Traveling immerses us in the world, but sometimes in the less eventful moments in between destinations, we just need to escape. “The Layover” is a weekly roundup of books, music, podcasts, and other forms of entertainment brought to you by your favorite world travelers.
This week, we reached out to Scott Keyes, who’s certainly no beginner when it comes to traveling from place to place. Scott is the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a website and email service that scours the web for the best flight deals and alerts its tens of thousands of subscribers to inexpensive airfare all around the world. Today, Scott discusses the entertainment he turns to during travel’s quieter moments.
It’s hard to achieve something unique in the golden age of podcasts, but Dan Carlin does just that with “Hardcore History.” Kitschy name aside — though, who am I to judge with “Scott’s Cheap Flights” — “Hardcore History” walks listeners through some of the most vivid periods in human history, typically periods of immense war and bloodshed.
I got hooked on the podcast in 2016, gorging on “Blueprint for Armageddon” (about World War I) and “Wrath of the Khans” (about the Mongol Empire) while traipsing around New York City. Whenever I’m in a new city, I like to walk around aimlessly for miles on end, but my predilection for multitasking makes me feel bad if I’m just doing one thing, so for a year or so, I found refuge during my long walks with “Hardcore History.”
What sets Carlin’s podcast apart is the impeccable primary-source research he weaves through each episode — in fact, he litters the show with first-hand accounts and diaries produced by a variety of sources, from privates to generals. This is not a podcast for a quick historical overview; each episode is three-plus hours long, and many are multi-episode series. That said, the length gives Carlin ample opportunity for colorful flourish and leaves the final product much more memorable than other podcasts.
The New Yorker
It takes quite a bit of faith to read a magazine from cover to cover, including articles on subjects that typically fall outside your interests. But if you ever run into me on a plane, chances are you’ll see me reading every word of a back issue of the New Yorker, dog-earing fascinating articles to recommend to others. The variety and unpredictability of the publication’s stories feel on-brand with an adventure to a new land — I’m not always sure what I’ll encounter, but I’m excited for the journey. Most of the stories are serious, but plenty are light-hearted, like this classic on a sub-market NYC apartment that got “rented” to multiple people.
I keep an ongoing document of the good writing tidbits I come across, and at this point, the New Yorker takes up at least 25 percent of it. One morsel from Calvin Trillin about food in Oaxaca — “Eating, say, iguana spleen strikes me as sort of like bungee jumping: the point is not to do it but to have done it” — even inspired me to move to the southern Mexican city a few years ago. Thanks, Calvin.
“The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner
The science and study of happiness is as fuzzy as it is central to our humanity. We all want to be happy, yet we know so little about what causes happiness.
I think about this often when traveling, trying to glean hints and lessons from places foreign to my own, but former NPR reporter Eric Weiner took a more systematic approach in “the Geography of Bliss,” traveling around the globe to discover the happiest — and unhappiest — places, and why they are that way.
I read this book a month before embarking on my own year-long travel adventure around the world. Of course, there’s validation in reading about someone else’s journey while taking your own, but what resonated with me most was how the book tackled the relationship between happiness and money.
“Throughout the ages and around the world, people paid lip service to that old saw about money not buying happiness and then proceeded to act precisely as if it does,” Weiner writes. After traveling to dozens of countries and finding that the happiest people are those who are frequently engaged with their neighbors, Weiner concludes that money doesn’t just isolate us from others — “It enables us to build walls, literal and figurative, around ourselves. We move from a teeming college dorm to an apartment to a house and, if we’re really wealthy, to an estate. We think we’re moving up, but really, we’re walling off ourselves.”
I think back on this book often when I’m traveling, especially in areas of extreme wealth and extreme population density, and I find myself wondering who has found more happiness.
“Whack World” by Tierra Whack
Let me preface this by saying I’m not typically one for albums. I usually prefer individual songs, but when my friend Duncan recommended “Whack World” by Tierra Whack on a recent trip to Memphis, I found myself smashing the repeat button on the flight home.
“Whack World” is no ordinary album. It’s 15 minutes long and made up of 15 very different 60-second songs. (Also, the full-album music video is as compelling and unique as the songs themselves.) I’ve never been much good at finding the words to properly describe music, and it feels insufficient just to say that the songs are incredibly original, but I found a kinship with this album while adventuring around the world — each song a snippet, each trip a small window. It’s an endless tapas feast, but no single song or dish or journey will fill you up. Where before you thought you needed a meal, this album teaches you to be satisfied with just a taste. You learn to put beauty in a frame.