By Suroor Alikhan
The Window Seat — Notes from a Life in Motion
by Aminatta Forna
“Here are four words you rarely hear these days: I love to fly.”
Travel has been an intrinsic part of Scottish-Sierra Leonean writer Aminatta Forna’s life. She spent part of her childhood in Sierra Leone but after her father was arrested and eventually killed by the regime, she moved with her Scottish mother to the UK. Her mother later remarried, and her New Zealander stepfather’s work with the United Nations took him to Iran, Nigeria and Zambia, places that Forna visited for her school holidays. So she grew up as a citizen of the world.
The Window Seat is a collection of pieces that are a mix of travel writing, memoir, and essays. She keeps coming back to the meaning of home and what it means for someone like her.
The first essay in the collection, from where the quote above is taken, is a love letter to flying. Forna had a Junior Jet Club logbook, given to children by BOAC (later British Airways) in which you could record your flights. This brought back memories because I had one too.
Curfews were a common occurrence in Forna’s life, whether in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Zambia, or Iran. She writes about how people try and live a normal life in spite of them, for example, skirting army checkpoints to have a drink at their favourite bar or attending “curfew parties” where you would arrive early and leave before curfew, or arrive just before curfew and stay until dawn.
War is another factor that seeps into some of her essays. She writes about how, if we take long-haul flights regularly, at some point we fly over a war zone. “Consider the matter: people are killing and being killed and living in terror of being killed while, at a point precisely overhead, you are doing what? You are watching the drinks trolley edge down the aisle, handling the frustrations of plastic cutlery and those fiddly salt and pepper packets, selecting the next movie… . Imagine a person looking up and seeing an aeroplane in the sky, the freedom the passing plane must surely represent. It must be like standing on a desert island, watching the ships pass by, without the possibility of being able to lift a hand and wave or to shout and be heard.”
War can become a reality so quickly. The war in ex-Yugoslavia spread fast because every man had a gun: it was a nation of hunters. In Sierra Leone, “if you saw a gang of men in the back of a Toyota Hilux carrying machetes, you’d think they were farmworkers… . A few years later, you’d be running for your life.”
This is a rich and varied collection. Forna writes about the Renaissance generation in Africa, the first generation of young African men and women who were sent to the West to study and came back to their countries with new ideas. Her father and Obama’s, as well as many leaders of African countries, were part of this generation.
There are also reminiscences about the people whom she knew or key moments in her life. In a moving piece called Santigi, Forna tells the story of a man who worked in her family’s home from his youth until his death. In Freetown, she meets a veterinarian who looks after the stray dogs in the city. She travels with her mother and brother to Shetland, where she spent part of her childhood, the last trip her mother could make.
This eclectic collection contains so much more – including an examination of insomnia, which Forna suffers from; how wildlife thrives in cities; and what it means to navigate the world as a woman, particularly a woman of colour. The pieces are thoughtful and beautifully written. I know there are ones I will return to over the years.
“Shalimar is the bridge between my father’s world and my perception of it, not a real place but one of our own making, filled with his things, his stories, but also mine and my stories which are free for me to pass on as I go on without him.”
Davina Quinlivan was born and grew up in the UK, but her ancestry is Euro-Asian: Burmese, Indian, Irish, French, German and Scottish. In Shalimar, Quinlivan overlays her own experience—moving homes in the UK, marrying, raising children—with the story of her family. The result is a lyrical mix of memoir, nature and travel writing.
Quinlivan’s father is central to the book. He was born in what was then Burma; his father was Irish and his mother was half-German and half-Shan, an ethnic minority living on the borders of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and China. Quinlivan’s father spent part of his childhood under house arrest during World War II, something that affected him for the rest of his life. As Quinlivan writes, “The trauma of his internment crept into daily life, it was always there, like an ivy twisting its way through an evergreen hedge.” It resulted in an unacknowledged agoraphobia.
Quinlivan also has Shan ancestry on her mother’s side. Shan women have been historically enslaved, and in the recent past, were trafficked out of Myanmar. She writes about the Shan women in her family, who “married European Colonials and disappeared into the invisible pages of a history book I cannot open”. As she gets older, she starts to listen to the ghosts of her Shan ancestors and sees traces of them in her children’s features.
Quinlivan also migrates, although within the UK. She leaves Hillingdon, an industrial county where she has spent most of her life, to move to rural England: Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and Devon. One of the places she lives in is Peaslake, known in 1912 as a meeting place for suffragettes.
She writes beautifully about nature, the oaks and birches surrounding her, the “cathedral of trees” where she finds peace and a way to deal with the grief of her father’s illness and his death. The woods seem to hold something other-worldly, an old kind of magic.
She interweaves these accounts with stories about her family: her father stealing forbidden mangoes in the Buddhist monastery in Burma where he was sent as a child; her German-Shan grandmother kissing the Blarney Stone; and, in England, her mother, aunts and grandmother sitting around a table speaking in a mix of Punjabi, English and Burmese. She remembers the food that her aunt, her father’s sister, would cook for them in her home in Ealing, the home that was an echo of the one she had in Shalimar, India.
