Meandering through a region that isn’t your own, you do find yourself with some time on your hands. Especially if you’re really only there in a touristic capacity, especially if there are glorious beaches with not much to do and especially if you’ve been ordered to relax by the doctors (damaged rib – nothing serious). So, of course, the simple book becomes the vehicle of entertainment for back-packers and overlanders alike. They get finished quickly, devoured would be the correct word, given the time and space allotted to their enjoyment, and, once finished, you must hunt around for another – your hunting ground is now the tourist hotels and bars where there might be a few shelves of old and random books underneath a well scrawled sign that says ‘Book Swap’.
Browsing such a shelf is not exactly like shopping for books at home or even the internet. You are constrained by the choice available but you are released, too, by the absence of promotion, reviews and critics pointing towards one but not the other. These books have journeyed far to be found on this particular shelf at the back of a bar, at the end of a series of bars, on a quiet beach, at a remote town in the middle of Central America. Who knows their stories? – not the ones written out inside but the history that tells of their arriving here, far from their origin. Were they snapped up at an airport in the American Midwest, in a rush to get on the plane, and brought straight here? Or have they migrated slowly around the world, from Book Swap to Book Swap, outlasting the adventures of their first, brief owners and continuing their own particular earth circuit?
The choice of books available can be as predictable or as incredible as you like. For sure, are the Dorothy Sayers and Dan Browns whose worldwide ubiquity even forces them to be here . But then there are, too, utter gems by authors you have never heard of. The English language is a widespread medium of communication and many thousands of books written in, or translated to, English are published every year- at the Traveller’s Book Swap, you’ll find examples that speak of popularity in their home nation but you’ve never heard of them – they can even claim to be prime examples of a genre you didn’t even know existed.
Two excellent examples that have passed through my hands:
The first has all the creative detail of a film by Terry Gilliam, while the second must surely have been one of the first cyber-punk novels. Both of these books were written decades ago and are of the “can’t put down” variety… Without the Traveler’s Book Swap, I doubt if I would have ever had the chance to pick them up…
[We’re doing our reading in Boquete, Panama – the (literally) coolest place in Panama to hang out for a while before we hit the big city…]