Cover of Around the World in 80 Days

Travel book club in a time of Coronavirus

Hey there! How are you doing? It feels like such a weird time to be living through right now doesn’t it? As the Coronavirus lockdown continues in many countries around the world, we’re all slowly adjusting to a new normal.

For many of us it is an anxious time for a whole range of reasons. I think it’s important that we take the time to acknowledge those fears and concerns and not feel guilty that our worries are not as valid as other people’s. 

Personally I often feel as though I am on a bit of a rollercoaster these days.

One minute I’m totally fine, appreciating the small things in life like getting to spend more time with my little adventurer and seeing the first signs of spring. Then the next I’m plummeted into moments of dread when I start thinking about the bigger picture and all of the challenges and injustices that come with that. Often I’ve found that this is exaggerated by social media. So one of the things I’m trying to do is limit my access to it, which I’m finding helpful. 

However you’re feeling right now, I hope that you are managing to find small moments of joy in your day and are not being too hard on yourself on the tough days.

The resurgence of #travelbookclub

Something else which is also helping me is staying connected to people. Obviously this is so much easier to do these days. I feel so grateful that we have the ability to enjoy Zoom calls and Houseparty meet-ups, as well as daily Facetiming with grandparents.

However, another thing I was keen to get going again as soon as lockdown was announced was the travel book club I set up via Twitter seven years ago.

Over the last year we’d met more sporadically, as I’m busy with my little adventurer and my freelance work. But when lockdown was confirmed, I decided we’d ‘meet’ again to discuss Monisha Rajesh’s Around the World in 80 Trains. 

Although it may seem frivolous to talk about travel at the moment, escapism has always been used as a way of dealing with difficult situations. So being able to ‘jump on a train’ and explore new places was really the solace I needed right now. 

At a time when we can’t even travel to the next town, I wanted to be whisked around the world. To sit on dusty trains through Russia and Mongolia and to stare out of windows at the unknown landscapes of North Korea and Kazakhstan. In short, I wanted an escape from life.  

About Around the World in 80 Trains

As the title suggests, the book follows Rajesh and her fiancé Jem as they travel from their home city of London through Europe and on to Russia, Mongolia, North Korea, Canada, America, Kazakhstan and beyond. Along the way she portrays the people she meets, the landscapes they travel through and, most importantly, the train journeys.

Cover of Around the World in 80 Days
Around the World in 80 Days has been the perfect escape

The first question we discussed during travel book club was the phrase “it’s about the journey, not the destination”. This led on to whether Around the World in 80 Trains sells the idea of long-distance train travel.

As someone who regularly finds themselves getting travel sick on most modes of transport, I’ve always loved train travel. I appreciate the ease of it and the fact that you can set aside all responsibility of getting to a place once you board.

This book brought back so many memories about journeys I’ve made (both good and bad!). From the dirty, stinky budget trains Rajesh experiences in Russia to the opulence of the Orient Express, I loved how she brought the joys of train travel to life.

A true storyteller

The next topic we discussed was Rajesh’s style of storytelling. She is a very honest narrator, describing both the highs and lows of her journey.

I thought this was quite important, particularly on a long journey like this (which took seven months). Sometimes it feels as though we should sugarcoat our experiences when telling other people about them.

But I enjoyed reading about their down days and disappointments, as much as the moments of true joy and excitement. I’ve also now found someone who felt as underwhelmed as I did when seeing the Terracotta Warriors in China!

As with most travel books, it was the characters the couple met along the way which really made Around the World in 80 Trains. I loved many of these fleeting encounters, especially when Rajesh was able to find out about why they were taking that particular journey. Among the people who stood out to me was a Nepalese nun, who spoke no English, but was thrilled to meet Rajesh, and a very brief encounter with a girl who was arrested from their train in Thailand for an unknown reason. These tiny overlapping snippets of other people’s lives are what has always fascinated me about travelling.

Selling the journey

Another question we discussed was how making this journey as a woman of colour had affected Rajesh’s experiences and perceptions.

As a white woman, who obviously travels with a lot of privilege, Rajesh’s comments on the casual racism she encountered was really eye-opening. This came in both remarks made by fellow passengers, as well as locals in some of the countries they visited. Reading it, I felt glad that she had travelled with Jem, rather than making this journey alone.

Something else which also interested me was her self-reflection about how travelling made her question her own views. For example, she admitted that even she was in danger of “developing a white saviour complex” after wondering why the monks in Tibet had smartphones and nice trainers.

The final question of our discussion was whether the book sold any particular train routes to the readers.

I actually loved the sound of all of them, as varied as they were. Some of the ones that surprised me most were in Canada and the USA. As these are not countries I’d previously considered exploring by train.

The joy of #travelbookclub

I loved our travel book club discussion this month. It’s so hard to have any kind of conversation these days without Coronavirus creeping into it. So it felt really beneficial to set aside an hour to talk about nothing more than books and travel.

In fact, I think we all enjoyed it so much that we instantly set another date for next month.

If you’d like to join us we’re reading The Only Gaijin in the Village by Iain Maloney. We’ll be discussing it via Twitter on May 6 at 9pm, using the hashtag #travelbookclub.

If you enjoyed this review of Around the World in 80 Trains, you can purchase it from your nearest independent bookshop, from Hive  or from Amazon.

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