I loved the way Quinlivan moves fluidly between the two worlds, and pulls them into a single, rich narrative. This is a story about memory and loss, about leaving and finding home.
Review – Following Nellie Bly: Her Record-Breaking Race Around the World
by Rosemary J. Brown
“I want to go around [the world] in eighty days or less. I think I can beat Phileas Fogg’s record. May I try it?”
The idea came from Nellie Bly, a journalist with The New York World, inspired by the Jules Verne book, Around the World in 80 Days. It was 1888, a time when women did not travel alone, never mind try to circumnavigate the globe. It was impossible: she would need a protector, be loaded down with lots of luggage, and be hampered by the fact that she could only speak English.
But Bly eventually won the day. She was summoned to her editor’s office almost exactly a year later and asked to leave in two days. To prove the naysayers wrong, she travelled on her own, carrying a small Gladstone bag (known as a gripsack) with a single dress, which lasted her entire trip. And she did it in 72 days.
Rosemary J. Brown is also a journalist and a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. She wants to “put women explorers back ‘on the map’”, to “revive a role model, an invincible woman who defied the status quo, walked on the wild side and explored the world without fear.” In 2014, 125 years after Bly’s record-breaking trip, she decides to follow in Bly’s footsteps. But the ocean liners that Bly took no longer exist, so Brown has to fly.
Bly’s journey would take her to Colombo, Sri Lanka, with her ship stopping at Port Said in Egypt and Aden in Yemen. She continued to Singapore (where she bought a monkey, McGinty, who caused no end of trouble) and Hong Kong, where she was stuck for a few days. Not one to sit still, she sailed to Canton (present-day Guangzhou) in China. The US government had blocked the entry of the Chinese with the 1872 Chinese Exclusion Act. “I knew that we were trying to keep the Chinese out of America so I decided to see all of them while in their land”, wrote Bly.
She then went on to Tokyo and Yokohama in Japan, from where she took a ship to San Francisco. Brown follows her trajectory, except that she goes straight to Colombo, because of the war in Yemen.
Brown is like a detective, looking for traces of Bly wherever she goes. Things have changed a great deal in over a century, but Brown makes connections between Bly’s world and the present: one of the hotels is, incredibly, still around (these are good hotels – no rundown hostels for Bly!), as are some of the temples and other sights.
Brown, like Bly, is an intrepid traveller. In Hong Kong, she braved the fierce winds and lashing rain of typhoon Kalmaegi to catch the morning train to Guangzhou. She needed a taxi but the typhoon meant that the normally busy streets were deserted. Then, in the distance, a solitary taxi appeared, and Brown made the train. It was as if Bly was watching over her, holding out a helping hand.
I enjoyed seeing places through the eyes of the two women, so far apart in time but sharing a curiosity about the world. I loved learning about what travel was like in the late 1800s, and also about Bly’s work as a journalist, a woman in a man’s world. Brown carries a copy of Bly’s book and quotes from it frequently, so you get a real sense of the woman. I had not heard of Nellie Bly until I read this book. She was a fascinating woman and should be better known. This book goes a long way towards filling that gap.
Review － The Border: A Journey around Russia
by Erika Fatland (Translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson)
Ed. note: This book has been placed in the “World” section because Russia is both Europe and Asia, as are its borders.
The full subtitle of this book is “A journey around Russia: through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage”, which gives you an idea of its scope.
Erika Fatland also visits Nagorno-Karabakh, gets close to South Ossetia, and takes a tour of Chernobyl. The Russian border is 60,932 kilometers long, longer than the circumference of the earth, which is 40,075 kilometers. Fatland decides to visit the countries along this border, starting in Pyongyang in North Korea, working her way east and north to Grense Jakobselv in Norway, her native country. Then she goes back to Anadyr in northeastern Russia and boards an old Soviet research vessel to cover the 5,650 nautical miles along Russia’s northern coast to Murmansk.
What she really wants to know is what it is like to live next to the largest country in the world, but she finds there is no single answer: “There are at least fourteen, as many answers as there are neighboring countries. Though in truth there must be millions of answers, one for each person who lives along the border, each with their own unique history.”
Added to the author’s adventures is a hefty dose of history, providing a sense of life today right next to Russia as well as how the borderlands have been shaped by their huge neighbor in the past. Of the fourteen countries she travels through, eight were once part of the Soviet Union.
Fatland speaks Russian, French, English and Norwegian, which makes conversation easier, and as is often the case in a travel book, the people make the book.
In Pyongyang, she is accompanied by guides (always in pairs) who dictate not only the itinerary, but also what can be photographed and what is out of bounds. Sometimes, a curious guide plies her with questions when the other guide is out of earshot.
She visits Heihe, a small provincial town in China on the banks of the Amur River, frequented by Russian tourists who flock over the border to buy cheap Chinese goods. In Mongolia, she meets Tserendavaa, a well-known throat singer, a traditional form of Mongolian singing, who sings for her. In Baku, Azerbaijan, she meets Selcen, a young woman who remembers the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. She fled the war with her parents as a child and moved to Baku.
