$16.95True Stories from Around the World
ISBN 1-932361-55-3 336 pages
“Travelers’ Tales books luxuriate in that complicated, beautiful, shadowy place where the best stories begin, and the most compelling characters roam free.”
With an Introduction by Linda Ellerbee
Since the publication of A Woman’s World in 1995, Travelers’ Tales has been publishing award-winning books by and for women. We continue this tradition with The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2008, the fourth collection in our annual series guaranteed to inspire women to take their first trip—or to continue exploring the world with wit, soul, and verve, as so many adventurous women do each and every day. These 35 stories cover the globe, from kayaking a wild river in Patagonia, learning to drive a tuk-tuk in Thailand to finding Eros in Venice. The perspectives are global and themes encompass spiritual growth, high adventure, romance, and encounters with exotic cuisine. In The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2008 readers will:
- Get carried away in Paris with Christine Sarkis
- Experience real life comic opera with Natalie Galli in Sicily
- Obtain a blessing from the River Ganges in India with Carol J. Arnold
- Fight a bull from horseback with Diana Cohen in Spain
- Explore lava flows with Martha McPhee in Hawaii
- Get the best revenge on an errant boyfriend with Laura Resau in Mexico
- Probe the meaning of tradition in Papua New Guinea with Abbie Kozolchyk
- Meditate in a cave with a view with Kate Wheeler in Ladakh
- Apprentice with the silver smiths of Niger with Alexis Wolff
- Get up the gumption to ski down the mountain with Anne Lamott in the USA…and much more.
It did me. And it’s been a great life.
Call it serendipity, at least according to my favorite definition of the word, which comes from crime writer Lawrence Block. Serendipity: Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for.
Take progress. Sometimes it’s just one serendipity after another. For instance, Silly Putty, Teflon, Superglue, Cellophane, Rayon, Aspartame, Penicillin, laughing gas, The Pill, x-rays, corn flakes, Wheaties, the microwave oven, Velcro, and Post-It notes have all played a role in my life, and in every case, their invention was due to you-know-what. The same is true of Viagra except for the part about it playing a role in my life. Except, possibly, indirectly.
Fine, but what, you ask, has serendipity got to do with the book in your hands?
Serendipity has been a singular part of the travel experience since God was a lassie, and yet it wasn’t until 1754 that Horace Walpole gave us the word—in a letter to a friend—in which he explained where the idea for the word came from. “It was when I read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip.” (The ancient Persian name for Sri Lanka was Serendip.) “As their highnesses traveled they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”
See, even the word had its beginnings in travel.
The concept, however, was by then already old.
It’s hard to know if the sagacity mentioned above was involved in Leif Ericsson’s case. But he was merely trying to escape a storm when, by accident, he became the first European to set foot on North America. And then Columbus “re-discovered” North America while searching for India. Nor should we forget Vincente Pinzon, who, while exploring the West Indies, stumbled upon Brazil. Hello South America! And then, of course, there was Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who, when he accidentally ingested some Lysergic acid diethylamide, a drug he was studying, went on the world’s first acid trip.
Nothing much has changed. There may be no more continents (or new psychedelic drugs) to “discover,” but if you listen closely to the travel experiences of the women in this book, you will indeed hear the distant—and often not distant at all—melody of serendipity.
So how do you go about getting some serendipity in your travels?
In The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, novelist John Barth wrote that “you don’t reach Serendib (sic) by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings…serendipitously.”
Once in a while it’s why we go traveling in the first place (especially women, who so often seem to understand that the biggest part of being prepared is remembering to set a place at the table for the unexpected guest). Sometimes we go looking for one thing actually hoping that we might find another thing, even if we’ve no idea what that other thing might be.
We just know if it’s serendipitous, it’s good.
And if, on our journeys, we’re ready for it, it’s more likely to find us. But either way, journeys must be taken. As Block points out, you must be looking for something in order to find something else.
In celebration (or denial) of turning sixty, I loaded my backpack and flew to England, where I set out, alone and on foot, to follow the River Thames from its source in the Cotswolds to where it meets the sea some 200 miles down the path (and across the fields, past the villages, through London and most of English history). I meant to use the time to, as the Navajo say, “walk in beauty,” to be conscious of the life around me, and my connection to it. Oh, hell, truth is, I was hoping to use this journey to make peace with turning sixty.
But I did not find what I was looking for, and what’s more, in my rush to look for it, I finished what was meant to be a twenty-day walk in eighteen days, leaving me (two days before the big birthday) with no particular place to go.
