by Tony Perrottet
The jungles of Cameroon…the plains of Mongolia…the wastes of Antarctica…I like to think that Herodotus, who was the Father of Travel Writing as well as of History (he schlepped all over Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor in search of new material), would have loved this riotously energetic anthology.
In its kaleidoscopic scope, The Best Travel Writing 2009 is firmly part of the grand tradition established by that restless Greek wanderer some 2,500 years ago: It captures the world today in all its wonder, oddity, and comic contradictions. Within these pages, twenty-nine intrepid authors sally forth to explore zones that are sometimes remote and dangerous and sometimes deceptively familiar. (The wilds of Minnesota, anyone? Backwoods Colorado? In 2009, you don’t have to travel far.) For these voraciously inquiring minds, the world turns out to be a fascinating and surprising place, where you might cross paths with African witchdoctors, Nepalese tigers, or Franco-American cowboys. And it’s heartening to know that we can still enjoy (as Pico Iyer notes in his witty essay about his own escape from the vales of academe to the life of the travel writer, which could serve as this book’s keynote address) “the vagabond’s freedom of being unknown and off the grid.”
Granted, the modes of transport have changed a little in the last twenty-five centuries, as we have traded the romance of ancient oar-powered ships for 767s. (Triremes may have been slow, but they probably had more legroom). Yet the driving passion for travel—boundless curiosity—is still clearly embedded in our DNA. I can easily imagine Herodotus today in the youth hostels of Cape Town or coffee houses of Yemen, gazing about wild-eyed, furiously scribbling in his moleskin. Travelers are everywhere, but great travel writers from Marco Polo to Mark Twain and Bruce Chatwin all knew that a reader’s attention needs to be gripped with vivid anecdotes, humor, narrative—in short, good storytelling. These travel tales do not bludgeon us with facts and figures. They are, above all, marvelous yarns—sometimes funny (Jeff Greenwald taking his Jewish mom to India), sometimes melancholic (Kathleen Spivack remembers touring the sex shops of Amsterdam in the company of a once vibrant friend), but always entertaining. Like their classic predecessors, these writers share a noble mission: They seduce us into learning about the world without even realizing it.
In the process, we often discover as much, or more, about ourselves. The new generation of writer-travelers are not passive observers: A dose of cultural confusion is an accepted, even cherished part of the travel experience—we’re all lost in translation some of the time—and it can lead to its own form of enlightenment. In a hilarious piece David Sedaris would enjoy, David Farley finds himself living in the forgotten Italian village of Calcata, researching a relic called the Holy Foreskin and trying to make connections with the local population via the enigmatic local slang (“Are you doing a penis?” he inquires of one grand dame, something of a linguistic faux pas). On the other side of the globe, one of America’s most insightful travel writers (and the man who has turned “vagabonding” into an art form), Rolf Potts, accepts an invitation to stay in a tiny Cambodian rural outpost and tests the extremes of cultural isolation. Adrian Cole, an Englishman in Texas, recalls his time as “a wandering ghost on foreign soil.” It’s a sensation that every modern traveler, at one time or other, has to come to terms with.
Then again, on foreign soil, we can sometimes go too far. In this collection, I was delighted to find that a comic whiff of madness still stalks the genre—shades of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene—as both expats and travelers lose their bearings and peek into the abyss. This volume is loaded with fascinating new psychiatric freak-outs for travelers to watch out for: Florence Syndrome (a.k.a. Stendahl Syndrome, where tourists to Europe are overwhelmed by too much art); Jerusalem Syndrome (where visitors to Israel believe they are the Messiah); Golden Calf Syndrome (where Jewish visitors to India “go native”); even Stockholm Syndrome (where kidnapping victims start to sympathize with their captors, an experience that hopefully few travelers will have to contend with). David Torrey Peters identifies yet another dementia in his wonderful story “The Bamenda Syndrome,” whereby expats in Africa start trying to solve the continent’s problems single-handedly. Torrey Peters’s lucid meanderings amongst Cameroon’s witchdoctors, while his own grip on reality rapidly deteriorates, won him the Grand Prize for travel writing in the most recent Solas Awards.
These stories don’t shy away from the dark side. In a riveting piece, Millicent Susens recounts a chance meeting with a teenage waitress in rural Colorado that would alter her life in a way she never expected. One writer tours the American hotel rooms where rock stars died, while another inspects the corpse of Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn.