In Kazakhstan, Fatland makes the complicated trip to Baikonur, hoping to see the Soviet space launch facility. But a mistake in her arrival date meant she couldn’t visit the facility. To distract her, her guide Marat takes her for endless meals, and finally to a bowling alley.
Fatland seeks out people who, like Selcen, lived through historical events: Andrei, a 79-year-old Latvian, who was one of the 42,000 Latvians who were deported to Siberia in the 1940s; and Maia in Belarus, one of the few surviving Jews in a country that counted nearly one million before the Second World War.
It is hard to do justice to a book that is so rich. Fatland hears many stories of displacement and heartbreak: ordinary people suffering for decisions taken by those in power. For me, the book was an eye-opener. Although I do know something about the history of the region, Fatland brings it to life and tells some unforgettable stories, giving a voice to people we have not heard from before.
Review – Food on the Move: Dining on the Legendary Railway Journeys of the World
Edited by Sharon Hudgins
There is something magical about sitting on a train, eating well while staring out of the window at a constantly changing vista. So when I came across this book that combines two of my favorite things—trains and food—I couldn’t resist it.
This collection of essays focuses on nine iconic railways: The Flying Scotsman, the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Railway, Canada’s Trans-Pacific Railway, the Santa Fe Super Chief in the USA, Japan’s Bullet Train, Darjeeling’s Toy Train in India, Australia’s Ghan, and South Africa’s Blue Train.
Sharon Hudgins calls herself a “daughter of the railroads”: her father was a fireman on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad, shoveling coal on one of the last steam engines on the line and her grandfather was a train conductor. The other authors here include a journalist, writer, academics, and an expert on the food culture of Scotland, all with special connections to trains and food.
Each chapter focuses on one of the trains, taking us back in time to when it first started to run. Many of them started in the mid or late 1800s (such as the Flying Scotsman, Orient Express, and the Canadian and Indian Railways). Railways brought remote places within reach of the ordinary person. For example, the construction of the Canadian railways resulted in the first of the country’s National Parks being established, the Banff Springs in the Rockies: “Since we can’t export the scenery, we shall have to import the tourists”, said the company’s president in 1886.
The early trains did not have dining cars but relied on passengers bringing their own food or buying food and drink from the stations. Eventually, the train companies realized that being able to serve meals and snacks on the train would make much more sense.
Once the dining cars were established, the food on the train was often of a high standard, and eating in the train’s dining car became a highlight of the trip. The Orient Express, which ran from London to Istanbul, prided itself on the fact that its meals would reflect the country it was going through. The breakfast menu in 1936 on the Santa Fe Super Chief, which ran between Chicago and Los Angeles, included “eight choices of steak and chops…, three kinds of potato dishes, ham and bacon, eggs cooked six different ways”, not to mention fruit, cereal, bread, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and malted milk.
But not all the railways had dining cars. The Bullet Train in Japan, for example, generated its own food culture. Ekiben, boxes containing “labor-intensive and high-quality foods”, usually local specialties, were—and still are—sold at the stations along the line. The boxes are now “portable destinations in themselves, public cultural icons”, and ekiben festivals are held in department stores all over the country.
Darjeeling’s Toy Train also relied on passengers being able to buy food at the railway stations on the way, although you could order breakfast the night before (I remember the delicious omelets and hot tea on Indian trains). But now the Toy Train has a dining car that seats 12 and serves a four-course dinner for those who can afford it.
It was not just the mouth-watering accounts of the food that made me dream, but the descriptions of the trips themselves: the changing landscapes you can see from the Ghan that links Darwin to Adelaide, and on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok; the glamour of traveling on the Orient Express; and the trip from Pretoria to Johannesburg on the Blue Train that goes past the Kimberley diamond mines.
Some of these trains do not run anymore or operate as a tourist attraction rather than a regular train. But thanks to this book, you can still travel on them virtually. It is not just the illustrations peppered through the book that takes you on the voyage: you can replicate some of the dishes from the trains’ menus with the recipes provided. At a time when we cannot travel much, this is a wonderful way to discover the world.
Review – Imagine Wanting Only This
by Kristen Radtke
This is not a conventional travel book: it’s a graphic book that combines memoir and travel.
Kristen Radtke is very close to her uncle, Dan, whom she adores. But he has a genetic heart condition, which eventually kills him.
Devastated by Dan’s death, Radtke finds herself losing interest in beautiful places.
She spends time in Italy but is miserable there. Instead, she is drawn towards abandoned towns, places that once hummed with life but have now fallen to ruin.
We follow on her journeys seeking out these ghost towns.
