We live in age in which we are blessed with a plethora of information about destinations of interest; an era of travelers eager to share knowledge and photos and experience. When I started writing about travel, especially to remote and— at the time— little known areas, research took place in a library. Information was often difficult to obtain. My trips were planned in the broadest of outlines. I’d heard rumors, for instance, that the salt mines of the Sahara desert were still operating. Could that be true? The words “salt mine” were the proverbial description of a joyless and exhausting job. Just so.
Travel writers tend to have a network of friends knowledgeable about various areas. Back in the day, you made a few phone calls. Information came from trusted sources. And you took precautions: geez, what if a publishing concern paid you to go find the salt mines and you discovered that they no longer existed. And hadn’t for centuries.
Now it is my contention that failure is as good a story as success. Sadly, many editors do not share this perception. So it was always necessary, on these dodgy sorts of stories, to find something else in the area— something known to exist— that might make a good narrative. Well, research suggested that to get to the salt mines, it would be necessary to travel up through Dogon Country. The Dogon are an ethnic group, largely animist, known for their masked dances, which, even years ago, were very often done for tourists.
The journey proceeded apace, and it turned out that the salt mines did, in fact, exist, just as they had since 1000 a.d. Great slabs of salt, mined from the desert floor, were hung off the sides of camels like saddle bags, the clear mineral glittering in the bright desert sun as the long line of camels made its way over the ridges of sand dunes and back to Timbuktu on the Niger River. It was a story.
But I’d already covered my bases and seen a bit of the Dogon. The culture was both impressive and fascinating. One of my traveling companions also impressed me with his eye for the sacred. The Italian gentleman was a longtime desert rat who had searched for the mines before (and failed). He also knew the Dogon and collected some of their masks. It wasn’t a business. (“I am very good at buying and very poor at selling.”) No, he felt some connection to the people and their beliefs, so when masks were laid out for us to examine and perhaps purchase, he invariably chose the one that was “not for sale.” I learned that some of the masks were, in fact, consecrated and used in actual ceremonies. And no, it wasn’t a negotiation technique: certain masks were not for sale at any price.
How, I wondered, could my friend pick out the sacred masks every time?
“You can’t see it?” he asked me.
He explained. “It is as if you are looking at a picture of a man. In one picture he is alive. In another, he is dead. You can see that. For me, it is the same with the masks.”
In time I believe I could begin to see which masks were alive. When I saw that Life— and knew I’d seen it— something inside me soared.
But I already had an overlong story about the salt mines that included menacing warlords, a would- be kidnapping, and a bad sand storm. It was enough. I never wrote about the Dogon. But I do have a mask hanging in my office. It was, I was told when I bought it, to have been retired from the dance. It looked alive to me. Still does. I don’t always feel its dry desert breath, especially in the mornings when I stumble to my desk with a cup of coffee sloshing in my hand. But sometimes, in odd moments when the work is going well, I feel that sacred mask watching me. I have that feeling now, as I write.
And that is what we have here, in The Best Travel Writing, Volume 9. These true stories from around the world are alive, and you may feel their breath in your heart. To the degree they breathe, they are sacred, as all our stories are sacred. Yes, even the ones that make us laugh aloud.
As I’ve said, information is an invaluable commodity, but to a writer it is only the inanimate raw material that is used to create a living breathing thing. We call that “thing” a story. Stories are the construct we use to organize our thoughts about the world; they are the lenses we use to make sense of the chaos of information that bombards us daily.
Story is the essence of literate travel writing. Bewildering situations arise as a matter of course, and it is story that lends comprehension to the case. Baffled, perhaps bewitched, the writer stumbles onto one key that unlocks the mystery. That key is called the “story.”
Story is generous about the forms it embraces. Young writers in most advanced fiction courses will be told that “character is story.” So it may be in travel writing. David Farley’s impressions of Minsk are a jolting introduction to the character of the city: it’s an often inebriated place of ambiguous political opinion and no little sophistication. Peter Wortsman’s character study of Vienna is very nearly one of psychoanalysis. Vienna! How appropriate.
In many pieces here, the story is about how decisions were made— or had to be made— in the face of changing circumstance. John Flinn is presented with a life or death decision. John Calderazzo handles the same sort of dilemma in a remarkable story that combines elements of Buddhist thought and history with his own concepts of conservation and mortality. Marcia DeSanctis considers a moral over the course of twenty years.