But there are far more cheery rites of passage in these pages, each one filled with lust for life (and lust for lust, of course), not to mention booze and music and good food and general joie de vivre. In a deliciously intimate report from south of the border, Stephanie Elizondo Griest joins a Mexican quinceañera, a girl’s fifteenth birthday party, where the father returns from Brooklyn to lovingly squander three years’ wages on a single night of festivities. Some authors are consumed by flirting. Hearts are broken. Men dream of love and drink way too much in bars, waking up with lurching hangovers and pounding regret. (Casanova Syndrome?) Women “of a certain age” slip off to Italy and are surrounded by suitors, much as they were in centuries past, when proper northern ladies would arrive in Venice to meet with handsome young gondoliers—enjoying the potential, if not the actual offer. “We are alive!” Susan Van Allen sums up the ancient Italian spirit, which has lured visitors for centuries. “And what a fun game we play!”
No two stories are alike in this collection, so sit back and enjoy the ride. I challenge any reader with blood in his or her veins not to get itchy feet. Who knows? Maybe you too will feel the compulsion to record your discoveries and share them in print—which, given the financial logic of publishing these days, is the purest madness of all. Luckily, that has never stopped travel writers.
Let’s call it Herodotus Syndrome.
Tony Perrottet is an Australian-born travel writer and historian who lives in the East Village of Manhattan. He is a regular contributor to Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Slate and them London Sunday Times.He is the author of four books that blend travel and history: Off the Deep End: Travels in Forgotten Frontiers; Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists; The Naked Olympics; and (most recently) Napoleon’s Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped. His website is www.tonyperrottet.com.
by James O’ReillyI went to see Slumdog Millionaire the other night with a friend who does rural development work in Central America, and we were both reminded of the enormous gap between the poor and Those of Us Who Really Don’t Suffer Much But Complain a Lot. It’s been over twenty years since I was in Mumbai (then Bombay), but India is engraved in the memory rather easily, and the images of the slums caused me to reflect again on our culture in the West, and our own forms of poverty: poverty of imagination, poverty of friendship, poverty of family, poverty of compassion, poverty of life in the streets. I am not saying we’re not actually rich in all these things, I am saying that many of us, myself included, are not functionally appreciative that it is these things that constitute real riches. That is to say, our appreciation is occasional, the way we might admire a sunset or a puppy. It is not a deep and abiding way of life. We spend our time chasing illusions of success, wealth, fame, and ignore the wealth that surrounds us and lies within. A culture defined by Miss Piggy—“more is never enough”—encourages a darkness of spirit that makes us cling to the phony, and want the phony more than anything else.
I know it’s a tired sermon, you’ve heard it before, maybe given it yourself. And I don’t want to deny the fact that the great economic meltdown that began in 2008 has caused anguish and suffering, with more coming over the horizon. It is in times like these, however, that we can change our lives for the better. Danger and crisis have a way of making us understand instinctively what matters each moment, and what doesn’t.
One of the things that always strikes me when reading travel stories is how often the journey strips away illusions of self; a new place, a new culture, chance encounters with strangers—they so often charge the traveler with wonder and inspiration and the courage to live better. The quotidian, rejected at home as tedious and confining, is seen from afar as replete with possibility. Thus one of the best remedies I propose for “Economic Black Swan Flu” is travel—travel that doesn’t have to be exotic or expensive—it can be to places nearby about which you’ve said “maybe later” to the idea of exploring. But travel nonetheless. “Maybe later” can become “maybe this weekend,” and “maybe this weekend” can turn into “today” and an experience with as many aspects as a foreign one. Or, in the vivid light of crisis, it might be that you do indeed decide to change course dramatically, and take that trip to a faraway place that has called you your whole life. Perhaps it is even to Mumbai, or somewhere like it.
So back to Slumdog. Without giving away the movie, one of the things I enjoyed most about it was the towering and complex web of stories and memories that is the boy’s life. We are all like this boy, and if a bad economy is our cruel interlocutor to his police captor, let it serve us in driving the mental and emotional gangsters from our spiritual house. Let us leave our slums, interrogate our demons, and seek to become whole first, and thereby rich—not the other way around.
In a Place of Wind
by Erika Connor
She found a path that has no name.
I come up through the pass of giant wind-formed rocks and blue light. The elevation is an illusion. Only two thousand meters up and I am walking in the sky. Blue, not a cloud, a wind-filled sphere. Always the wind, like food, a drug. I am never tired.
Fifty-thousand hectares of mountain steppe and somewhere the ancient horses the Mongolians call takhi or spirit, are threading their way. I have been here a week. Already my prints are overlaid with theirs.
Far behind is the Mölt camp where we spent our day off. The other eco-volunteers have gone in the van. I cross over into birch groves, little white trees snaking towards the light, but honed and stunted by the blasts of wind, nothing like the trees of home. The biologists have said these forests are dying. Global warming. Fallen trunks and branches lie ghostly in the thick grasses among blue irises.