Gary, Indiana was once known as the city of the century, the center of the trade-in ore, which was shipped from Minnesota on the Great Lakes railroad. But by the time Radtke visits it, the town has been abandoned. As her then-boyfriend says, “It’s like someone pulled a fire alarm and no one ever came back”. They find a broken-down cathedral where “[i]vy overtook the corroding walls…covering the slated stone with spindles of the earthy web. The tarnished pedals of a shattered organ lay in a corner, its broken keys like piles of pulled teeth.”
In the ruins, they find a bag containing hundreds of photographs, which Radtke takes with her. They turn out to be the work of a young man named Seth Thomas, who was hit by a freight train and killed in 2006. They later discover that the photographs had been placed in the cathedral by his friends as a memorial. Radtke means to take them back but never does.
Radtke travels almost compulsively. Any place is good, as long as it is new. But even in the most beautiful of settings, she seeks out deserted places.
She goes to the island of Corregidor in the Philippines, a former military base near Manila that developers had tried to turn into a resort. “Guests would have swung in hammocks above fields that had witnessed massacres twenty years before.” The resort never happened, and the island is now a mix of half-constructed buildings and the remains of the military base.
Because of her closeness to death (she has heart disease herself and has also lost other family members to it), Radtke is fascinated with the traces we leave behind. She also writes about her attempts to come to terms with her grief and her acceptance and understanding of the disease.
The book is beautifully drawn in black and white. It does not make for cheerful reading but it is completely original and an important contribution to the travel genre.
Ritu Menon does not like to travel alone for pleasure, as she announces in the first line of this book. She likes to explore places with her friends. But we’ll let her get away with that.
Loitering with Intent is an account of these trips, most for pleasure but a few for work: she is a publisher and attends literary festivals.
Her travels take her to Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Italy, France, and the UK, some of which faced political change during her travels.
She attends PalFest in 2010, the Palestinian Festival of Literature, set up by the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif to “expose international writers to the situation in Palestine, and to give Palestinians an opportunity to listen to them”. Because movement for Palestinians between cities is difficult, the festival travels from city to city.
She visits Syria before the war, a radically different place from what we see on the news now. She finds communities living together peacefully: Shia, Sunni, Syrian Christians, Greek Orthodox, and Kurds—at least that’s how it seems. She remarks, “Who knows what prejudices surface when tensions arise”.
She visits Egypt in 2011, after the Tahrir Square demonstrations but before Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s coup. She finds a country in turmoil: the military had shot peaceful demonstrators and people feared they were setting the scene for a postponement of upcoming elections. She visits the sights but also talks to protestors who want the dissolution of the powerful Supreme Council of Armed Forces.
In Myanmar, she is enchanted by an ungilded and unadorned statue of Buddha in one of the many abandoned temples in Old Bagan. Menon finds it easy to imagine herself in the 12th or 13th century when most of the temples were built. “As far as the eye can see, up to the horizon, in practically every part of Old Bagan…they rise up in veneration and…a majesty all their own, whether or not any images remain in their sanctum sanctorum.” Yet in Yangon, old buildings were being torn down to make place for the new.
In Turkey, Menon is fascinated by the underground cities of Cappadocia, 20 meters deep in which you can live for two months if you are supplied with air, water, food, and light.
Unfortunately, a few of the chapters feel a bit superficial. I felt at times that she was regaling dinner guests with travel stories. This is a shame because when she hits her stride, her observations—especially about the people of a country—are interesting. And she writes about the food she eats, something I always welcome! There are some good tips about where to eat and places to visit. But what I really enjoyed were the snapshots of countries at a particular time in their history.
Rosita Bolan has a bad case of fernweh, an ache for distant places, a wanderlust which has her leaving her native Ireland to discover the world. “My friend Róisín once asked me why I loved to travel so much. ‘It’s about being elsewhere,’ I found myself saying. It has always been about being elsewhere.”
She begins her book – which covers her travels to a number of countries – by saying she read the entire 13th edition of the Chambers Dictionary, marking obscure words she had never heard of (hence fernweh). As someone who loves words, this got my attention right away. She scatters these words through the book as chapter headings, and I will follow her example by giving every country the word she picked for it.
In Australia (eleutheromania, an intense desire for freedom), she ends up working in Crocodylus, a tiny resort in the middle of a rainforest. Among the guests are a team of footballers, who had obviously been told they were going to a beach resort but were taken to the middle of nowhere. But things brighten up a boar hunt is organized for them.
In England (wunderkramer, a cabinet of curiosities), she goes to pick up a bookshelf from an elderly couple, who tell her they sell things they don’t need so that they can meet people.
In Pakistan (brame, fierce long, passion), she rides a bus up a narrow mountain road, a scary situation made worse by the road being blocked by falling debris. Eventually, a space the width of a wheelbarrow is cleared for the bus to pass. “Everyone fell silent. I have never been on an Asian bus where everyone suddenly stopped talking; in itself, a deeply unsettling sign.” The driver barely manages to get the bus through.
She sails to Antarctica (quiddity, the essence of a thing), which “had become a repository of dreams for all those explorers; a place that nobody owns and everyone can inhabit in their imagination”. Along the way, she and some fellow passengers get on an inflatable boat to get closer to the ice. But the water freezes around them and the boat feels fragile, vulnerable to puncturing by jagged pieces of ice. They are finally rescued four harrowing hours later.
