Almost at the end of a two-month trip that meandered through the southern states of the USA then to Cuba and was soon to head onwards to New York, I’d come to realise that not everyone who travels does so with a book. In fact, many don’t even bring an electronic device loaded up with reading material. Not a newspaper from home, a trashy mag nor a detective novel.
When I get on a plane, step one is getting headphones and a book tucked into the pocket for ease of access. My idea of hell is to be trapped for even an hour without something to read. When I see people board an eight-hour flight on a budget airline with no entertainment system and just sit – not even a foreign newspaper to pass the time – I want to tap them on the shoulder and ask, “Just what are you going to do for the rest of the day?” Because, let’s face it, on a seat that’s not even as wide as your bum, you’re not going to sleep.
That night on the patio at Casa Lily I couldn’t tear myself away from the world of Celia and Marco, the star-crossed lovers of The Night Circus. Having devoured Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot, I’d gone to the communal bookshelf and traded it for an indistinguishable thriller, followed by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (almost too ashamed to confess I’d never read it) and finally Erin Morgenstern’s magic-realist tale. All in the space of four days.
During the days I walked the streets of Havana, spoke to artists, had lobster lunches in fancy restaurants, drank mojitos in some of Hemingway’s favourite bars, lazed on the patio of Hotel Nacional, rode the hop-on, hop-off bus then walked a little bit further. At the end of the day a little voice inside me would make earnest suggestions: “Perhaps you should find somewhere to take a salsa class.” “Wonder if there are any local bands playing nearby?” “Do you think it would be safe to walk along the Malecón after dark?”
That little voice needed to growl a lot louder, because as excellent as all these ideas appeared to be, I never dragged myself and my book further than a couple of streets away to eat a late dinner at one of the local paladares (little family-run restaurants). Sometimes – OK, most of the time – it’s easier to disappear into a fantasy world than attempt to interact with the real one.
I am well aware that as you read this you will be thinking I’m a complete nerd. That I will not deny. My geek is especially strong while travelling. Notes – yes, I take them; what about it? – are written in black, ruled A5 Moleskines. People find this weird, but as I look up at those matched remnants of trips past – in a perfect line on my bookshelf – I think, Oh, yeah, that’s so hard to understand. They also have pockets at the back, which are like mini historical repositories. I’ve just opened one at random and found some god-awful passport photos from years ago and a ticket from a Rodriguez concert in Nashville.
And although my books can sometimes seem as if they act as a barrier between me and the rest of the world – I’ll even admit to using them as such – they also often start something: a conversation with a stranger in a New Orleans bar who’s also read Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun or someone who’s simply pleased to inherit a just-finished copy of Gone Girl. Because, of course, they’re not something you want to bring home with you. No, there’s just no way you’d ever want to have to buy another bag to hold the books you’ve gathered during daily walks to McNally Jackson in New York’s Lower East Side, or send home a box filled with signed copies of Willie Nelson’s autobiography, books of essays written by Martin Luther King or copies of classics in hardcover you’d never be able to find in Melbourne. Seriously, what kind of weirdo would you have to be to do that?