Last year, I spent a week in Fez, Morocco, teaching a writing workshop. It was my second visit to the city, and I stayed in the old, walled medina. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, “Fès-el-Bali” is a maze of more than nine thousand narrow, winding pedestrian streets filled with homes, schools, mosques, restaurants, hammams
(bath houses), riads
(guest houses), and souks
(markets). The medina was a clogged, chaotic blur, an ever-swirling kaleidoscope of color and sound and scent—and while mesmerized, I tried hard to keep my bearings.
I didn’t stand a chance. I got lost every two minutes: any time I unbolted the heavy door of my riad and stepped outside, or exited a café, or craned my neck to gaze at a thin bookmark of blue sky above the peeling paint of an orange wall. I got lost because the medina’s serpentine byways are mostly unnamed, and because I had no cell service (and thus no GPS) and neglected to orient myself by obvious landmarks, and because the meticulously detailed map my riad host annotated and explained thirteen times looked more to me like a brain than a map.
It didn’t help that I have a poor sense of direction; wherever I go in the world, I become at least temporarily misplaced. Still, the version of disorientation handed to me in Fez was extreme, and multiplied by the men who materialized whenever I looked confused (again, every two minutes) to insist I was heading the wrong way, down a dead-end street, and needed to follow them. I’d been warned about these false guides who pretended to show tourists to their hotels but steered them instead to their shops, and I knew how to respond: “La, shukran,” I’d say firmly, No, thank you, then quicken my pace, perhaps turning a corner with confidence, and wind up even farther off course. At which point they’d request payment for their services.
Finally, I received some advice.
“Let yourself get lost,” a friend said. “You’re supposed to get lost.”
“And when I no longer wish to be lost?”
“Ask a woman for directions. Women won’t steer you wrong.”
In the days that followed I surrendered to the labyrinth, turning this way and that, wholly absorbed. I meandered through shops stocked with dainty glass teacups, ankle-length djellabas (traditional robes), silver teapots, and tall, tidy cones of saffron and cinnamon. I admired brass lamps the size of beach umbrellas and touched the soft leather of purses dyed Pepto pink and parakeet green. I watched craftsmen weave linens on giant hand-operated wooden looms, ate chebakia—sesame-honey-rose-water cookies—and held mint to my nose at the phenomenally pungent eleventh-century Chouara Tannery. I whispered Buddhist prayers for caged chickens, live snails, and a camel head hanging from a hook. Then, when I tired of being directionless, I asked a woman for directions. And somehow, with women pointing the way, the way felt more familiar.
~ ~ ~
This wisdom, of both leaning into lostness and seeking guidance from women, was still on my mind six months later when I began work on The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 12, and faced 1300 submissions (800 more than usual). My mind tumbled to it in the following months, as I found myself adrift in the new Covid-riddled world. It came to me whenever I called my best friend in Canada, her voice a clasped hand across a closed border, and during long chats with my mother, who was spending her quarantine drawing portraits of fierce goddesses and brilliant female scientists. I contemplated it when I began homeschooling my preschooler (in French; I don’t speak French) and found sanity among a new group of mom friends. And I reflected on it at the threshold of an essential anti-racism reckoning, when I realized I didn’t know how to discuss race and turned to my older sister, a longtime activist and lifelong mentor. I clung to it when I began my anti-racism work by reading articles and books by Black women.
And it’s on my mind now, because the truth is, attempting to pen an introduction about travel today—in the midst of a global pandemic during which our passports lie fallow; in an era of climate change and catastrophic natural disasters; and at the dawn of a four-hundred-years-overdue revolution brought on by systemic racial injustice—I’ve never felt more lost as a writer.
“Let yourself get lost. You’re supposed to get lost.”
“And when I no longer wish to be lost?”
“Ask a woman for directions. Women won’t steer you wrong.”
~ ~ ~
This book marks the twelfth volume of The Best Women’s Travel Writing series, and the sixth I’ve edited. Over the years, I’ve occasionally been asked, “What is women’s travel writing, and why is it different or special?” I never quite nail the answer—it’s complex—but I do know that in meandering through women’s essays, I always seem to trip across something I’m not even aware I’m seeking, but vitally need. These “somethings” run the gamut from escape to inspiration to connection to catharsis. And always, lodged sturdily in there among everything else, is the truth. I always find truth. Or more accurately, I am guided to it.
