The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 11 presents stimulating, inspiring, and uplifting adventures from women who have traveled to the ends of the earth to discover new places, peoples, and facets of themselves. The common threads connecting these stories are a female perspective and fresh, compelling storytelling to make the reader laugh, weep, wish she were there, or be glad she wasn’t. The points of view and perspectives are global, and themes are as eclectic as in all of our books, including stories that encompass spiritual growth, hilarity and misadventure, high adventure, romance, solo journeys, stories of service to humanity, family travel, and encounters with exotic cuisine.

The 31 true travel stories in this year’s collection are, as always, wildly diverse in theme and location. They tell of places like California and Cuba, Switzerland and Singapore, Iran and Iceland, Montana and Mexico and Mongolia and Mali, our own back yards and some of the farthest, most extreme corners of the world. They are the personal stories we can’t help but collect when we travel, stories of reaching out to embrace the unfamiliar and creating cross-cultural connections while learning more about ourselves.

In The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 11, you will:

  • go scuba diving with sharks in Palau
  • cook for Syrian refugees in Greece
  • be the first American to play pro basketball in the Czech Republic
  • anger a nun in Ethiopia
  • go whitewater rafting on the Nile in Uganda
  • help slaughter a pig in Hungary
  • realize your limits of filial piety in Singapore
  • seek healing at the hands of a witchdoctor in Mexico
  • feast on rancid food in Iceland
  • avoid hypothermia by spooning in Mongolia
  • fall in love in Nepal

… and much, much more.

By Lavinia Spalding

On the first day of 2017, I sat in a room I love—a small, bright space with green wicker furniture, three neglected but determined ferns, and five slim hardbacks in an old wooden crate. My toddler was napping, my husband was working in another room, and the next two hours were all mine. As winter sunlight streamed through the windows, I sipped coffee and leafed through the stack of books, all collections of poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The pages were old, sepia, and brittle. I paused on the first stanza of a poem called “Exiled.”

Searching my heart for its true sorrow,
This is the thing I find to be:
That I am weary of words and people,
Sick of the city, wanting the sea;
Wanting the sticky, salty sweetness
Of the strong wind and shattered spray,
Wanting the loud sound and the soft sound
Of the big surf that breaks all day.

The words didn’t exactly apply to me, but they spoke to me and made me think. About sorrow and weariness, words and people, and wanting. And about water.

I’m not a water person, never have been. I can’t swim, and I’ve always been scared of any body of water bigger than a hot tub. I don’t even like to drink the stuff. Though I enjoy lying on a beach, I’m not drawn to water the way Millay was and countless others are. I was born near the New Hampshire seacoast, but raised in Arizona. My grounding place is the desert—its perfect stillness and quietude allow my busy mind to settle.

When I travel, however, my life seems to turn aquatic. I’ve bobbed in the waves of Mexico, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, and Cuba (up to my shoulders, anyway); snorkeled in the Philippines, Indonesia, Costa Rica, and Saipan (I had fins, and sometimes a flotation device); and tried to scuba dive in Guam and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia (both attempts largely unsuccessful).

I’ve also taken passage on innumerable waterborne vessels: an inflatable raft on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon; a hastily assembled bamboo contraption in Northern Thailand that wound up sinking (we were rescued by another hastily assembled bamboo contraption); a couple of shaky motorboats and a barge in Nicaragua; a junk on the Mekong in Vietnam; a river boat in Cambodia that got stuck in the mud (we passengers got out and pushed). There was a barfinducing overnight ferry from Ireland to France, a civilized overnighter from Tunisia to Sicily, and half a dozen jaunts between South Korea and Japan. That’s the short list.

So, even as I’ve habitually rejected water—refusing to jump in lakes or stand beneath waterfalls or dive in pools or even take swimming lessons—water has trickled into my travel life, mesmerizing me with its bioluminescence, its schools of startlingly blue fish, its coolness on a hot island day. I have been lulled by the flutter of an overhead sail, restored by the steam of a natural hot spring, transported while my fingers dipped into the current as I floated downriver. It’s hard to deny its power.