Surprising even myself, I caught a plane to Italy, and on the dawn of the day that marked the beginning of my sixty-first year of life, found myself floating in the sea off the Amalfi Coast, where, over the space of an hour’s floating, I finally and somewhat astoundingly made peace with my mother, who died in 1983.
Serendipità, as they say in Italy.
I have read that serendipity is said to be one of the ten hardest-to-translate English words. How encouraging, therefore, that today the word has been at least imported into so many other of this world’s languages. In French, it’s sérendipicité. In Spanish, serendipia. The Dutch call it serendipiteit; the Germans, Serendipität. And so it goes.
As, one hopes, do you.
Finally, is there an opposite of serendipity? Well, Scottish novelist William Boyd once made up the word zemblanity, which he described as “making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries occurring by design.” To me, that would be just another word for “staying home.”
I’m happy to say that while this book is filled with examples of serendipity, there is no zemblanity anywhere to be found.
Happy surprises ahead.
by Lucy McCauley
I’ve written before for Travelers’ Tales about a long-held dream I finally realized a few years back: to hike the pilgrimage trail in northern Spain, the Camino de Santiago. What I didn’t write about was the element of serendipity that accompanied the venture—the delightful phenomenon of happening upon something you don’t expect. It’s what travel often brings into play and what permeates many of the stories in this year’s collection of Best Women’s Travel Writing.
My pilgrimage included my daughter, Hannah, then eighteen months old. Because of her and the fact that I’d thrown out my back shortly before the trip, I decided to do only parts of the 500-mile pilgrimage, some of it by bus, rather than walking. I had planned everything carefully, set my itinerary, and packed a large bag with everything I imagined I could use on such a journey—probably more than I needed: a large supply of diapers; Cheerios and raisins for Hannah; bottles and a Ziplock bag of powdered milk; clothes and raingear for both of us; a travel guide and a selection of Hannah’s books and toys.
The best part of the trip was when I left all of those things behind.
I hadn’t planned it that way. It was the last leg of the pilgrimage, and I had decided on a daytrip with Hannah to Finisterre, what was once believed to be “the end of the earth.” Lying on the northwestern-most point of Europe, Finisterre was the ancient finish-line of the pilgrimage trail, a few hours’ bus-ride from the modern-day trail’s end of Santiago de Compostela. At the time, I was struggling in my personal life, seeking some answers. The idea of traveling to the ends of the earth resonated with me somehow. I left my large bag at the hotel in Santiago and packed a small backpack containing only the barest essentials for the day, not even a toothbrush.
But in the space of a few minutes my plans changed when Hannah threw up on the bus, all over herself and partly on me, altering in that one uncontrollable act the rest of the journey. One minute she was happily singing “The Wheels on the Bus” and the next she was looking up at me pathetically, spewing great rivers of curdled milk and raisins all over the only clothes I’d brought for her.
A few minutes later we pulled into Finisterre, and on the dirt road outside the bus I stripped Hannah down and covered her in her little lavender windbreaker that I’d stuffed into my pack at the last minute. I wiped some errant splatterings from my shirt and looked at Hannah. She was still a bit green and looked so tiny and vulnerable in the jacket, her baby-bird’s legs naked beneath.
I decided to find us a room. I wasn’t sure how we’d manage without clothes and extra diapers, but I had plenty of powdered milk. I spotted a sign for a pensión just up the street, and that’s when I felt it: the ripple of excitement. This little daytrip had suddenly turned into an adventure.
At the small, family-run pensión, the matron handed me a large bar of lye soap and pointed me to the backyard sink and clothesline. I scrubbed Hannah’s shirt and pants while she played at my feet with the bucket of clothespins, wearing a shirt belonging to one of the matron’s older grandchildren.
And we were fine. Without all of our stuff, we were better than fine. The local market of course had diapers for Hannah and a toothbrush for me. What else did we really need? A pilgrim I met along the trail, a young British woman, told me that she had begun the 500-mile journey carrying a pack full of clothes and books and hiking accoutrements. But as she walked she discarded things one by one, and then in great heaps and bundles, leaving them with locals she met in towns along the way. The more things she discarded, she said, the happier she felt—the simpler, and somehow more meaningful, the walk became for her, unburdened by the physical and psychological weight of all of those objects.
As I hung Hannah’s clothes in the bright afternoon sun, I couldn’t agree more. Trying to make do with what we had or could scavenge, I felt lighter, happier than I’d felt during the whole journey up to that point. And then there was that element of the unexpected. Travel sends us out of the familiar, hurtling us surely and certainly into utter uncertainty, to a place where we can’t help but yield to pure experience—to the new, the unexpected, to the change in itinerary or venue. To adventure.