The collection you hold in your hands is rife with these necessary somethings. Ranging in locale from a ferry on the stormy Adriatic Sea to a hostel lounge in Bolivia to the back seat of a police car in Colombia, and covering topics as motley as a train robbery in Italy, an amateur autopsy in Ireland, and a fairytale romance in Indonesia, the thirty-four essays I selected led me to a secret corner of a place and an emotion, and shone lights on precisely what needed to be illuminated.
Kaitlin Barker Davis’s essay, “Come and See,” for instance, about visiting the remains of an Indonesian village scorched by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Merapi—offered unexpected insight into my own editorial process, as I found myself drawn toward story after story of strength and survival: “Here is the uncomfortable truth,” she writes, “of disaster tourism: we want to get close to danger without actually being in danger. But maybe there’s something more. Maybe it isn’t the tragedy that we are really drawn to. Maybe what we crave is evidence of human resilience. We want to see it with our own eyes, hope it exists within us should we ever need it.”
Likewise, Eva Holland’s remarkable essay, “A Strange Ambition,” about learning to survive in the Arctic regions of Canada, reminded me that even in the darkest times (or, in her case, the coldest), we all possess not only hidden reserves of grit, but also of grace, which enable us to recognize the beauty arising from the struggle. Holland writes: “Here was that same lesson I had learned and relearned over these two weeks. Joy and awe would always win out, if I let them. The Arctic had an alchemical ability to transform my fears and suffering into raw wonder. If I kept coming back, kept flinging myself onto the ice, moments like these were the rewards.”
~ ~ ~
I believe in travel. I believe that by disorienting us, it rearranges us. Travel builds character and ignites imagination, nurtures independence and humility, catalyzes curiosity and self-examination. It can be a bulwark against stagnation, and a call to action. It widens our worldview and brings us face-to-face with our privilege, as it forces us to reassess entrenched beliefs and long-held concepts. Of course, travel is no magical elixir. I’ve stopped believing it’s “fatal to prejudice,” as Mark Twain famously declared (if only it were that simple), but I do hold that it’s a solid start toward upending our biases and assumptions, because it compels us to see beyond the abstractions of a foreign land to its humanity.
But travel has a shadow side, too: there’s the environmental impact of flying and cruising, the crowding of our planet’s most wondrous places, the littering of sacred sites, the pricing-out of locals. And it has dreadful roots (colonialism, capitalism) and gruesome side effects (exploitation, exoticism, saviorism).
I wrestle with this duality. How do I reconcile the damage travel does with the awareness that it profoundly enriches my life; that it is not only my livelihood but also, at times, my sanity? It’s another area in which I get hopelessly lost. And while I may never navigate this ethical tangle, I recognize that travel itself is what helps me make sense of—or at least pay more attention to—a world both exquisite and unbearably cruel.
For this volume of The Best Women’s Travel Writing, I included narratives that explore some of the questions and contradictions we face as travelers. Alongside accounts of thrilling quests, epic pilgrimages, abundant hospitality, hilarious escapades, kinship, and communion—stories that point to my ultimate faith in the transformative power of travel—are essays that made me sad and mad and deeply uncomfortable. Essays that asked me to pay more attention. There are journeys told through the lens of genocide, slavery, injustice, and climate change. And disasters—two fires, a couple of volcanic eruptions, an earthquake—not to mention near-deaths, misdeeds, regrets, and loneliness.
I wasn’t seeking any of these journeys, but I vitally needed them. I needed to get lost in their questions and steered toward awareness.
In Christina Ammon’s essay, “Convivencia,” about a revelatory trip to Spain, she asks a probing question we must all address. “With maturity, my political consciousness had evolved. I looked at the world with all of its violence and inequality and now wondered: Why did evil exist, and why was it allotted so unjustly?”
In “Key Change,” Rahawa Haile explores what it means to love a place that’s disappearing due to climate change. She writes, “We may very well be living in the dismantling, you and I, whether we choose to watch or not. And how does one build among constant erosion? Where do we go?”
