$16.95True Stories from Around the World

Add to Cart Add to CartBuy this book on Amazon

By James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger, and Sean O’Reilly
February 2004
ISBN 1-93236102-2 320 pages

“Here in these pages is wonder and delight writ large—and a series of affirmations of a magnificent world…This book is a vivid and delightful testament to just why the world is in essence a wonderfully pleasing place, how its people are an inseparable part of its countless pleasures, and how travel is not so much hard work as wondrous fun….”

—From the Introduction, by Simon Winchester

Winner! Silver Medal for Best Travel Book in the Society of American Travel Writers Western Chapter Awards 2005. Here’s what the judges had to say.

“In a courageous premise for a “best of” collection, this book is skewed toward small moments, mostly meetings with unremarkable people who, in doing ordinary things, touch the traveler in altogether remarkable ways. From the Yukon to the impossible heights of the Himalayas, from Bangkok’s sex clubs to a Mexican grandmother’s kitchen, these stories are glimpses into humanity. The writers and editors understand just how much an ear-cleaner in India, a helpful Hutu truck driver in Zaire (Congo), a burned-out rock musician in Prague or tiny souvenir merchants in Vietnam have to teach us about the world beyond its monuments and landscapes.”

The first in an annual series dedicated to the best travel writing, The Best Travelers’ Tales 2004 highlights profound, transformative, and often humorous travel stories by both well-known and emerging writers. This collection of 28 true stories covers the globe, from Ecuador to Burma, Alaska to Zaire/Congo. Join these engaging storytellers as they discover the rebirth of classic rock in the Czech Republic, battle snakes in Costa Rica, survive a horrific bus crash in Laos, and open their hearts to an ear-cleaner in India.

The publication of The Best Travelers’ Tales 2004 coincides with the 10th Anniversary of excellence in travel publishing for Travelers’ Tales. The latest addition to the award-winning Travelers’ Tales series, The Best Travelers’ Tales 2004 is sure to take a place on the shelf, in the backpack, or on the bedside table of every thoughtful traveler.

Critical Acclaim for Travelers’ Tales
“This is travel writing at its glorious best.”
Chicago Tribune

“The Travelers’ Tales series is altogether remarkable.”
—Jan Morris, author of The World: Travels 1950–2000

“For the thoughtful traveler, these books are invaluable.”
—Pico Iyer, author of The Global Soul

“Nightstand reading of the first order.”
Los Angeles Times

“…the popular Travelers’ Tales collections offer a perfect fit for just about anyone, with themes of geography, women’s travel and a passel of special-interest titles on topics including shopping, pets, diners and toilets around the world.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“These well-edited anthologies of first-person travel narratives are like mosaics: Each piece may add only a single note of color, but combine them and step back, and a rich and multifaceted portrait emerges.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“The Travelers’ Tales series should become required reading for anyone visiting a foreign country who wants to truly step off the tourist track and experience anther culture, another place, firsthand.”
St. Petersburg Times

“This is the stuff that memories can be duplicated from.”
Foreign Service Journal

by Simon Winchester

It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least, it is in this trade) that the word travel comes from travail—work—and that travail stems in turn from the more ancient word tripalium—an instrument of Roman torture—and that this etymology all came about because it was long believed that to travel was to endure much, to work and to suffer. The notion that to wander meant also (if only upon reflection) to enjoy, to learn and to become spiritually uplifted, is really quite newfangled: only since the eighteenth century, and the invention of the Grand Tour, did those adventuring into the great outside seek pleasure and wonderment. And yet—to judge from much of modern travel literature—even that enlightened attitude was itself only a short-lived phenomenon: recent evidence suggests a much darker side to the very idea of venturing into the Beyond.

For it seems to me that in recent years a large proportion of those who have chiseled their reputations as travel writers wrote just as their counterparts of three centuries ago wrote—as though their trade was of necessity rooted in the reportage of endurance. It seemed that a substantial school of travel writers was in fact a rather miserable crew, that a kind of melancholia had settled on their writing, and that their attitude of stark misanthropy and endless accounts of their personal trials reflected a kind of bleakness about everywhere and everything. All of a sudden it seemed that the world, as seen by many of those whose profession took them to record its more distant corners, was singularly lacking in wonderment, and that it presented a joyless canvas on which were painted portraits of geographical and metaphysical unloveliness.