Many of the selections in this year’s Best Women’s Travel Writing embody that phenomenon of serendipity. To name a few: Christine Sarkis finds her serendipitous moment at a fondue restaurant in France (“Dipping Fork, Flying Girl, Heart Attack”); Anne Lamott experiences it up-close-and-personal after a hard landing on a mountaintop (“Ski Patrol”); Mary Day Long encounters it on an overnight train from Turkey to Bulgaria (“Keep Breathing”); and in Mexico, Laura Resau learns of serendipity’s transformative power when her date doesn’t show up—again (“My Ex-Novio’s Mother”).
As for Hannah and me, in the end we stayed three days in Finisterre. Each morning we walked into the town’s tiny panadería to buy fresh bollos of bread, which we ate with small packets of jam I found in my backpack, smuggled from the breakfast bar of our last hotel. In the afternoons Hannah toddled on the rocky beach, or next to the white walls that ran along the tourmaline bay. I’d hold onto her as she sat on the wall, the two of us looking out over the water. It was there that she said “ocean” for the first time, clearly entranced with it.
Each evening as we ate omelettes and calamares with spongy chunks of bread at a restaurant overlooking the water, I would decide to stay another day. Why not? I was happy to be away from the crowds in Santiago. Finisterre by contrast was so tranquil, with its views of ocean and mountains. The people were gentler there too, more open and friendly, compared to those in some towns along the pilgrim trail, the inhabitants jaded by the constant parade of foreigners. I felt utterly at peace there with my daughter, moving in and out of our days.
All too soon the pull of commitments back home and an unchangeable airline reservation forced us to board the bus back to Santiago. When I went to reclaim my things at the hotel there, I can’t say I was happy to have them back again. Rather, I felt grateful for Hannah’s indecorous moment on the bus. It had allowed us an oasis of time, there at “the end of the earth”—and it had transformed the journey.
La Zisa, La Cuba, and La Cubula
Dipping Fork, Flying Girl, Heart Attack
My EX-NOVIO’S Mother
Cave with a View
Eros in Venice
Jennifer Carol Cook
On the Dark Side
Why TUK-TUKS Make the Big Bucks
CARAMEL ET MIEL
A Simple System
C. Lill Ahrens
The Train to Florence
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
The Memory We Call Home
Which Side Are You On?
H. Susan Freireich
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Carol J. Arnold
Mary Day Long
Solo on a Spare
A Fare to Remember
Out the Other Side
The Widow Dines Alone
A Life Together, Worlds Apart
Alive in Lisbon
But I Only Wanted One Photo
Crossing the River
My Ex-Novio’s Mother
by Laura Resau
Maybe she was better off without the boyfriend.
One sunny afternoon, in the flowered courtyard of my apartment in small-town Oaxaca, I was washing clothes when my elderly landlady emerged from the banana leaves, and out of the blue, exclaimed, “Laurita, did you know that some people in this world don’t believe in the mother of Jesus?!”
“I’ve heard that,” I conceded, squeezing out soap suds and wondering what had prompted her inquiry—possibly a recent Jehovah’s Witness visit despite the This home is Catholicsticker vehemently plastered on her door.
She shook her head, bewildered. “But Laurita, we must believe in the Virgin. You know why?”
She wagged her finger at me—a squat, apron-bedecked sage. “Because we pray to Her. And then She tells Her Son what to do. And He does it. That’s how it all works.”
She scrunched up her face and burst into nasal laughter. “Mothers have the real power. Remember that!”
Four years later, I’m sitting on a narrow bed in a raw cement room on the outskirts of the same small town in Oaxaca. After living in the U.S. for two years, I’m now renting out this tiny room as a base for my anthropological fieldwork. Apart from the bed, the room is nearly bare except for an unstained wooden desk and chair that I bought literally off the back of a carpenter.
The lack of seating is the excuse for my ex-sort-of-boyfriend, Baruc, to sit next to me on the flowered sheets. He’s careful not to wrinkle the button-down shirt and khaki pants that fit him like a model’s. I gaze at his dimpled half-smile and remember all over again how his manicured hands used to make my skin tingle.
He’s helping me form questions for my Master’s thesis interviews with Mixtec women, and over the past two hours, the space between us has grown smaller and warmer. Baruc was my first friend in Oaxaca, the one who taught me Spanish and Mixteco, the first to invite me to an indigenous festival and feed me goat in mole sauce. The fruity smell of his shampoo brings back the magical feeling of exploring a new land. Once we finish drafting the interview, I resist the urge to sink into him, and instead ask the question that could send him running from the room. “So, four years ago…why didn’t you let us get closer?”
