$16.95True Stories from Around the World
“Travelers’ Tales books luxuriate in that complicated, beautiful, shadowy place where the best stories begin, and the most compelling characters roam free.”
“Even as a veteran traveler, I found new revelations here.”
—Herbert Gold, from the Introduction
The Best Travel Writing 2006 is the third volume in the annual best Travelers’ Tales series launched in 2004 to celebrate the world’s best travel writing—from Nobel Prize winners to emerging writers. These 33 stories cover the globe, from sailing with pirates in the Java Sea to surviving a sandstorm in the Sahara and wrestling with sex addiction in Thailand. The points of view and perspectives are global, and themes encompass high adventure, spiritual growth, romance, absolute hilarity and misadventure, service to humanity, and encounters with exotic cuisine.
In The Best Travel Writing 2006 readers will:
- Encounter a million years of memory in the Galapagos with Bill Belleville
- Hitchhike to Lhasa on a harrowing journey with Pamela Logan in Tibet
- Discover the meaning of “Fiji Time” with Joel Simon in Fiji
- See a lifelong dream rekindled and realized with Rozalia-Maria Tellenbach in Switzerland
- Participate in the annual pig slaughter, the matanza, in Spain with Art Lester
- Find love, chaos, and fabulous food with a dramatic Kurd in Turkey with Trici Venola
- Discover the place you could be looking for with Thomas Swick in Bangkok
- Find a soul mate in a curandera, a traditional healer, in Mexico with Laura Resau
- Encounter links between the present and past, between the oldest road in the world in Tanzania and a café in San Francisco, with Phil Cousineau…and much more.
Behold, here is a man doing battle in his khaki-clad peripatetic soul to overcome impulses toward jealousy as he reads accounts by Bob Guccione Jr. (Vatican City), Alain De Botton and Rozalia-Maria Tellenbach (Switzerland), Laura Resau, Peter Heller, and Marianne Rogoff (Mexico), Bill Belleville (Galapagos), Constance Hale (Italy), Pankaj Mishra (Venice), Jeff Greenwald (Israel), and Phil Cousineau (San Francisco), all places he has traveled to and written about. Hey, editors, what for do you need these other writers? Just collect my collected and uncollected sublime words.But now comes a reluctant confession. Even as a veteran traveler, I found new revelations here, entertainment and depth in the perspectives of writers who are, to their eternal credit, not me.
Vladimir Nabokov, asked who were his favorite contemporary American writers, answered, “Several.”
He shook his head. “Anonymous praise hurts nobody.”
I have a few favorite stories in this book, but I’ll only mention that I chose to read Bill Belleville’s “A Million Years of Memory” first because Galapagos is one of my favorite destinations. I found this observation: “They tell me reptiles don’t dream….but I wonder: Do they even need to, out here in an enchanted place that is still part dream itself?” In a personal nose-to-nose staredown with an iguana, I was almost smart enough to have Mr. Belleville’s excellent think; I salute him for having it.
Many times in this book I came on observations that brought past travels back vividly to mind or made me want to see if I had enough frequent-flier mileage to head off to a new place, boots packed and old Banana Republic shirts stowed. (Also, don’t forget vitamins and Pepto Bismol.)
Most of these narratives offer an occasion for the blessed a-hah reaction, as in:
A-hah! Now I see—taste, hear, experience—something I would not otherwise have known. In a few cases, I had the less blessed Oh no! reaction, as in: What were the editors thinking of? But that’s part of the fun of a collection, just as part of a successful host’s party comes during the ride home: Why did he invite that one? We measure our taste against that of another. We take pleasure in perspectives we did not choose ourselves. It’s another form ofa-hah. Armchair traveling is a way of discovering both the magic of evocative words and, more practically, where we might want to go next vacation time.
As a crazed Haiti addict, my eyes, ears, and even my brain become more alert if someone reports visiting the Caribbean. Once I asked a couple home from a cruise: Did you stop in Haiti?
The husband turned to his wife: “Was that Number One or Number Two?”
The travel writers in this book are not folks who stop only long enough to buy the t-shirt, the mahogany salad forks, the bottle of rum.
Another gentleman on an airplane, recognizing that I had written about Paris and France, wanted to know where I ate when I was in Paris, “the capital of misery and the paradise of hope.” I tried to answer: cafés, bistros, markets, brasseries, even restaurants. He wanted the names of the best ones, plus star menu attractions. I tried to say that I looked for comfort, affability, art, and adventure, not four-, five-, or nine-star cooking. “You mean you don’t go for the cuisine?” No, there’s cuisine everywhere now. The conversation ended with mutual sullen silence, his because he felt I was keeping the great cuisine for myself, mine because I tend to be sullen anyway.
