“The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll
While there is never quite any substitute for getting lost within an undiscovered destination for the very first time, a book can certainly often serve as an ideal appetizer before the main course. Something that warms up the senses. An amuse-bouche that gently provokes, prods and wets the reader’s appetite. A book is the diet coke of the journey. It’s not quite the real thing, but it can at least give you a loose, palatable idea of what lies ahead.
If possible, the travel book is best served as a companion to the actual journey. Reading a book about the place you’re at, whether you’re scarfing down a day old croissant you found in a bin outside a Parisian bakery or while serving time in a Mexican drunk tank, can illuminate and enhance the experience even further. Cultural literature has the ability to provide a level of context and understanding that can often yield more crucial information than any dog-eared, gas station road map. This may prove rather useful the next time your cellmate Ramon complains about the poetry that Eduardo is so fond of excitedly reciting in the prison yard during the Sunday noon hour exercise break.
I also think that some books should never actually be owned. Call me crazy, but I think it’s a certifiable crime for travel books to remain imprisoned on a dusty old bookshelf next to that shoebox of coffee smudged tax receipts from twenty years ago. Those books were born inside the stained backseats of taxi cabs, on bloody barroom floors, somewhere between the puke filled, seedy back alleys and dark streets filled with mystery and secrets.
I used to own a copy of Kerouac’s On The Road. It was given to me by a dreadlocked artist with questionable facial piercings from Brighton I befriended in Barcelona about twenty two odd years ago. I don’t have it anymore, because after reading it, I knew that someone else had to. That book and that story were never meant for one person. That book, like any good story or idea, deserved to keep moving. To come in and out of people’s lives. Good ideas never die, and neither should a good book.
Twenty years, thirty pounds (okay, maybe forty) and more grey hairs than I dare to count, I recently found myself on the streets of Barcelona once again a short time ago. This time, I had the fortune of discovering Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, a great read that served well to enhance my tapas and mojito filled journey.
I’ve always thought that the best books are discovered like any other good quality illicit substance; under the cover of night after a brief exchange of hushed tones. That’s how I discovered Dirty Havana Trilogy, the torturous and heated sexual adventures of a lost writer. It was a wild book I really enjoyed. It was a book I was instantly reminded of while reading Mitch Moxley’s Superman of Havana.
It’s yet another mesmerizing story that does what any great travel book should. Submerges you deep inside to a very specific time and place. In Moxley’s Superman, you can almost feel the sweat drip off you from a humid night spent in seedy clubs offering live sex shows and alcohol fueled nights. In it, Moxley and photographer Mike Magers trace the roots of a notorious and elusive performer whose legendary member was known the world over.
While much has changed in Havana since the days of Superman, I’m sure certain elements remain; ghosts of a city’s past that still somehow manage to cling on to certain streets at night like the smell of ashes from a cigar smoked the night before. I hope to visit them someday. In the meantime, I have my books, on that shelf, next to that shoebox full of coffee smudged receipts.
Featured top photo, taken at the Tropicana Club in Havana. Courtesy of Michael Magers. Bottom photo of Havana street scene, courtesy Wikipedia
You can read the full story of The Superman of Havana over at Roads & Kingdoms.