“Travelers’ Tales books luxuriate in that complicated, beautiful, shadowy place where the best stories begin, and the most compelling characters roam free.”
The Best Travel Writing 2005 is the second volume in the annual best Travelers’ Tales series launched last year to celebrate ten years of publishing the world’s best travel writing—from Nobel Prize winners to complete unknowns. These 27 stories cover the globe, from recreating the “Rumble in the Jungle” in a makeshift boxing ring in Malawi to discovering the secret to life and chicken in a humble Parisian restaurant to encountering the ghost of Odysseus and your own past in the Aegean. The points of view and perspectives are global, and themes encompass spiritual growth, high adventure, romance, women’s solo journeys, absolute hilarity and misadventure, stories of service to humanity, family travel, and encounters with exotic cuisine.
In The Best Travel Writing 2005 readers will:
Face your deepest fear in Timbuktu with Deborah Fryer
Disappear into the night sky with Bill Sherwonit in Alaska
Eat duck embryos in Laos with Kathryn Kefauver
Watch a life hang in the balance in Guatemala with Larry R. Moffitt
Learn the lessons of history and fatherhood with Patrick Fitzhugh in Italy
Take a pilgrimage to Mecca with Murad Kalam
Encounter the depths of human cruelty in Cambodia with Jane Marshall
Probe the Dalai Lama’s Tibet in Dharamsala, India with Pico Iyer
Become enlightened in Ladakh with Mark Hawthorne
…and much more.
by Tom Miller
Great travel writing consists of equal parts curiosity, vulnerability, and vocabulary. It is not a terrain for know-it-alls or the indecisive. The best of the genre can simply be an elegant natural history essay, a nicely writ sports piece, or a well-turned profile of a bar band and its music. A well-grounded sense of place is the challenge for the writer. We observe, we calculate, we inquire, we look for a link between what we already know and what we’re about to learn. The finest travel writing describes what’s going on when nobody’s looking.
Moritz Thomsen (1915-1991) was one of the great American expatriate writers of the twentieth century. Period. A soft-hearted cuss, a man of almost insufferable integrity, a lousy farmer and a terrific writer, his books have long since been smothered by the avalanche from megapublishers (yet remarkably, three of his titles remain in print). Although all his works could be considered travel memoirs imbued with a sense of place, his third book, The Saddest Pleasure, embodies some of the very finest elements of the genre: constant doubt, a meddlesome nature, and a disregard for nationalism. (The book’s title comes from a line in Paul Theroux’s novel, Picture Palace: “Travel is the saddest of the pleasures.”) Thomsen, who stayed in Ecuador following his mid-nineteen-sixties Peace Corps stint, pledged allegiance to nothing except his station as an expatriate. And as an expat he was free to judge us all, an undertaking he finessed with acute observations, self-deprecation, and a flavorful frame of reference that ranged from a Tchaikovsky symphony to a Sealy Posturpedic mattress.
Inquisitiveness. Yes. In The Art of Travel, a book worth staying home for, Alain de Botton quotes Alexander von Humboldt’s childhood curiosity: “Why don’t the same things grow everywhere?” And as children we might also ask, “Why doesn’t everyone look the same?” “Why don’t we all speak the same language?” Or, to quote Rodney King’s adult exasperation, “Can’t we all just get along?” It is these pure and simple questions of innocence that should accompany travel writers, not iPods, Palm Pilots, cell phones, or laptops. Travel with paper and pen, a book, maybe a bilingual dictionary. Ask the questions a child might.
. In the late nineteen-seventies I advanced a notion that the U.S.-Mexico frontier was really a third country, two thousand miles long and twenty miles wide, and went about testing it. I had little awareness of travel writing, but when my book about the borderland came out in 1981, reviews invariably referred to it as travel literature, a category I had never really considered.