Colette O’Connor’s delicious piece about the sort of underwear favored by French women involves a new personal choice. Tom Miller’s short memoir amuses while Erin Byrne’s dreamlike meditation on the Celtic poet’s soul gives us both a physical and meta- physical way to think about travel.
It’s all here, and various stories will appeal to various sensibilities. What is alive and sacred to one reader may not be the story another can hear breathing. But all these writers here have been to the proverbial salt mines. They’ve dug up raw knowledge and watched it glitter in the unblinking sun. And they’ve discovered, in a collision of events, that precious arrangement we call story. Like the most sacred of the Dogon masks, a well- told story is animate; a sacred thing that, at its best, can send the soul soaring.
There’s a lot of that here. Enjoy.
* * *Tim Cahill has been laboring in the salt mines of travel writing for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books and the winner of many awards, including The National Magazine Award and several Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation. The co- author of three IMAX screen plays (two of which were nominated for Academy Awards), Cahill lives in Montana and still travels for a living.
By Marcia DeSanctis
The Offer that Refused Me
Business is business.
Once, a man I will call Sam wanted to buy me. Actually, he wanted to purchase my occasional services, on retainer. He proposed securing an apartment for our assignations, which would take place whenever he desired, however rarely or frequently he came to Paris, which is where I was living at the time. In French, they referred to such a place by the wordgarçonnière, which in English meant, roughly, “fuck pad.” I could decorate it however I chose, and enlist the services of some Parisian decorator, with whom I could wade through oceans of silk swatches. I tried to imagine an existence that would be parallel and invisible to the one I was leading. In that life, my artist boyfriend and I lived in a dank apartment which was rendered more so by dog- brown wallpaper that the landlord, Monsieur Ballou, would not allow me to steam off. I combed the weekend flea markets for bargains, gathering— candlestick by candlestick, mirror by mirror— the narrative for my future with the man I loved and would marry in six months.
There I was, back in the UAE. On the flight there, the pilot pointed out the oilfields that burned black, thick, and everywhere as our plane flew high over Kuwait, a few months after President George H.W. Bush had declared victory over Saddam Hussein. I was on my way to the same hotel in the same country where I had been stationed before the war, but this time I was not going with an American television network, but as a freelance producer researching a documentary. I had seven days in which to find the right person to “play”— news- speak for getting someone to agree to participate in a story. Within the first day, my first choice had fallen through, and shortly after that, my second. All of my journalist friends and colleagues had long since gone home, or headed for new adventures in Riyadh or Baghdad. I only had a handful of local contacts, one of whom suggested Sam for our segment. So I began to pursue him. It became the focus of the next couple of days and nights: how to get Sam to meet me so I could bring my request to him personally, to get him to appear on camera.
For three days, I waited by the phone in my room at the Hyatt. Order after order of hummus came to my door— laced with cumin, a stream of dark green olive oil running over the top. I had grown addicted to it when I had been there during the war. I missed my friends, how we woke up and hopped an airplane to Qatar or Dhahran, and came home at the end of the day, swapped stories and got blissfully hammered by the rooftop pool. I could not leave the room, so I smoked and watched CNN. And sat.
At last, the call came in. Sam’s assistant had arranged a meeting. Within an hour, the driver I hired for $25 a day delivered me to a glass tower which sprang from the desert. I could see it from a distance, a megalith surrounded by miles of brown dust. The region would soon transform from primitive backwater to billionaire playpen, but the boom was a couple of years away yet, and the scattering of Jetson- inspired skyscrapers that erupted from the landscape looked freakish and random. Inside, the air conditioning was so cold the skin beneath my fingernails turned violet.
Sam was in his late forties, and wore thick glasses and a dishdasha, the long white robe that is the traditional male dress in the region. His office was empty except for a waiter who padded in and out silently, due to his cloth slippers. I fell all over myself thanking him for his service, and he responded with a brisk up- down twitch of the head. Ringing phones tinkled somewhere in the background, so I assumed there was employee life elsewhere on the floor. Sam and I sat across from each other on leather couches with a table between us, in a sprawling space strewn with carpets. Outside, beyond the glass panes, there was only sky and heat— 120 degrees worth.
The visit was cordial enough, but Sam barely acknowledged my interview request. I talked, flattered and flattered him some more while the waiter brought more tea and switched up the delectables tray, from which I sampled cakes and dried fruit.
“We would be remiss if you were not included in our piece,” I said as I reached for a dried date, and held it between my thumb and forefinger, an inch from my lips. “You are too important for us to do the story without you.” I popped the fruit into my mouth.
