I recently sent a contribution to The Novel Tourist’s 2018 Read and Go Challenge. It got me thinking about other examples of travel that inspired books, and books that inspired travel. There are lots, and deep in my memory, I found the book that changed my life.
Setting the scene
I’ll try not to be too long winded about it, but some context might be useful.
1972. That was the year I left home to see the world. The plan was to work in London over the winter, and spend warmer months travelling. To reach the UK, there was a choice. It cost $400 AUD to fly, or for the same price, I could spend five weeks on a ship. With five weeks of room and board included, interesting ports of call, and not-to-mention endless partying with scads of other twenty somethings, it was no contest.
By the time the ship berthed in Southampton, groups of flat/apartment cohorts had been formed. There were seven in mine. Our circle of friends and potential travel mates wasn’t limited to those in our flat. It extended to friendships established on the ship, people we met through work, and new arrivals from Down Under.
By the summer, we’d explored much of the UK on weekends. Countries across the English Channel beckoned. Through a healthy mix of planning and spontaneity, Europe introduced me to the joy of travel. I left on a plane to Oslo (one of the planned parts), and returned in a Volkswagen Kombi purchased for £90 in Munich for a spur-of-the-moment trip to Istanbul.
With our travel appetites partially satiated, by November, most of us were back in the UK. This time, the size of our living unit had increased to ten, and our circle of travelling companions was even larger than before.
Naturally, we’d already established loose travel plans for the following year. In that respect, travellers haven’t changed much. They’ve barely finished one trip, and they’re planning the next.
The women in the flat planned to leave in our Volkswagen Kombi in late May. But by March, I was having second thoughts. I was enjoying my teaching job so much that I didn’t want to quit before the school year ended in late July. Besides, my early departure would have meant three different teachers in one year for that 37-student class, and guilt played a part in my indecisiveness.
Around the same time, Des, one of the guys in our flat, was talking about fulfilling his lifelong dream of a trip on a motorcycle. It sounded like an interesting travel adventure, and a solution to my dilemma about quitting before the end of the school year. Des and I hatched a plan to team up, and head off in late July.
We found an old wreck, a 1957 Norton for £40. Des assured me he’d have it looking like something come July. As the months passed, “it” became “him” and “him” became “Ernie.” Almost true to his word, Des had Ernie readied by August.
I’ll interrupt the story at this point to mention how we chose what books we read back then. In short, we didn’t. Books chose us.
eBooks and audible books were decades away. Printed books were heavy, so there were limits on what was carried. Novels were traded with other travellers. “Do you have any books to trade?” usually followed closely behind “Hi, where are you from?” We tried to be somewhat selective, but it didn’t require much effort. There were some great novels on the travel circuit in the early seventies.
I remember my excitement discovering Leon Uris, and how his historical fiction inspired my travels. Exodus was the impetus for a trip to Israel and Palestine, QB VII to holocaust memorials, Mila 18 to where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood, and Armageddon to a divided Berlin.
The motorcycle diaries
Now, back to the story about the book that changed my life.
Two months after leaving London, Des and I pulled into a beautiful beach on the coast of the former Yugoslavia. We were heading south towards Israel and Palestine, via Turkey and Cyprus.
It was on that magnificent beach in October 1973 that we received news of the Yom Kippur War. Hopeful that it would be as short lived as the 1967 Six-Day War, we spent the next few days huddled around a shortwave radio consuming any and all news of the conflict.
The war showed no signs of abating, so we slowly made our way to Istanbul. Given news reports, it didn’t look good. Even with a week in Istanbul, and another week or two before reaching the point of departure of the ferry to Cyprus, Israel and Palestine felt out of our reach.
Change of plans
A diversion to Iran seemed like a good idea. It would give the Arab-Israeli hostilities more time to quell.
Venturing inland towards Cappadocia from Turkey’s southern coast, the almost immediate change in climate was palpable. Oh my goodness, they were the coldest temperatures I’d ever experienced. Only by about 30 degrees!! These were pre-Internet days when we relied on other travellers for our research. No word-of-mouth Intel had prepared us for 30 below.
Our plans for Iran would have been thwarted at that point, had it not been for the sound of a train whistle on the ride to Göreme. Iran was put back on the itinerary after we learned that Ernie could travel in the baggage car all the way to Tehran. Des and I travelled in a second-class carriage. It didn’t matter that the 2,000-km journey took six days. Most of it was enjoyed in the warmth of a train.
Iran was amazing, worthy of lingering for a couple of months.
Ernie attracted lots of attention, including an offer from Mustafa. A carpet dealer, Mustafa saw Ernie as a means to reach nomads on carpet buying trips. Would we trade Ernie for three Persian carpets? A handshake sealed the deal, and the trade that would take place at the end of our visit.
By this time, a couple from San Francisco had appeared on our radar. Ric and Lynn became our travelling companions to Isfahan, Persepolis, Shiraz and Bushehr on the Gulf.
Time to return home
Their Land Rover was taking them to Kenya via Mumbai. We knew it as Bombay back then, and Ric and Lynn offered me a ride.
It was an excellent offer. Bombay would put me that much closer to Australia, as I was thinking it might be time to return home. I accepted, and started planning an overland-and-island-hopping route beyond India.
Lynn and I shopped the markets for fabric, and I decimated my jeans to transform them into a skirt for India. Des and I made plans to do the deal with Mustafa, and mail the carpets to Australia and New Zealand. Des figured he’d head back to London. Loose ends were wrapped up, as our departure date from Iran loomed closer.
It was Leon Uris’ Exodus that nibbled away at my decision.
Actually, there were two countries I’d been yearning to visit. One was Israel, inspired by Leon Uris’ body of work. The other was Canada, a dream spawned by a Grade 6 Social Studies project, and nurtured through adolescence into adulthood. Going back to Australia would mean returning to pick up the pieces of the life I’d left two years earlier. The more I thought about it, the more I figured my travel days might be over, or on the verge of a very long drought.
After careful consideration, the lure of Israel, as close as it was, won the back-and-forth tug. I thanked Ric and Lynn for their generosity, and decided to make my way to Israel. This was in early 1974.
Israel and Canada
That year, I visited both Israel and Canada.
I spent three months in Israel and the Occupied Territories, with a side trip to Jordan.
It’s now been 43 years that I’ve lived in Canada.
Leon Uris’ Exodus was the book that changed my life.
Might you might be interested in another travel story with an Israel-Canada connection? If so, see Rekindling friendships through travel.
Is there a book that had a pivotal influence on your life? Or, one that inspired travel? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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