Since 2006 the editors of Travelers’ Tales have run a writing competition to find the best travel story of the year: The Solas Awards. Over those years, thousands of stories have come across their desks, from writers famous and unknown, covering all corners of the globe with stories of adventure and discovery, love and loss, humor and absurdity, grief and joy. In this collection appear all of the top prize winners of the first ten years, stories that bring readers along for journeys that are inspiring, uplifting, and, very often, transformative. These tales are powerful, moving testaments to the richness of our world, its cultures, people, and places.
In this book, readers will:
- Deposit a loved one’s ashes in a Bolivian River
- Find the Celtic soul you never knew you had in rural Ireland
- Grope through the maze of sorcery and madness in Cameroon
- Rediscover your sense of self on a return to Russia after many years away
- Follow the spirit of John Wesley Powell down the Grand Canyon in Arizona
- Discover peace and tranquility among strangers on an overnight Amtrak journey in the Midwest
- Engage loss and the specter of death in Mexico
- Face your deepest fears alone in an Alaskan winter
- Encounter the realities of prostitution in Thailand
- Absorb the rhythms and soul of Flamenco in Spain
- Fall in love with a home in rural France and make it your own…
and much more
By Brad Newsham
I have set foot in all fifty of the United States and have circled the world with my backpack four times. I am not unfamiliar with travel literature. And I like to think that I am not terminally naïve. But from the beginning pages of this collection of gemstone-quality travel tales, a subconscious notion began to gnaw at me, and when I was about a third of the way in, this notion broke free, snuck up from behind, fully formed now, and tapped the back of my skull forcefully enough so that my head involuntarily nodded and I heard an actual snort snap from my nostrils. I’d been had, suckered like a drunk in a Bangkok alley.
At first glance this book’s six-word title had seemed perfectly innocent—even pure. “Ah, yes,” I had thought, “The Soul of a Great Traveler. I know what that means, I know what to expect here . . .” But that tap on the head served notice that, once again, the joke was on me. Those six words are hardly innocent, and they do not so much constitute a title as they do a koan whose subversive nature is at first almost undetectable (a characteristic shared with the act of travel), but which sooner or later forces you to ask, “Exactly what is a Great Traveler?”
The Age of Exploration winked out long ago. Modern folks no longer sail the high seas in hopes of encountering unmapped islands or continents and unknown tribes. With notable exceptions—refugees, search-and-rescue teams, soldiers, suicide bombers—almost no one reading this book ever has taken or ever will take a trip on which the odds-of-death approach even one-half of one percent.
Few of us have a death wish, but most of us have a nearly unquenchable change wish. If we prefer not to be challenged or stretched we can always stay put, raid the fridge, switch the channel. But from our travels we ask for something different. When we leave home we want to see and hear and smell and ingest things that will leave us altered, dumbfounded, uncertain of our footing. Peering into a mirror in Paris or Kathmandu or Cape Town we do not want to see—and we do not see—the dullard from the bathroom mirror back home. When my brother, never a dullard, returned from a year in the old Rhodesia I spent half an hour unconvinced that it was actually him.
In my own youthful wanderings I passed hours in clichéd, intramural conversations with other backpackers, sorting out the once-popular riddle: “What distinguishes us righteous travelers from those swarming hordes of tourists?” But I abandoned that pastime thirty years ago, after an early morning poker game at a waterfront café on a roadless island off the coast of Kenya. As we went around the table, anteing up our shillings and congratulating each other on our righteous-traveler bona fides, a woman from Kentucky told of having recently survived a nervous and thirsty and reportedly quite stinky month trapped aboard a broken-down train in the middle of war-torn Sudan. She seemed astonishingly unimpressed with her newly acquired, conversation-stopping credential: “After a while,” she told the awestruck rest of us, “you realize that, everyone on this planet, we’re all tourists here.”
The euro, the dollar, and the yuan have nudged aside the franc, lira, and pound sterling. The sea dragons have all been slain, the continents meticulously mapped, and even outer space is now open for business, visitors expected any day. On Earth, college students fly to Thailand for spring break. Taxi drivers wander the world. My haircutter, a Korean man in his seventies, amuses himself twice a year with three-week trips to any place that strikes his fancy: Italy, Vietnam, Peru, Tibet. “Oh, New Zealand!” he told me during my last trim. “You have to see New Zealand!” Great Traveler.