Sam alternated a nibble of his sugar cube with a sip of tea, and repeated this gesture throughout. At last he thanked me, declared the meeting over, and invited me the following day to his beach club for lunch.
Sam knew how much I needed him for my story, and right then he began to lay out the terms of his deal, the price of poker.
I slipped into the elevator, grinning calmly in spite of the caffeine that made me feel edgy and strange. “You have a bikini?” he asked. My smile melted down my face.
“I do hope you will seriously consider my request,” I said. “I will see you at the beach,” he repeated, as the doors shut, cutting him off from my bewildered expression.
The next day I suited up in my room at the Hyatt, deliberately flouting the country’s strict laws, which I presumed were neutralized at resorts filled largely with expats. I had packed an old blue bikini, faded from the neighborhood pool in Paris, where I regularly repaired to swim my way— back and forth, lap after lap— out of anxiety about work and money. My sandals had higher heels than were necessary, and I looked in the mirror and saw the unmistakable contrivance, the beauty contest sleaziness of pairing dressy sandals with a bathing suit. It felt like an episode of Charlie’s Angels, where Jaclyn Smith attempts to coax a villain with her charms.
Hastily, I fastened my linen shirtdress, and as I did, felt the discomfort of crossing a line, the twin surge of panic and fear one feels when drifting on purpose into a risky neighborhood after dark.
I wore it all to meet Sam— a careful stain of crimson mouth, a dress unbuttoned just enough, and underneath, the abdomen- baring attire he requested. I hoped that he would be pleased enough to agree to an interview. As a freelancer, I could not bear the thought of calling my boss to tell him I’d failed. I needed the seven hundred bucks a week. So if a little degradation could get me hired on another project, I could live with it, as well as the accompanying nausea that was bubbling up inside of me.
Sam did not invite me to join him at lunch, so I sat and read distractedly on the beach, getting more ticked off and disgusted with myself each minute at the progress of this twisted pursuit. The heat was thick, so I dipped into the waveless Persian Gulf waters, and strolled along the white sand. At last, he summoned me to his table and as I approached the patio, I fastened a wrap around my hips.
“We need to fatten you up,” Sam said and howled at his joke.
“Then I need to eat,” I said firmly. It was day four. “Are you considering doing our story, because if not, I need to find someone else, quickly.”
“Of course,” he said.
“Of course, what?” I asked.
“Of course I am considering it.” He shrugged.
With his right hand, he scraped the corner of a sugar cube on his lower teeth. His left hand held the tea glass.
“Meet me for dinner tonight,” he said.
“I have a fiancé,” I said.
“Dinner!” he said. “Don’t worry. You are not my type. I will pick you up at seven at your hotel.”
At dinner that night, Sam got very revved up about lobster. The menu arrived and without opening it, he ordered for me.
“I’m from Boston,” I protested. “I only like Maine lobster.”
In fact, I did not then or now like lobster. He held forth grandly. “The best in the world is from Oman. Caught off the island of Masirah. In the South Arabian Sea.” I would witness the expression that ensued many times—an attempt at desirable, the rake manque. Poor guy. Poor me. What the hell was I doing?
“No way,” I demurred, shaking my head. “Maine lobster or no lobster.” But I dutifully ate his Omani offerings, and ripped off the claws the same way I would at a summer clambake in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The flesh was not white, but deep orange, almost red.
That night, he dropped me off at the hotel and as he did, he said, “You are very sweet. I like you.”
“I like you too,” I said. I meant it. I hated myself right then, but Sam was pleasant enough company.
“I will do your interview next week. You must arrange it with my office. But you must have another lobster with me tomorrow night.”
I kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you,” I said. “But I really don’t like it.”
Sam busted up again at that one, and then spoke. “You will find in life that you end up liking some things that you think you don’t like.”
“I’m happy you’re doing the interview,” I said. “I’ll have to hire a local stringer, because I have to go back to Paris in a few days.” Sam frowned, and I swung my legs out of the car. “G’nite.”
Back in my room, I ran a bath and as I began to undress, I heard a knock.
“Miss DeSanctis?” I opened the door to see the concierge, who handed me a bag.
Inside was a square jewelry box. Though I was alone, I instinctively looked around before I opened it. It wasn’t exactly a watch; it was more like a cathedral in a box— diamonds, gold, a choir of angels.