Reviewers anointed me a travel writer; I didn’t choose the label. Others have recoiled at the identity. “I detest the term,” Jonathan Raban told the Chicago Tribune. Eddy L. Harris insisted to the same newspaper: “I’m not a travel writer. Absolutely not.” Although I’ve openly embraced it, the name sometimes makes me uncomfortable, too. It’s as if travel writing was considered a second-tier calling—“non-fiction lite.”
Yet surely as buses plunge off Peruvian mountainsides and Norwegian freighters collide with Liberian tankers, the basic ingredients of formula travel writing will endure. Henry Miller succumbed. When he lived in Paris, Miller wrote the odd travel piece for a friend’s publication. “They were easy to do, because I had only to consult the back issues and revamp the old articles,” he wrote in Tropic of Cancer. “The principal thing was to keep the adjectives well-furbished.” Be skeptical of writers who talk of snow-capped peaks, bustling marketplaces where the beadwork is always intricate, and shy but friendly natives. (You’d shy away, too, if foreigners constantly accosted you, cameras, notepads, and tape recorders at the ready.) The essayist who calls a town quaint, the plaza charming, or the streets teeming, has no literary imagination. Distrust any writing that opens with a quote from a cabby or closes with one from a bartender.
What the writers in the following pages so elegantly accomplish is first-person sociology, economics, anthropology, history, geography, politics, biology, cultural studies, even criminology. Their fulsome stories tell of near-suicide in Mayan country, a Laotian fortune-teller, and a Paris bistro. The contributors here use Odysseus as a guide, consider that Balinese canoes carry culture as well as cargo, and navigate corruption and highways to reach Bucharest. They are not prone to niceties, either. Their refreshing honesty reveals a world of surprising love and disappointing fools, unforeseen circumstance and invigorating challenges.
My favorite travel accounts all have an unspoken subtext. They are full of polemic, prejudice, adversity; revelation, conquest, triumph, and there is plenty of those qualities in these stories, too. Leilani Marie Labong, frustrated from teaching English in Japan, found herself “cursing its backwards ways.” Dustin W. Leavitt learned to say he was a scholar, not a writer, in a country where the former is respected and the latter suspect. Suz Redfearn met her literary mentor and idol, the late Spalding Gray, on a nude beach in California. For other writers in this book, such as Murad Kalam peregrinating to Mecca or Mark Jenkins slipping into Burma, annoying hosts and global boundaries just get in the way. “Somebody must trespass on the taboos of modern nationalism,” wrote Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana, defending travelers whose writings insult their hosts. “Business can’t. Diplomacy won’t. It has to be people like us.”
The finest travel writing gets under the skin of a locale to sense its rhythm, to probe its contours, to divine a genuine understanding. We shed pre-, mal-, and misconceptions about a land, then sneak up on it and develop our own prejudices. Pico Iyer, appraising Dharamsala, pauses to allow that the point of travel “is to journey into complication, even contradiction.” Sally Shivnan, in her piece set in Spain, writes of approaching the Alhambra with “the best kind of naïveté”—knowing just enough to want to know more. It’s difficult to parachute into a setting for just a few days and emerge with confident, intelligent writing. I am often envious and always bewildered by writers such as Joan Didion who spent two weeks in El Salvador and emerged with a most respectable book about that country at war, or Andrei Codrescu who did a fly-by over Cuba and crash-landed with Ay, Cuba!
Travel literature, including many of the examples in this fine collection, usually consists of writers from industrial countries visiting far less developed lands. (For a memorable variation to this regrettable state of affairs, read An African In Greenland, by Tête-Michel Kpomassie from the 1980s; or, from a century earlier, read the Cuban José Martí’s essays on life in the States.) Not surprisingly, there is little tradition of homegrown travel literature in Namibia, Belize, or the Ukraine. Many countries publish anthologies of outsiders looking in at them, curious visitors who never quite unpacked their bags. In Notes of a Villager, the Mexican author José Rubén Romero laments, “Our country is like a cow fallen over a cliff, rich in spoils for the crows of other nationalities.”