Water grew even more difficult to resist when I became a mother two years ago and started traveling with my family. Everywhere we went, Ellis, our son, was happiest and most entertained (meaning we were happiest and most entertained) in the presence of water. In Hawaii, we squatted in tide pools while he gaped at minnows, and one afternoon I carried him into the lagoon to admire a sea turtle swimming amongst the rocks. In Cape Cod, where he took his first wobbly steps, he clutched our hands in terror as the chilly Atlantic tide washed over his feet—but soon delighted in watching it swirl between his tiny toes. In Portugal, fountains abounded, and he splashed in them with unmitigated glee. One evening after eating at a beachfront restaurant, my husband walked him straight into the surf, unconcerned by their soaked pants. Ellis was wary, then thrilled.

I began paying more attention to water, observing how easily this tiny human loved it, how effortlessly he overcame his initial trepidation. I realized I had never fully examined my own fear of water. It took a toddler shrieking in joy, drenching me with his fervent splashing, to turn my focus to it.

It also took editing this anthology. To select the thirty-one essays for The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 11, I read nearly five hundred. The job was more challenging than ever, as this was the deepest pool of submissions I’d ever stepped into. I dreaded having to pass on literally hundreds of wonderful stories, many by friends I adore and writers I admire.

I based my decisions on answers to the usual questions: Was the piece well written and developed? Original? Personal? Did it evoke a strong sense of place? Were there compelling characters? Did something happen? Did it surprise me? Move me? When at last I chose the finalists, I began putting my table of contents in order, reading and sorting, re-reading and re-sorting, careful as always to separate essays that were similar in theme.

These two stories, I thought at one point, are about water. I separated them. Oh, and so is this one, I noticed. And this one. This essay also has water in it. So does this one. And this one. And this one.

It appeared water had seeped into my travel anthology just as it had my travel life. And so I was obliged, once again, to think about it.

To think, for instance, about Zora O’Neill’s remarkable account of stumbling upon refugee camps while vacationing in Greece—her essay a potent reminder that just as water can steal lives, so too can it save them, delivering them to safety and a new beginning.

And to think about Maggie Downs, who signs up to raft in class V rapids at the source of the Nile River in Uganda, unsure of what is ahead, knowing only she has to do it to complete her mother’s bucket list.

To think about Sandra Gail Lambert, whose decision to go on a solo pre-dawn kayaking trip in the Florida Everglades requires unusual planning, great resolve, and impressive fortitude.

And Suzanne Kamata, who encounters an art installation in Japan in which small puddles of water inexplicably morph into snakelike shapes, “squiggling toward a larger puddle and joining it.” The water, she writes, seems to be alive.

And Anna Vodicka, who overcomes her fears while scuba diving in Palau (“I had experienced the grip of the waves, the buoyant joy that suddenly turns perilous with the change of a tide or an undertow”) and witnesses “the most ordinary and extraordinary” thing she has ever seen.

For several writers in this anthology, water becomes a place of healing and release. For Jenna Scatena, it’s when she stands in the Arabian Sea at dawn in Oman, gazing at the horizon, that she feels herself finally able to battle an evil spirit that has haunted her. For Lindsey Crittenden, a swimming pool in California helps move her forward through painful memories. And for Pam Mandel, it’s the ocean in Hawaii, under a full moon, that receives her grieving heart.

For other writers, water creates a path to understanding. For Yukari Iwatani Kane, a visit to a Japanese hot springs is a surreal experience during which she finds herself grappling with—and uncovering answers to—a lifelong identity crisis. For Holly H. Jones, water is the subject of a Sufi fable that illuminates her days in Pakistan at a time when some consider the country to be the most dangerous place on Earth. In the fable, a stream making its way down the mountains overcomes every barrier. But when it tries to cross the desert, it dries up. I won’t reveal the entire tale—you’ll have to read the essay—but I’ll say the stream discovers it can only progress by allowing itself to be changed.

