By Marybeth Bond
Years ago two simple magazine articles appeared in Outside and Self magazines about my solo travels in Asia and Africa. They generated an amazing response from female readers. Although my story intrigued them, my intuition told me that what they really wanted was support and encouragement to make their own escapes. Hence this book, which now appears in this updated edition.
As I became aware of other women’s travel experiences, I also began to be aware that women travel quite differently than men do, that we look for different things, we stop for different reasons, our goals and styles are different, and what we take from our travels is different. I also noticed that while more and more women of all ages and means are taking to the road, the majority of travel books are by men and geared to men and their view of our small blue universe. And no matter how egalitarian the writer, there are often things missing for the woman traveler and reader.
The moment we step out of the door, we are aware of the footsteps behind us. We are more concerned for our personal safety than men, and with good reason. We are haunted by different fears.
When we travel, we pause more to listen, assimilate, to move in and out of the lives of those we meet on the way. Where women go, relationships follow, from encounters with nature or special moments of connection and friendship with others.
I am reminded of a trek I took in the Himalayas, traveling with a group of men and women. When hiking through local villages, most of the men focused their cameras, snapped their pictures, and, intent on reaching their goal, hiked quickly on. The women, on the other hand, lingered, moved in closer, made eye contact (most often with other women), sometimes cooing over a child or going as far as rocking a baby.
Most women travelers I know try to learn enough words in the local language to say not just “How much?” or “How far?” but “Nice home. Beautiful jewelry,” or ask “How many children? Boys or girls? How old?” Silent bonds develop through smiles and gestures. Women easily play the fool to bring laughter to groups of children or adults with puppets, wind-up toys, or dancing the Hokey Pokey.
Women love to talk. But we also love to listen to each other’s experiences, joys, and heartbreaks. And we love to do it whether we’re on the road or at home, gathered at the well, in a café, or on the telephone sharing a good story. In A Woman’s World, I’ve gathered contemporary stories that describe the inner and outer panoramas of women’s journeys.
In this anthology women relate their most intimate travel experiences, from the absurd to the sublime. They range from a villa in Acapulco to a village in Cameroon, a haircut in Beijing to a bus ride through the American West. In one story, a pilgrim has a spiritual awakening at the sanctuary of the Mother Goddess in France, in another a woman fishes for marlin in memory of her father, in another a woman struggles with menopause in a Borneo jungle.
The authors come from many walks of life. They are writers, doctors, teachers, nurses, athletes, young and old, mothers and grandmothers, novice and well-seasoned travelers, women traveling alone, in a couple, in a group. But whatever their background or mode of travel, in each story a female voice resonates: a ten-year-old gives her perspective of a plane ride to Europe, an arthritic senior shoots the rapids in the Grand Canyon with her daughter, a young woman swims the Bering Strait on the very edge of life.
The reader response has been enthusiastic and passionate.
“Sometimes in the frenetic pace of my everyday world, I lose that part of me that is so uniquely female,” one reader wrote. “A Woman’s World reawakened that wonderful place inside of me—and reminded me that I share it with every other woman out there. A Woman’s World made me feel good about being a woman.”
Another letter read, “This was more than a book about travel for me—it was a book about living, about feeling, about learning, about loving. There are times in our lives when we all feel alone. I was at one of those places in my life when I read your book. What wonderful therapy! I came away still feeling alone, but feeling my strength in being a woman alone—and loving it.”
A school librarian in Dyersburg, Tennessee lent the book to a friend who read one story a day to her dying mother. She wrote that her friend found the stories were both healing and life-affirming.
A high school English teacher used the book with her students to contrast with Lord of the Flies, in which there are no female characters. The teacher wrote, “Thank you for providing young women with confident, capable, adventurous role models as they move through a period of upheaval in their lives, the teenage years.”
Such heartfelt words inspired us to release this updated edition with a few minor changes. My new contributions to A Woman’s World reflect my evolving life journeys, from two years of solo travel around the world when I was in my late twenties (which was at a time of remarkable intellectual and personal freedom), to my recent travels with my husband, children, and girlfriends.
After I appeared, with my book Gutsy Women, on The Oprah Winfrey Show on a segment about “Sabbaticals for the Soul,” I renewed my efforts to urge women to take time off to revive themselves. As demonstrated throughout this book, many women use travel as the cocoon stage in which to grow, discover themselves, and make changes that would be harder to make at home.
As women, our voices, our words, and our stories help us understand and celebrate our collective experience and individual strengths. In these pages we share our stories of success and vulnerability, thereby sharing vital knowledge, encouragement, and confidence—even, yes, wisdom.
Whether you read one or all the stories in this book, may something in these voices touch you, inspire you, and open a door.