As unrepentant crows from other nationalities, the contributors to The Best Travel Writing 2005 have enthusiastically picked at the rich spoils the world has lain bare. And we always go back, all of us, because somewhere in the world another cow is always falling over another cliff.
Tom Miller has been bringing us extraordinary stories of ordinary people for more than thirty years. His highly acclaimed travel books include The Panama Hat Trail, about South America, On the Border, an account of his adventures in the U.S.-Mexico frontier, Trading with the Enemy, which takes readers on his journeys through Cuba, and, about the American Southwest, Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink, winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book of 2000. Additionally, he has edited two collections, Travelers’ Tales Cuba, and Writing on the Edge: A Borderlands Reader. His articles have appeared in Smithsonian, The New Yorker, The New York Times, LIFE, Natural History, and many other publications. He lives in Arizona, and can be reached at tommillerbooks.com.
For more of Tom Miller’s thoughts on writing, see his interview with Michael Shapiro in A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration.
I stood at the front desk of the Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, waiting for the clerk to hand me the stamps I’d just bought. Instead, he plucked postcards from my hand, licked the stamps, and began to place them precisely. The last stamp, however, tore at the corner when he was removing it from the main sheet, but instead of leaving well enough alone, he tore off the tiny, orphaned piece and reunited it with the rest of the stamp, which he’d already affixed. When he was finished, he gave me a huge smile and put my postcards in the outgoing mail.
I laughed as I went out the door—a laugh of surprise at such care. To say it was good service wouldn’t do it justice, because it bore much more the mark of a warm heart.
Most of us travel to connect with this mystery of the other, the strange land, the incomprehensible tongue, and the inner vistas of a different way of life. And if we manage to come away physically unscathed, we never come away without the tire marks of human contact, whether we’re crossing a border, trusting a guide in the bush, getting directions from a taxi driver, or being touched by the spirit of a hotel clerk.
Paul Harper, author of “Waiting to Arrive,” a story in this collection about a journey to the Nigerian frontier, wrote in a different piece about his stint as a bicycle mechanic in Ghana:
When I hear the clink of hammer on screwdriver in any West African City—something as steady and eternal as time—it means many things. It is a sound of defiance, a sound of reassurance that, yes, people are still riding bikes, and above all a comfort that I will not be missed. But there somewhere in the ringing space between beats is a pang, a reminder of an alliance that never happened, of all the other things I meant to do, of what I left behind and what can still be done.
You too are that stranger, who may pass through town like a ghost or leave as a friend who has earned the regard of those he’s met. It’s worth asking yourself, when you travel, are you a parasite, neutral agent, or catalyst?
Recently I was running at the Stanford stadium, when an old guy going the opposite way passed me saying, “How you doing, bro?” His greeting was the best thing that happened to me that day, as I was still digesting the news of the tsunami in Southeast Asia. His words were like a light shining on me, and I left the stadium thinking the obvious: “Why yes! He is my brother.” And so were those who’d just died in the disaster, and so are those who survived. As are the billions of people out there waiting to meet you, just as some of them met the travelers in this book, who brought home the things that happened to them, and the ways they were marked abroad, in tragedy, in happiness, in farce, in anger, and in love.
Be generous with yourself this year—go out and connect, spread yourself around. Travel more, not less. And then come home and tell a story to your friends about what it’s like just over the horizon, where your brothers and sisters live.
Palo Alto, California
Cause for Alarm
Part Lao, Part Falang
The Concorde, R.I.P.
