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Home again after three months on the road

Travel Writing

First published in the Times Online, on January 05, 2005

After 25 years of running The Travel Bookshop in west London, Sarah Anderson sold up and took off around the world with books for company. In her last dispatch for Times Online, from Cambodia, Sarah prepares to pack for her next big adventure – coming home

By the end of next week I shall be back in England. So much has happened in the last three months yet I’m no closer to knowing what I want to do next with my life. I had hoped I would bump into something or someone that would help give me some inspiration knowing that, in reality, arriving back at Heathrow with my life sewn up would be a bit too neat – although I have thought of giving lectures on the history of travel literature to tie in both the bookshop and the Online pieces I have been writing.

After twenty-five years of the Travel Bookshop I wanted to travel with books in the way I had been promoting for years in the shop and it turned out to be, as I had thought it would, the best way. There is no better way of understanding a place than by reading books set in the location and, in America, independent bookshops are extremely well-informed about their neighbourhoods.

The ones I visited were delighted to help me discover much obscure and fascinating literature – unlike the bookshop chain in Philadelphia where the assistant had never heard of Mark Twain. I would therefore recommend a visit to a local bookshop as an excellent first stop anywhere.

The trip divided unintentionally but neatly into three main sections – America, Australia and Southeast Asia. In America I was mostly in cities, in Australia out of them and in Laos and Cambodia on the Mekong where the emphasis was on culture. Everywhere was so different that it would be difficult to choose my favourite place.

In America I stayed with friends throughout – which I loved, especially since I hadn’t seen many of them for a long time; they also helped me with local authors and because I was reading local literature I got a new perspective on places I thought I knew quite well. Being in the Hudson Valley around Halloween and finding that I was in Ichabod Crane’s town was just one of the many discoveries I made. 

Lord Howe Island, the Outback and Tasmania were completely different but I loved them all and I spent many hours talking about future trips I would like to do in Australia – Margaret River, Kakadoo, Darwin, Broome – all have appeal for the future. When I arrived on Lord Howe Island I didn’t think that I would be able to find any literature set there – the internet had only come up with rather obscure natural history papers. However the locals were eager to help me, producing several examples, and it was this involvement and specific focus that made this project such a fun thing to do.

The stresses came from the technical side of it – I didn’t bring my own laptop with me so was dependent on friends and internet cafes. Everyone was extremely generous about lending me their computers – but if I did this kind of thing again I think I would bring my own as in most places you can now use your own laptop in internet cafes. However I was glad not to have to worry about carting it around or getting it stolen.

I was packing for different climates so had to bring a fair amount of luggage – it was inevitably too much – but a few lightweight things that I would never be without are a torch (in future I’d take a head torch for reading preferably a LED wind-up miner’s lamp), an alarm clock, ear plugs, an eye mask, a padlock, a wad of one dollar bills for Asia, a supply of passport photographs and possibly a short-wave radio. Although once we were in Cambodia I was with someone who was able to connect to the internet almost wherever he was by satellite or mobile phone, so we were able to get the latest news.

Photographs of me in various places have also winged their way across the world and I would like to thank both the strangers and friends who took them. I’m not sure I’d ever asked anyone to take my photograph when travelling on my own and I found it embarrassing to ask in front of the Sydney Opera House, but I swallowed my English reserve while muttering about doing some ‘project’.

So it has been an amazing three months but with very little time for silent reflection. I have slept in around 30 different beds (which means a lot of packing and unpacking) but I don’t feel in any hurry to get home – the nomadic existence seems to suit me.

Whilst I already have Antarctica to look forward to in 2005 I’m sure that I’ll start planning the trip after that on the plane home  – perhaps doing a little more of what Ruskin suggested next time: “If only we English, who are so fond of traveling in body, would also travel a little in the soul…”