To me, this was all very sad, and puzzling. For all of my life, enthusiasm and fascination have dominated, and the wonders of the world have entirely enraptured me. The man who first suggested that I write—he is now a woman; but that’s quite another story—insisted repeatedly that the world was so brim-full of delights that it would and should be impossible for any aspirant belle-lettrist to ignore them all. To be sure, a life of foreign corresponding that has taken me to wars and famine and violent disasters and sufferings of one kind and another has left me a realist; but even if I suppress a panglossian romanticism to counter all of that, I still find myself more pleased to read about the pleasures of the planet than about its pains, and I still prefer the literature of redemption and reassurance than that contrived from the angst of those who, by and large during the last two or three decades, seem to have made their livings writing about the outside world.

I never really figured out just what lay behind it all, what produced this trend—and for a while I confess it so disturbed me that I decided to turn my back on the craft, and I spent some time writing about history rather more than I did about geography, and I found in doing so a kinder, gentler universe through which I might pleasantly trawl.

The essays that follow, however, have served at last—and to my great relief—to change my mind again. Here in these pages is wonder and delight writ large—and a series of affirmations of a magnificent world, written through prisms of experience that, page after page, reflect most nobly on humankind and the planet in which humanity exists. Some of the uplifting treasures are born of terrible pain—Alison Wright’s extraordinary account of her survival after her traffic accident in Laos being a prime example. Richard Sterling’s account of his journey on the rustbound relic of the Irrawaddy Steam Navigation reminds us poignantly of the hidden marvels of Burma. I adored Brad Newsham’s brief tale of the ministering angel of the eustachian universe, Mr.Mohammed Ali of New Delhi.

And I loved—well, just about everything that follows. This book will grace my bedside for years to come (alongside, if you want to know, Eleanor Wachtel’s Original Minds and Lord Wavell’s incomparable anthology, Other Men’s Flowers). For this volume now formally joins the pantheon: one of a series of good books by good people, valid and valuable for far longer than its authors and editors ever imagined. It is, specifically, an ideal antidote to the gloom with which other writers, and the daily and nightly news, have in recent years tried hard to persuade us the world is truly invested. Those other writers are in my view quite wrong in their take on the planet: this book is a vivid and delightful testament to just why the world is in essence a wondrously pleasing place, how its people are an inseparable part of its countless pleasures, and how travel is not so much hard work as wondrous fun—so long, of course dear Alison, as your bus stays upright, and on the road.
Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford and has written for Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. He is the author of many bestsellers, including The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Krakatoa, The Map that Changed the World, The Professor and the Madman, and The Fracture Zone. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.

Publisher’s Preface

Not long ago, I went to a concert in my hometown which featured The Cool Crooners of Bulawayo, a singing group from Zimbabwe. Two songs into the performance I had a huge grin on my face that didn’t leave until I fell asleep that night. These four men, ranging in age from thirties to seventies, not only utterly charmed me with their voices, dancing, and spirit, they reminded me of everything I love about travel. They reminded me of a fantastic trip to Zimbabwe long before that country fell prey to the dark side of a dictator; they brought me back to the friendship of my companions on that trip; they reminded me of encounters with the mighty Zambezi River, and baboons and crocodiles and hippos and people with improbable names such as Reward and Memory and The Bloke with the Handcuffs. They gave me a taste of fear and illness and unreasonable soaring happiness, and the memory of my first-born daughter’s gift of a plastic bracelet to ward off dangers. They reminded me of dancing in a Harare disco to a thumping South African tune called “I Love You Africa,” which I did at that moment, fiercely, and still do.

The Crooners also reminded me that as much as we share a deep common humanity, some things we don’t, won’t, and can’t share—and this is a wonderful and beautiful thing. I will never, ever, be as cool as those guys from Bulawayo, but that is O.K., because they welcomed me to the well that is theirs, and I drank from it.

I first came to Africa through reading (and but for one of those quirks of family fortune, might have been born in Uganda). As a boy I read books of exploration and the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and after I finally had the chance to go to Africa, I wanted to go again every year for the rest of my life. Of course, things didn’t work out that way and I’ve only managed a few trips—but reading has brought me back many, many times and will eventually propel me back physically to that place of unimaginable light and darkness.

For ten years now, at Travelers’ Tales, we’ve published books that I hope give readers the kind of inspiration those early books gave me, and that the Cool Crooners gave me anew—stories that ignite the urge for discovery, not just of places never visited, but of inner landscapes that are foreign, sometimes frightening, and of the many ways to enlightenment, love, and the fulfillment of purpose in life. That, at least, has been the hidden and not so hidden purpose in our books, whether it was our first, Travelers’ Tales Thailand, or The Road Within, or Food, or A Woman’s World, or Kite Strings of the Southern Cross, or The Way of the Wanderer, or The Royal Road to Romance. I like to think that even our books of humor and misadventure, such as Sand in My Bra and Hyenas Laughed at Me, will entice readers to explore, take chances, and in the process be changed.