Waiting to Arrive
The Tipping Point at Tikal
Larry R. Moffitt
Confessions of a Travel Writer
Robert L. Strauss
The Ghost Road
Carbonaro and Primavera
Where the Fighters Are Hungry
Working Men of Tokyo
Balkans? No Problem
If It Doesn’t Kill You First
The Longest Day
In the Air
Prayer Flags and Refugees
Dustin W. Leavitt
Trigger Happy In Cambodia
The Redemption of Odysseus
The Accidental Hotel
Donald A. Ranard
Refining the Vegetable
Leilani Marie Labong
Journey to the Night Sky
Cause for Alarm
by Deborah Fryer
Is it wise to trust in the kindness of strangers?
In the shadow of fabled Timbuktu lies the medieval town of Djenné, and every child’s fantasy: here the most colossal mud pie in the world rises from the desert. The Djenné Mosque is 12,000 square feet and built entirely of sand and sticks. Its tan minarets reach for the clouds like arms outstretched in prayer. Six steps, symbolizing the transition from profane to sacred, lead into the mosque. Centuries of monsoons have somehow spared this house of Allah. As I am admiring the holy sandcastle, a teenager with a crutch approaches. In flawless English he announces, “My name is Toka. I would like to show you around. May I?” I haven’t heard a word of English in two weeks. “Follow me,” he offers, his bright smile illuminating his dark face like a crescent moon.
Although Toka has a discernible limp, he hops over the river of raw sewage running in the middle of the street and capers up six flights of stairs like a mountain goat to show me an unparalleled view of the city. I can barely keep up. He points to what looks like a Walt Disney castle surrounded by a moat off in the distance. “That’s where my family lives,” he waves proudly. “Sirimou. Would you like to see a traditional Malian village?”
The path to Sirimou winds through a floodplain so hot and dry that three cows have keeled over like jackknifed semis. Their corpses are already covered with a dusting of sand. Their ribs protrude, bleached white as piano keys. “When I was six years old, I got sick with the flu,” Toka begins. “I remember being delirious with a high fever, and then I couldn’t use my legs.” A procession of villagers on their way to market shares the road with us: barefooted women with newborns strapped to their backs balance wooden bowls brimming with millet or firewood on their heads. A man on a bicycle with a freshly butchered sheep tied behind his seat with a vine passes us. “My family didn’t know what was the matter with me, but they couldn’t afford to find out,” Toka relates, matter-of-factly. “For years, I walked on my fists, dragging my legs behind me like a seal. Then my parents built me a wheelchair so I could roll through the alleys with my friends.”
We pause under a baobab tree, which offers the only respite from the heat. Its trunk looks like an elephant’s leg, wrinkled at the knees. Its bare branches pierce the cloudless blue satin of the sky. Toka’s gaze is drawn heavenward. “Three years ago, when I was fifteen, I was playing in front of the mosque where I met you, when an American woman spotted me. The next thing I knew, she was taking me to the doctor in Bamako and they told me I had polio. But that’s not the most amazing thing.” His brown eyes fix on my green ones like magnets. “She was an angel. She flew me home with her to Chicago. Even though she already had seven kids. And she paid for three reconstructive surgeries for my legs.” Toka plants his crutch in the sand emphatically. “When I returned to Mali, six months later, I walked off the plane by myself. It’s a miracle. How can I ever repay what they did for me?” He looks to the sky again. The sun glints off the whites of his eyes like diamonds. “That’s why I want to help whenever I can.”
Sirimou is built on a hill, so when the Bani River floods, the town becomes an island accessible only by dugout canoe or rickety bridge. We go for the bridge. The call to prayer floats over the rooftops. A throng of screaming children greets us. The older siblings are carrying the younger ones, adorned with fetishes to ward off evil spirits: braided leather thongs gird their waists and ankles, bone talismans encircle their necks. The babies shriek in terror when they see me, but the brave toddlers fight over my hands. “Tobabou!” they shout (white person). “Bonjour. Ça va?” They tap my pockets eagerly, patting me down for candy or ballpoint pens. “Bonbon? Bic?” a dozen ever-hopeful voices giggle. “Ignore them,” Toka shoos them away with his crutch.
