Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in
by Rita Golden Gelman
When her marriage starts to disintegrate, Rita Golden Gelman decides to go to Mexico on her own to take a break and think things through. Never having travelled on her own, she is nervous but willing to take a chance. And she finds that this is what she had been wanting to do all the time: travel, get to really know people and different cultures. The language barrier, as far as she is concerned, doesn’t exist if you really want to communicate.
Mexico is just the beginning. Her marriage finally breaks up, leaving her free to do exactly what she wants—her two children are adults and she supports herself by writing children’s books. She embraces her new life whole-heartedly, going to places where tourists seldom go: spending time in a Zapotec village in Mexico, staying with a Hassidic family in Israel and visiting Nicaragua soon after the Sandinista revolution.
But Indonesia is the place that becomes her second home. On her first trip to the country, she goes to Bali where she meets Tu Aji and his family. She moves into a little guest house for a few months and ends up staying eight years, becoming part of the family. Tu Aji is is a wise, thoughtful man who becomes her mentor, and she finds the spiritual dimension she had been searching for in her travels.
What I liked about Gelman is that she proves that it is never too late to take the plunge and go travelling. And a woman can have a fulfilling life without a man. All you need is a sense of adventure and a willingness to be surprised. But the biggest lesson I took away from this book was the kindness of strangers—Gelman takes people on faith and seems to be rarely disappointed. And that is an important lesson, especially in today’s troubled times.
by Robyn Davidson
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to strip myself of all the expectations that society has of me and pit myself against the elements. Who am I really, under all those layers? In 1977, Robyn Davidson set out to answer this question, walking 1,700 miles across the Australian desert with four camels (the fourth was a surprise—she didn’t know the female camel, Zeleika, was pregnant) and Diggity, her beloved dog. At the time, Davidson was living in Sydney and knew nothing about either camels or long treks.
Davidson began her journey at Alice Springs, staying there for a year to learn to handle camels. Women’s lib had certainly not reached Alice Springs, “where men were men and women were an afterthought”. Her first trainer was a crazy tyrant who taught her well but drove her to the limit of her endurance and sanity.
National Geographic approached her, offering to pay for her story. But this meant that photographer Rick Smolen would meet her at various points during her trek. She hesitated: this was supposed to be a journey of self-discovery with no strings attached, but she needed the money. So she accepted, and the expedition began.
Davidson writes beautifully, especially when she is describing the desert. She sits near Ayers Rock, watching the “gathering evening changing the bold harsh daylight colours to luminous pastels, then deeper to the blues and purples of peacock feathers”. She develops a growing sensibility to the landscape around her until she could, just by looking at the tracks of a beetle, identify the beetle and know where it was going and why. This book taught me a lot about camels—they’re sensitive and intelligent and funny, not the bad-tempered creatures I’ve always thought they were. The animals in Tracks have characters as distinctive as any of the humans: Zelly, the female, is the sensible one who knows which desert plants are edible. Dookie is the dignified one, “the camel born to be king” and Bubby, the youngest, is the practical joker. And of course, there’s Davidson’s beloved dog, Diggity—irrepressible, loyal and incredibly patient.
Davidson meets a lot of Aborigines on her journey—they take her in and she learns a great deal from them. An aborigine elder, Eddie, walks with her for two days. “He was sheer pleasure to be with, exuding all those qualities typical of old Aboriginal people — strength, warmth, self-possession, wit, and a kind of rootedness, a substantiality that immediately commanded respect.”
The end of Davidson’s journey was nothing like its beginning. By then, she had become famous and, to her dismay, was being pursued by paparazzi. Rick Smolan came in handy: he knew how to talk to journalists and managed to help Davidson steal back some of her privacy.
And we have him to thank for the lovely pictures in the book. My favourite is the last one, in which a camel stands on a beach, gazing at the sea. To me it represents freedom, a complete liberation from expectations, which is what this journey was about. This book inspires me to take up a challenge myself.
Why LA? Pourquoi Paris? An Artistic Pairing of Two Iconic Cities
Diane Ratican, with illustrations by Nick Lu and Eric Giriat
“When you fall in love with a city, it is forever.” This quote from Toni Morrison encapsulates the spirit of this delightful book. Diane Ratican has obviously fallen in love with both Los Angeles and Paris, and she communicates her passion for them in this book, which brings both cities together.
Instead of being a long narrative about the cities, the book consists mostly of striking illustrations by Nick Lu and Eric Giriat, which bring them to life. It’s an art book with practical tips, so it’s beautiful to look at and useful for traveling.