Looking back, she says “I can recall the sensation of life briefly lived in another dimension, a parallel world of unearthly beauty, in time out of time. I recall staring entranced at the blue ice; being colder than I had ever been before; and thrilling freedom of dislocation and freedom, of being so far away from everything and everywhere.”
She takes no photographs but collects “paper ephemera”: bus passes, tickets, receipts, postcards, and so on. These are used on the cover design, and I enjoyed going back to the cover after finishing a chapter to identify the mementos from that country.
Bolan not only takes us to the places she went to physically, but we also share her emotional journeys of love and loss. This is a book worth reading, and I am looking forward to reading more from her.
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The Shooting Star starts with Shivya Nath deep in the Amazon rainforest (around the border between Ecuador and Peru), taking part in a shamanic cleansing ritual that involves drinking ayahuasca, an Amazonian plant that is also a potent hallucinogen. She not only survives the experience but cleanses her negative energies in the process.
This experience is a long way off from Nath’s protected childhood in Dehradun, a small town in northern India. She goes to Singapore to study, following in her brother’s footsteps (the reason she was allowed to go), and eventually gets a job at the Singapore Tourist Office. But something doesn’t feel right. So she gives up a steady job with good pay to go traveling, much to her family’s horror. And to make it worse, she not only travels on her own but goes far away.
This book is not just about travel, it is about a journey—a journey of self-understanding, a search for solitude, and a need to conquer fear. Looking for a way to disconnect herself from the busy world around her, Nath travels to remote indigenous communities in Latin America and India and hikes the mountains of Ethiopia.
In Guatemala, she stays with a Mayan Itza family while she learns Spanish. The Mayan Itzas choose to live in the forest near Lake Peten Itza, relying on the rainforest for food, herbs, and medicines. Nath learns that the Mayan Itzas had been forbidden from speaking their own language or wearing their traditional dress on pain of beheading, and in a village of 2800, only 34 people spoke Itza.
In the Simien National Park in Ethiopia, she slips away from her guides to walk along a narrow ridge with a stunning green valley on one side and a sheer drop on the other. “A feeling of exhilaration washed over me when I finally reached the edge, for there I stood, far from everyone and everything I knew, a spectacular vista of stark volcanic peaks before me.”
In Rajasthan, India, she goes out into the desert with the son of a visionary conservationist and watches a meteor shower in the night sky; in Mauritius, she strikes up a friendship with a fisherman; in Ladakh, she makes friends with very young nuns in a Buddhist nunnery; and in Costa Rica, she stays with an indigenous Bribri family of cacao farmers, who welcome her with delicious, dark, bitter chocolate, drunk without milk or sugar.
She is frequently asked why she travels alone (a question a man would not be asked). As a girl, she “was afraid to break rules or…venture out beyond the imaginary boundaries of right and wrong and success and failure defined by someone else. … I desperately wanted to be a different me—courageous and unafraid.” She also wanted to prove that the world wasn’t the horrible place it is made out be, the fear that “compels people to stay at home—trapped in a shrinking comfort zone—as it had once compelled me. I had much to unlearn for the sake of the freedom I chased, the victimhood I despised, and my mission to build unlikely friendships.” And with her travels and this book, that is exactly what she does.
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Black Woman Walking is a wide-ranging book—Maureen Stone is not just a hiker but also a sociologist. She travels widely and walks everywhere she possibly can, in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Europe. She is not just interested in a place from a visitor’s point of view but in the social issues that shape the culture. Her focus is on people, who provide insights into the country.
Stone was born and grew up in Barbados and her first time abroad was on a scholarship to Calcutta (now Kolkota), India. That experience shaped her—the racism she encountered toughened her up. She also made good friends and also met her husband, Peter, an Englishman. Their love of walking brought them together.
The structure of the book isn’t conventional. The sections of the include “Letters to my sisters”, where she writes unposted letters to the women she has met over the years—Chinese, Yugoslav, Indian, Caribbean, sometimes saying things she did not say and sometimes talking about their shared experiences. This is followed by “Walking and talking with my brothers” about her meetings with men, the first of which, appropriately enough, is a meeting with her estranged brother.
Stone’s defining quality is an interest in people and an ability to see below the surface. In Bhutan, she meets a monk who tells her about the country’s marriage customs. Later, she makes a point about authenticity. It didn’t matter how truthful his narrative was, what mattered was “that I had been allowed to share in a vision of his society, and that for a few brief moments I felt myself to be part of that world”.
There is much to draw from in this book. In Trinidad, on the spur of the moment, she joins a group of students heading up El Tucuche mountain to look for little golden frogs. They don’t find the frogs and on the way down, Stone almost falls down the mountainside: “I realized that robot mode wasn’t quite the thing for this occasion”.