A Woman’s World: An Introduction
by Dervla Murphy
A Woman’s World records a piquant variety of experiences: probing a mother-daughter relationship in Guatemala; finding the answer to “some deep nostalgia” in Bhutan; being absorbed into a New Delhi family; coming to terms with a major emotional crisis on the Great Barrier Reef; learning from the attitudes of fellow patients in a rural Javanese hospital; self-testing, on several levels, during a long-distance bus journey through America; fighting depression by camping out alone in below-freezing temperatures…. What next? Eagerly one turns the pages to find out. And gradually a tendency to use travel as therapy emerges.
In times past, women also used travel as therapy—but less self-consciously. For centuries traveling abroad was the only acceptable form of rebellion available to the nicely-brought-up woman. Well, fairly acceptable; it did mark her as eccentric but not actually immoral. Or at least not provably so, for who could know what she might get up—or down—to in far-flung places.… The relief of escaping from their conventional domestic role is palpable in the writings of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Margaret Fountaine, Lucy Duff Gordon, Isabelle Eberhardt, Lady Anne Blunt, Alexandra David-Neel, Isabella Bird, and very many others less well-known but no less enterprising.
During the imperial/colonial era women’s insouciant adaptability to unfamiliar, and often disconcerting, cultures and climates showed up the essential timidity of most of their male contemporaries. On the whole, men had to impose their way of life on a territory before they could feel at ease; they sought to dominate, convert, exploit, “improve.” The average woman traveler was—and, as this book proves, still is—much more responsive to the individuals met en route, more interested in the minutiae of their daily lives, in local social problems, in the subtle nuances of family life as it has been variously molded by different religions and economic or climatic conditions.
Nowadays the only restraints put on women’s rovings are self-imposed; they no longer have to rebel before taking off for Far-Flungery. Yet I often get letters, from women of all ages, plaintively admitting, “I would love to do what you do but I haven’t got the courage.” This greatly bothers me, as a measure of how unliberated some women remain. (From men I get letters saying, “I’m going to do what you did, please can you advise me on X, Y, or Z.”)
The notion that women traveling alone are more at risk than men is difficult to dislodge from our mass-consciousness. I, however, believe the reverse to be true, in places as yet uncorrupted by tourists. The solo woman traveler—there is a nice irony here—brings out the best in the male chauvinists who populate remote regions. At home she is seen as a model of “liberation”: independent, innovative, resourceful, self-assured. Away out in the wilds, where no one has ever heard of feminism and would spit if they had, she is safe not because she is resourceful and self-assured but because she is seen as a member of the weaker sex, needing protection. In areas where the lone male might arouse suspicions of their motive for being there, and/or covetousness of his few possessions, the lone female need not worry. Perceived as vulnerable, she won’t be hurt.
But what about rape? Many of my unknown correspondents, living in societies so shattered that rape has become a hobby, give that as their reason for fearing to travel. Some register incredulity when told that in unshattered rural societies, bound by tradition, rape is not a hobby and solitary women are not fair game. They may be approached by hopeful men who fancy them, but that is no threat. Having politely to decline sexual advances in Baltistan, Coorg, or Ecuador is no more stressful than having politely to decline them in San Francisco, London, or Paris. In my experience the only exceptions to the above are Eastern Turkey and the adjacent northwestern corner of Iran. There you must exert yourself to avoid rape; bring a heavy stick and don’t hesitate to wield it with vigor.
As a sexagenarian, approaching the end of a lifetime of travel, I am alarmed by a new hazard in the way of the itchy-footed young. Moving around the world has become so easy, and organized tourism is so pervasive that it is hard to be a genuine traveler rather than a tourist. Hard but not impossible. And the effort is well worthwhile, especially for women who like to go it alone.
Each individual has to devise her own adventure, sitting at home poring over the atlas, being personally ignited by the notion of here or there. Real travel is not a consumer item, it is a private, idiosyncratic thing, the traveler feeling the urge to go forth, unprotected, to confront the unfamiliar, and being happy to accept modifications—hitherto unimaginable—of the standards and prejudices with which she left home. That unprotected confrontation of the unfamiliar, implying trust of one’s fellow beings, is what makes traveling a mutually enriching experience. “Primitive” people are not just there to be photographed. They have much to teach us citizens of the over-developed West. Unlike us, they are still plugged in to the physical, mental, and emotional realities of ordinary human existence. By insisting on bringing our own world with us, by refusing to share in their daily lives, we waste our journeys. If organized tourism becomes the norm, our ominous disconnectedness from others (and at the deepest level from ourselves) will be aggravated.