When a term loses its meaning we become free to redefine it for ourselves, and your rendition may differ wildly from mine. My Great Traveler is not boastful. She—and I say she only to try to tip the scales toward even—appreciates her place in the world, her privilege: not everyone is born into circumstances that afford the freedom and ability to travel. She sets forth alone, precisely because flying solo forces her to open up, be vulnerable, on the lookout for the unexpected and unusual. She listens. She engages fully with the moment-by-moment world that presents itself to her and with the locals who inhabit it, knowing all the while that her wanderings’ deeper consequences will be internal and will result only from whatever interpretation she may bring to them.
A friend of mine maintains, “You can test the proof of this at any party: The game of life is won not by the guy with the most money or the coolest toys, but by the one with the best story to tell.” His bon mot applies more fittingly to travel than to any other endeavor, does it not? We no longer expect, and we barely even appreciate, gift trinkets from our traveling friends, but we continue to treasure their stories. For me, a Great Traveler is one who has mastered the art of powerfully communicating an experience that touches the human soul.
The thirty writers who have lent their prize-winning tales to this book have obeyed the First and Last Commandment of yarn-spinning: Thou shalt engage thine audience from the beginning even unto the ending. Each has also followed the Travel Writing Caveat that I look for: Thou shalt share thine essence in a way that calls forth the essence of thine audience. And each of these thirty Great Travelers has accomplished these things while following his or her own unique travel and storytelling paths. To cite a few:
Lance Mason (“The Train to Harare”) subtly infuses a remembrance of his first trip to Africa with the lulling, hypnotic cadence of a coach car gently rocking its way through the bush.
Matthew Crompton, on a journey through the Himalayan foothills (“Into the Hills”), recreates exactly the mentalemotional pitch of falling ill, while alone, thousands of miles from home.
In one of my personal favorites (“Remember This Night”), Katherine Jamieson proves that the close observation of a mundane domestic act (the ordering of a pizza) performed in a place where you do not belong (Guyana) can result in unforgettable art.
In Cold War Moscow, at the tender age of twenty-three, Marcia DeSanctis (“Masha”) experiences complete empathy for another human being, a Russian woman with a (perhaps) less fortunate outcome in the birth lottery.
Carolyn Kraus’s trip to Belarus (“The Memory Bird”) to investigate the Holocaust murder of her grandmother demonstrates that Hell is nothing more than history brought present.
To read Peter Wortsman’s account (“Protected”) of a soldier’s desperate mission—to spend what he knows will be his last night on Earth in the arms of his wife—is to know that all life, including your own, is a miracle.
And please forgive yourself if you feel just a little insane after reading “The Bamenda Syndrome” by David Torrey Peters. But please, tell me, how did he do that?
Welcome to The Soul of a Great Traveler. I trust that you will enjoy it as enormously as I did.
~ ~ ~
Brad Newsham is the author of three books, including Take Me With You: A Round-the-World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home (Travelers’ Tales, 2000). He lives in Oakland, California, and for 28 years, across the Bay in San Francisco, he was a taxicab driver. He thinks of Paul Theroux as The Great Traveler of modern times and believes Theroux deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature. Learn more about Brad at www.bradnewsham.com.
Into the Hills
Barren in the Andes
Remember This Night
The Bamenda Syndrome
David Torrey Peters
The Train to Harare
Ashes of San Miguel
Tawni Vee Waters
The Memory Bird
The Tea in Me
Love and Lies in Iran
Spirals: Memoir of a Celtic Soul
Oranges and Roses
Amy Gigi Alexander
Ghost on Ice
Cameron McPherson Smith
Fish Trader Ray
Nancy L. Penrose
Red Lights and a Rose
We Wait for Spring, Moldova and Me
The Empty Rocker
From the Ashes
James Michael Dorsey
Fishing with Larry
Beneath the Rim
Moving West, Writing East
Inside the Tower
Castles in the Sky
Philomen and Baucis
Pamela Cordell Avis
The Train at Night
Gina Briefs- Elgin
ACROSS THE USA
The Good Captain
THE PACIFIC OCEAN
About the Editors
By Peter Wortsman
The fates take strange twists indeed.
It was my last night in the lavish villa on the lake in Berlin-Wannsee where I had comfortably holed up for the winter. A noted Indian economist was scheduled to lecture on the underlying causes of the global financial crisis and its effects on the developing world. Call me an escapist, but I was not inclined to listen to the sad statistics. The world’s affairs would muddle on without me, I thought, intending to grab a quick bite and slip off unnoticed to attend to my packing.
