Around the World in 8 Movies

Arm Chair travel for complicated times

By Shue Gottschalk

Spontaneous international travel is still complicated in year 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic, but armchair travel is safe, easy, cheap and practical, and it can take us to areas that airplanes can’t.  Armchair travel not only sparks curiosity, fuels wanderlust, and helps formulate future plans, it also exposes us to breathtaking landscapes, magnetic personalities, and significant historical events (without leaving the comfort of our home or time period).  If you’re looking for ways to fuel your wanderlust in this time of restricted travel, you can armchair travel around the world with these movies, exploring 2 hemispheres, 6 continents, 5 deserts, 8 mountain ranges, and 50 countries. 

1.  The Motorcycle Diaries

2.  Hector and the Search For Happiness

3.  Hunt for the Wilderpeople

4.  The Way

5.  Before Sunrise

6.  The English Patient 

7.  Samsara

8.  The Way Back


9.  Everything Is Illuminated

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

Plot:  Before Ernesto “Che” Guevara was the iconic face of the Cuban Revolution, he was a 23-year-old medical student from an upper-middle class Argentinian family.  His geographic trek across the continent of South America mirrored his internal odyssey, from youthful naivety to social and political consciousness.  

Places:  South America, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Patagonia, las Pampas, the Andes, the Atacama Desert, the Amazon River, Machu Picchu (ancient city on a mountaintop)

Modes of Travel:  motorcycle, truck, horse, river barge, raft, swimming, walking

Travel Lessons:  The unexpected will always happen – learn to improvise.  Choose the right travel companion.  Recognize your privilege and help those you meet along your journey. 

SimilarKundun (1997), Before Night Falls (2000)

Hector and the Search For Happiness  (2014)

Plot:  A burned-out psychiatrist embarks on a pilgrimage across 4 continents, asking everyone he meets the same question, and he gets 20 valid answers.

Places:  the Himalayas, African savannah, China, UK, USA

Modes of Travel:  trekking, airplane, truck, taxi

Lessons:  Keep a journal to record your experiences – it may be your best souvenir.  Recognize your privilege.  Kindness matters.  

SimilarThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty  (2014), Salmon Fishing in Yemen  (2011),  One Week  (2008),  Last Holiday  (2008)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Plot:  Defying child welfare services, a delinquent foster kid goes walkabout in the New Zealand bush, causing a nationwide manhunt.

Places:  New Zealand’s North Island, Tongariro National Park

Modes of Travel:  walking, pick-up truck

Travel Lessons:  Choose the right travel partner.  Follow the path less traveled.  Unlikely friendships can flourish in moments of great loss and misfortune.

SimilarIn Bruges  (2008), Thelma & Louise  (1991),  A Perfect Getaway  (2009), Central Station  (1998)

The Way  (2011)

Plot:  A grieving father honors his estranged son by finishing the 500-mile pilgrimage route that his son started.

Places:  Galicia, Spain, el Camino de Santiago (ancient Christian pilgrimage route that terminates in Santiago de Compostela, Spain), Picos de Europa National Park

Modes of Travel:  walking

Travel Lessons:  “The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot” (Werner Herzog)

SimilarTracks  (2013), 7 Years in Tibet (1998)

Before Sunrise (1995)

Plot:  two 20-something college students meet on a European train, and explore the city of Vienna together for a day. This is the first in a movie trilogy, so (spoiler alert), Jesse and Celine meet again.

Places: Vienna, Austria

Modes of Travel:  Amtrak train, streetcar, ferris wheel, bus, boat, walking

Travel Lessons:  Be spontaneous and open to new experiences.  A willingness to strike up a conversation with a stranger can change your life.

SimilarAmelie (2001), One Week (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011)

The English Patient (1996)

Plot:  While caring for a burn patient suspected of spying during the 1943-45 Allied campaign in North Africa, a World War II nurse sets up a field hospital in an abandoned Tuscan monastery.

Places:  North Africa (Egypt, Libya), the Sahara Desert, the Cave of Swimmers, Gilf Kabir Plateau, Tuscany, Italy

Modes of Travel:  biplane, jeep, camel, walking

Travel Lessons:  With the right people, even an abandoned bombed-out building can become a home.

SimilarFirst They Killed My Father (2017), The Railway Man (2013),  Atonement  (2007), Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Samsara  (2004)

Plot:  a visual feast of natural wonders, sacred grounds, landmarks, buildings, and rituals around the world.  

Places: Angola, Brazil, China, Denmark, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Ghana, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel, Palestine, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Mali, Myanmar, Nepal, Namibia, Philippines, Botswana, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, USA

Travel Lessons:  We are more alike than different.  Travel is a feast for the senses.  You can find your adventure in your backyard.  

Similar:  My Octopus Teacher  (2021), Nomadland  (2020),  The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  (2012), Hero  (2004), Chocolat  (2000)

The Way Back  (2011)

Plot:    Prisoners escape a Siberian gulag and cross 4,000 miles of desert wasteland and mountainous terrain to freedom.

Places: Russia, Lake Baikal, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, Tibet, India

Mode:  trekking

Travel Lessons:   Unlikely friendships can flourish in moments of great loss and misfortune.  Find your family on the road.

Similar:   Life of Pi (2012), Papillon (2017)

Bonus  – in reaction to Russia’s Feb. 2022 invasion and subsequent war on Ukraine, and in acknowledgement of how war changes everything from national boundaries, landscapes, economies, communities, education, and aspirations…this bonus movie explores Ukraine. 

Everything Is Illuminated  (2005)

Plot:   A quirky collector and his hilarious local guide travel across the Ukrainian countryside to unravel the mystery behind a cryptic old photograph, and learn how family members survived the Holocost.   

Places: Ukraine 

Modes:  train, car, airplane

Travel Lessons:   The history of a place is embedded in its landscape and its people.  SimilarThe First Grader (2011), Kolya (1996)

Photos by Shue Gottschalk