However, as this book makes plain, women travelers are less prone to disconnectedness than men. In her Preface, Marybeth Bond notes: “Where women go, relationships follow…” She quotes a telling example from one of her own lengthy journeys through the Himalayas, an example which suggests that the shared experience of nurturing creates a peculiarly strong link between women, however dissimilar their backgrounds may be. A Woman’s World illustrates this attentiveness to others through an astounding range of experiences from the apparently trivial to the profound, from the suspenseful to the soothing, from the melodramatic to the comic. Marybeth Bond mentions the importance of her mother, who taught her to believe in herself. The contrasting experiences recorded in this book have the potential to help thousands of women believe in themselves as travelers.
Dervla Murphy is the award-winning author of numerous books and is considered the “Grand Dame of Women’s Travel Literature.” Since 1964, when she rode her bicycle from her home in Ireland to India, she has been writing about her intrepid journeys—on foot, mule, and bicycle—to remote areas of the world. Her books include: In Ethiopia with a Mule, Eight Feet in the Andes (in which Dervla and her young daughter walked 1,300 miles through the Andes), Where the Indus is Young, and Full Tilt.
Part One: Essence of Travel
Five Pounds of Almonds–Jo Broyles Yohay
Mission Walk–Jan Haag
I Dream of Fishing–Alison Darosa
A Blizzard under Blue Sky–Pam Houston
Excess Baggage–Mary Morris
A Typical Japanese Woman–Cathy N. Davidson
The Bus Stops Here–Sophia Dembling
Romance in the Caribbean–Judy Wade
British Virgin Islands
Obachan and I–Judy Jacobs
Learning to Walk–Judith McDaniel
Great Barrier Reef–Diane Johnson
Women at the Well–Mary Beth Simmons
Boh Knows Hormones–Tracy Johnston
Quickening: Chartres Cathedral–Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D.
Part Two: Some Things to Do
Across the Steppes on a Horse with No Name–Lynn Ferrin
Surfing is Better than Sex–Lexie Hallahan with Thalia Zepatos
Haute Coiffeur Beijing Style–Sharon Dirlam
Same Place Every Year–Catherine Watson
Mirror of the Holocaust–Maria Streshinsky
Oh Rome!–Barbara Grizzuti Harrison
Granny Shoots the Rapids–Ruth Bond
Buried Treasure in Baja–Paula McDonald
Baby on Board–Janet Fullwood
Rainforest Symphony–Carol Canter
A Spree in Tennessee–Betsa Marsh
Blood from Stone–Kathleen Clark
The Khan Men of Agra–Pamela Michael
The Source of a River–Gretel Ehrlich
Pedals and Pubs–Marybeth Bond
Legacy of Love–Joy Schaleben Lewis
Part Three: Going Your Own Way
Into the Kingdom–Katie Hickman
Alone at Sea–Tania Aebi with Bernadette Brennan
Polar Encounter–Helen Thayer
Endurance on Ice–Anne Dal Vera
Alone in the Outback–Robyn Davidson
The Broken Heart of Don Manuel–Germaine W. Shames
Triumph on Mount Everest–Stacy Allison
Even a Babushka–Lynne Cox
A Cave with a View–Ann Zwinger
Isla Mas a Tierra, Chile
Guardians of the Dark–Marybeth Bond
A Close Call–Carole Chelsea George
What I Came For–Lucy McCauley
Sky Queen–Mariana Gosnell
Travels with Clarence–Laurie Gough
Part Four: In the Shadows
Malaria Dreaming–Delia Owens
Lunch at Chaya’s–Mary Beth Simmons
The Vomit Express–Jennifer Dubois
Heidi on the Edge–Laurie Gough
Taken for a Ride–Ronnie Golden
Contraband Carrier–Karen Cheney
Terry and the Monkey–Terry Strother
Part Five: The Last Word
The Next Destination–Ann Jones
Even a Babushka
by Lynne Cox
An endurance swimmer shocks Inuits and Soviets in a swim for peace across the Bering Strait.
We motored south in the umiaks [walrus-skin boats] along the craggy shores of Little Diomede toward the southern tip of the island where we would begin the crossing. Ethereal clouds and mist swirled around the island, and the air was filled with the smell of sea birds and salt and was charged with expectation.
I had to try to calm myself, to focus on what I was about to do, not to be distracted or overwhelmed by it all. I told myself to take it slowly at first. Take off your sweats. Let your skin cool down to the air temperature. Be prepared. The water will be colder. Wait until everyone’s ready before you get in. I looked at our tiny flotilla: the villagers in their umiakswaiting excitedly and the crew turning the boats into position. Bill told me he thought everyone was ready. How cold is the water? I wondered, but I didn’t want to know for sure, I was afraid it would psyche me out.
I peeled my sweat suits off quickly, put them in a bag so they would stay dry, put on my swim cap and wrapped my goggles around my hand. Then I climbed up onto the zodiac’s pontoon, focused, told myself once you start, don’t stop for anything. I took a deep breath then slid feet first into the Bering Sea.