Such dinners were always a festive affair, the guest list sprinkled with Berlin society. My tablemate to the left, the wife of the German theologian seated beside the Indian economist, was a tall, stately woman of late middle age with prominent cheekbones, Prussian blue eyes, and tightly braided, blond hair, who wore her years like a string of pearls. Straight-backed, head held high, as if she were not seated at table, but rather astride a saddle, ears pricked for the sound of a hunting horn, she had what in former times would have been called an aristocratic bearing.
Socially maladroit and constitutionally incapable of making small talk, a tendency further aggravated by chronic insomnia, I either clam up on such occasions or put my foot in my mouth.
Prodding myself to say something before taking up knife and fork to dispatch the appetizer, two luscious-looking, seared sea scallops on a bed of wilted seaweed, I wished her, “Bon appétit!”
“Gesegnete Mahlzeit!” Blessed meal, she replied.
“Bless the chef!” I countered, immediately regretting the flippancy of my ill-considered response. “Please forgive me, but I’m not a believer.”
She smiled to make clear that she took no offense. “Religion is a personal matter. My faith,” she affirmed, “makes me feel beschützt” (protected).
A striking choice of words, I thought, while savoring the flavor and firmness of the first scallop. “I myself altogether lack the foundation of faith,” I confessed. “Given my family history, feeling protected is simply not in the cards.”
She seemed concerned, sympathetic, as though suddenly fathoming that I was missing a middle finger.
“I’m the child of refugees,” I said to set the record straight.
I might have changed the subject but I chose not to. With me it’s a compulsion, a need to lay my cards on the table.
“My father’s departure from his native Vienna was…” I searched for the appropriate adjective, “precipitous.”
“Involuntary,” I clarified.
Decorum should have compelled me to change the subject. But impatiently lapping up the second scallop whole, my tongue rattled on.
“Huddled, to hide his prominent nose, in the sidecar of a motorcycle with a swastika flapping in the wind, he was driven by an accommodating member of a motorcycle gang, who agreed, for a fee, to drop him off at sundown at a wooded stretch of the border with Czechoslovakia. And when, at the sound of what he took for a gunshot—but was, in fact, an engine backfire—they suddenly stopped, convinced his time was up, my father held his breath as the motorcyclist dismounted, only to return moments later with a bleeding hare he’d run over, knocked its head against the fender, and asked my father to be so kind as to hold it for him. Fresh meat being scarce, he meant to have it for his dinner.”
The arrival of the entrée, rack of venison prepared “von Himmel und Erde” (heaven and earth) style, i.e. stuffed with a puree of mashed apples and potatoes, came as a welcome point of punctuation.
She eyed me in between bites with an intense, but not unfriendly, gaze, as if, I thought, considering a rare wildflower, which aggravated my malaise.
To smooth the way for my escape, I let slip that I was leaving early the next morning for a trip to Poznań, Poland, and so, unfortunately, would have to skip dessert and miss the lecture, to pack.
“To Posen?!” she burst out, employing the old German name of the region and city ceded to Prussia following the Congress of Vienna and reclaimed by the Polish in the wake of World War II; promptly correcting herself: “Poznań!” to make clear that she harbored no secret dream of re-annexation.
I nodded to indicate that I understood.
“Ich bin auch…I too am”—she hesitated a moment—“das Kind von Flüchtlinge…the child of refugees.”
It was the way she said Kind…child that made the years fall away from her face and gave her voice the candor of innocence.
“I come,” she blinked, embarrassed and proud, “from a long line of Prussian aristocrats, the landed gentry of Poznań, Posen, as it was called back then.
“The War was practically over. The Russians were advancing from the East. It was a winter so bitter and cold the children broke the icicles from the windowsills and sucked them like candy. A decorated tank commander in the Wehrmacht who’d been away a long time, and whom the family thought dead, miraculously broke through enemy lines, and came rolling up in his Panzer in the dark of night to the family estate.”
She described what followed in vivid detail, like an eyewitness, yet with a certain distance in the telling, like she couldn’t decide whether to embrace it or hold it at arm’s length.
“The officer leapt out in his neatly pressed uniform, in which the War hadn’t made a wrinkle, tipped his cap, which he wore at a jaunty tilt, hugged his two sons and his trembling wife, who took him for a ghost.”
