before you. I know that my own life and my life's experiences have been enriched through this process of humble self-education. Let the more adventurous types leap into being with their eyes wide open and their minds empty. I will continue to approach the abyss of unknowing with my reading glasses on and a paperback stowed safely in my back pocket.

Books referenced in this post:

In Search of Grace by Kristin Hahn
Sacred Travels by Christian George
The Way of the Traveler by Joseph Dispenza
The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau
Incognito Street by Barbara Sjoholm

About the author:

Walter Mason Guest Post: Books that have taught me how to travel by Walter Mason

Walter Mason is a travel writer, speaker and academic whose first book, Destination Saigon (published by Allen & Unwin) was named one of the Ten Best Travel Books of 2010 by the Sydney Morning Herald. Walter's next book, Destination Cambodia, is scheduled to be released in September 2013.

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This year Walter is one of the Ambassadors for the Emerging Writers' Festival in Melbourne, and will be making several appearances. Check the festival program closer to the date.