Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a little girl got her hands on a book, a book about siblings, of living in the countryside, and going on adventures—a book that would later give way to other books on more adventures and misadventures, turning the little child into an adult who constantly daydreams of taking off to some faraway land.
It was Blyton's books which gave birth to a voracious reader and in later years, a traveller in me. Despite raking in her fair share of controversy and criticism, Enid Blyton remains on top of almost all children's bookshelves. Psychedelic and elegant, all at once, Blyton's The Enchanted Wood though not intended as a travel book, gave me the first taste of the magic in exploring, and the joys of eating. Blyton's descriptions of tarts, crusty breads, and sweet and sour jams can whet anyone's appetite and her elaborate picnic baskets is why I am always on the search of a good meal when I am on my travels.
In The Enchanted Wood, the first in her series The Faraway Tree, siblings Joe, Beth, and Frannie move to live near an expansive wood, the place where their many exploits would unravel. In the book, the children go for a walk in the wood to discover an enormous tree whose branches seem to reach into the clouds. This, they find out, is the Faraway Tree.
When the children climb the Faraway Tree, they discover it is inhabited by different magical creatures, including Moon-Face, Silky the fairy, The Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot, Mr Watzisname, and the Angry Pixie. They befriend some of these creatures, in particular, Moon-face and Silky. At the very top of the tree, they discover a ladder which leads them to a magical land. The lands keep changing on different visits, because each place moves on from the top of the tree to make way for a new land. Sometimes, the lands are exciting and fun, like the “Land of Birthdays” or “The Land of Take What You Want” and sometimes not so full of fun and frolic like “The land of ice and snow”. The children are free to come and go to these lands, but they must leave before the land moves on, or they will be stuck there until that same land returns on top of the Faraway Tree again. The stories of these magical lands, often laced with danger, stirred in me a desire to go out exploring. The books also had philosophical takes on the lives of trees; Blyton wrote how the trees talked amongst each other in whispers. A phenomenon that forester Peter Wohlleben explores in his new book The Hidden Life of Trees where he explains that trees can register pain, learn things, and even protect and care for each other. Maybe Blyton really was onto something.
From The Enchanted Woods, I moved on to the Swiss Alps with Johanna Spyri's Heidi. Although, the story is more about family, friendships, loss, and love, Spyri manages to reel in her readers, painting the elaborate landscape with her lyrical writing. As Heidi and her aunt climb the mountains to reach her grandfather's house, I too find myself panting along. It is a tiring walk up the mountains. The cold mountain air stings my cheeks too. I, too, imagined myself settling into the attic with the pine trees swishing and swaying outside my window.
Reading does take you places, especially when the writing is nuanced and thoughtful. As a child, I found myself digging into one book after another. Although there never was a genre that I pledged my allegiance to, I did find myself reading an awful lot of books with elaborate descriptions of the landscape.
For example, in Malgudi Days by RK Narayan, I was transported to a small South-Indian village, Malgudi. The stories happen in Malgudi, an imaginary town located somewhere on the banks of Sarayu (a river in South-India). Even though Malgudi is an imaginary town, it can be traced back to any village in South-India. The entire book carries the scents and sounds of these villages and you instantly blend into the situations in the stories.
And then came My Family and Other Animals into my life. An autobiographical work by British naturalist Gerald Durrell telling the story of the years that he lived as a child with his siblings and widowed mother on the Greek island of Corfu. The book roused in me a deep desire to have a cat or dog and name it Quasimodo (that was the name Durrell gave his pigeon). The book made me want to become a naturalist, as is the job of any good book: to inspire.
Durrell's book opened a new door for me—that of the joys of reading about natural history, be it in fiction like The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh or non-fiction like The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen or seminal conservationist George Schaller's A Naturalist and Other Beasts.
In my reads, I saw how effortlessly Ghosh managed to marry the troubled politics of the Sundarbans on the Indian side with a very fluid story of Dolphin conservation. I traversed through mountainous terrains in the inner Dolpo region of Nepal, taking a spiritual journey with Matthiessen along with Schaller in search of the vulnerable Snow Leopard. While in A Naturalist and other Beasts, Schaller patiently teaches me what it means to be a conservationist fighting to save the last wild places and wilderness from the African plains to the Tibetan highlands.
I have other favourites too, like Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, The Great Railway Bazar by Paul Theroux, A Winter in Arabia by Freya Stark and many, many others.
Maybe that is the charm of travel literature, you read one and you are taken on a never-ending journey and as years go by, great travel literature turn into historical text, documenting people, cultures, and practices frozen in time.