When taking an international trip, I spend a lot of time preparing myself, physically and emotionally, by reading a variety of books about or set in said country. Here are the types of books that I typically read prior to a journey.
I always begin with travel guides, but the difficult part is deciding which travel guide to choose from. Lonely Planet, National Geographic, Rick Steves, Rough Guides, Frommers and many more! Don’t just buy what’s at your local book store simply because it’s there, you can spend a lot of money on information that is free online or difficult to navigate. After purchasing more than a couple of travel books from a variety of Publishers, here are my top publishers:
Lonely Planet: This is by far my favorite, and it’s the easiest to find in your local book store. I think they do an excellent job of laying out information in an easy to read and interesting manner. My least favorite is by Bradt. I find the information is dense, doesn’t intrigue, and is generally more tedious to read. Before you buy any travel books, be sure to check out your local library. I found the Iran Lonely Planet there, saved myself $20.
In addition to tradition travel guides, keep your eye out for cultural and language guides. I’m currently reading a well written cultural guide to Iran published by Culture Smart Guides. Remember, even if you’re going to an English speaking country, the culture can still be quite different than our own!
Who has time for work with all of these books?!?
Reading fiction stories set in your destination country can help understand a culture and ignite your imagination. Prior to my trip to Turkey, I read a number of entertaining stories by Jason Goodwin, setting the stage of the Ottoman Empire and the age of the Sultans. I read “The Persian Boy” about Alexander the Great’s time in Persia in preparation for my upcoming trip to Iran. To find a good historical fiction set in a particular country, just do some googling (and let me know if you need help!).
Non-fiction is an especially good way to understand more about the political situation in a certain country. For Iran, I’ve already read “Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran” as well as “Iran Awakening.” I’m also currently reading a couple of memoirs written by women (modern and not) who have lived and traveled in the Middle East. I’ve learned a lot about the current political setting as well as some history of how we got where we are now. And, I’ve been inspired by the people who have traveled before me. Again, a good Google search will be a great source of suggested books.
Culturally Important Books
Last, but certainly not least, I try to read books or stories that have cultural significance for the locals. Reading books that they love and admire can give you a great window into the culture. For example, in Iran I’m reading the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. It is the National Epic Story of the Iranian people, detailing the historic (and non-historic) link between the early Zoroastrians and the Muslim conquest and subsequent rule. I’m also reading Hafez, an Iranian poet who is beloved by Iranians. I’ll even be going to his tomb while I’m there.
Reading prior to a trip is a great way of traveling long before your actual trip takes place. It helps mentally gear you up while teaching and entertaining you at the same time.