For to grow as human beings, we must take risks and accept new challenges. Risk implies motion, and travel is the most obvious and direct way for us to engage in such motion. (While we’re waiting, saving up time or money or courage for a trip, reading about the journeys of others is not only The Next Best Thing, it is one of the best ways to prepare for a trip.) Of course, risk is a relative and widely misconstrued concept. We all “know,” for instance, that the odds of dying in a car crash close to home are greater than those of flying. We all know the chance of expiring from heart failure or cancer are greater than those of dying from rebel gunshots or the bite of a fer-de-lance. And yet many of us take awful and commonplace risks with health and safety close to home, eschewing the risks of foreign travel and denying ourselves the rewards.

This book celebrates not just ten years of publishing stories about those risks and rewards, but ten years of deeply satisfying reading, research, and fellowship. We thought nothing would be more fitting for an anniversary landmark than to collect some of our favorites from the ocean of travel sagas we’ve enjoyed, and in so doing, launch an annual “Best Travelers’ Tales” series. The stories we’ve chosen here represent a small but important part of what’s on the menu for those who venture out into the unknown. The little issues of travel and life are here, and the big ones too, the hassles, hilarities, and highs. These are ordinary travelers rendering their experiences in a unique way. They are not reporters with expense accounts or explorers with sponsors—they are you and I from many walks of life.

I hope that after reading these stories you ardently wish to find yourself once again—or for the first time—a stranger in a strange land, agog with wonder, laughing helplessly, gibbering with frustration, deeply moved, hopelessly in love, or weeping at your foolishness in not hurling yourself sooner into the bigger world and into the future that beckons.

James O’Reilly
Palo Alto, California

Publisher’s Preface
James O’Reilly

Simon Winchester

The Snake Charmer of Guanacaste
Patrick Fitzhugh
Costa Rica

Mohammed Ali, Ear Cleaner
Brad Newsham

Citizen Mulenge
Joseph Diedrich
Zaire (Congo)

Learning to Breathe
Alison Wright

The Bird King of Buenos Aires
Larry R. Moffitt

Bracelets and Hunger
Ayoung M. Kim

My New Best Friend
Jeff Greenwald
Nepal and Tibet

City Undone
Jhana Bach

The Summer of the Lost Ham
Laurie Gough

Where I Am
Bradley Charbonneau

Doublestar (Why I Write)
Dustin W. Leavitt

The Tao of Bicycling
Stephanie Elizondo Griest

Walking the Kerry Way
Tim O’Reilly

Hard by the Irrawaddy
Richard Sterling

The Laundromat on Rue Cler
Phil Thompson

In the Kitchen with Yuyo
Augusto Andres

Uncomfortably Numb in Prague
David Farley
Czech Republic

Gayle Keck

Paris, When It Drizzles
Richard Goodman

It’s Dar Es Salaam and I Am Not Dead
Jono Marcus

El Imperfecto
Amy Thigpen

I Follow the White Dog
Kevin Mccaughey

Between Air and Water
Elizabeth Wray

First Flight
Larry Habegger

Riding the Current of Cripple Creek
Judy Zimola

A Perfect Rose
Mary Louise Clifford

Anthem Soul
Rolf Potts

Under the Protection of the Cow Demon
Ed Readicker-Henderson

Sample Chapter: Mohammed Ali, Ear Cleaner

by Brad Newsham

He tunes more than your sense of sound.

I planned to spend my last Indian afternoon in the sun on the lawn of New Delhi’s Connaught Circle. I would write in my notebook and finish the last few pages of Midnight’s Children. But the instant I moved my foot from the sidewalk to the lawn I felt scores of eyes lock onto me. When I chose a spot and sat, I saw in my peripheral view a dozen bodies rise from the shade of the park’s trees and begin moving toward me. Beggars, shoeshine boys, massage men, fortune tellers. Surrounded, I let a boy named Jungi scrub my shoes. A man named Dasgupta massaged my neck and shoulders. Another, who said his name was Ali Baba, read my palm: “You have been sick with stomach, but now you are well. You are missing a woman. You will soon be rich.” The combined talents of these men cost me two dollars.

They drifted off until only a single man remained. Earlier I had noticed him at the back of the mob, smiling patiently but saying nothing. Now he sat on the grass, two arm lengths away, grinning shyly—as though he had some unbearably good secret.