The book is divided into chapters, each looking at a particular aspect: monuments and cityscapes, culture, entertainment, sport and so much more. Ratican writes briefly on each city and then lets the illustrations do the rest. Facing pages illustrate common features—for example, the Colorado Street Bridge in LA and Pont Neuf in Paris; the Rose Bowl Flea Market and the Marché aux Puces; Union Station and the Gare du Nord, or women’s fashions in LA and Paris. By juxtaposing similar things, the artists bring out how alike and yet how different the two cities are. I loved the illustrations of the ghosts of Michael Jackson and Jim Morrison haunting their graves (MJ in LA, JM in Paris)!
I also enjoyed the quotes scattered throughout the book, not just about Paris and Los Angeles, but about life in general. The book ends with a list of useful addresses for restaurants, hotels and best places to shop - as a book in the travel genre often does.
I also loved the way Ratican brought together these two seemingly different cities. I’ve been to both and always thought of them as separate worlds. But it would seem they are not. And as I keep saying, I love the illustrations, which is why my first run-through of this book will certainly not be my last.
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica
by Sara Wheeler
I was intrigued by this book for two reasons: one, that it is a woman’s account of a trip to the Antarctic—a change from all the books written about the explorations of men like Scott and Shackleton—and second, that Sara Wheeler sees this vast landscape of ice and snow also as a “landscape of the mind”, where you come face to face with yourself and your demons. I can’t imagine living in the middle of all that ice, but I do get the attraction of a “blank canvas” type of place (one of the reasons I like deserts).
Wheeler decided to make this trip after going to the Antartida Chilena when she was in Chile (see book review below). In 1994 she went as the first foreigner on the US government’s National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists' and Writers Program and spent seven months travelling the continent. Her book moves between the present and the past, blending them seamlessly together.
Unlike the Artic, there are no native people here. The continent is covered in ice, made of snow compacted over thousands of years. There are mountains, but most of the continent is miles of flat ice. Wheeler’s record of the trip is fascinating, not least the people she meets—Antarctica’s temporary residents, who live in the camps and stations, many of whom look forward to going home but then return as soon as they can. They talk about “getting away to the Antartic”.
Wheeler arrives at the American base, McMurdo, and finds an office space allocated to her, labelled W002 (for writer), hence her nickname, Woo. There are women working at the various bases, but it is mainly men (Beards, or Frozen Beards), which means that sometimes Wheeler, as the only woman in a camp, has to put up with schoolboy humour. One of the bars has an Annoy-o-meter with an arrow moving from Vaguely Irritating through to Murderously Provocative. It is interesting to see how the different countries’ bases differ—for example, the Italian has a Nespresso machine (heaven!) and good food. However, there are no luxuries here, and Wheeler writes entertainingly about bathroom arrangements (buckets and funnels) and creative cooking, put together with whatever rations are available. (She includes her recipe for Antarctic bread and butter pudding at the end of the book.)
But the privations don’t seem that important when faced with the stunning beauty of the continent. Wheeler is lyrical about the landscape. She describes a frozen lake: “sheets of cracked and rippled frosted blue, and ribboned crystals imprisoned in the ice glimmered like glowworms. It was bathed in light pale as an unripe lemon.” She talks about the continent “being sufficient unto itself…a world in which everything made sense”.
It really is an extraordinary journey, in every sense of the word. By the end of the trip, Wheeler has not only faced down her demons and fears but has developed a strong bond with the continent, a place that gave her peace in a very fundamental sense.
On The Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta
by Jen Lin-Liu
Food and travel—what’s not to like? This is a book about food across cultures—in this case, pasta in all its forms (I use the term to include noodles, dumplings, etc.). The writer Jen Lin-Liu is a Chinese-American food writer who lives in Beijing and runs a cooking school for foreigners. The book traces her journey as she travels from Beijing to Rome looking at how noodles evolved along the Silk Road.
It all started with a pasta-making class in Rome. Lin-Liu is struck by how similar making pasta is to making noodles. Surely there must be a connection? She is determined to find out and sets off overland from Beijing to Rome, crossing China, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey. Her mission is to document the changes in cuisine as she moves from East to West, and “what links made up the chains connecting two of the world’s greatest cuisines.”
It is a fascinating story because of the people she meets, of course, and because of the food. She cooks with local people—in this part of the world (as in most others)—this means women. As they cook together, they learn about each other’s lives.
She visits Isabel, an elderly single woman in a Tibetan town. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, she meets up with Gulzat, a “globe-trotting sociologist” who lives with her family and mother-in-law. In Kyrgyz culture (and not only in Kyrgyz culture!) the mother-in-law is dominant and the daughter-in-law does the housework. In Turkey, she finds women striking out on their own, determined to lead an independent life.