The children scatter, but soon we are surrounded by the village mothers and teenage daughters wearing hammered gold crescents as big as bananas in their noses and ears. The tallest woman taps her jaw and moans. Her front teeth are missing. I can see she needs aspirin. I pour two Advil into her palm and offer my bottled water. She refuses the water but grabs the pills. Now women are pawing at me from all sides, yelling, grabbing, pushing, shoving. I don’t think they will hurt me, but I am being crushed as they press in on me. I start dispensing all the Advil I have left, but Toka orders me to stop. “They get medicine from everyone who comes here. There is nothing wrong with them. They just see you as an opportunity to get something.” He speaks to them harshly and they glide back into their doorless houses, like snails retreating into their shells.
Toka leads me through narrow, convoluted streets. I try to notice where we are going, but the streets are really just packed earth between the houses, which all look the same anyway, and I realize that without my guide I am completely lost. Somewhere in the middle of the labyrinth is a mosque, and beside it, a husband and wife have set up shop: neat mounds of white rice, peanuts in the shell, and metal containers of milk. The husband, sitting on sheepskin, is transforming foliage into fishing line by twisting the leaves between his fingers and thumbs as though rolling a cigarette. His wife, on a straw mat beside him, is equally dexterously spinning creamy clouds of fleece into yarn using her toes as the spindle. With her free hand, she cracks a peanut between her teeth and offers me the prize.
Five men who have been leaning against the side of the mosque in the shade watching me now step forward into the bright sunlight, saying something that sounds guttural and harsh. “They are complaining their eyes hurt because they have been studying the Koran so much,” Toka translates. “They want your sunglasses.” One of them tries to grab them from the top of my head, but Toka fends them off with his crutch. “They’re lying. They do this to everyone. Pay no attention to them.” Toka has been emphatic that I ignore the children, the women, and the religious students of the village. But next, the imam comes out of the mosque, gesticulating angrily. “What does he want?” I ask. “That’s the imam,” Toka replies. “You can’t ignore him. He wants you to come with him.”
The imam wears a heavy white cotton robe that grazes his ankles, a white crocheted prayer cap, and plastic sandals. His skin is as dark and shiny as an oil slick. He’s in a hurry. I follow a few paces behind. The imam leads me into his house. Wooden prayer tablets with Arabic verses scrawled on them are strewn about the dirt courtyard. Wicker fish traps hang on the walls. A small boy is untangling a fishing net so voluminous he seems caught in it. His sister, perched on an oil drum, is braiding straw mats. They watch me with wide saucer eyes, but their hands never leave their work.
The imam leads me deeper into the courtyard, past a blackened fire pit with calabashes, pottery sieves, and stacks of animal hides, past two women threshing millet cobs in a wooden pail playing a musical game while they work. They alternate their pestles…thud…thwack…thud…thwack…and between downbeats, they clap their hands in counter rhythms. Their sweat drips into the grain. They giggle. They pretend not to notice me. The imam is focused and intent. He steps over the threshold into his house. The walls are made of straw and mud. There are no windows.
Where is the imam taking me and just what exactly does he plan to do with me once we get there? My mind is racing. Who can help me if his intentions are less than honorable? The kids mending the nets and mats? The wives who are busy threshing tonight’s dinner? It is not that long after September 11th and all I can think about is Daniel Pearl. I try to slow my breathing down. I look at Toka for reassurance, but he just pushes me forward with his crutch. The imam is waiting. The imam means business.
I haven’t seen another white person in the two weeks I have been here. My arms and legs are covered, but my head is unveiled. Can they tell by my face that I am a Jew? I am carrying a camera. I am carrying an American passport. I am a target. And I am afraid. If they decide to do something to me, no one will ever know. There are no telephones in this village, no radios, no cell phones. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The imam pulls aside the braided straw mat that serves as the door to his bedroom.