On a train in Canada, she starts talking to a woman only because their sons play together. The two women couldn’t be more different: a white, deeply religious housewife and a black, atheist academic. But the two have remained friends, even after the boys lost touch.
In Tobago, she and Peter sail to Paradise Island with a local fisherman to see the bird of paradise. The fisherman, realizing the couple was concerned about the lack of life jackets and an anchor (he forgot to bring it), thrust fishing rods into their hands. Soon they were so busy catching fish, they had no time to think about drowning!
This book is rich: Stone not only writes about interesting encounters with people but also about social issues like racism and child abuse, the sociology of hiking, friendships between women, the history of travel writing, and how the voices of women, especially black women, have been marginalized. This book should help change that.
Click here to buy on Amazon (make sure you buy a used copy – the new ones seem to be mispriced!)
Review – The Travel Gods Must Be Crazy: Wacky Encounters in Exotic Lands
by Sudha Mahalingam
“How did I turn into that unwonted specimen—a middle-aged, middle-class mother of two from a conservative…background traveling solo, long before solo travel became fashionable among Indian women?”
Sudha Mahalingam loves to travel but her husband does not. So she takes off on her own or with unwitting friends. (Travelling with Mahalingam does seem to portend the end of the friendships, though.)
In a way she is an inspiration to those of us who are older and hesitant to take off on our own—she is quite fearless, to the extent that she believes in minimal planning. The result is that nothing ever goes smoothly—hence the refusal of friends to ever travel with her again. But, on the other hand, her experiences make for some good stories. Her travel is complicated by her limited budget and that she is vegetarian, which proves a challenge in China and parts of the ex-Soviet Union.
I have to say her lack of planning drove me nuts! She often ends up in substandard accommodation but her limited budget is not always at fault—she leaves everything for the last minute and has to make do with whatever she can find.
Mahalingam walks straight into situations, often blissfully unaware of what she is getting herself into. In conflict-ridden Kashmir, she drags her driver off to explore an area and only realizes later that she could have been got them both into danger. No wonder he was furious with her! There are some funny moments like the time she jumped a wall, or as she puts it, climbed it like a lizard, in Fez, Morocco, to reach a hotel lobby (it did seem a bit far-fetched but it was funny).
Among the adventures are some nice descriptions of the things she sees: the old part of Yazd, a desert town in Iran with its “labyrinthine streets” and “adobe houses whose earthy hues are relieved every now and then by exquisite turquoise tile panels and ornamental doorways”; the Dome of the Rock in Israel; and the small pile of semi-precious stones shown to her by Tamils in Moreh, a town on the Indian-Myanmar border.
Although I enjoyed the tales, I was also a little exasperated with her naivety, which can be forgiven in a newbie but she is a seasoned traveler. Also, it would have helped if the chapters were in some sort of geographical order—or at least clustered together by region. It is a little disconcerting to travel the world and suddenly end up back in India before taking off again to other countries. But she is nothing if not brave, and the last chapter has her skydiving when she is past 60.
The title of the book seems a little ungrateful. The travel gods are not crazy—they have obviously been working overtime to keep Mahalingam safe! So she should be grateful to them and make sure they keep up the good work.
“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” This quote from a poem by Mary Oliver obviously touched a chord with Maliha Masood, since she used it at the beginning of her book.
Fed up with an uninspiring job in the dot.com industry, she decides to travel to bring some color into her monochrome life.
Originally from Pakistan, Masood moved with her family to the US when she was 12. She is a mix of the two cultures and sometimes feels caught between them, and thinks that the journey might help her understand herself better.
She starts with Europe but then focuses on the Middle East. Her trip took place over a year and a half from 2000 to 2001, ending a little before the 2001 attacks. The countries she visits, especially Syria, were very different places then, something that adds poignancy to her account.
Masood believes in understanding a place, so she lives in each city for a while—weeks or months—and gets to know local people. She starts with Egypt, then goes to Jordan, Syria, and Turkey, stopping briefly in Lebanon.
Masood steps outside her comfort zone, learning to trust strangers, making this a journey in more ways than travel. The strategy works, apart from some minor mishaps, including her brief kidnapping by a man who wants her as his second wife (she escapes by jumping out of a window).
She makes friends everywhere. In Cairo, she meets Mohammed, who invites her to his family home for iftar, the meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan. She spends time with Bedouins in Jordan and is enchanted by the desert, “a simple space that stripped the bulkiness of life, if only for a moment”.
These are the encounters that enrich her experience. “My friends were cultural windows to another world that was no longer abstract, that was an intricate tapestry whose textures and colors I was getting to…see up close.” When she returns home, it is a stronger, wiser woman who is more at peace with her multiple identities.
What I found interesting was that Masood, an outsider to the region—from South Asia rather than the Middle East—provides a different perspective. She takes chances that she would not have taken in the West, and finds that people are welcoming, open and curious about her life.
But what is most important is that Masood reveals the richness and diversity that is hidden behind the media’s coverage of the region as a place of conflict, closed minds, and fanatically religious people. We need to be reminded, especially now, that we are not that different from each other.