Light shimmering across another valley, another mountain, the high whistles of a hawk. I am not sure where I am, climbing the rocks above the trees and woven nests. The wind is rumbling at my back, makes me turn to see a dark cloud front moving in fast. A cuckoo’s soft“hu-hu, hu-hu,” and everything stills. Ahead the land drops and rises in waves on an endless sea to the far-off specks of white of the tourist camp.
I begin my descent, legs shaking, rocks scattering. Winds flood the channels; clouds are blowing in like night. Nowhere to hide, nothing but open. How can you tell if the world is ending? End of time? My time? As a child I used to run in storms through the forests of home, like those shamans pulling in the whirls of energy, letting the hairs rise on my arms, at the back of my neck. Grasses blowing like seas before a boat, the rain rushing and I can no longer see. Now lightning opens the sky, searing threads burn into earth and up again. The sky collapses, shuddering in the bones. The entire thing came out of the blue. I am running, uttering desperate prayers.
attendant, Toma, has brought a candle, and commended the fire I lit in the stove with kindling and sheep dung old as turf. She throws in another mound and the fire sparks at her hands. My clothes steam from the ceiling poles. Rumbling sonic sounds like airplanes careening out of control mix with the high-pierced whinnying of horses. Rain and hail rattle through the broken panes of the skylight. We run out to yank at the horsehair ropes, pulling the felt flap over. I can see the camp horses at the tethering post, hanging their heads, and beyond the rush of wind and white where I came out. Was I released or blessed? Born again?
I lie back in my little white tent round as the moon, with a giant black vulture feather stuck into the ceiling above my bed, and the perfect lower jaw of a horse skull on the table, a knucklebone, shinbone, hoof. In the warmth of my sleeping bag I can feel the storm blowing everything to submission, ravaging the heart, stirring up every emotion, every sensing string with painful precision, firelight flickering on the tent wall on my left side, like light on water. I am home.
Gruff old Haska drives us from the research center, far along the sand tracks at dawn. Five volunteers: elder Maggie, sailor and botanist from Devon; young moody Pierre, amateur photographer from France; cool eighteen-year-old traveler Marika; Liv, mother and veterinarian from Holland; and me, wandering writer.
We are searching for those elusive sand-colored horses with black dorsal stripes, brush manes, zebra-striped legs, the ancestors, the ones painted twenty thousand years ago in ochre and charcoal on cave walls.
The radio crackles and hisses, “Haska-Haska-Haska.”
“Té!” Haska yells. “Amar bakhuu? Hangaï bakhuu?”
The rangers are calling in on horseback from somewhere out on the land, the harems’ personal bodyguards. They sleep under the stars, keep guns in their packs, ready for the wolves, camouflage cloth sewn onto their saddle seats. They always know where the horses are.
We are let off one by one along the land with only glimpses of our assigned harems in the distance. We walk out, trying to keep a straight line in the wind, the bumbling volunteers, with our packed lunches, our observation sheets and tools, keepers of the coordinates, wind velocity, weather patterns, pathways of wild horses.
Blowing morning up in the clouds. Hangaï harem has found a wall of bushes to lean into, warm and sleepy, all turned towards me, shrouded in the fog coming through the pass. They disappear and appear again while I crouch behind a few spindly bushes on the bare slope, shaking with cold. One of the little white foals stands bravely with his back to the wind.
They’ve forgotten me. When I raise my head they think I’m some kind of wolf, dressed in green rain cape, with strange hanging things around her neck, binoculars, GPS, anemometer. They escape through the bushes and up over the rocks. But I know them now. They’re on the southern slope. The sun has come out. I nestle in among the rocks on the warm black turf, above a glowing birch forest and a cliff grotto where a flock of red-beaked crows come dancing, playing on the ledges, and two kites, light glancing off their wings. The horses doze in a line down the rocks, all twenty of them, hazy blue valleys below, foals lying like white cloths at their mothers’ feet, ears flopped back, eyes half-closed.
The blue research center howls with wind. A swallow is caught in the upper library. Teabags lie on spoons on the kitchen table to be reused, the stove ticks, a cauldron of savory mutton and noodles is bubbling away. I watch the young Mongolian biologists, wrapped in sweaters at their computers, deep in grasses, water, wolves, winter, evolution, in this great experiment: keeping the last of the wild horses alive. They were hunted, collected, lost in European zoos, inbred, on the brink of extinction, and saved by Dutch and Mongolian foundations. Eighty-four were flown home in the 1990s. Now, they are hovering at 180, in eighteen harems.
