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Find a Destination to Travel Again – With Books


It might be the weather. It might be the vaccination numbers. It may also be the books, but I am ready to armchair travel again thanks to Karen Swan and Xiaolu Guo.

Travel to Costa Rica with The Secret Path

If you ever want to live vicariously though a fictional character or travel to exotic locations, then Karen Swan is the author for you. While The Secret Path begins in the U.K, you spend a lot of time in Costa Rica.

Through main character Tara Tremain, who spent weeks in Costa Rica with her younger brother and father, we see the destination through her eyes as an adult who hasn’t been there in 10 years.

A decade earlier, Tara was betrayed by her then-finance Alex Carter.  She had hoped to stay away forever, but a family event that can’t be missed, pulls her back. When she arrives back, she realizes how much she missed it.

“Tara stood at the top of the steps and stared out, but not even the San Jose Highlands were visible on this inky night, and the stars remained obscured from sight by the intense blaze of city lights. She took a lungful of the warm air instead, as if the foreignness of her new environs could be tasted, even if not seen. It seemed woody compared to the granular minerality of London, somehow heavier and more dense, and she felt her blood gently warm.”

Tara, her brother and their friends are picked up by Jed, a man who looks after the wealthy Tremain family while staying in his country. The final destination lacks Internet connect, but it has beauty – and escape.

“Everyone always seemed to react in the same way when they stepped into the tropic forest for the first time. First their gaze went up, looking for a star-freckled sky that could not only be glimpsed in small pieces; then their arms when out as they slowly revolved on the spot. It seemed almost a spiritual response, as though for once, the body was being driven by the soul.”

While her friend Holly suggested she was never going back to the U.K., Tara suggests the coming rainy season will change her tune quite quickly.

 For Tara, the place is where she feels most herself and she takes a moment to breathe it all in.

“She could smell the sweet scient of orchids and the rich, woody earth; she could hear yellow-throated toucans yelping, thought she glimpsed a flash of bright feathers as a parakeet flew between the canopies, heard the chatter of monkeys not too far away. She felt the forest vibrate and hum in her bones, staking its claim in heart again and telling her she shouldn’t have stayed away so long.”

Tara and her friends stay at some cottages that don’t have much more than a bed with mosquito netting. But it does have a view.

“…To register that the sight before her was actually real – the charcoal black sand, cerulean sea, green macaws sitting in the palm trees, the sun-bleached striped hammocks slung between slanted trees. If it looked like a stock screensaver image, it was because in fact it was her screensaver image. If she was having a bad shift or a rough day, it always gave her a lift to be reassure that this place was real, to know that she could actually come here and escape.”

The ocean with its creatures breaching the surface before being swallowed back in, to the animals in the jungle who are there for a moment and then gone if you look again, Costa Rica brings Tara and the reader joy. Much like her growing up years, Tara doesn’t spend much time in typical tourist destinations, instead visiting places only the locals go – waterfalls with rivers feeding into them; enjoying traditional breakfast – Gallo Pinto, beans and rice with plantains and egg, which is to Costa Ricans what eggs and bacon are to English: “instant comfort in a bowl.”

While on holidays, Tara gets pulled back in Alex’s radar when she works to save a child who is dying, trekking through the jungle to get a plant said to cure what is making the boy sick.

“Now with dusk falling, the forest was becoming even louder – emerald cicada scratched, sending a deafening hum into the sky, monkeys shrieked, parakeets flapped and cawed, tapirs shuffled heavily through the undergrowth. Everything could be heard, but almost nothing was seen; life teemed and pulsed just out of reach – a flash of colour here, a slow blink in the leaves there. They walked in a line behind Jed, below the giant ceiba trees, watched – as per his instructions – where they put their feet. If there was beauty here there was also peril – coral snakes, Brazilian wandering spiders; although not much as nasty, according to Jed, as the red caterpillars that would get them if they sunbathed in the shade of almond trees.”

Tara understands how dangerous the jungle can be – spiders, crocodiles, jaguars, monkeys that throw rocks and fruit at your head and bullet ants that have a nasty bite. However, there is also beauty – 20,000 shades of green, monkey’s looping through branches and exotic birds.