It felt like cracking through ice as I plunged down into the dark gray water, then popped up and swam as fast as I could toward Little Diomede. I touched shore, waited for a moment for everyone to check their watches, and then pushed off the rocks and began a three-mile sprint for Big Diomede.
I couldn’t see where we were headed, the entire Strait was covered in fog, and the walrus-skin boats which were supposed to be beside me, guiding me, were behind. Be patient, I told myself. But I knew that I couldn’t be. For the average person, survival time in 42-degree water is twenty minutes. I knew I had trained for this, to increase my survival time, but every moment I strayed from course reduced my chances of making it across. I looked back at Bill and Jan: they were fiddling with the equipment. They should have been keeping track of what was happening. I lifted my head and yelled, “Bill are we going straight or what?”
Bill looked up from the equipment, realizing I was disappearing in the fog in front of them. “Straight,” he pointed and asked Pat and the guide in the journalists’ boat to move in on either side of me.
I was swimming as fast as I could move. It was like being on the very edge of life. The water was so intensely cold, I had to be so aware of my body. My fingers were together. I wasn’t losing fine motor control, but my hands were numb. I had to wait to feel the push of water against my thighs to know if my hands were pulling any water. I was sprinting to stay warm, to stay alive. I glanced at my shoulders. They were turning white, but at least they weren’t blue.
In the zodiac, Jan and Bill were shouting at me. Jan was wearing a complete dry suit in case he had to jump into the water to drag me out. Bill was hunched over, trying to retain body heat. Bill hated the cold as much as cats hate water.
“We need to take your core temperature.” Jan grabbed the receiver, which looked like a portable mine sweeping device, and positioned himself on the zodiac’s pontoon. Bill moved to the opposite side to counterbalance Jan while I swam to within two feet of the zodiac. I rolled over onto my back and began backstroking as quickly as I could go. I wasn’t producing as much heat as I did swimming freestyle. Heat was being drained from my body, heat that I would never get back. Jan was trying to hold the receiver near my stomach. He was trying to catch a moving target and waves were bouncing him up and down. A surge heaved the zodiac; Jan nearly flew into the water but caught himself and tried again. This was slowing me down. I didn’t want to wait. I was getting colder. Bill stared at a digital read-out in his black box and said they got my temperature. It was 97-degrees.
“Right, she’s cooling down a bit. Lynne are you all right?” Bill asked.
“Yes, this is great,” I said, laughing, trying to cover up that the outside of my body was freezing. I didn’t want them to panic and pull me out of the water. I had to appear warm. But I was worried. I hadn’t expected to lose so much heat so soon. Without knowing exactly how cold the water would be and how it would affect me, Bill, Jan, and I decided that I had a three hour time limit. By then, the water would have cooled my peripheral area down and after the swim was completed, we expected my core temperature to drop. We didn’t want it to drop too far, so we were racing against the cold and against time.
Jan knew I was using a lot of energy. He asked me if I wanted something to eat but I couldn’t stop, not for anything. I was hoping we were moving forward. I couldn’t tell; there were no reference points. Our visibility was less than 50 meters. I kept hoping the Soviets knew we were there. We had had no communications with them. With the fog they couldn’t see us.
We have to be past the half-way point by now, I told myself. But there was no sign of the Soviet ships. My body felt the water for vibrations. I listened for the deep sound of a ship’s engine. There was nothing new.
Clouds were swirling tightly around us, closing out the light. Our visibility was less than ten feet. It was as if we had become detached from the world. A blip of warmth on a cold gray sea like tiny stars in the blackness of space. We were in a void between two lands. Do they know we’re out here, I wondered? Have we drifted too far north? Was the current stronger than we had expected? Did we miss Big Diomede? We only had a four-mile -long target to hit.
I moved closer to the umiak, feeling my breath shorten. I didn’t want to be lost in the fog again. The fear was still there. It had never left. Maybe it was an instinctual fear for survival—something my mind would never override.
Claire Richardson and Jack Kelley were sitting tensely in the zodiac. Jim was snapping pictures. Rich Roberts was studying the compass mounted at the bow of the journalists’umiak. I didn’t know it then but Rich could see that we were being swept north. Rich guessed the current was flowing at one mile per hour. Trying not to interfere, but wanting us to succeed, Rich turned to David Sealook, the pilot of his umiak and asked in his most diplomatic way, “David, what heading did you say you were using?”
David checked the compass. He noticed he was 30 degrees off course. David said something to Pat in the Inuit language. Both boats made sharp corrections to the left.
