If you were seized with a sudden sense of adventure and wanted to experience the most surreal places in the world (and of course, had deep pockets), the best travel guide I can think of is Pico Iyer.
I have just finished Falling off the Map, a most remarkable travelogue of journeys to far-flung places misinterpreted and maligned in common conversation, but actually presenting a different picture altogether when visited. Iyer has a keen sense of perception, a very observant eye, writes with candour- and you can see he enjoys writing every bit of it. It isn’t hard to form pictures in your head when you have someone like him doing all the travelling and writing for you. It is the next best thing to being at the place itself. Be it serene beaches, ever-awake cities, isolated monasteries or majestic mountains, Iyer produces spectacular imagery and sends you into transports of delight or wanting a niche of solitude, all to yourself. It isn’t a dry list of places-to-visit and things-to-do. The essays are laced with lashings of humorous conversations with the locals, and you cannot help but find yourself incredulous at the way certain places ‘function’, if that’s the right word.
North Korea, Argentina, Cuba, Iceland, Bhutan, North and South (and Central) Vietnam, Paraguay and Australia- these are the countries that Iyer describes as the ‘Lonely Places’ of the world- cut off from the rest of the planet, possessing identities of their own, liberally sprinkled with idiosyncracies and inefficiency, pretence and aspirations, which only add to their sense of individualism. Iyer mingles with the populace, talks to them of their dreams and of reality, tries hard to drive away the misconceptions that popular perception tends to result in.
Much must have changed, of course, in the nearly two decades since the book was written, but Iyer accounts for maintaining the originally written essays without updating them- they are snapshots of the countries at vital points in their history.
Change isn’t easy to accept anyway, and while the fortunes of a country might alter, go upward or downward, the people remain the same- it is only circumstances that alter, and when you look at history, twenty years doesn’t seem like too much time, after all.