I stared at it, no longer hearing the rush of the bathwater, or the chattering anchormen on CNN. And then, with no idea of what else to do, I put it in the room safe with my passport and cash, watching the red lights blink as I shut the door. The next night, over dinner, Sam was unusually forthcoming. We discussed his country, whose hotels crawled with mercenaries and U.S. government contractors since the war had ended. If there was a wife, she never came up. I told him about my artist fiancé, and the hopes for my career.
“I don’t know what to say about your gift,” I finally said. “Thank you. It’s beautiful.”
“Why didn’t you wear it?” he asked, grinning broadly. “I am very insulted.”
I stumbled through an answer. And then came the proposal.
“I would like to take care of you,” he said, in so many words. “You will be available to me, although I am rarely in Paris. It will be mutually beneficial.” He knew how to hook me: between the lines, the promise blinked in neon, Think of your artist. Moreover, it was a subject that seemed to invite little debate, suggesting that he had made such arrangements before, and for him this was just a simple transaction, a contract that required my signature. Money never came up, but the generosity was implicit.
I lived in Paris, so the concept of “mistress” was hardly taboo; I just never thought it would be me. I will never forget his question when I balked.
“Why ever not?” he asked.
Indeed, why ever not? I wasn’t prudish, but I was traditional. Sex usually came with love, or else with unbearably close friendship for one secret night. I had been in love several times, but it was only with my fiancé that the constant need to find the next one seemed to end for good. I was done with dabbling and discovery. I knew I wanted to marry him. And now I was debating a massive betrayal so I could comfortably afford our road ahead? I felt despicable, and I confess, intrigued. The temptation was in the freedom the offer paradoxically represented— an antidote to the difficult path I was already, willingly, on.
My destiny was choosing me, and it was not shaping up to be cushy. Life as a journalist would never be secure and would probably not make me rich. I suspected I lacked both the political will and the steel spine that might be required to soldier up through the ranks to television moguldom. My dream job at the network had fallen through, and in Paris, I was too far from the mother ship to matter. So I took freelance jobs, and had a few loyal friends in New York who hired me regularly. But I wanted to stay in Paris and I was in love with an artist who might never be secure or rich either. I had already seen frequent and undeserved humiliations at his expense. I was not sure I could stomach the vicissitudes of the art market, or bear fickle collectors, rich enough to dare strike bargains with the artists they claimed to support. But giving him up was unthinkable, even though we already seemed perched on a precipice of financial uncertainty. And then, there was our apartment, dank and boggy, filled with greasy cooking fumes from the neighbor who skinned her own rabbits for dinner. Monsieur Ballou stopped by whenever he pleased to remind us of the incredibly low rent he charged which for us, nevertheless, was no bargain.
In short, Sam would make the life I wanted possible; the poverty vow now seemed not even to pertain to me. He did not seem pressed for an answer when he dropped me off after dinner. Because I was slightly flattered, and too stunned to be properly humiliated, I thanked him for his offer. After saying, “Good night” at the hotel entrance, I went upstairs to stare at my watch. I slipped it on my wrist and studied the ungroomed nails on my same old hands, one of whose fingers held my engagement ring that I had worn for all of three months.
The next morning, I ordered a giant breakfast as if I was already on somebody’s expense account. Cappuccino, eggs, sliced mango, waffles— sixty dollars worth of food arrived on a tray, complete with a vase of yellow roses. Then, I called the concierge and rented one of the hotel cars. The highway was almost devoid of traffic. With no speed limit, I barely noticed when my black Toyota crossed the border into Oman. The frontier guard was perplexed by my entering his country without reason, so with a menacing wave of his Americanmade weapon, he sent me back in the same direction I’d come from. I drove aimlessly, accompanied by pirated cassettes I had bought at the souk, the familiar music— Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, the Black Crowes— that usually filled up my Paris apartment. I stopped to swim at a wadi I knew from the year before, and sunned myself in the white heat.
My boyfriend, soon to be my husband, would never need to know if I let Sam buy a tiny share of me. And I trusted Sam to keep his side of the bargain: not to interfere, ever, in my life. I tried to imagine lying beneath him on a mattress, wondered what fantasy I would need to conjure up to try to sidestep guilt and shame. I wondered if I would even be able to entertain this plot against my Catholic- girl nature. I was no virgin, of course, but so far, I had never been much of a cheater, either.