I reflect on this again and again after reading Jones’s essay, and come to the conclusion that to be good travelers, we must embody the qualities of water: its beauty, strength, mutability, fluidity, and determination. We need its capacity to ebb and flow; to permeate the most hidden and unreachable places; to soften and smooth what it moves against; to carve a path through seemingly impenetrable obstacles; to change form, and allow itself to be changed.

And I come also to this: Just as we travelers would be wise to adopt its qualities, perhaps we need them equally in our everyday lives. We are navigating a troubling time when merely watching the news can cause us to sink into anger and sorrow, a time when women’s rights are in grave danger, and when xenophobia and intolerance threaten the fabric of our country and the freedoms of so many of its people. In these days, what may be required of conscientious global citizens is nothing short of transformation.

Since becoming a mother, I’ve learned a lot, and perhaps the most important lesson is that while joy is contagious, so is fear. Thus, as my son watches me to learn how he should behave, I’m increasingly mindful to exhibit as much joy and as little fear as possible. As he grows up, I never want him to perceive me as afraid, at least irrationally so. Instead, I hope he’ll witness me facing my fears and working to conquer them.

I have to assume he will become a traveler, and when he someday embarks upon the world by himself, I hope he’ll emulate the amazing women writers in this book whose stories tell of reaching out to embrace the unfamiliar and create meaningful cross-cultural connections.

I hope he will be like Maxine Rose Schur, who discovers in Iran that a language barrier is no barrier to warmth and friendship. And like Colette Hannahan, who surrenders her self-appointed mission in France when an eccentric host insists on befriending her. And like Jill K. Robinson in Switzerland, whose immediate kinship with a stranger offers an opportunity to view his country in a whole new way. I want him to learn, like Marcia DeSanctis in Russia, that even when all you crave is solitude, sometimes companionship can be comforting. I trust he’ll discover, like Elen Turner in Nepal and Colleen Kinder in Iceland, that love makes everything taste better. And finally, I hope he will take a page from Anna Badkhen in Mali, who journeys to the farthest extremes of the world and returns to generously share the intimate stories of people who live there.

I have no idea who my son will become. All I know is someday I’ll give him a copy of this book (it’s dedicated to him, after all), and what he’ll learn from the stories herein is that whether one travels to Arizona, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Ethiopia, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Montana, Mongolia, or Singapore—it’s best to go with an open heart, the inclination to practice human kindness, a sincere intention to build pathways of understanding, and the willingness to be transformed.

As for me, I’ve decided this is the year I’ll learn to swim—in more ways than one. Says Crittenden in her essay, “The laws of swimming are simple: you stop, you’ll sink…. Swimming is not about memorializing or staying still; it is about moving without thinking about it.”

I will not stay still. Like the mysterious water in Kamata’s story, I will move and morph and squiggle and become alive. Like the stream in Jones’s story, I will allow myself to be changed, in order to make progress. And like the waters that offered understanding and solace to several authors in this collection, I’ll do my part to help and heal others. I won’t let fear stop me or sink me. I’ll swim, forward.

I hope these stories inspire you as they have me. May they remind you of the enduring radiance of other places and people, and the timeless gift of sharing their stories. I invite you to jump in. The water is fine.

