Reading List

A Guide to the Hitchhiker’s Galaxy

The best books, articles, and Web sites for planning your vacation or living vicariously through others.

There are many species of armchair travelers, among them bargain hunters, collectors of how-to advice, and seekers of vicarious thrills. I fall into the final category. As someone whose vacations tend toward the quiet and cultural, I don’t care to read about other people’s museum visits; instead, I crave accounts of adventures I would never contemplate.

That may explain my fondness for hitchhiking yarns. My favorite is Hitching Rides With Buddha, Will Ferguson’s record of his attempt to follow the cherry-blossom front from one end of Japan to the other relying only on his thumb and the kindness of strangers. Ferguson is a modest narrator who sprinkles profound insights into the Japanese soul among the jokes and self-deprecating shtick. Reaching the end of his journey, he realizes that “after five years in this aggravating, eccentric nation; having travelled it end to end; having worked and played and lived with the Japanese; having seen beyond the stereotypes; having come up against their obsessions and their fears, their insecurities and their arrogance, their kindness and their foibles; having experienced first-hand all the many contradictions that are Japan, I found I did not respect the Japanese as much as I used to, but I liked them a whole lot more.” I suspect most readers will finish the book feeling the same way.

McKenzie Funk and photographer Aaron Huey spent five weeks catching rides from Vladivostok to Moscow, speeding along the Trans-Siberian Highway in the company of “car shepherds,” entrepreneurs who buy used Japanese vehicles in the east, drive west to resell them, then head back to start all over again. Their 6,000-mile journey is recounted in the June/July issue of National Geographic Adventure, and it’s a tale of drivers—some nervous, some distracted, and most of them dangerous—all madly searching for the road to capitalist success. Meanwhile, in the July issue of Outside,Funk follows “confluence hunter” Greg Michaels as he tries to reach the exact spot on a remote Bolivian mountainside where 18 degrees South meets 69 degrees West. (Not familiar with confluence hunters? Their goal is to stand at “places on the earth’s surface where integer latitude and longitude lines intersect.”)

Reading stories like these always leaves me wondering why. If your questions are more practical in nature, head to the Web. My globetrotting colleague Seth Stevenson recommends Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Travel Forum as a place to glean reliable information from folks who are at or recently visited your intended destination, and Slate writer Tim Wu speaks highly of Travelfish, which promises “100% original Asia travel intelligence authored by dedicated travellers who know what they’re talking about.” At World Hum, a repository of fine travel writing, “vagabonding” pioneer Rolf Potts (who has written three great series for Slate) regularly answers reader questions, which usually fall into three categories: Should I quit my job to bum around the world; is it safe; and how much will it cost? In Salon’s “Ask the Pilot” series, Patrick Smith speaks up for the folks in the cockpit—apparently, they earn a lot less than I imagined. And if there’s one piece of information you should gather before the need arises, it’s how to use a squat toilet

The Web has taken a lot of the mystery out of planning a vacation. When selecting a hotel, you can scout the location on Google Earth, and can help you snag the best room in the joint. If you’re looking for something a little more spontaneous, try Couch Surfing, a worldwide network dedicated to forging international friendship and understanding one sleeper-sofa at a time. Of course, travel isn’t always self-indulgent. More and more Americans are using precious vacation days for medical or dental tourism or volunteering to work in the Third World.

Many sites offer tips on cultural etiquette when traveling abroad, but my favorite source is Why Come to Slaka?, Malcolm Bradbury’s guidebook for the Eastern European country he invented for his international campus comedy Rates of Exchange. Among its many pieces of sage advice, the slim volume warns, “In Slaka tippings are officially forbidden. However, taxidermists, porters, chambermaidens, factotums, valets, bussboys, sommeliers, pyrukists, and hatchekkin girls in particular regard it as a severe insult not to be tipped by the traditional 25%.”