He stares at the ceiling, uncomfortable. “I figured you’d be leaving. All the English teachers come for a year or two, then they leave for good.”
“But I might have stayed. Look at me. I can’t stay away.”
He sighs. “Now I know that. But I didn’t before. And my mother…” Another sigh.
Aha. His mother.
Back when we were sort-of boyfriend and girlfriend, he never spent the night at my place, always returning to his parents’ house by 11 P.M.—even though he was twenty-six. I’d assumed the motive was noble: to protect my already dubious reputation as a twenty-three-year-old woman living alone in small-town Mexico. The culturally appropriate place for unmarried sex was a dark alley, involving a skirt furtively pushed up, no mention of condoms, and often, a belly mysteriously swelling a few months later. But two adults spending all night in a real bed, using birth control, maybe even showering together and lounging around naked—well, that was just morally depraved.
After a long pause, he continues. “My mother was worried you’d take me to your country, and then all her sons would be there.”
His three brothers have been working as undocumented immigrants in Chicago since they were teenagers, risking desert crossings every few years to come back for visits. There seems to be an agreement that Baruc would be the one to stay. After all, he has a college degree, accounting job, and even his own car. In rural Oaxaca, grown sons traditionally live on their parents’ property with their wives and children. The exodus of young people to Mexico City and the U.S. has thrown a wrench in the custom, yet Baruc’s parents have evidently held onto these hopes for him.
“My mother says she couldn’t bear it if I left, too.”
His mother always treated me with polite reserve, never affectionately calling me Laurita, as my other local friends did. She didn’t even call me Laura. I remained a generic güera—white girl—to her. I’d chalked it up to her personality, but maybe she simply saw me as a heartless foreign creature with pale skin that might snatch her son.
After a while, I touch Baruc’s stiff sleeve, probably ironed that morning by his mother. “Seriously. I might have stayed with you.”
He strokes my arm with his perfect fingers, and then, just when I’m starting to melt, he pulls away. “Laurita, I have to go. I have to run some errands for my mother.”
I’m starting to kick myself when he says, “Let’s go out tonight. I’ll pick you up around six.”
“Really? You promise?”
In the past, the pattern was familiar: he’d ask me to go out, tell me what time he’d pick me up, and then he wouldn’t show. Usually, at the university the next day, I’d stop by the accounting office and ask him what happened in a voice designed to sound as unhurt as possible. “Oh, right,” he’d say breezily. “I had to help my mother with something.” I assumed he was lying, and I tried not to care too much. I imagined his obstacle to commitment was another woman in a dark alley—but I never suspected his mother.
This time is different. I’m four years older and wiser now, and I’ve run out of patience. He will have to play by my rules. “You really, truly promise you’ll come?”
“Yes, Laurita. I promise.”
At six I’m all dressed up, watching the occasional burro pass by on the dirt road. In the yard, chickens peck at corn as the landlady’s teenage granddaughter gyrates to the song blaring from her boom box: “…un movimiento sexy, sexy, sexy…”
By seven o’clock, my stomach is rumbling and I’m cursing my gullibility.
At eight, it starts raining. I need to get food, which means finding a taxi to take me to town. I run down the dark, muddy street in the rain, soaked and pathetic. Once I plop inside the taxi, I decide that this time will be different. Indignant, I shake the water from my hair, and give the driver directions to Baruc’s parents’ house.
Fifteen minutes later, he drops me off at the roadside by their house. I stomp through mud puddles to the locked metal gate, and I ring the buzzer and pound on the metal gate, clanking the chain like a lunatic. His mother, Doña Esperanza, pokes her head out the door and squints at me through the dark rain. A shawl draped over her head, she comes outside, her wide body lumbering down the steps.
“Güera,” she says, fumbling with the keys. “White girl, what are you doing here?”
She still doesn’t know my name? No way am I pretending to be nice to this woman anymore.
I am not the type that yells. Especially not at other people’s mothers. But the words spout up like boiling lava. “WHERE IS YOUR SON?!”
What I really want to shout is WHERE IS YOUR PINCHE SON? Or better yet, WHERE IS YOUR PENDEJO OF A SON?! but I manage to hang onto a few threads of self-control.
She looks at me, stunned, and slowly opens the gate.
“WHERE IS HE?!” I screech.
“He’s running some errands.”