I imagine the winter, solitary on horseback, continuing the work, tracking in drifts. What is it like to live in a place of wind? I have been an observer all my life, but what if I had been a biologist instead, protecting the wild things? The wildlife biologist, Uskuu, sees me gazing out the windows.
“I think your silence is expensive,” he smiles.
He thinks I’m in love with someone. But it’s the place.
Gale winds yank the little painted door out of my hands, making me hit my head on the low door frame as I am thrown out of my ger.
“Force eight winds,” cries Maggie, thinking of the sea.
The volunteers have paid to be here. The Mongolians think maybe we are glorified tourists, based at the tourist camp, among charter buses and day-trippers. But where we go they can never follow. We take what we need. Maggie discovers her youth, reading the clouds, finding flowers. Transient Marika sniffles with a bout of malaria and reads novels in far-flung meadows, the horses listening to the tick of her alarm clock. Pierre is the lovable fool, who takes pictures of stallions mounting mares and loses his yellow GPS in the yellow grasses. Liv has lost her mother to dementia and turns to her sketchbook, considers a change of career. I have left a man, left my heart in so many places, my words on pages speckled with rain, dust, sweat, and insects.
There is a ceremony on Ikh Ovoo, highest peak in the reserve. Red deer are running. A ranger’s two little boys run with their hands above their heads, gestures of antlers. We see three takhi in the distance. Ravens float above. The women must stay behind on the summit with the vans and motorcycles; even the horses go up with the rangers. The men are carrying a cooked sheep on a board, bags of yogurt, thermoses of salty tea, soft and hard cheeses, candies, up the last path through the bushes to the rock peak and the ovoo, sacred altar, tattered blue banners loose around its spires. All that comes down to us are fragments of voices caught on the wind, the lamas chanting, blessing the land and the horses, and praying for rain.
The horses are retracing an ancient memory, remembering how to be free. I have blown from place to place with the same need. How to be free and still be held?
Amar harem is shimmering in heat waves, coming off the peninsulas of hills to the open grass sea of the Tuul River valley. There is the foal with the gash in its hindquarters, attacked by wolves last week. The biologists chose to intervene with glucose and antibiotics. There is the newborn foal, tender-footed, spidery legs and twitching tail. A ranger has come galloping on a chestnut horse. He swings off and while his horse grazes he squats down, a foot on the long leather rein. He looks through one eye of his binoculars, holding them vertical, checking on the foals. He sits back, yawns, regards me, not a word. In a moment he is gone. Beyond the horses I can see the river valley and specks of gers, the rangers’ homes.
On the sunlit pass above the Jargallant valley, a little white foal is standing in the center of our ring of rangers, biology and scholarship students, Nanda, the volunteer coordinator, and me. The rangers found it this morning, after a commotion they saw on the cliffs. No one was sure what happened. Maybe the foal had been stuck in the rocks. The mare turned back for him but the stallion kept herding her away, so she left and joined the herd.
They bring us down the valley on motorbikes, with the foal across Nanda’s lap, and leave us at the streambed: one lost foal, a Canadian writer, and Nanda, who happens to be doing her thesis on the behavior of foals.
The beauty of the foal, days old, little speckled nose on our skin, breathing our smells. He follows us, nickering, tiny hooves stepping on our heels. We dowse him gently in the stream and feed him sugar water from a baby bottle. He makes us laugh, nudging at our shirts looking to suckle, lying down to sleep at our sides, lifting his head to make sure we’re still there. He lays his head on my foot. I look into the large dark eye with pale lashes. It is a gift to touch a wild thing, like touching the wind, some of it comes off on you. The sun burns across the sky. We cover our faces and sleep.
At evening we make our escape, creeping away from the sleeping bundle and up the hill to hide behind rocks. We can see him through the binoculars, still sleeping. His harem will be coming through soon, stopping at the stream. The ranger, somewhere to the south, calls in on the radio. They’re on their way. The biologist and the scholarship student are up on the mountain behind us. Burning sun, the sweat streaming down our faces, the crackle of Nanda’s radio. Now, in the south, the shapes come running across the slopes. Amar harem. It seems to take forever for them to arrive, but they do, dipping hooves into the streambed, tossing their heads, bending to drink, not thirty feet from the foal.
“Come on, wake up,” we whisper.
The foal lies sleeping. The mare is grazing near the stream.
The mare lifts her head, catches something on the wind. The herd is moving off. If she doesn’t find him now, she will never accept him later. The foal lifts his head, trying to get up. He flops down again. The mare bolts, returns slowly, shaking her head, grunting. She knows his smell. Can she smell us? She goes up, circles him. Horses whinny in the distance.
“Come on. Come on!”