Suddenly, the current was broaching the left side of my head. What are they doing, I wondered? Could we be off course that far? Don’t they realize that every moment we stray off course we diminish our chances of making it across? But then I thought, how can you expect them to know how important it is to maintain a direct line? You’ve never worked with them before and they never believed you’d get in the water. How could they? No one on Little Diomede swims. When they fall into the water they don’t believe they’ll survive and so they drown. Why would they think you’re any different?
A heavy sleet began falling. My body ached from the cold. Bill and Jan waved me over for another reading. I rolled over onto my back. I was getting impatient. These readings were taking too long. Every time I slowed down I felt myself get colder. Cold tremors were running up my back. Jan couldn’t get the reading. He waved me away, then waved me back for another attempt, but I ignored him. I had to get warm. I had to swim faster than before to get warm. It was more important to be warm than to get a reading. The goal was to get across.
A few minutes later Jan called me again and I rolled over onto my back. The receiver wasn’t working. They were fiddling with it. The cold was biting into me. I decided at that moment, I couldn’t slow down again.
Suddenly, we made another sharp correction to the left. Why can’t they stay on course? Have we missed Big Diomede? Have we drifted into the Chukchi Sea? Is that why the Soviets haven’t found us? Where are you? Are you out there? Can you hear us? Please find us. God, don’t they know how much we want to see them? To go this far and then miss them. Oh, that would be so horrible. I can’t think that. I can’t. Maybe my mind can travel beyond my body. Maybe they will hear my thoughts. Picture the Soviet boat. Tell them where you are with your mind. This could work. If invisible wavelengths can be transformed into sound and light, maybe the Soviets can hear my mind. Try it. Try anything. We’re over here. We’re here, my mind shouted.
I didn’t know it then but Pat wasn’t sure where we were. He told Bill that he and David had only hunted as far as the border area. He said he didn’t know what the currents were like beyond that point. Pat asked Bill what direction he thought we should take. Neither Bill nor Pat knew how far we had already drifted. Bill suggested that we continue heading south to compensate for the northward current. Pat agreed.
Suddenly I felt the water tremble beneath my body. It was a boat. I could hear it through the water. The crew heard it too. They were staring into the fog. The boat was circling. It was them! Who else could it be? They were searching for us! They were so close we could hear their engine. But the sound was changing. Their boat was moving away. Oh God, no.
The crew was shouting and waving but in the fog their voices were muffled, their hands were unseen.
Jim began making catcalls. Jan fired a flare gun. We heard the motor. It was louder. When I looked up on a breath, I saw Claire bouncing up and down in the umiak. Jack was pointing and shouting, “Look Lynne, there they are! It’s them. It’s the Soviets!”
A gray thirty-foot boat emerged slowly from the fog.
“Yea! Yea!” I shouted. In my mind I had imagined this moment—our boats meeting in the middle. But I could never have imagined the way I would feel at that moment, the complete joy. There the Soviets were, in real life. But it didn’t seem real. It was as if we were living in a dream.
The swirling fog was melting in the warm sunlight. We had crossed the U.S.-Soviet border. We had crossed the international dateline. We had moved from the present into the future.
“What day is it?” Claire cupped her mittened hands around her red face.
“It’s tomorrow!” I shouted gleefully. At that moment I knew my life and the world would never be the same.
The crew’s excitement and energy rippled across the water to me. But there seemed to be something wrong. The Soviet boat was keeping a distance of twenty yards.
Why? I wondered. Were they unsure of us? My arm strokes reach out into the gray sea. Each hand reaching farther into the future.
Slowly the Soviet boat moved within fifteen yards of us. Every time I looked up to breathe I tried to see the reactions of the Soviet crew. They were immobile and stone-faced. Had we made a mistake? Had something changed? Were they upset I hadn’t phoned them? Were they angry that we hadn’t given them our exact starting time? I smiled. They didn’t smile back.
A cold chill rushed deep into my body. I was tired, giving the cold the chance to penetrate deeper. Bill noticed this immediately. I told him I was okay. But my arms had no feeling.
“Your stroke rate’s dropped to sixty-six. Pick it up,” Jan coached me. Stop looking up. You’re wasting time. That’s why you’re getting cold. Turn your arms over. When I looked up, the fog had parted and the rocky cliffs of Big Diomede were towering above us. Before us were rocks. Bill said that I was 50 meters from shore. My heart leaped.
Suddenly, the water temperature dropped from 42 to 38 degrees and the cold popped the breath out of me. All I wanted to do was finish. We were almost there. But the Soviet crew was talking to Rich and Jack and pointing to something about half a mile down the beach. I could see a small black cluster on the white slope.
“The Soviet people are waiting for you over there,” a man with curly brown hair shouted excitedly from the Soviet boat.
Bill told me I could stop now. If I stopped now, I would have succeeded. “How far is it to the snow bank?” I asked.
The curly haired man turned and asked the captain of his boat then translated for me. They said it was half a mile.