Review – Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000 Mile Adventure
by Monisha Rajesh
“Trains are rolling libraries of information, and all it takes is to reach out to passengers to bind together their tales.”
Monisha Rajesh loves trains (in fact she wrote a similar book about riding trains in India). She quits her dream job in London, packs her bags—and her fiancé—rents out her apartment, and circumnavigates the globe in 80 trains.
Her travels through Europe are fairly quickly dealt with in the book, which was a little frustrating. But as the journey progresses, Rajesh slows down and I started to get a sense of the places she visits.
It is quite a trajectory. After Europe, it’s on to Russia, then China, Mongolia, Viet Nam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan (even to Cambodia, which does not have a railway anymore). A flight to Vancouver, across Canada, and then around the United States. She then loops back to Asia: to North Korea, Tibet, and Kazakhstan.
Her path takes her through a range of political systems, landscapes, and cultures. But Rajesh thrives on the sense of community created on long train journeys, and the way they break down barriers between strangers: “the passengers who would always tell their story to strangers, offer advice, share their food, and give up their seats”. And how trains can take you into the heart of a country, where you can see how people live.
Rajesh’s book is full of little encounters: the Tibetan nun who exchanges WhatsApp contacts with her, the six-year-old on Amtrack, who invites them to share her family’s meal, the two Aleksandrs on Russian trains, one of whom thinks she is a spy, to the amusement of the other one.
I loved the way she gave me a glimpse into places I don’t know if I will ever visit. Here is her description of the North Korean countryside as the train leaves Pyongyang: “The North Korea of tanks, missiles and the Kims was already a world away: oxen ploughed the fields; clusters of cottages had roofs of red chilies drying in the sun; and beautiful children squatted in the yard sifting piles of corn. Their parents paused their work and watched stony-faced as we swept by. Buffalos huffed and bowed, drawing wooden carts piled with people, and cyclists stopped to inspect the train as we slowed into a tiny station.” Although is a lot that is still hidden to tourists, her description of North Korea brings out some of the nuances that we do not get in the media.
There is a growing movement towards slow travel, towards taking the time to see and know and talk to people.
Flâneur is a French word that means “one who wanders aimlessly”. It always refers to a man with time and money, who walks the streets of a city. Elkin appropriates the concept by feminizing the noun. And she is not the only flâneuse: there have been many before her, some of whom are in this book.
Elkin grew up in the suburbs of New York where she needed a car to go anywhere. When she moved to New York City, it was liberating to be able to walk everywhere. Walking for Elkin becomes the only way of knowing a city. Being a flâneuse means having time to notice what the French writer Georges Perec calls the infraordinary: “What happens when nothing is happening”. Like sitting at a café and watching life go by.
In each chapter, Elkin introduces us to another flâneuse: the writer Virginia Woolf in London; the artist Sophie Calle in Venice; and in Paris, the writer Jean Rhys, the writer and socialist George Sand and film-maker Agnes Varda. There is also the photographer and writer from New York, Martha Gellhorn, who travelled widely, including to Spain during the Civil War. Tokyo gets Charlotte, a fictional character from Sophia Coppola’s film, Lost in Translation. But more about that later.
Paris is the center of this book. Elkin goes to the city to study, falls in love with it and stays. She talks about what it means to be an immigrant, and how you are always caught between where you live and where you are from (something I completely identify with).
Writing about her own experience interspersed with those of a woman from another time provides a multi-faceted glimpse of the cities. For all the women, walking was liberation and in the cases of Woolf and Sand, a defiance of convention. Woolf and Sand moved to the city from the country, finding freedom on the city streets. Sand started dressing like a man because she found women’s clothes impractical, and she attracted much less notice.
I found the chapter on Tokyo disappointing. Elkin moves there because her boyfriend gets a job. She hates it—she can’t walk anywhere and has trouble adjusting to the culture. The other woman here is Charlotte—disconnected, lost. Elkin does end the chapter by saying she grew to love the city and would want to go back, but does not really tell us why.
This is not a conventional travel book, and parts of it are a bit slow, but I loved the fact that Elkin appropriated the term flâneur for women. I think I will become a bit of a flâneuse myself!
This is my first review for Women on the Road that is neither written by a woman nor about one. But I thought this was worth doing because Seth Kugel takes us back to the thrill of discovery, which we seem to have lost in this time of information overload.
Kugel retreats from our hurried, always a switched-on way of functioning, where we consult online resources for the perfect restaurant before we go to a city and where our itinerary is planned down to the last detail.
His journeys tend much more towards serendipity—he takes chances by going to places that are off the tourist map (sometimes for a good reason). This makes his trips truly voyages of discovery as he stumbles across the unexpected. On a whim, he gets off the train at a Hungarian town called Mezóberény. Walking in town, he finds a distillery where two of the workers are more than happy to give him a guided tour.
Kugel’s emphasis is all about slowing down and taking the time to get to know a place through its people. Researching a destination before getting there is good, up to a point, he says, but leave time for wandering aimlessly, for going somewhere not mentioned on Tripadvisor.