Lavinia Spalding

On the Migrant Trail
Zora O’Neill

The Interpretation of Sighs
Jill K. Robinson

Sono Felice
Samantha Schoech

Jenna Scatena

Power, Twenty-Four Hour
Elen Turner

You Teach American Way
Jennifer Kelley

The Ritual
Maxine Rose Schur

Finding the Words
Allegra Hyde

Oscar’s Dreamland
Christine Loomis

The Living Infinite
Anna Vodicka

Colette Hannahan

Sarah Gilman

Stray Cat Strut
Rachel Levin

Pool of Memories
Lindsey Crittenden

Spinning in Lahore
Holly H. Jones

The End of Something
Janis Cooke Newman

Goodnight, Sweetheart
Marcia DeSanctis

The Bad Place
Maggie Downs

A Long Night’s Journey into Spring
Colleen Kinder

Gratitude Day
Sara C. Bathum

Catherine Watson

Call Your Mother
Abbie Kozolchyk

A Country Tradition
Julie Callahan

Outsider Again
Yukari Iwatani Kane

Waning Moon
Pam Mandel

Rich Country
Anne P. Beatty

I Am Here, in This Morning Light
Sandra Gail Lambert

Heartbeats on Teshima
Suzanne Kamata

Erin Byrne

Delle Donne
Katharine Harer

The Storytelling Animal
Anna Badkhen

About the Editor

On the Migrant Trail
By Zora O’Neill

Her holiday, their journey of a lifetime.

At first glance, the crowds outside the train station in Izmir, Turkey, could have been picnickers. In the balmy August night, groups of young men lounged on the grassy medians. Children darted from parent to parent under the yellow glow of streetlights.

Yet the atmosphere was far from festive. The street felt like an airport terminal, abuzz with anxiety and excitement. Some people spoke urgently into phones; others rifled through their backpacks. A man bounced his daughter on his knee, staring out at the passing traffic.

Izmir was the second stop on a summer trip with my husband and my father. The next day, we would take a ferry to the Greek island of Chios, famous for its fortress towns, and then another to nearby Lesvos, where we would meet my mother-in-law for our biennial beach vacation. On each trip we take a different route to Lesvos to see more of Greece and Turkey before settling in for swimming, reading, and tzatziki. But this year, the road we’d chosen to relaxation was the same path followed by hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Izmir, a midsize port city on Turkey’s southwest coast, usually draws tourists interested in its multicultural history; it has a pier designed by Gustave Eiffel and a famously ornate clock tower. It also has excellent bus, train, and plane service, making it a natural staging ground for smugglers moving thousands of people each night.

When I’d boarded my plane from New York, the American media had just begun to cover the situation. There’d been no mention of Izmir as one of the hubs of the crisis, or of the commercialism that had developed as a result. The cash-for-gold shop was packed. A clothing store had outfitted its mannequins with life jackets. A black market of secondhand clothes and household goods had sprung up, consisting mostly of items sold off or jettisoned to speed the trip across the Aegean on an overcrowded rubber dinghy under cover of darkness. My family crossed to Chios in daylight, in an hour and a half, on a regularly scheduled ferry.

More refugees were gathered around the boat harbor when we arrived. Here, people slept on benches or sat staring at the sea. Chios was the end of one trip—out of Syria, across Turkey, and officially into Europe. But it was also a tiny rock in the sea with a free-falling economy and surging unemployment. So it was the starting point for another, even longer journey as well, to the mainland and then farther north, to more prosperous countries such as Germany and Sweden.

I visited Syria three times between 1999 and 2009. I was charmed by the exotic details—the fresh mulberry juice, the sumptuous hammams—but I was more fascinated by how familiar and functional the country was. In stark contrast to the American political rhetoric about Syria, Aleppo and Damascus had a cosmopolitan middle class that commuted to work, went to movies, and drank fancy coffee. Axis of evil, really?

People shared meals, posed for goofy photos, and asked about American policy, listening patiently to the bookish Arabic I had learned in college. I felt safe, welcome, and cared for by every stranger. At the end of my first trip, a teenager selling cold drinks at the border gave me a free can of Pepsi and his mother’s phone number. “When you come back,” he promised, “she will cook for you.”

I thought of him now, sixteen years later, as I left a bundle of leftovers from dinner with a group of men sitting outdoors, before I hurried to board the next ferry out of Chios.