In “Wade in the Water,” Alexandria Scott rows a boat through Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, reflecting on the indelible strength of her enslaved ancestors. “Enslavement was meant to define and overpower my people,” she writes, “but they resisted. Like the water that surrounded them, they carried on with strength, stalwart consistency, and beauty.”
And in “Why I Took My Daughter to Auschwitz,” Peggy Orenstein puts forth the painful essence of human character. “We are all capable of evil, big and small. We all have within us the monstrous, the conniving, the cruel.” But then she pivots with the words I needed to hear. “Yet we are also capable of selflessness, bravery, and resilience.”
~ ~ ~
It’s no great mystery why I was attracted to stories of strength, resistance, and resilience in these times. The pandemic has taken so much from us. Lives and loved ones lost. Mental and physical health compromised. Weddings, graduations, and funerals canceled. The absence of touch. Jobs, businesses, and homes lost. Economic disaster. Unspeakable heartache.
The act of living always comes with suffering. (In Buddhism, this is called samsara, or the cyclical nature of life.) Mercifully, it also contains tenderness, fortitude, and renewal. Times of despair turn up unexpected treasures. As I’ve sheltered in place, for instance, I’ve been buoyed by accounts of mountain goats reclaiming the Welsh town of Llandudno and a kangaroo hopping through the city center of Adelaide, Australia; reports of the smog lifting over Los Angeles and the Himalayas becoming visible from hundreds of miles away; stories of Italians singing on balconies and Spaniards banging pots for health-care workers, and citizens of mega-metropolises and tiny towns across the globe rising up together to fight for justice and equality.
The world has changed in immeasurable, inconceivable ways, and it continues to shift. I wonder, as you’re reading this, what is the state of our fragile, fractured world? Are we traveling yet, or still ensconced at home, experiencing the faraway via books and virtual reality?
In Susan Orlean’s essay “Zooming in on Petra,” she recounts a trip to Jordan to watch a technology company create a virtual model of Petra, which will allow those who can’t travel there to experience it digitally. “But visiting a place,” Orlean writes, “—breathing in its ancient dust, confronting it in real time, meeting its residents, elbowing its tourists, sweating as you clamber up its hills, even seeing how time has punished it—will always be different, more magical, more challenging.”
I agree. And while I’m restless at my core, I’m oddly content to wait. Because I know that eventually, when it’s safe to resume all that elbowing and sweating, and honor both the magic and challenge of travel, it will be worth it. And perhaps we’ll be more worthy of it.
Though the pandemic has taken much from us, it’s also offered something to those fortunate enough to have survived it: a reset—a chance to wake up and see, for a minute, what it would look like to preserve our imperiled planet, species, and cultures, along with irrefutable proof of the interdependence and equality of humans. Will we accept the reset and correct course? Begin making more ethical, sustainable, inclusive choices? And, with the reminder that travel is an incalculable privilege, stop taking it for granted? I have no answers, only aspirations. I hope that when we find our way out of the morass, we’ll emerge gentler and kinder, more tolerant and aware, with great and wild gratitude for all who have helped us along the path.
~ ~ ~
Which brings me back to Fez.
By the end of my week in the medina, I continued to get lost every two minutes, and one afternoon, I had an errand to run—my husband had asked me to return to a specific shop and purchase a small rug to match one we’d bought there a few years before. When I showed the address to my local friend Zakia and asked for directions, she laughed at me.
“You’ll never find it,” she said.
Zakia was aware of my underdeveloped sense of direction and, having grown up in the medina, insisted on accompanying me. Inside the shop, while the owner unfurled carpets across the tiled floor, Zakia and I chatted and sipped mint tea. I kept telling her she needn’t stay, and she kept ignoring me. By the time I found my rug, it was near dinnertime. I was embarrassed.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “Just point me in the right direction.”
“No way,” she said, laughing again. “You need a babysitter.” Then she took my arm and shepherded me through the medina’s infinite turns and bends, back to my riad. I was grateful. Though I’d accepted by then that there was something rewarding in the surrender of letting myself get lost, her guidance steadied my dizzy spirit. As she turned to go home, I placed my hand on my heart, and she waved goodbye cheerfully.