“Bill, can I stop now?” I asked, trying to decide what to do.
“Yes. Yes. You can finish right there.” His tone was urgent.
I just wanted to finish, to succeed, to get warm.
“She’s going into shore,” Bill said with relief in his voice.
But when I looked down the beach and saw those people standing there, I asked myself, will you be satisfied if you stop now? Everything that you have done has been to extend yourself, to go beyond borders. You have had to go beyond your physical and psychological borders. You’ve gone beyond the political and cultural borders. And you’ve had to go beyond the borders people placed around you. Everything everyone has done to get you and themselves to this point has been about extending themselves beyond their own borders. Believing when there was little to believe in, hoping when there was little to hope for, and now you can stop. You’re ten yards from shore. If you stop now, you will make it. This water is freezing. I’ve got to consider how cold it will be when I climb out onto Big Diomede. No you don’t. You’re wimping out.
“You can finish on that rock.” Bill was leaning so close to the water.
I took a few more strokes forward. You’ve got to decide now. The crew is preparing to land. I have to try. I turned left and began sprinting. I glanced at Bill. He looked surprised and worried. He must have thought I had become disoriented.
“Bill, it’s all the way or no way,” I said, reaching deep within myself beyond anything I knew I had.
The crews on all the boats were leaning forward in anticipation and were cheering. I looked into their faces. Draw from their energy, I told myself. The current was flowing directly into us at one knot, reducing my speed by half. I angled toward them, remembering that Dennis had told me that the current would be less there. He was right.
“Look, you can see the people!” Jack urged.
There were 30 or so black figures on a snow bank. I watched my hands pulling through the water. They were ghostly white. The water was six degrees above freezing. I imagined the people onshore extending an invisible rope, pulling me towards them. I could see the colors of the Soviet people’s clothes, red, blue, green. They were slipping on the snow bank, running to the water’s edge. Bill was telling me I had to sprint to make it to shore.
Where could I find the speed now? Remember all those sprints you had to do at the end of every single workout? Sprint with everything you have left. Come on. Go.
The journalists’ boat zoomed ahead. Men in military uniforms were setting out small wooden ramps. The journalists jumped out of their boat. The sea floor rose up to meet me. There were real life-sized people above me on the snow bank.
We were less than ten meters from shore. I looked up. A man in a green uniform was reaching out to me. I pulled off my goggles and stuck them in my mouth. I needed my arms for balance. I tried to crawl up the incline, but I slid backward. The three men were extending their arms as far as they could. They were speaking Russian. It was really Russian! I leaned back and threw myself forward and reached up as far as I could. The man in uniform caught my hand and pulled me up. Our eyes met and we smiled.
All those years, all the hope, all the effort dissolved into that very moment. We had made it! All of us. We had reached beyond our borders and they had reached beyond theirs. We had made it! I was too happy, too sad, too overwhelmed to speak. It was too much.
Someone was talking to me. A man. He was taking off his coat and putting it over my shoulders. Another woman with reddish brown hair was piling blankets on me. They were so heavy I could hardly stand. Too many thoughts were racing through my mind. Too much emotion in my heart. The curly haired man was kissing my cheeks as if I were a long-lost relative. He was so happy, so excited. Someone wrapped a green towel around my shoulders. My feet were wobbly. Bill and Jan were standing behind me ready to catch me. Bill was saying, “We’ve got to get her to that tent, we’ve got to get her warm.”
The curly haired man was talking rapidly in my ear in English. He told me his name was Vladimir McMillian. He was a reporter for Tass. His mother was Russian and his father was American. He met her during World War II, married her and stayed in the Soviet Union. That was why he spoke English so well. Vladimir had been selected to serve as a translator for us to the Soviet press. Vladimir began introducing them to me: “That man is from Radio Moscow. The woman is from Pravda. He is with Bremia, it’s Russian television, it’s called ‘Time,’ like your ‘Sixty Minutes.’” There are many others who would like to interview you now.”
Bill was insisting that we go to the tent but Vladimir asked me if I wanted to meet the welcoming party. The Soviets had helicoptered people from all over the country out to meet us. There was Vitaly Medjannikov, the Soviet national swim coach. A world champion boxer, the governor of Siberia, the commander of a military garrison, and a Siberian Inuit woman.
The Inuit woman was a small pretty woman with dark hair and eyes. She kissed me on both cheeks and handed me a bouquet of wildflowers. She had gathered them from her village near Magadan on the Siberian mainland. The flowers were the same as I had seen on the Alaskan mainland: fireweed, forget-me-nots, aster, and goldenrod. She said that Alaska and Siberia had once been joined. This was something the Inuit people knew. They had family on both sides of the Bering Strait. They were separate, but after today they might see each other once again. I told her I hoped they would. Maybe this was a beginning. She smiled with tears in her eyes. And Vladimir pulled me away. He said the Soviet press wanted to conduct a news conference. I didn’t realize what I was getting into.