Lesvos, the largest island in the Aegean and at some points only six miles from Turkey, is the top destination in Greece for those traveling by sea. At that point in the summer of 2015, more than 50,000 had landed there; by the end of the year, the number would be almost ten times that. When we arrived that August evening, the parking lot of the port was crowded not with the usual brigade of taxi drivers and truckers, but with hundreds of people sleeping on pieces of cardboard and sitting idle in the sticky heat.

Our destination, on the west side of the island, faced away from Turkey. No refugee boats drifted ashore there. It was summer business as usual: grilled octopus, outdoor movies, lazy swims in the clear bay water. Smooth as oil, as the Greeks say.

But I couldn’t ignore what I had seen. After a few days, I returned to Lesvos’s east coast to see how I could help at Kara Tepe, the designated spot for Syrians and Iraqis to wait for permits to travel off the island. Because of the war in their countries, they were granted passage to Athens automatically. But the bureaucracy, slowed by the economic crisis, could take several days—sometimes even a week. That left people stranded in this makeshift camp, a big parking lot once used for driver training, and the dusty olive grove next door.

Locals who wanted to help joined a small and disorganized effort. The only official aid presence was a tiny trailer staffed by Médecins sans Frontières, and there was no government representative or other leader to delegate or direct volunteers. But it wasn’t long before I found myself in an ad-hoc outdoor kitchen with a handful of Greeks, cooking lunch for camp residents. As we hunched over the rickety folding table and started preparing vegetables to fill a knee-high pot for spaghetti, a trio of young Syrian men in tank tops and backward baseball caps approached. “Do you need any help?” one asked politely.

I handed him a flimsy paring knife, and he joked to his friends, “Yalla nchayyef, ya shabbab!”—“Let’s chef it up, boys!” The men—who it turned out had all cooked in restaurants—snapped on rubber gloves, and within minutes had precision-sliced a large bag of onions and tidied the whole workspace. Once the sauce was simmering on the portable gas burner, the smell of browning onions wafting over the waiting crowd, they planned the most efficient way to serve the finished pasta. When hungry people surged forward for the aluminum trays of noodles, another team of men stepped forward to maintain the line.

To the Syrian palate, this Greek lunch, though cooked from scratch with fresh tomatoes and generous glugs of olive oil, was lacking. Mahmood, a tall young man with thick eyelashes, cast a sad glance toward the Greek lunch table. “Aleppo has the best food in the world,” he said, referring to his city’s famously refined sweet-savory concoctions, like tiny lamb meatballs simmered in sour-cherry sauce. “But this…” He shook his head. “If the war ended, I would go home tomorrow.”

For those with money to spare, there was the kantina, a camper-van café set up by the MSF trailer. The pretty young Greek woman at the counter had learned enough Arabic to confirm people’s orders: one sandwich, three iced coffees. Her female customers smiled, while the men swooned. One stood to the side of the kantina and led an English lesson: “Say, ‘I. Love. You,’” he told his friends. “I. Love. You,” they parroted back.

All around, I saw other attempts to live normally. A man sculpted his hair just so in the side mirror of a van. A teenage boy and girl exchanged numbers. People charged their phones on a long daisy chain of power strips, spliced into the base of a streetlight. “Everyone in Syria knows how to do this,” a man told me, gesturing at the extemporized wiring. “We learned because of the war.”

After having witnessed the migrants in Izmir clutching their life vests and luggage, I was encouraged to see how people had made it one step farther, resourceful and resilient even in the midst of the most grueling trip of their lives. But the positive attitude faded in late afternoon when a Greek police officer arrived to distribute the day’s travel permits. A dense crowd quickly formed in the road at the mouth of the camp.

Yelling into a feeble megaphone, the cop bungled the foreign names. “Ma-her Seed-kee?” The people closest by shouted again, with proper Arabic intonation. “Mahir Sidqi!” Those farther out in the crowd strained to hear. “Uskut!”— “Shut up!”—they snapped at one another. They repeated the names. Mohammad Sidqi? Maher Siddi? Cicadas droned incessantly in the olive grove. One frustrated girl threw a handful of rocks at a tree, in an attempt to silence them.