She finds many similarities in food across the cultures: not just noodles and dumplings, but also a dry bread that must have originated with nomadic tribes, as well as the ubiquitous dish of rice and meat, polo to the Uighurs, plov in Central Asia and pillao in Iran (and what I, as a South Asian, know as pullao). Pasta, often in the form of dumplings, is a constant until Iran when it practically disappears. In Kashgar, Len-Liu learns to make manta—Uighur dumplings. In Turkey, she finds a similar dish—tiny dumplings called manti. Turkish mothers-in-law judged their daughters-in-law by how many manti they can fit on a spoon (40 is the magic number). She comes across an identical tradition in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, except instead of being called manti, the dumplings are called Venus belly-buttons.
This is also a journey of self-discovery. Len-Liu has been married for two years and explores how she can keep her independence and be part of a couple at the same time. Her conversations with the women she meets along the way help her to come to an understanding.
Which brings me to something I enjoyed about the book: Len-Liu herself. Her voice is clear. Passionate, fiercely independent, warm and just a little pig-headed. She has an insatiable curiosity and eye for detail, and the countries and food come to life in this book.
As for the origin of noodles… we still don’t know.
The Olive Route: A Personal Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean
by Carol Drinkwater
Carol Drinkwater is passionate about the olive tree—she has an olive grove in Provence—and this book is about her search for its history around the Meditarrenean through Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Malta, Tunisia, Libya, Greece, Crete and Israel.
Drinkwater had intended to make the trip in September 2001, but couldn’t continue because of the 9/11 attacks and the conflict that followed. She finally made it in 2005, before the Arab Spring but after the Iraq invasion.
She starts in Lebanon, where she finds a plantation of 6,000-year-old trees. In Syria, she is assigned a driver and a guide who dictates where she can stop and what she can see. In Libya she falls in (quite reluctantly) with Western men working on oil rigs. One of them lends her a driver and a car—the only way she can get around while avoiding the strictly monitored tourist tours. Travelling into the country, she notices the poverty—the immense wealth earned from oil certainly isn't helping the people. She wonders whether Libyans will one day rise up against the corruption of Ghaddafi and his coterie. Prescient, indeed.
She makes friends along the way, often (but not always!) with people who are also passionate about the olive tree: she meets Maryam, a Druze from Lebanon, on a plane and they become close friends; Murat, her young driver in Turkey, who is a little bemused by her passion for all things olive; and Nat and Julia in Malta, who are trying to revive olive plantations on the islands. In Israel, she joins the Tu-Bishvat tree-planting ceremony with Israelis in Palestine.
Everywhere she talks to local people, not only about olives, but about their lives. She describes historical sites the way they must have been—sights, smells and sounds, providing a simultaneous glimpse of the modern and the ancient. I loved this because it emphasizes how things have changed, but how much remains the same—a sense of continuity we often miss in this “now” age.
Just a Little Run around the World
by Rosie Swale Pope
Rosie Swale Pope loses her beloved husband Clive to prostate cancer. In honour of his memory and to raise awareness about early cancer screening she decides to run around the world. The only way to stay on land most of the way is to do it in the Northern Hemisphere, with some of the most inhospitable places on this planet—Siberia, Alaska and Iceland in winter. Her “little run”—which she started on her 57th birthday—took five years and 53 pairs of shoes. It is a story of endurance, courage and sheer bloody-mindedness.
Other than a couple of unavoidable trips by boat and plane, she really does run every mile. If she has to leave the trail to go to hospital, she makes sure she resumes where she left off. Her son starts a website about her run, which attracts a lot of well-wishers, several of whom help her, sometimes by donating equipment and sometimes by coming out to support her on the way. The people she meets give her an intimate glimpse into the countries she runs through—the culture as well as the resilience of ordinary people, often living in difficult situations, both economically and physically.
One of the things that comes through in her book is the generosity of complete strangers who invite her in, feed her, give her a place to stay the night and sometimes drive miles out in blizzards to check on her and bring her food. Crossing the Latvian border a Russian border guard gives her 50 roubles to buy a bowl of soup from his mother’s café in the next village.
As someone who loves animals, I was fascinated with her stories about the wildlife. In Siberia, a pack of wolves keeps watch over her every night while she’s on their territory. A grass snake snuggles up in the folds of her sleeping bag and has to be persuaded to leave his new, comfortable home for the woods. In a blizzard in Greenland, she almost runs into “a nose and a pair of black eyes”— a polar bear. Fortnately, the bear ambles off.
Rosie’s run takes through Wales, England, Holland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Alaska, Canada, northern United States, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroes and Scotland. Those of you who read my reviews know that I like my travel books to have maps. But especially in this book, where Rosie not only runs through places unfamiliar to a lot of readers but also covers so much ground, I think a map would have been very helpful.