“While I Was in Other Countries, I Read Books to Take Me Out of Them”
My memoir, Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid chronicles ten years of my life living and working overseas in distant places with basic infrastructure and bare living conditions.
At home, I never read as much as I do when I’m overseas. Before a trip, I find myself nearly as excited about the time I know I’ll have to read as I am about the place where I’m headed. When you’re living in remote places without electricity or an internet connection and where you don’t speak the local language, your best companion, you only companion sometimes, is a book.
In the days before Kindles, iPads and Nooks, I jammed every spare inch of my suitcase with paperbacks, paid overweight luggage fees for the extra bulk, and lugged heavy suitcases around the globe just so that I’d have my books—my friends—with me. Sometimes during the hardest stretches, I found myself longing for them during the day, and devouring them when I returned back to my hut, tent or compound at night.
Although I could have chosen books to take with me that related to the places where I would be going, I rarely did. I preferred to read those before I went: We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow We Will be Killed With our Families by Philip Gorevich before going to Rwanda, A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power before going to Darfur, George Orwell’s Burmese Days before heading to Myanmar.
But while I was in these countries, I read books to take me out of them, as an escape, a distraction from everything going on around me. Oftentimes the books I read were in stark contrast to the places I was living: I downed Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying in two nights while living in Darfur, a place where I had to cover my head and wear long sleeves and skirts so my female figure would be hidden.
I brought Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and Portnoy’s Complaint to Pakistan. The pages of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety are crinkled and mildewed after they were left outside in a tropical Haitian downpour. I have bugs carcasses stuck to the pages of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth which I read while in the field of Sierra Leone working with child soldiers. The little ones squeezed through the holes of my bed net and swirled around the light of my headlamp until I quickly closed the book to squish them.
A lot of people leave their books behind when they go. But no matter how beat up my books were, however more difficult it would make hauling suitcases out of there on helicopters and rickety ten seater planes, I couldn’t let go of mine. I left clothing and shoes, gave away DVDs and CDs. But my books came home with me.
When I look at them on my shelf, worn and tattered, I remember the musty mattress on which I read them, the hours-long layovers when they helped me pass the time, the nights that weren’t so lonely because they were there.
Congrats to Edna R., Brian R., Dan D., Dee H., Rose P., and 20 other members of the Read It Forward community! Their entries were selected at random to win a Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander.
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