Their questions were direct and difficult. One reporter from Russian television asked me, “Do you think your swim will contribute to a reduction of nuclear missiles in the United States and Soviet Union and further the INF treaty? Do the American people view the Soviet Union as the evil empire? Why did you make this swim? What do you feel now?”
The television cameras were rolling, and the lights and the microphones were in my face. It was all I could do to concentrate on the questions. I didn’t want to look stupid, but I was so tired, and so cold, and my body was struggling to warm itself. Who did they think I was? No one had told me what to say. No one had briefed me. And how could I even speak for the American people? I tried to sort out my thoughts and feelings. And when I responded my speech was slurred.
Vladimir translated what I said to the Russians, “The reason I swam across the Bering Strait was to reach into the future, to cross the international dateline, and to symbolically bridge the distance between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was to generate goodwill and peace between our two countries, our two peoples. I would not have swum here if I believed that this was the evil empire. I can’t say if this swim will contribute to the reduction of nuclear weapons, but I hope it does. We need to become friends.” I said.
The media fell silent for a moment and nodded in agreement. I think they thought I would have a prepared speech for them. But these were spontaneous answers, ones that required considerable thought, but there was no time for deep thought.
In the background, Bill was saying, “We’ve got to move her. She’s cooling down.”
The reporter with Radio Moscow asked in English, “Who were corporate sponsors?”
Suddenly I was so embarrassed. I saw all that the Soviets had done: they had moved ships, helicopters, people, everything, to this island. Later I would find out they had spent more than a half-million dollars. What could I tell them? That no U.S. corporation had supported us? That none of them believed in us? I didn’t want to embarrass the U.S. Should I tell them the truth, that I had to take out a loan to cover the expenses of the researchers and myself? I didn’t want them to think that the Americans wouldn’t value the Soviet effort. I didn’t want them to think that no one in the U.S. cared. I didn’t want them to think I was a wealthy American and did this on my own. I thought for a moment and said, “Our sponsors were the American people. They were individuals from all over the United States. There were old people and children and just ordinary people. They were the ones who supported us. We had some support from companies like Rocky Boots and Monotherm.” My teeth were beginning to chatter harder.
They didn’t understand. Didn’t corporate America, the free enterprise system support you? Didn’t you get paid millions of dollars for doing this?
Rich and Vladimir tried to explain grass-roots support. The Russian media continued asking questions.
“Bill, my legs are going, I can’t do this any more,” I said.
“Look Vladimir,” Bill said, “her temperature is dropping. It could affect her heart. We’ve got to move her immediately. Can you walk, Lynne?”
I couldn’t flex my feet or grip with them. I didn’t know how I was going to walk barefoot across the ice. But two Siberian Inuit women suddenly emerged from the crowd. They presented me a pair of sealskin slippers. Vladimir explained that the slippers were made by the Inuit who lived on the Siberian mainland in the Chuckotka’s Lawrentia region. With the help of the two women I put them on. They were beautiful beaded slippers and they fit perfectly. How did they ever know my size? I wondered.
The walk to the tent was 200 meters. Later I would tell Bill, I thought it was a mile. We slipped and slid on the ice and when we finally arrived at the tent, there was a cot with a heavy sleeping bag, extra blankets, and hot coffee. Standing near the entrance of the tent was a woman with reddish brown hair.
Everything we had requested was there except for the babushka, the colorful shawl. I was disappointed. The babushka symbolized the Soviet Union and warmth.
My body started shaking violently. My hands felt like clubs. I pulled the coiled wire out of the bottom of my swimsuit. One end had been attached to me before the swim, the other end I handed to Jan and he plugged it into the monitor. Vladimir came into the tent and told me the woman with the reddish hair was a Russian doctor.
“Go ahead and get into the sleeping bag. Make sure to place the reheaters, those hot water bottles, behind the back of your head, under each arm and in the groin area,” Jan said, stepping out of the tent.
The woman doctor was using hand gestures to tell me to take my wet swimsuit off before I climbed into the sleeping bag. It was one thing to be naked in front of her, but another in front of the men on my team. I pretended that I didn’t understand, but she wouldn’t let me get away with it. Quickly she placed the hot packs around my body at the key sites. She didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Russian. But it didn’t matter. She kept feeling my cheeks with her hot hands and leaning on top of the sleeping bag to give me the warmth from her body. My breathing was fast and rapid like I was running a sprint. My body was working hard to generate heat.
“Her temperature’s still 97. It’s amazing it has stayed that high,” Jan said walking into the tent with Bill and checking the monitor.
“Her skin is very cold though, probably about 40 degrees,” Bill said, feeling my arm.