As the wheels were lowered to land, I recommended to my seatmate that he buy a copy of George Orwell’s great book, Dining Out in Paris and London.
The writers in this book are not offering recipes to sample. They are travelers, writers, deep in the state of anecdotage. They go where they go (quoting a French beatnik who came to San Francisco to learn to speak American) in order to “dig ze scene.” They discover the compensations for jet lag and conniving cab drivers. They are making the scene and reinventing it for us.
An underappreciated benefit of travel is jet lag, which administers educational doses of melancholy, regret, night-wandering, and nostalgia; and then, when it lifts, the ardent visitor appreciates life in his or her home place or designated destination with the fresh eyes of recovery. Once, pre-melatonin, I wrote an article in praise of time zone-leaping jet lag, arguing that the best remedy is just to relax and enjoy it. Anyway, like most marriages, eventually it ends.
The letters home of good travelers like those in this book are personal confessions of rediscovery of the world as a wise child discovers it, all new, filled with possibility. When I took my children one by one to Haiti, their obligation was to write every day in the blank journals we bought as we left. (“Dad,” recently complained my ten-year-old daughter, now more than ten, “why didn’t you stop me from writing about Haitian kittens?” But “The Kittens of Haiti” account is a record of her concerns at age ten, which may be why there are no ten-year-old essayists represented in this collection.
My only objection to this admirable anthology, full of playfulness and insight, novel perspectives and quirky charm, is that there is no adventurous report on that bewildering stepchild of the Western world, Haiti. I happen to know just the writer for the job. He has a gray and grizzled face which has seen too much sun and stares back at me in the mirror when I brush my sharp and expensively-tended teeth. Home office phone number will be supplied upon request.
Herbert Gold is the author of Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth; Bohemia; and many novels, including Fathers and the forthcoming My First Murder.
I saw the Dalai Lama recently at the annual American Himalayan Foundation dinner in San Francisco, and he underscored what seems to me the most important of all the very good reasons to travel. The others on stage with him (former President Jimmy Carter and Dick Blum, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband) were talking in the usual generalities, politician-style, about the importance of education, when His Holiness added in his wonderful gutteral Tibetan-accented English: “Education yes very important. But brilliant mind linked with negative emotion…very dangerous. So—what we need also is education of warm heart.” And of course the way he said it, everyone in the room got it. Talk about communicating a powerful idea that washed away all prattle!
So without further ado, let me just say that here in these pages, in stories from all over the world, lies such an education.
Music of the Storm
Sex, God, and Rock ’n’ Roll
Bob Guccione Jr.
Dustin W. Leavitt
Blinded by Science
Full Moon over Bohemia
The Discreet Charm of the Zurich Bourgeoisie
Alain de Botton
The First Kiva
The Place You Could Be Looking For
Clutching My Soul in Paradise
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Bees Born of Tears
LITHUANIA, POLAND, HUNGARY
Dying with Custer
A Million Years of Memory
A Time to Kill
Riding with the King
The Isle of the Mushroom King
A Fine Kettle of Fish
In the North Woods
Reading Between the Arches
West Meets East
Lady with an Ax
The Oldest Road in the World
SAN FRANCISCO AND TANZANIA
The Oldest Road in the World
by Phil Cousineau
We are all walking the ancient path.
On this moon-fled night what I’ve learned while looking up something else—is that the oldest road in the world is in danger of being lost.
I’m hunkered down over a glass of chianti at Mario’s, my local North Beach café, riffling through the pages of an old magazine when my eyes bulge under the weight of the following words:
“A project is underway to preserve a ninety-foot-long trail of human footprints in northern Tanzania that, scientists say, provide the only proof that man walked upright as many as 3.5 million years ago.”
I read on to learn that in 1977, on the barren plain of Laetoli, two archaeologists on a team led by paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey were “larking about”—hurling dry elephant dung at each other—during a playful camp fight. One of the scientists tumbled and by sheer chance noticed some peculiar indentations in the dusty ground underneath him. Thousands of years of erosion had exposed the imprints of plants, animals, even raindrops that had hardened to stone through the millennia. Further excavation revealed that the animal prints had been made when they tramped over fresh ash from the nearby Sandiman volcano while the ground was still wet with rain, and over the millennia the ash set like concrete.