She paused to mimic the hollow look in his eyes.
“That night the officer told his wife he wanted to make a blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter.
“‘Are you mad?’ his wife protested in a whisper, not wanting to wake the children. ‘The War is lost, we already have two sons to raise. Why bring another child into this world?’
“But the officer insisted, and his wife dared not refuse a decorated hero of the Reich.”
Turning away, the theologian’s wife bowed her head to mark a private moment, shut her eyes tight and seemed to be peering inwards, straining, as I suddenly fathomed, to remember the moment of her own conception.
“Bright and early the next day,” she continued, her voice now taking on a strange solemnity, “Father put on his perfectly pressed uniform, set the cap on his head at just the right angle, pausing briefly in front of Mother’s vanity mirror to approve his appearance, said he’d only be a minute, and as Mother watched from the bedroom window, he smiled, patted the protruding cannon, lifted the hatch, climbed in, set the great metal elephant in motion, and poking his head out, waving to her at the window one last time, leapt out and hurled himself under the rolling tread.”
They cleared the table and brought in the dessert, a wild berry parfait that neither of us touched.
“Did she mourn for him?” I inquired.
“There was no time for mourning,” my tablemate shook her head. “With the Russian artillery thundering ever closer all through the day and into the night, Mother pulled herself together, took a pickax, buried Father’s remains, and fled with the clothes on her back and a small bundle, with my brothers in tow, and the seed of a child planted in her womb, walking all the way to Berlin.
“Father posthumously had his wish, a blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter,” she shrugged, with a look that wavered between disapproval and a proud affirmation of self. “The four of us lived together in a cramped attic room with a ceiling through which it rained and snowed. In that leaky attic I grew up with barely enough space to stretch my arms and legs, but there,” she smiled, “I felt protected.
“When I grew up I met and married my husband”—she nodded at the theologian, who cast increasingly concerned looks to see his wife so stirred up with a stranger, to which she replied with reassuring nods. “I became a kindergarten teacher, had a long career, and just retired last year.”
She was horrified, she said, at the number of broken families her pupils came from, one in three in Germany. She hoped to devote her “golden years”—the hackneyed expression took on a freshness framed by her radiant, tightly braided blond head—volunteering to help children in need.
I had stuck around too long to escape the economist’s lecture, but I was preoccupied and don’t remember a word of what he said about the present crisis or his prognosis for the future.
I kept glancing at the theologian’s wife, now seated beside her husband, her hand in his. Born of conflicting legends, we were bound in braided tragedies. And though I still can’t fathom what it means to feel protected, and doubt I ever will, as disparate as our destinies are, there is an undeniable parallel between the motorcycle that carried my father to one kind of freedom and the tank that took her father to another, on both of which history hitched a ride.
~ ~ ~
Peter Wortsman’s restless musings have been included in six volumes of The Best Travel Writing. This story won the Grand Prize Gold Award in the Sixth Annual Solas Awards and comprises a chapter in the author’s travel memoir, Ghost Dance in Berlin: A Rhapsody in Gray, recipient of a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY). The book was inspired by his time spent as a Holtzbrinch Fellow at The American Academy in Berlin in 2010.
About the Editors
James O’Reilly, publisher of Travelers’ Tales, was born in Oxford, England, and raised in San Francisco. He’s visited fifty countries and lived in four, along the way meditating with monks in Tibet, participating in West African voodoo rituals, rafting the Zambezi, and hanging out with nuns in Florence and penguins in Antarctica. He travels whenever he can with his wife and their three daughters. They live in Leavenworth, Washington and Palo Alto, California, where they also publish art games and books for children at Birdcage Press (birdcagepress.com).
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has visited more than fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the Arctic to equatorial rainforests, the Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and for thirty-one years wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch.” Habegger regularly teaches travel writing at workshops and writers’ conferences and is a principal of the Prose Doctors (prosedoctors.com), an editors consortium. He lives with his family on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
Sean O’Reilly is editor-at-large for Travelers’ Tales. He is a former seminarian, stockbroker, and prison instructor who lives in Virginia with his wife and three of their six children. He’s had a lifelong interest in philosophy and theology, and is the author of How to Manage Your Destructive Impulses with Cyber Kinetics and Authority. He is also CEO and founder of the Auriga Distribution Group, Johnny Upright, Fifth Access, and Redbrazil.com, a bookselling site.