They set the defibrillator down on a table. The Soviet doctor saw it, stood up, and shook her head vigorously. She thought they were going to use it on me. And she stood between them and me.
Bill saw her and said, “It’s just a precaution. I’d better find Vladimir. Jan, would you check her heart?”
Jan opened the bag and put the cold stethoscope on my chest. It was like a chunk of ice.
“Sounds strong and even,” Jan said. “You okay?”
I nodded and covered my head with the sleeping bag so I could breathe into it and trap more heat. The Russian doctor wanted to see my face. She pulled the bag back down. Cold air hit my face. I slid deeper into the bag. Too cold to talk.
Jan put the cold stethoscope on my chest again. Shivers raced up my spine. I told him that I was doing fine. Bill noted that my temperature had risen to 97.5. It amazed me how hard my body had to shiver and breathe to rewarm. I was so tired.
The Soviet doctor leaned on me again to give me her body heat. She looked at me with such concern.
In the background, I could hear voices and people singing in Russian and in a different language; it sounded like they were having a party.
I wanted to see what was happening. Rich came inside and told me that the Soviets had set up two buffet tables and that there were waiters in white smocks serving hot tea in china cups, dried fish and bread, and chocolate-covered coconut candy. On the cliffs above the tables were two army officers watching everyone with binoculars and taking pictures.
It was a Siberian beach party. I wanted to join them but I was still too cold. About an hour later, when I finally felt warm, I looked up at the doctor, who was leaning over me, and said, “Hi, my name is Lynne, what’s yours?” We laughed.
“My name is Rita. Rita Zacharova.” Quickly she took pictures of her family from her wallet.
“Your children?” I asked.
“No,” she said, and then she said something I didn’t understand.
“Not children. I babushka.”
“You’re a babushka?” I asked.
“Yes.” She nodded quickly. “Gran children.” She pointed to the pictures.
Then I realized that babushka doesn’t only mean shawl. It also means grandmother. Rita Zacharova was my babushka.
A moment later, Rita reached into her bag and excitedly handed me a gift—a beautiful hand-painted lacquer bowl decorated with bright orange, red, and gold flowers. I thought, What can I give to her? I picked up my cap and goggles and handed them to her. Rita motioned that she couldn’t take them. When I insisted, she accepted them as if they were precious gifts.
Claire Richardson asked me if I had heard what had happened with the Inuit from Little Diomede crew and the two Siberian Inuit women we met when we touched shore. Claire said that this was the first time in 40 years that the Inuit on Little Diomede had met with relatives from Siberia. Before 1948 the border had been open. The Inuit on both sides were allowed to go back and forth freely. But in 1948, Hoover closed the border. Claire said Pat had tried today to communicate with Zoya and Margaret, the two Siberian Inuit women who had given me the sealskin slippers. Pat wasn’t able to speak with them because they spoke a different Inuit dialect called Siberian Yupik. But many of the elders on Little Diomede were walrus hunters and they used to hunt and trade with the Siberian Inuit. Pat knew the elders on Little Diomede could understand Siberian Yupik so he called Little Diomede on his two way radio. The elders on Little Diomede translated as all the villagers on Little Diomede crowded around the receiver in the community center to listen to the conversation.
Margaret Guchich asked about the walrus hunting and whaling around Little Diomede. She said it wasn’t good for the Inuit in the village of Magadan, on the Sea of Okhotsk. She said that most of the whales were gone. Margaret also asked about John Kiminock, who had sailed from Siberia to Nome in the 1930s and never returned. The elders knew John. He was 86 years old and lived in Nome. They asked Margaret about his family, whom he hadn’t heard from for over 50 years. Margaret said two of John’s sisters had died, but three were still alive…
Claire and I were walking down to the umiaks. On Pat’s short wave radio we suddenly heard singing. The villagers on Little Diomede were singing Siberian Yupik songs they had memorized from old records. They performed them for Zoya and Margaret. Zoya and Margaret listened and then they sang along. Over the short wave, the people on Little Diomede listened to Zoya and Margaret singing the old Inuit songs. And when they finished, the audience on Little Diomede applauded. Zoya and Margaret’s eyes filled with tears. Mine did too. I wondered if the border could remain open for them and for all of us.
Our trip back to Little Diomede that afternoon was calm; the sky was clear blue and the silvery water shimmered as we motored back across the Bering Strait. All the villagers came out to greet us. They were dancing and singing the same Yupik songs we had heard on Big Diomede.
At age 15, Lynne Cox shattered the men’s and women’s world records for swimming the English Channel. After her historic swim across the Bering Strait, President Reagan and President Gorbachev toasted her at the signing of the first INF treaty. “Even a Babushka” is from her unpublished manuscript, Beyond Borders.