Eventually, a few names were matched to people. They emerged from the middle of the crowd, permits held high in triumph, and walked back up the driveway to collect their belongings for the next leg of the trip.

Roughly two thousand migrants remained to wait for their papers at Kara Tepe, ranging from small babies with heat rash on their cheeks to wrinkled grandfathers. But many were men in their late teens and early twenties—prime fighting age.

One was Yaman, a gangly, outgoing engineering student from Aleppo. He was midway through college, he explained, and would surely have been drafted into the army had he stayed in Syria. Now he was bound for Germany with his brother and mother, a doctor who specialized in women’s health. (The majority of refugees from Syria are professionals, members of the educated class.)

Yaman hoped to complete his degree there, and his mother hoped to continue supporting the family by joining a local practice. But he worried about racist attacks on Syrian refugees in Europe. “Where do radicals get this idea about the meaning of jihad?” he asked. “Jihad just means to study hard.”

In nearly flawless English, Yaman told me that the war had made it difficult to study. His exam scores had not been as high as they could have been. Did he know the phrase “extenuating circumstances”? I asked. “Yes, of course,” he replied, with a wry smile.

I spent four days at Kara Tepe, driving east in the morning with only delivery trucks on the winding roads, squinting into the low sun on the way back in the evening. During those days I met more students like Yaman, along with farmers, former political prisoners, moms with kids of all ages, and an Arabic teacher so excited to encounter an American who spoke his language that he launched into an impromptu lesson, ticking through verb conjugations on his knuckles.

Some moments, I felt the same easy familiarity of travelers meeting in a hostel. At the same time, I was acutely aware of our differences: an hour away across the island, I had a soft bed, a warm shower, and air conditioning. My trip, during which I had sprawled in the sun by choice and swum in the Aegean for fun, would end in another week. Their journeys would go on for months or years.

But in those days at Kara Tepe, travel felt more essential than ever. Travel to Syria when I was younger had shown me regular life there. Travel had brought me to another side of a Greek island I thought I already knew well, and introduced me to Syrians I had not seen written about in newspapers: the volunteer chefs; the flirting teenagers; and funny, smart Yaman, the future engineer.

Yaman’s family had passed through Izmir only days after I had. For $1,150 a head, smugglers had packed him and his family into a boat with forty-five others. Offshore, the engine failed, and they drifted for hours until the Turkish police took the boat back. Another night, they tried again, on an equally packed boat, and succeeded.

The story was not as harrowing as some, but it still shocked me. Yaman saw my look of worry and grinned.

“Yes, what a story it is,” he said, with a hint of pride. “One day, I can tell my kids about it. They won’t believe what their father did.”

~ ~ ~

Zora O’Neill is a travel and food writer based in Queens, New York. She is the author of All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World, about her time studying and traveling in the Middle East. She also writes guidebooks for Lonely Planet and Moon, and she is the coauthor, with Tamara Reynolds, of Forking Fantastic! Put the Party Back in Dinner Party. Not long after this story was first published, Zora learned that Yaman had made it safely to mainland Greece, then to Germany. After winter in a camp in Kiel, he and his brother and mother were able to find an apartment. A year and a half after their arrival, Yaman’s asylum application was finally approved, and he had progressed to an advanced German course, in preparation for enrolling in university again.

Lavinia Spalding has edited four previous volumes of The Best Women’s Travel Writing. She is also the author of Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler and With a Measure of Grace, the Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant, and she introduced the reissued e-book edition of Edith Wharton’s classic travelogue, A Motor-Flight Through France. Her writing appears in numerous print and online publications, including Sunset, Yoga Journal, San Francisco magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, and The Best Travel Writing. She is co-founder of Weekday Wanderlust, a monthly travel reading series in San Francisco.