“Hello, Baba.” He had long eyelashes, teeth as bright and straight as piano ivories, and, etched along his upper lip, the world’s narrowest mustache. His smile was so sweet it might have graced India’s tourist posters. His name, too, was a classic: Mohammed Ali. He was not young—he had three sons—but if playfulness was something barterable, I’d have traded my money belt for a dose of his.

The Q-tip-like swabs tucked under the lip of his turban revealed his trade—ear cleaner. It’s a common sight in India: an Indian man wielding cotton swabs and long forceps, bent like a lab technician over the cocked head of a kneeling European. Indian people rarely submit to this quackery; it’s a tourist phenomenon. I’d known travelers who had allowed it and swore they could hear better for days afterwards, but I had always regarded them as suspect. Imagine, in India of all places, letting a stranger—some man in a park, on a beach, in a train station—stick something in your ear!

When Mohammed Ali said, “Ears cleaning, Baba?” I only snorted.

“Oh, but it is nice, Baba,” he said. “See my book?”

I looked to see what sort of idiots had risked their eardrums:

We New Yorkers have seen all the scams. I laughed when Mohammed said he would make me hear better, but he wore me down. He is such a nice man. Now my ears are vibrating with noises I haven’t heard since I was a child, and I’m recommending that you go ahead and do what I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing half an hour ago.
— Linda, BrooklynA year ago I went to an ear-nose-and-throat guy at home. He charged me $95 to do what Mohammed Ali just did for twenty rupees. And was nowhere near as personable.
— J.T. Robbins, Dallas, Texas

I’m a sixties child, and I thought I’d done it all. But ears—Momma never told me ears could feel so good. Or be so dirty. Sure, I use Q-tips, but Mohammed pulled stuff out of me I couldn’t believe. A little tiny stone—now where did that come from?
— Paula Spitz, Santa Cruz, CA

“Pretty happy customers,” I said.

“Yes, Baba. Everyone happy. Have you ever…”

“No,” I said. “I clean my own ears.” I pointed at the swabs sticking out from under his turban. “I have those, too.”

“But dirt is hard,” he said. He opened his pouch and pulled out a small vial. From the moment he sat down his smile had not left him. “I put some drops in your ear, wait some minutes, then I can clean. Sometimes people have things in ears for many years, and they don’t know.”

But he might as well have been offering to tattoo Krishna’s portrait onto my forehead. “I can hear just fine,” I said.

He folded his hands and sat there, smiling, as though content to wait for sunset and then dawn and then sunset again if necessary.

“What’s the best thing that ever happened to you?” I asked him.

He considered for a moment. “People.” He nodded at his book. “So many people. From all over the world. People from every country come to Connaught.”

“What’s the worst thing?”

He mulled it over. With that smile of his, if he were to answer that nothing bad had ever happened to him, I was prepared to believe him.

Finally his smile faded a notch. Uncertainly: “I cannot read or write.”

Since childhood my entire life has been a blur of words: daily newspapers, overdue books, half-finished stories. Subtract the written word from my life and what remains? What use would it be? Yet here was Mohammed Ali, illiterate father of three, radiating a serenity I have rarely known.

“Can you read numbers?” I asked.

“Some numbers.”

“Does your wife read and write?”


“Do your children?”

“They are too young,” he said. “Baba, you read and write, yes?”


“Maybe you can help me.” Mohammed Ali pulled an aerogram from his bag and handed it to me. “Baba, maybe you can read to me?”

It was from a Japanese woman and was written in English. Kiyoko had vacationed in New Delhi a month earlier, and Mohammed Ali had cleaned her ears. Now she was back in Tokyo, wishing that her trip had been longer and wishing health and happiness to Mohammed Ali, his wife and children, and to all of Mohammed Ali’s Connaught Circle colleagues.

He sighed when I was finished reading, and put his hand to his chest. “Oh, I miss her so much. She was so kind person. Every day she sits here in the park with all of us. We would talk, oh, of so many things.”

I asked for his book and turned back several pages:

Meeting Mr. Mohammed Ali is the best part of my journey. I thought he would open my ears, but also he opens my heart. This is a very special man.

I imagined Kiyoko, sitting in an office building in downtown Tokyo, staring out the window and daydreaming of her all-too-short holiday. What traveler does not know the post-trip letdown, the clutching rhythms of job and home claiming their due? Often I have sat at home, recalling the kindness and simplicity of people in foreign places, and ached to be back with them again, sitting in their park or rickshaw or silk shop, and soaking in their presence.

Mohammed Ali took a fresh, blank aerogram from his pouch. “Baba, maybe you will write for me? To her.”