Two years later, Leakey herself discovered an even more tantalizing print—a single heel print she was convinced belonged to a hominid. Eventually she uncovered a veritable trail seventy-seven feet across the Laetoli Plain. Two or even three individuals had walked this way millions of years ago. Leakey surmised that the two larger ones were ambling side by side shortly after the violent blast, one slightly behind, unwittingly leaving a few prints behind them in the wet ash. The prints of the third, evidently a child, were laid, in places over the larger tracks.
Ingeniously, Leakey noticed that one of the prints left by the female turned outward, a single stutter step the scientist interpreted as a brief pause when the female looked over her shoulder. To listen to the rumble of the volcano while the ash fell all around her? To check on her child as lightning sundered the sky? To better hear the growl of a predator?
What moves me most about this serendipitous discovery is Leakey’s own description of what she saw through the scrim of time, what she read through her own fingerprints when she touched those antediluvian footprints:
“This motion, so intensely human, transcends time…a remote ancestor—just as you or I—experienced a moment of doubt.”
In the hopes of preserving this eerily human moment—and the compelling evidence of transition from “four-limbed arboreal life” to “two-legged travel”—Leakey’s team covered the fossil trail with polythene and river sand. But over time termites have chewed through the plastic. Acacia seeds hidden in the sand have grown into trees. Their roots are destroying the trail. Twenty years later, twenty-nine of the original sixty-nine footprints have eroded. The rest remain buried under river sand. Plans for the surviving roadbed range from surgically excising the tree roots and injecting acrylic into the prints, to covering it over with concrete, or even transferring the entire road to a museum in the shadow of the Sandiman volcano.
I finish the article and am overcome, as if I’ve swerved back and forth several million years in a matter of minutes. Why am I feeling such a cascade of emotion? Why all the concern over a trail left by unknown ancestors while Africa reels under relentless cycles of famine, slave trading, and warfare? Because “genetic memory,” as Richard Leakey has suggested, is the source of our fascination with prehistory? Out of the intellectual pleasure that the “unambiguous evidence for upright walking” means that locomotion may be the adaptation that set our ancestors apart? Or is it due to some vague sense of nostalgia for the original home of the whole human race?
I gaze through the red and yellow neon lit window of the café, and across the street to tree-lined Washington Square Park. In one corner looms a statue memorializing the fireman who have saved San Francisco time and time again. In another corner looms a monument to Juana Briones, a woman who fed the hungry after the 1906 earthquake. In a small grove lies a time capsule, not to be opened until 2079. Relaxed by the ruminations, my mind moves slantwise to an interview in which Laurens van der Post asked Carl Jung why we should be concerned about the fate of ancient cultures.
“Everyone has a 2 million-year-old man inside,” Jung replied, “if he loses contact with that he loses himself.”
Before I can figure out what he meant, I’m riven by strange dislocations of time. I’m back on the beach at Camp Dearborn, a boy of four or five. My hand is in my father’s. He is pulling me forward and I try to keep up, walking in his footprints in the hot sand, longing for the cool lake water.
He is pulling me forward.
Then once again time dilates and I’m flung forward forty years, taking my own boy’s hand and leading him down to the ocean. I’m pulling him forward. I’m looking over my shoulder and seeing him try to walk in my footsteps. He has to leap from one to the next, but he does, though the sand nearly swallows his tiny feet and his prints disappear into mine. But isn’t that the way it’s always been?
At the water’s edge he looks up to see if I’m watching him. I am. His eyes leap with joy.
It means everything to be able to remember all of this.
Phil Cousineau is a freelance writer, teacher, adventure travel leader, and documentary filmmaker. His numerous books include The Art of Pilgrimage, The Hero’s Journey, The Soul Aflame, The Olympic Odyssey, and The Book of Roads, from which this story was excerpted.
James O’Reilly, president and publisher of Travelers’ Tales, was born in England and Raised in San Francisco. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1975 and wrote mystery serials before becoming a travel writer in the early 1980s. He’s visited more than forty countries, along the way meditating with monks in Tibet, participating in West African voodoo rituals, living in the French Alps, and hanging out the laundry with nuns in Florence. He travels extensively with his wife, Wenda, and their three daughters. They live in Palo Alto, California, where they also publish art games and books for children at Birdcage Press (www.birdcagepress.com).
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries and on WorldTravelWatch.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
Sean O’Reilly is director of special sales and editor-at-large for Travelers’ Tales. He is a former seminarian, stockbroker, and prison instructor with a degree in Psychology. Author of the groundbreaking book on men’s behavior, How to Manage Your DICK, he is also the inventor of a safety device known as Johnny Upright. Widely traveled, he most recently completed a journey through China, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. He lives in Virginia with his wife and six children.