In this collection of essays, you will meet more people like Zakia—golden-hearted souls who come from places like Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Canada, Cuba, The Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, Nepal, Spain, and Tanzania. People who become the heroes of our stories because they show the way or deliver joy, care for us when we’re vulnerable, help us navigate meaning, or propel us when we’re stuck. They are custodians of travel; they keep us believing in its magic.
Consider this anthology a guidebook to take with you down the unnamed, unmapped road ahead, into a medina-like world of untold twists and turns. I hope that in these thirty-four true travel tales you will find something you weren’t aware you were seeking but vitally need—and I hope you’ll let yourself get lost in them.
You’re supposed to get lost.
And as your guides: thirty-four women who won’t steer you wrong.
A young girl teaches a scholar about the politics of desire.
Every evening, the limbs of the frangipani tree that shaded our second-story apartment shivered and rustled, strewing star-shaped blossoms onto our balcony’s tiled floor. Balmy
lake breezes mixed the petals’ thick perfume with the aromas of brewing coffee and fried snacks wafting from our neighbor’s kitchen windows. In the distance, auto rickshaws and motorcycles revved their engines, announcing the start of Bangalore’s evening commute.
The minute I heard the creaking branches, I’d stop whatever I was doing to come outside. Leaning over the balcony’s wrought iron railing, I’d smile and wave at the black-haired girl who was, inevitably, perched somewhere on the tree’s trunk, her bare feet tight against the rough bark, her long fingers plucking flowers.
“Namaskara, Varuna,” I’d call out. “Hege ideera? How are you?”
“Namaskara, Akka! I am fine,” Varuna would reply, waving back.
“Good,” I’d say, reaching for clusters of newly opened flowers nestled between the leaves. I handed them to Varuna in fistfuls, careful not to crush the petals, delicate as wishes.
~ ~ ~
Varuna’s body was like a stretched rubber band, long and thin and taut with momentum. Ropey muscles lined her arms, and her hair, which looked like it had never been cut, hung past her hips in a straight, tightly wound braid. She wore sun-faded cotton salwar kameez and always had a plastic shopping bag looped around her wrist. She never wore shoes.
Varuna’s mother tongue was Kannada, a language she chirped like a parakeet, and one I was just beginning to learn. I’d greet her, ask how she was doing (always fine, big sister, always fine), and what she had for lunch (biryani or roti or halwa). Once I asked her what class she was in at school (third standard) and how old she was (eleven) and why she wasn’t wearing a school uniform (I don’t go to school, big sister). When my husband was home, he’d translate, falling easily into the Kannada he spoke while growing up in Bangalore in the 1990s.
“Can you ask her what the flowers are for?” I asked him once.
After a few rapid exchanges, my husband translated, “She says that they’re for puja. They’re auspicious. Her mother is praying for something, and she needs them.”
I didn’t ask what Varuna’s mother was praying for. I didn’t have to. If she needed the flowers badly enough to send her daughter climbing strangers’ trees, it must be something important.
Once, my landlady—who lived downstairs—caught Varuna climbing the tree, and flew into a rage.
“Get down from there,” my landlady yelled, shaking her fist. Her hennaed hair quivered, and her cheeks flushed an angry pink. “Those aren’t yours.”
“They’re just flowers,” I said. “Why can’t she have them?”
“They’re my flowers,” my landlady said. “She can’t just take things. It’s not right.”
For the next week, my landlady sat vigil in her front room, ready to spring outside the second she saw Varuna within a few yards of the tree. Through our floor—which was her ceiling—I could hear her muttering about how poor people in Bangalore are out of control.
During those weeks of hypervigilance, Varuna and I developed a system. She would turn onto our street and look up at me. If my landlady was home, I’d signal that Varuna should leave. If she wasn’t home, I’d beckon frantically. Varuna would flash up the tree, a brown streak of manic limbs, and the two of us would pluck furiously, filling her bag before we were discovered.
~ ~ ~
I was in Bangalore because I had received a Fulbright fellowship to study India’s publicly funded early childhood education centers. Most of these centers were in slums. During my fieldwork, I found myself spending less time observing lessons, and more time gossiping and giggling with the mothers who stopped by for rations, forms, or moments of rest.
