Travel Expert Yasmine Awwad shares the books that informed her greatest life adventure.
In 2014, I left London on a flight to Hong Kong with a one-way ticket and a bag I had to kneel on to close. I spent the next four years travelling. Being a digital nomad, living and working on the road, is a transient experience and books helped me to connect. Through the stories, I read at dusty bus stations and on afternoons at the beach, feet in the hot sand, I learnt about the history, culture and language of the places I visited. Books make my travel experiences deeper, more thoughtful. From the dense jungles of Colombia to the rugged Scottish Highlands, here are ten of my favourite novels that take you around the world.
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (India, 1997)
This Booker Prize-winning novel is set in India, in a family home and pickle factory. Two seven-year-old twins, Rahel and Estha, experience a series of traumatic events that have kaleidoscopic effects on their lives. Reading it is a sensory overload. The Kerala backwaters come to life, and you can almost taste Mammachi’s banana jam and feel the monsoon rain on your face.
- Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut (Ecuador, 1985)
I read Galápagos on a boat, bobbing towards the volcanic island of Bartolomé. A surreal take on Darwinism, it alternates between the 1980s as the last humans are washed ashore on the Galápagos Islands and a million years into the future when we have evolved to live in the sea. It captures the out-of-this-world feeling of the islands, and in true Vonnegut style, it’s very, very funny.
- Ponti by Sharlene Teo (Singapore, 2018)
I expected Singapore to be all sanitised shopping malls and glass buildings, but instead, I found steamy streets lined with palm trees and noisy hawker centres that smelled of grilled chicken. In this book about friendship, loneliness and B movies, Teo captures the real Singapore. Her descriptions are visceral, from the sticky heat and stifling pollution, to the pickled vegetables and chilli kangkong.
- Burial Rights by Hannah Kent (Iceland, 2013)
Burial Rights was inspired by the last public execution in Iceland in 1829. Kent pieced together information from public records to create the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who is found guilty of murder and placed on a farm to await her fate. The result is a haunting, atmospheric novel that draws you into the isolated landscapes of rural Iceland.
- Half of a Yellow Sun By Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (Nigeria, 2006)
In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie weaves the lives of three very different characters together: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy, Olanna, a wealthy woman from Lagos, and Richard, a shy Englishman interested in Igbo culture. It’s a powerful retelling of the Biafran war focusing on the people who lived through it. Despite its devastating context, this is a book full of life and humour, and rich with Nigerian culture and history.
- The Crow Road by Iain Banks (Scotland, 1992)
From the abundance of whisky to the ceilidhs and Uncle Fergus’ huge country home, The Crow Road is a novel rooted in the West Highlands. I read it in my tent each evening on a trip around the coast of Scotland, tired after days of walking and uncharacteristically hot weather. The story unfolds with menace and dark humour from the very first line: ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia, 1967)
This landmark novel is a journey through seven generations of the Buendia family. It’s a rich chronicle of life and death with a big dose of Colombian magic. After the family patriarch founds the fictional Colombian town Macondo in the dense coastal jungle, the Buendias face everything from an insomnia plague and a swarm of yellow butterflies to a revolution.
- My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (Italy, 2011)
In Naples, I stayed in a small room at the top of a 17th-century house in the crumbling old town. Each morning I read a few chapters of My Brilliant Friend, and then stepped out on to my own stradone, the voices of Elena and Lila in my ear. Their friendship plays out in a vibrant, poverty-stricken neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city, where insults are thrown from kitchen windows in coarse dialect.
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Japan, 2013)
A Tale for the Time Being begins with a Hello Kitty lunchbox washing up on a Canadian island. Inside is a diary written by Nao, a struggling teenager in Tokyo. Both meditative and mysterious, you’re immersed in Japanese history and culture as you learn about Nao’s uncle, a reluctant soldier in World War II, and her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old feminist Buddhist nun.
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (Czech Republic, 1984)
Kundera’s seminal novel traces the lives and lovers of two couples during the Soviet occupation of Prague in the late 1960s. I read it again last year when I spent two months in Prague over winter; temperatures dropped to -17°C and it was too cold to go outside. The book brings together the public and the private with a backdrop of towers and bridges in what Tereza is sure must be ‘the most beautiful city in the world’.
Illustrations by Aysha Awwad