“Well, that—” I swallow the words hijo de puta. “Well that son of yours was supposed to pick me up at six. I’ve been waiting for TWO AND A HALF HOURS!”
She blinks, shocked. I’d never been anything but polite and gracious to her. She’d probably thought of us güeras as soulless Barbies—skinny, plastic, smiling dolls, incapable of red-hot fury.
“Come in, güera.” She ushers me into the tiny, gray cement kitchen that smells of dried chile, and sits me down at the table where her mother is seated.
Doña Elisa watches us curiously with cataract-muted eyes. A polyester skirt-suit peeks out from under a checked apron, and a ribboned white braid snakes down her back. “What’s happening?” she asks.
I’m afraid I’ll yell at this old lady, so I keep my mouth glued shut and let her daughter answer. “Baruc said he’d pick up the güera and he didn’t.” She bites her lip and the corners of her mouth turn up, suppressing laughter.
I glare. “I AM HASTA LA MADRE WITH YOUR SON!” Essentially, I’ve f-ing had it with your son.
They stare at each other for a split second, then double over, clutching their large bellies, shaking with laughter.
“Ay, güera!” the grandmother says. “You need some agua de espanto.” Fright water. “That will cure you.”
“But I don’t have fright, I have ANGER! AT YOUR GRANDSON!” And at your evil daughter, I add silently.
More laughter. “The agua de espanto works for coraje, too,” Doña Elisa assures me. “Don’t worry, güera.”
Many Mixtec people in rural Oaxaca feel that anger and fright cause illness, that these emotion-energies can harm your body or lead to your spirit being stolen. So now the important thing is to cure my anger before it causes real damage. From the top shelf, Doña Esperanza grabs an old Coke bottle, filled with clear liquid. She pours me a small glass and sets it on the flowered vinyl tablecloth.
I sniff. It’s a hard alcohol—probably mezcal locally made from fermented agave nectar and steeped with herbs and spices—strong, tingling ones like cloves and anise.
“Drink,” Doña Elisa says, smiling, wiping tears from her face.
I gulp it. For a moment, it burns, then flows through my empty stomach and seeps quickly into my bloodstream. Little by little, the coraje floats out and dissipates.
“Have another, güera,” Doña Esperanza says.
I down a second glass.
By the third, every last trace of rage has gone. Now we’re cracking jokes and telling stories. Over and over, Doña Esperanza imitates me in the rain at the gate. Screwing up her face, she fake-yells, WHERE IS YOUR SON?! And this sends Doña Elisa and me into cascades of belly-shaking giggles.
On the fourth glass, a truck pulls up and headlights flash across the wall. Quickly, I try to compose myself and smooth my rain-frizzy hair. A minute later, Baruc strides in, looking as handsome as ever, especially model-like with rain dripping from his sculpted face and his mouth parted in surprise. “Laura! What are you doing here?”
His mother and grandmother launch into the story, offering bits and pieces between giggles, and collapsing in hysterical laughter on the WHERE IS YOUR SON?! part.
Baruc stares at me, then the bottle of agua de espanto, and then back at me. “Are you drunk, Laura?”
I grin. “It’s medicine. To get rid of my coraje. To avoid killing you.” And your mother, I recall, glancing at her fondly.
He looks at us like we’re crazy. “I’m hungry, Mamá.”
She hops up and plucks some tortillas from a basket. Yes, it’s quite an arrangement they have—he follows her orders in his romantic relationships; she follows his orders in domestic tasks. A fair bargain.
One day in my apartment, years ago, Baruc told me to get him a glass of water. It had sounded like a command, so I promptly replied, “Get it yourself.” He laughed, but an uncomfortable feeling hovered in the room.
I gaze at his mother now, suddenly grateful, wondering if she ended up saving me from a life of waiting hand and foot on her son.
“I’m going to change clothes,” Baruc tells us, annoyed, and disappears to his room.
We women snicker. For a tiny moment, I imagine life with these ladies as my in-laws. It would be entertaining— but only with enough agua de espanto to keep the coraje at bay.
We chat as Doña Esperanza heats up beans and mole and chamomile tea. She sets them in front of me with a basket of steaming tortillas. “Eat,” she says warmly, with a genuine smile. “Eat.”
As I chew, she takes my hand in her pudgy one. “Oh, Laurita,” she says. “Why don’t you stay? Why don’t you stay and marry my son, Laurita?”
And just like that, something shifts. In her eyes, my anger has melted away the pale, plastic, Barbie-doll skin of a nameless güera. For the first time, she sees me, really sees me just a little too late.