Time travel

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Slipping through the door of a local neighborhood Thai restaurant in Tokyo, I found myself transported through the sights, sounds and smells of the place to the streets and khlongs of Bangkok, back to younger, adventurous days of cheap guest houses, dusty bus stations and idyllic beaches. For a few moments I lost myself in several years of past travels. I was a time traveller.

Travel in any form is a wonderful tonic for the soul. With summer approaching, I felt, however, that I needed some actual travel and ultimately decided to do it in Hawaii. When researching a destination, guide books and websites are good for the nuts and bolts stuff, obviously, but literature helps provide a sense of a place, its culture and history. So, after booking tickets to Oahu, I bought a copy of James A. Michener’s Hawaii.

I hadn’t read any of Michener’s best-sellers before. Hawaii, published in 1959, has a verbose literary style that is dated and, at a thousand pages, could use a good editor, but Michener spins an engrossing epic tale, the kind you happily get lost in. The long chapters’ episodic narratives are linked by the genealogical threads of its many characters and tell the history of the pacific islands, from the violent forces of nature that formed them over millenia, through the arrival of the first human inhabitants by canoe from Bora Bora, to the 19th Century, with the introduction of Christianity and the country’s annexation to America, and the next century, with its world war and the post-war events that culminated in Hawaii becoming the fiftieth state in the union.

The book didn’t just give me some small understanding of the historical currents that shaped Hawaii, it also reminded me of the adventure stories I enjoyed reading as a teen, when I travelled vicariously through time and space: to such places as feudal Japan and 19th Century Hong Kong with James Clavell’s Shogun and Tai-Pan; along the Mississippi River with Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; to post-war north Africa with Paul Bowles‘ The Sheltering Sky.

Removing the rose-tinted glasses, it’s clear that travel isn’t what it used to be; today it’s an eight trillion dollar industry, where travelers are herded from place to place, sights and activities are ticked off, and shopping is prime. Still, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of arriving in a new land for the first time.

Books like Hawaii aren’t fashionable these days. Mass tourism, global connectivity, streaming video services and interactive games have deemed them all but obsolete. But their fictions can still ignite the imagination and the books noted above and others like them turn readers into time travellers.