I hesitate. Toka whispers, “He wants to show you something,” and he nudges me into the room. There is a bare double mattress on the floor. The imam’s clothes are hanging from a wire over the bed. I hear the rhythm of the threshing in the courtyard, but what could the women and children do? I hold back still.
I shouldn’t have allowed myself to get into this situation. I should have used better judgment. But I wanted to trust because I believe it’s important to make connections with people different from me, to learn about other cultures, to make eye contact and trade smiles. This is how we make peace. By trusting each other. By making leaps of faith. By stepping out of ourselves into others’ lives and beliefs and honoring them. But now my heart is in my mouth and I don’t have time to think anymore. I can taste my fear, metallic and cold as iron.
The imam kneels on the bed and reaches for something. There. He has it in his hands. He turns around and inches slowly towards me. He is concealing it in the folds of his robe. He has some gray whiskers in his beard, his toenails need trimming. I shrink back, but Toka is right behind me. The imam puts one hand on my shoulder, and I finally see that in his other hand he is clenching…a clock. The clock face is analog. It is 11:20. The ticking is so loud, I wonder if it’s a bomb. Why is he showing me his clock? Does this mean my time has come? The imam forces the clock into my hands. He is getting more and more impatient, jabbing at the dial, poking my arm. From the growling sounds exploding in his throat, it seems his agitation is about to come to a head.
Now it is 11:21. I am holding my breath. My heartbeat matches the sweep of the second hand. As time slows down to seconds and fractions of seconds, I focus on every detail of the clock. It is made of white molded plastic in the shape of the Taj Mahal. The hands are gold. The numbers have curly tails. The clock takes two AA batteries. There are five buttons with Arabic writing on them. The imam is pointing at some other buttons, beneath the Arabic ones, with words in English: ON OFF SET ALARM. “He doesn’t speak English,” Toka says. “He wants you to set his prayer clock.” The imam’s palms are pressed together in front of his chest and a beseeching smile quivers in the bird’s nest that is his beard. Relief blows through me, hot as a desert wind. An ear-to-ear grin cracks my face like an egg. I can breathe again. The sky has never looked so blue.
In this dusty, fairy tale village of mud and straw, perched on a hill overlooking a floodplain, where there is no medicine, no electricity, no running water, and no telephone, everything takes time, and time is everything. There is a time for fishing and a time for mending the nets, a time for sowing the millet seeds and a time to let the fields lie fallow, a time for shearing the sheep and a time for slaughter. Time is as precious as the river that brings the fish, the clouds that bring the rain, and the sun that nourishes the crops, dries the fish, bakes the mud bricks of the tiny houses that hold so many lives. And prayer is the golden thread that runs through the necklace of moments that make up whole lifetimes here in Sirimou. I set the imam’s clock with gratitude and hand it back to him. He cradles it with the gentleness of a new mother. He thanks me with his eyes, and shows us to the door. The millet-threshing wives look up from their pails and bid Allah to be with us as we leave their house. “My family is just around the corner,” says Toka. “Let’s go.” He skips through the dusty streets on his gimpy leg and crutch with all the exuberance of a pony nearing its barn. A herd of curious goats trots after us bleating, and the imam’s voice, calling “Allah Akbar, God is great,” drifts over the rooftops like snow.
Deborah Fryer is a freelancer who has won numerous awards for her writing, including 1st place in the Moondance Film Festival Short Story Contest. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.
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 controversial book on men’s behavior, How to Manage Your DICK, he is also the inventor of a safety device known as Johnny Upright. A life-long devotee of good humor and all things sacred and profane, his recent editorial credits include: The Best Travel Writing 2005, Travelers’ Tales China, The Best Travelers’ Tales 2004, Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know Why, Travelers’ Tales American Southwest, Travelers’ Tales Greece, Travelers’ Tales Ireland, Travelers’ Tales Grand Canyon, Danger!, Pilgrimage, The Ultimate Journey,and Testosterone Planet. 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.