The foal staggers to his feet. The mare sweeps up to his side. He bobs alongside her, moving shakily to the stream and across and up the other side, as the herd moves off across the grass, golden in the long sun.
High on a rock fortress we are crouched in the blasts of wind, holding down our papers. The wolf biologist, in ruffling army jacket, is holding onto his hat while clenching the radio-tracking antennae, pointing it southeast. One collared wolf, male, W5 ID 1538035. The sonic beeping like a heartbeat, sometimes a double beat.
The sun burning the earth at our feet, we remember the tawny shadow moving across the face of the open hill this morning. The rangers want the wolves dead. But this boy has never killed an animal. I saw him trying to catch butterflies to study at camp, the elusive white ones, tossing his shirt into the air. He had a hedgehog in a box from his girlfriend. And when we first met he came bareback on a red horse and held out his hand, a silver bracelet with Buddhist inscriptions sliding down his left wrist.
We are all sweating in the conference hall at the awards ceremony. The biologists in suits and gowns, the rangers, poised in their beautiful tunics, golden and copper, metallic earth-green, black with luminous blue embroidery, thick engraved leather belts, studded with silver medallions, cowboy hats soft as velvet or suede, and gleaming knee-high Russian boots. They were always among us, but rarely seen, a glimpse of a motorbike, a lone horseman, their voices coming through the radios, protecting our harems.
We are met at the dining room with a tray of vodka shots in little paper cups, cool to the touch, and a buffet of so many salads and meat plates, and the “hortog” specialty, dripping with grease. The three sheep had been tied to the fence days ago, eyeing us as we came in from observations. They were cut open and loaded with hot rocks and tied up again with rope and left to bake.
The audience sits on chairs in the grass. A DJ-magician walks on a bed of colored glass and swallows fire. A boy in silver suit sings the traditional “Long Song,” with the voice of a crooner. A bird flies into Marika’s hair beside me, and as she shakes it away it lands on my shoulder and touches my face with its wing. Traveler to traveler.
The Mongolians waltz the night away, young and old to the DJ’s synthesizer. Haska, Best Driver for thirty-five years, has a bottle of Red Label from someone, held to his chest, a trophy. Best Dancer, in tweed cap and dark suit, spins the women across the darkness. The volunteers are getting drunk, wind-weathered, forever altered. Somehow we have been left to our own devices. No one has asked us to dance.
Smell of burning in the air. Somewhere, hundreds of kilometers away, forests are on fire. In the dappled light of a birch grove at 1,700 meters Hangaï harem is nosing among the roots. Some are scratching against the trees. Once in a while a dead trunk comes crashing down and the horses dart like fish through the trees.
The brown mare lags behind and her little brown foal runs back and forth, nickering for her to hurry. I slip across the grasses, becoming trees and rocks. Sometimes they pass so close I could reach out my hand and skim their hides, the ribs, the tattered winter coats.
They take me right up, over Jargallant valley, Tuul River valley, all the valleys of silver-weaving threads, lit grasslands, blue veils, wind-shaped temples. It is not so much a place as a country, sanctuary for the last wild horses on earth.
The hours I spend with this harem. The others think maybe I’m being possessive. An observer should not get attached, but I am fond of them. They live on the farthest shore of the park. The stallion, Hangaï, never picks a fight and never loses his harem, even when he goes off to play with the roaming bachelors. I see the foals startled by marmots and picking at the grasses with delicate noses. I touch the stones they have worn down and shaped by the rub of skin. I have fallen asleep with them, scented my boots in their dung, caught the same thistles, been stung by the same bees and horseflies.
The horses are standing in the rock grotto, faces to the cool stone naves. I look down from above as if through a hole in the roof. I can see the marks on their skin, the dorsal stripes, burrs in their tattered tails. I hear stomachs gurgle. I can smell the grass on their breath.
I found the claw of a raptor and was afraid to take it because with this hand life was snatched from the earth, and it in turn was taken. The law of the land. I want to stay, but I must go. Will I pass unseen? Or will I return? I stand high on the rock formations, seeing the tourist camp two valleys and one mountain away. Distance seems so close and yet impossibly far, like you dream when you walk here and suddenly you are miles into the sky.
The winds keep me up at night, blowing heat across the earth, lighting up the fires, blowing through my mind, but I am moored to this earth by long horsehair ropes.
Erika Connor is a painter, writer, and art teacher from rural Quebec, Canada. She has a BFA in studio art and creative writing from Concordia University in Montreal, where she also won The Irving Layton Award for Fiction in 1991. She has traveled extensively in West Africa and Mongolia, and recently returned from Rajasthan, where she worked at an animal shelter.