“Back home, nature was something to clip, tame and suppress into submission with perfectly clipped box balls, artful sprays of lavender and erect tulips. Here, everything ran riot, sprang up, toppled over and spread out, fought like toddlers, for air, rain, light…”

But in the end there is always Pura Vida,
“to be happy, to be rooted to be here.”

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

When a Chinese woman moves to London, U.K., to complete her PhD, she arrives to a country in political turmoil. She is also lonely – a new person in a new place. Eventually she meets a man who was born and raised in Australia before moving to Germany and finally staying in the U.K. We see the U.K., China, Australia and even Germany from the lovers’ memoires as well as fragments of their conversations.

When the Chinese woman first arrives, she books an Airbnb with the idea of walking to King’s College. She soon realizes London is not a place for walkers.

“Making my way through the dense city was like walking a tightrope strung across a raging torrent of traffic.”

The woman feels lonely in London, commenting the nights are long when you neither drink at one of its pubs or watch sports. The woman often walks, eventually finding herself on the canal and sitting in front of a lock-keeper’s cottage, which she acknowledges is not beautiful, at least not in her eyes, but feels like a homecoming.

“For  me, the idea of a beautiful scene was associated with a typical Chinese landscape – bamboo and water lilies by a temple or a wild mountain. Never this kind of industrial landscape. But this lock-keeper’s cottage and quietly flowing water soothed me… made me feel less alien in this city.”

By July, the man and woman have met and are living together. The woman notices how London changes its appearance by early summer, with heat that warms her body and flowers brightening up once-grey buildings.

The couple eventually move onto a houseboat on the Grand Canal, which makes the woman laugh. She remembers studying at university in Beijing and how different that Grand Canal is.

In London, the water stills as algae takes over, stealing the ducks and killing fish.

A marked difference in Beijing when in the summer it was very warm, the sun piercing and the air dry “even though only two months later it would snow heavily. A desert climate, I later learned. There were old willow trees standing beside the Grand Canal, their trunks bending and their long branches coming down to the water with elongated leaves swinging back and forth. The water was yellow – it was the colour of the sandy and muddy Yellow River nearby.”

The woman remembers they were told it was forbidden to use boats on the canal, which was the first of many things she found forbidden there – no protests, no marches, no CNN news.

Through another conversation, one of many about finding a home, the man talks about Germany word called Fernweh, which translates to distance pain, an ache or a lust for a place where you want to belong.” The English translation, on the other hand, means more of a wanderlust or travel lust. The woman replies by saying while the word is unfamiliar, the feeling of lust over pain is not. The man suggests he dreams about living in a tropical land with lush vegetation and a sea or mountain around him. The woman tells him she once went to Australia, which sounds like his dream.

“When we stepped out of the plane, I felt that my skin was melting in the hot wind. We were dispatched to a hostel near the beach. There were mango trees everywhere. That was the first time I had ever seen a real mango trees in my life. Those mangos were golden-yellow and ripe with a strong sweet smell. The air was heavy with their odour. Next evening , I sat on the porch eating my supper, and saw those big bats flying in between the mango trees. I could visualize the scene right now, the waves in the distance and the wind. I remembered the wind was so special there, mixed with the scent of ripe fruit and the salty sea.”

The couple visit Queensland in November. Days are long, time seems stretched.

“The sunrays painted leaves inky green, black-and-white magpies stood on treetops mysteriously. …In the distance, the sea appeared. The real blue foamy sea, without much algae, without the ducklings we had lived with side by side. This was a sea with strong oceanic swells, and occasionally dangerous sea life.”

They visit the man’s aunt and uncle who live on a small island called Coochiemudlo Island, near Moreton Bay by the Port of Brisbane in the South Pacific. The woman thinks if feels like an island adrift, but the view is beautiful with their relative’s home is right near the water’s.

“This landscape somehow guarantees a decent life – not highbrow, not sophisticated, but agreeable.”

A copy of A Lover’s Discourse and The Secret Path are from PGC Books. My opinions are my own.



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