After dinner that last night, Sam and I were in his car, and I braved a kiss with him. We were in the parking lot of the hotel. I had drunk too much wine but felt none of the stirrings shellfish were supposed to induce. I accepted his lips, felt his rough moustache and the strange odor of an unknown mouth. I closed my eyes and attempted to push my brain out of the way. I was aghast from my hope that I might feel something, and even more ashamed at my disappointment that I did not.
I would be boarding a plane home in the morning.
“I’m still considering your offer, Sam,” I said. He stroked my hair, pushed it behind my ears. “But I’m pretty sure I can’t do it.”
“I am an optimistic man but unfortunately, not a very patient one,” he said brightly.
Nor— given his excellent mood— did he seem like a heartbroken one.
“I’m so sorry, Sam,” I stammered, “I’m so flattered . . .” I grabbed his hands.
“My dear,” he said flatly. “Business is business.”
I felt no relief, only stung. I had mistaken his attention for attraction. I drew a breath and leaned in to kiss him, flat and square, on his mouth— a consolation prize, an invitation back.
But Sam didn’t want me anymore. The deal was off. He had already moved on. Sam would not have let someone he might sleep with once in a while get the best of him. He was a busy man.
We said goodbye, he tousled my hair and we teased each other, probably about crustaceans, Maine vs. Oman, a truly exhausted joke. Inside the hotel, I saw a friend from the war, and we drank Stoli and tonic at the bar, one after the other, squeezing hunks of lime. Chris was a photographer and old Gulf hand, who landed in his old bailiwick to sniff out the next big story. Mercenaries. Terrorists. The construction boom. He would be there if and when it all began to blow. We talked about mutual friends, and the fun we had craning our necks out of airplanes, getting shots of aircraft carriers that cruised the Gulf waters. He had lost his purpose, was desperate for another conflict. After more vodka than I needed, he offered to take me to the airport the next day.
Upstairs, I clambered onto the bed, and lay drunk and still with the lights out, aware of the mildew smell I had encountered too frequently the year before. I slipped under the blankets, and swished my feet to generate some heat. The room was chilly, an enclosed chamber never penetrated by the soft desert air. Beyond my window, there were a few twinkles in the distance— cars, planes, the lights of an adolescent city. Voices passed my room in the corridor, followed by a trace of cigarette smoke that drifted through the crack below my door. Then, I picked up the phone to call my boss to tell him I had struck out. Lame, cowardly, pathetic— whatever I was, I did not have the power to do what was necessary, so I resolved to end the game right then. For a nice girl from suburban Boston, these waters were too deep.
After checking out in the morning, I met my friend for coffee. His red hair was tousled, and I could tell that he had stayed too long at the cocktail lounge.
“I almost fucked a guy for a story,” I said.
“Please,” he said. “Happens every day.”
He shrugged, and I shrugged back. “Anyway, I wasted a whole week.”
“Can you stay one more day? I’ll find someone for you,” he offered.
“Would you?” I said. “God where’ve you been.”
“Sure,” he said. “I know the perfect guy. He’ll do it in a heartbeat. Are you sure you can’t stay?”
“I’m done,” I said. “But could you do me a huge favor?” I held forth the bag with the watch inside, along with a sheet of paper with the address of Sam’s office tower. I had also enclosed a letter. I asked my friend to lock the package in his room safe, and drop it off when he could.
A week later back in Paris, Sam called.
“Is your artist selling any sculptures?” he asked.
“He is,” I replied. “Why don’t you buy some?”
“Your friend came by today,” he said.
“I’m glad I could trust him with such a treasure,” I said.
“It was yours, dear.”
“It was very generous of you,” I said.
“You were not really my type,” he added.
“So you said,” I said.
“But you are very sweet,” he finished. “And hard working. I will be happy to do your interview, any time. I do mean that. I always keep my word.”
“I believe you,” I said. “Thank you, though. We’ve sorted it out.”
We had, in fact, found a great character for our film, with no conditions.
“Why did you include your phone number in your little note?” he asked.
“You tell me,” I answered.
It got to me, I suppose, that what he desired was not me. He wanted guaranteed sex with a practical New England girl. That’s easy to explain, the part of the story I laughed about for a while with my fiancé, now my husband of twenty years. As if I never debated it on the highway to Oman. As if I didn’t feel that in this warped scenario, I had somehow failed. I’m thankful that the combination of chemistry and morality swooped in to save me from a certain, regrettable prison. But I wish I’d kept the watch. Right about now, I would sell it.
* * *Marcia DeSanctis is a writer whose work has appeared in many publications, including
Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, and
Town & Country.