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.
Palo Alto, California