The women were curious about me, and the incongruous combination of my dark, Indian skin and twangy, Western accent. They asked me about my parents, my husband, my job. Inevitably, they’d ask me when my husband and I were going to have kids.
“Soon,” I’d say.
“When you want children, here’s what you do. Buy a packet of milk and take it to the koil just here,” one mother told me, gesturing in the direction of about four different Hindu temples.
“Or else you can go to another koil down the road there and ask for a special puja,” another said. “The priest will give you ghee. If you eat that ghee, you’ll get pregnant immediately.”
“Don’t forget to bring flowers,” they all reminded me. “Puja is always better with flowers.”
I wondered what kind of pujas were prescribed for women who wished for something besides marriage or children. What if a woman wanted a college degree, or a book deal, or a visa to another country? What if she wanted to leave her husband, or move into her own home, or start a career?
I never asked, not because I didn’t want to know, but because it didn’t seem right. In the slums, women live in worlds that prohibited too much wanting or wishing, too much hoping: women who test the limits of hope shouldn’t expect help, human or divine. Men want, women provide. That’s the way the world works.
No one told me this, specifically. But somehow, they made sure I knew.
~ ~ ~
One day, after another morning in the slums, I came home and stopped in front of the frangipani tree. Lost in thought, I plucked a plush bunch of blossoms and buried my nose in them, inhaling a fragrance like starlight. My landlady stepped outside, clutching an expensive purse and a set of house keys.
“Oh!” I said, holding up the flowers. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be silly. Take, take!” she said, breaking off a few more and handing them to me.
“Thank you,” I said. After a minute, I asked, “So it’s O.K. to take these?”
“Of course! Why do you ask?”
“When Varuna came, you didn’t want her to have any,” I said. When my landlady looked at me blankly, I said, “The little girl with the long braid?”
“That girl? Chee! That’s different,” she said, wrinkling her nose in recognition. “You, you please take as many as you like.”
~ ~ ~
One of the last times Varuna visited me, she attracted the attention of the gang of nine- and ten-year-old boys who ruled our street. They gathered at the foot of the tree, peering up into the branches, their faces wrinkled with suspicion.
“What is she doing?” the leader called up to me.
“Ask her,” I told him.
“O.K.,” he said, nodding. He turned to Varuna and, switching into Kannada, asked, “What are you doing?”
She spoke to him so rapidly that I only understood every third or fourth word. Still, I knew it had something to do with pujas and flowers and her mother.
“Did she tell you?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “She’s doing it for puja.”
“Can you help her?”
After a minute, he said, nodding approvingly, “O.K. Puja is good. We can help.”
He sent the youngest boy to get a plastic bag, then delegated the other two to go to the other frangipani trees on our block. The boys weren’t very good at climbing trees—they were too young—but they managed to fill their bags. Varuna dropped onto the pavement and accepted them graciously, her smile tight and proud.
Then my landlady’s red Toyota pulled into the driveway.
“How dare you!” she yelled as she let herself out of the car, not even waiting for her driver to open the door, as she usually did. “Those are mine!”
The boys watched curiously, but didn’t say anything. Neither did I.
Varuna turned on her heels and walked away, her steps rhythmic and measured, her back as straight and poised as a queen’s.
A few days before, when I had been caught with frangipani in my hand, I had stuttered out an apology.
But Varuna knew that those precious flowers, and the power they held, belonged to her just as much as they belonged to me or my landlady or the boys on my street. Knew that the poor deserve as much desire as the rich, that women and girls ought to be allowed the same number of wishes as boys and men. Knew that, despite what anyone told her, she and her mother were entitled to their dreams.
Varuna’s gods hadn’t showered her with luck. But they weren’t interested in withholding it. Only humans were interested in that.
I watched her retreating back and, for the first time in years, I had the urge to pray.
~ ~ ~
Mathangi Subramanian is an award-winning writer and educator based in San Jose. Her novel A People’s History of Heaven was long listed for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Her middle grades book Dear Mrs. Naidu won the South Asia Book Award. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Ms. Magazine, Al Jazeera America, and Zora Magazine, among others. A former Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, she received her doctorate in education from Columbia University Teachers College. She is the proud daughter, wife, and mother of Indian immigrants.