From Conrad’s Lord Jim to Stevenson’s Treasure Island, there has long been a great tradition in literature about taking off to travel the world–usually to some place hot and tropical. Whether it is about expatriates, travelers, or people just on the run, stories of finding happiness on a deserted beach have long fascinated me. The books listed here are some of my personal favorites. They encouraged my own travels and eventually inspired me to write about those journeys. I advise some caution when reading them, though. You may find yourself packing a bag and boarding a flight before you know it.
- Tales from Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffett (1989) Buffett, the Caribbean troubadour and barefoot CEO of an entertainment and restaurant empire, has written a number of best selling books. This one is his first and my favorite. It is a volume of semi-related stories where the main characters all have a yearning to run away to the tropics, whether it be Key West, the Caribbean islands, New Orleans, Mexico or Mississippi. Reading these stories will make you want to quit your job and head south.
- Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk (1965) When Cheri and I first told our friends about moving to Mexico to run a small hotel many responded by asking “Have you read “Don’t Stop the Carnival?” We had, and we still wanted to go. Wouk is famous for his novels The Caine Mutiny and Winds of War. However in the mid-1950s he decided to leave it all behind and buy a hotel in the Caribbean. His adventures, or rather his misadventures, formed the basis for this novel. Funny, sad and puzzling, it shows the difficulties for an American to adapt to life in the third world where the pain of living is countered with a never ending party.
- On Mexican Time by Tony Cohan (2000) Tony Cohan and his wife abandoned life in the fast lane of Los Angeles to set up housekeeping in the expat artist retreat of San Miguel de Allende, México. He relates with great humor that difficult task that each gringo experiences in adjusting to a country that seems to stand still a great part of the time. He appreciates the beauty of a culture that puts family and friendship above earning money but suffers the aggravation of a society that puts no emphasis on efficiency or responsibility. The duality of Mexico is wonderfully portrayed in this book.
- The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost (2004) When his wife is given a job working on a tiny island in the South Pacific, Troost thinks he is moving to paradise. However, once there he is woefully out of his element: scornful of a way of life which dresses men in sarongs, considers an old recording of the Macarena as the best music ever and dissolves in panic when the weekly beer boat delivery is late. He is also bothered by the fact that the beautiful tropical beach near his house doubles as the public latrine. However, eventually he comes to understand the locals, then to love them and finally to join them by “going native.” This memoir is an entertaining and absorbing meeting of cultures story.
- In Search of Captain Zero by Alan Weisbacker (2002) Weisbacker has lived enough lives for several people: surf bum, big time drug smuggler, television and movie scriptwriter, creator of “Miami Vice” and best selling author. At the age of fifty he decided to go looking for his long lost surf buddy and smuggling partner, Captain Zero. In a camper with only his dog for company, Weisbacker starts south through Mexico and beyond heading for the tropical jungle where Captain Zero was last seen. Along the way he ponders the zen of surfing, the differences between tourists and travelers, life in the Third World and ultimately issues of age, friendship and the meaning of life.
- A Pirate Looks at Fifty by Jimmy Buffett (1999) This nonfiction work is a combination autobiography and a journal of Jimmy’s trip around the edges of the Caribbean in a seaplane to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Navigating through Central and South America, Jimmy heads from Florida to the Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, Colombia and the Amazon River. He talks about a life which led him not only to become a successful author and performer, but also took him on an endless adventure through the tropics. Jimmy’s love for life and the places it can take you is infectious and fun.
- Dirty Blonde and Half Cuban by Lisa Wixon (2005) A novel about an upper class American girl who discovers in her early twenties that her real father is a Cuban man her mother loved long ago. Determined to meet him, she travels to Cuba where she becomes entranced by the heritage she never knew she had. As she searches Havana for her father, knowing only his first name, she ends up embracing the street life of young Cubans and, like many of her new friends, becomes a prostitute for rich Europeans visiting the island. The paradox of a country proud of its revolutionary leader and despising of its own corrupt and inefficient government is an eye opener for the main character and the reader alike.
- The Fire Never Dies: One Man’s Raucous Romp Down the Road of Food, Passion and Adventure by Richard Sterling (2001) Travel can be about many things: cooking, eating, sex, adventure, love, sailing, flying, and discovery not only of new places but of ourselves. These stories by travel writer and food connoisseur Sterling touch on all of these things and more as he journeys from the tiny pueblo of Mulege in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula (one of our favorite “secret” places), to southeast Asia, Africa, India and Europe. The author dines on exotic meals and romances even more exotic women. The stories sometimes border on the fantastic, and are presented in a Hemingway-esque style of machismo, but always with tongue in cheek and an obvious enthusiasm for the next strange place or person the world might put in his path.
- Please Write for Details by John D. MacDonald (1959) The late John MacDonald was known as the creator of the Travis McGee mystery series and one of the giants of the mystery genre. However in the late 1950’s he wrote this little novel (long out of print and available only in used editions) about a summer art school in Mexico. The plot takes a back seat to the character studies of the local Mexicans, the expats who run the school and the visiting American students who react to Mexico in many different ways. The interplay of personalities and cultures make for great reading and the portrayal of the different types of people drawn to visit or live in Mexico is right on target.