I took the aerogram, wrote Dear Kiyoko, and poised my pen. “What do you want me to tell her?”

He was smiling. “You write.”

“But I don’t know her,” I said. “You spent many days with her.”

“You write many letters, yes?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I never write, Baba. You write.”

Dear Kiyoko,It is a beautiful afternoon here. The only way it could be better would be if you were here. Since you left, the sun seems not so bright in New Delhi. There are no clouds in the sky today, only some airplanes, and everyone here in the park wishes that one of them was bringing you back to us. Since you have gone back to Japan, we talk about you every day and wonder when you will return. We miss you very badly. There are cows wandering nearby. Most days they make a sound like ‘Mooo,’ but today it is different. Today they are saying, ‘We miss Kiyoko. We miss Kiyoko.’ Yes, even the cows miss you.

I was so excited today when I received your letter. The postman told me it was from Japan, and a man from America read it to me. You write so beautifully—your words are like Indian rubies. Thank you for your kind thoughts for my family. Yes, everyone is doing well, everyone except me and all your friends here in the park—we miss you so much. Me most of all. I hope that your parents and your brothers and sisters are all healthy and that you are not working your lovely head too very hard. If you cannot come soon, I hope you will write again.
Your friend, Mohammed Ali

“Oh, Baba!” Mohammed Ali pressed his palms together and bowed his head. “Oh, Baba! Thank you. That is beautiful.”

“It’s nothing,” I said. But actually it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. Mohammed Ali’s first letter. Japan!—he would be known now in Japan. There were whole days when this trip of mine seemed devoid of purpose: I’m here, but why? Moments like this reminded me: The being needs travel—new sights, new people, new experience—the way the body needs food, touch, an occasional soak in a backwoods hot spring. I was a collector. The Mohammed Alis of the world would come home with me in my heart, the same way others had come home with me from China and Afghanistan and Russia. Time would airbrush away the shitty streets, foul water, and the fact that all these cultures were drowning in babies. Someday soon I would, I knew, be sitting in my taxi or in some office like Kiyoko’s, fretting about the present and idealizing my past. I should go back, the thought would surely come. I should go SOMEWHERE.

“Baba,” said Mohammed Ali. “Now you must let me do something for you.”

I sat up straight and tipped my head to the right. Mohammed Ali uncorked a small vial and eye-dropped a fizzing seltzer into my left ear. We sat and let it soak in. The press conference reconvened around us.

“Please be careful,” I said, when Mohammed Ali took out his forceps.

“Very careful, Baba.”

For a moment I felt nothing, just a tickling in the ear canal. Then, with forceps and the softest of tugs, Mohammed Ali lifted out of my ear something incredible—a brown scrap curled in the shape of my eardrum—and held it in front of my eyes. I opened my hand and he set it in my palm. It was as thin and crisp as a flake of onion skin; longer than my thumbnail, wider than the toothpick on my Swiss Army Knife. Had he extracted and presented to me my liver I would have been only slightly more dumbfounded.

“Yes,” he said. “Many are surprised.”

The crowd of men were laughing.

“Do you clean their ears?” I asked Mohammed Ali.

“No, but they always like to watch.”

He fizzed and cleaned the other ear—no trophies there—and then toweled my neck dry. The press conference disbanded, people scattering away.

Mohammed Ali and I sat quietly for a few moments in an intense, symphonic silence. It seemed as though someone had clamped conch shells over my ears. I could hear everything: the cows munching the lawn; men from one side of New Delhi to the other pissing on walls; boys at the train station screaming “Chai! Chai! Chai!”; the shriek of airplane tires nicking down on the runway out at the airport; even trickles of snowmelt on the glaciers up in Kashmir. Never before, and not since, have my ears felt so good, so new.
Brad Newsham is a San Francisco cab driver and author of two round-the-world travel memoirs—All the Right Places and Take Me With You. On September 11, 2002, he founded Backpack Nation, an organization whose aim is to dispatch globe-roaming ambassadors to act as agents of peace in the world. For more information or to contact Brad, go towww.backpacknation.org or www.bradnewsham.com.

James O’Reilly, president and publisher of Travelers’ Tales, was born in England and Raised in San Francisco. He raduated 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 Books (www.birdcagebooks.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 a former seminarian, stockbroker, and prison instructor who lives in Arizona with his first wife Brenda and their six children. He’s had a life-long interest in philosophy, theology, and travel, and recently published the controversial book, How to Manage Your DICK: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Spiritually Enlightened, Evolved Self. His most recent travels took him on a month long journey through China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Ireland. He is editor-at-large and the director of special sales for Travelers’ Tales.