And talk to people: find an excuse to get into a conversation. He practices what he preaches, even though he isn’t a natural extrovert. Stopping in a village in Turkey to take photographs, he gets into conversation (mostly in sign language) with one of the villagers, who invites him to his home for a meal and to meet his family. An encounter like this is precious because it is spontaneous and not set up by an agency beforehand. And these are the things that you will remember.
One of the chapters I particularly enjoyed was “Why We Travel”. Kugel takes a look back: the ease with which we hop on a flight now is different from the way it used to be, with the camera not quite as ubiquitous. He also dissects the reasons we make journeys, whether to broaden our horizons, improve our social standing or look for an “authentic” experience.
The book is a mix of anecdotes, information, and useful tips, including a mini-guide to risk assessment and reduction. Kugel devotes a chapter to the workings of sites like Tripadvisor and booking.com, and how you can get the best out of them. So he doesn’t dismiss technology, but simply prefers paper maps to Google maps because they provide you with a better sense of where you are. (I agree and have a large collection of city maps.)
I would recommend this book. Kugel writes well and what he has to say enhances the adventure of discovering more about this diverse world we live in.
“Take every precaution and abandon all fear.” Mary Hall, c. 1905
Why is it, when asked to imagine an explorer, people inevitably think of a sunburned unshaven white man squinting into the sun? The truth is that there were many intrepid women explorers, who for some reason did not get the kind of publicity the men did. (In an earlier book he wrote about adventurers and explorers and universal travel themes but then realized nearly every protagonist in that book was male.)
In this book, Mick Conefrey tries to remedy the omission. He found that women discovered the lost city of Cana in the Middle East, mapped the Sichuan Glacier in the Himalayas, reached the top of the Huascarán in Peru, became the first European to visit an Ottoman harem, and held the record for the fastest flight from Britain to Australia for 44 years.
And Conefrey is not just writing about modern women. The lady in the Ottoman harem mentioned above was Lady Mary Montagu, who visited Constantinople in 1716. She decided to set the record straight about harems, saying that the men who wrote about them had no idea what they were talking about. (Naturally, she was right.)
Women were constantly being patronized. (Not that this has changed that much.) When British novelist Charlotte Mansfield made a difficult journey to Africa in 1908, a newspaper asked if she would agree to get lost so they could get an exclusive on her “rescue”.
Rosita Forbes, an explorer in the early 20th century, was criticized for being too young and pretty to be an explorer. And of course, everyone (except women climbers!) knew that women couldn’t climb mountains because they had difficulty coping with high altitudes.
In 1929, Miriam O’Brien and Alice Damesme scaled the Grépon, a difficult peak of the Mont Blanc Massif on their own, to the fury of a French climber, Etienne Bruhl: “Now that it has been done by two women, no self-respecting man can undertake it.”
The book is anecdotal rather than a narrative, but Conefrey paints a vivid picture of these women, listing the clothes they traveled in and the equipment and food they carried. Henriette d’Angeville, the second woman to scale the Mont Blanc in 1838, wore 14 pounds of clothing, including silk and wool stockings, flannel-lined trousers, a blouse made with six layers of wool, a fur-lined bonnet, a furlined cloak, nailed boots and three pairs of gloves. We should be thankful for the invention of GoreTex!
Conefrey is intrigued by how men and women approach travel. He does find differences between individual men and individual women, but there is more that unites than separates them. Women are far from being the timid souls imagined (or wished for) by men, he concluded. They often traveled on their own, fending off unwanted attention and dealing with whatever fate threw at them. Before she made the epic flight from Britain to Australia in 1930, Amy Johnson ⎯ Britain’s answer to Amelia Earheart ⎯ had not even crossed the English Channel. She used linen shirts and Band-Aids to mend the wings of her plane, but she made it.
This is an inspiring book ⎯ not just because of the amazing voyages of these women but because they made them against all the odds stacked against them.
Review ⎯ Alone Time: Four Cities, Four Seasons and the Pleasures of Solitude
by Stephanie Rosenbloom
Slow down and take the time to look around you: that is the message of this book, an antidote to our busy and always-on culture. It is, as its title suggests, a paean to traveling alone.
Stephanie Rosenbloom spends two weeks by herself in four cities: spring in Paris, summer in Istanbul, fall in Florence, and winter in her hometown, New York.
Alone time is when you can do exactly what you want (that does not mean spending hours staring at your phone)—time to really savor life without having to fit into someone else’s needs or expectations. Savouring is a quality that Rosenbloom emphasizes throughout the book: the ability to notice details, to enjoy the small things, and most importantly, to get the most out of anticipation. If whatever you were looking forward to turns out to be disappointing, you still have the months of the joy of anticipating it “in the bank”, as she puts it.
And she practices what she preaches. Before she gets to Florence, she spends $75 dollars on a ticket to walk through a passage built in the 1500s that leads from the Uffizi to the Pitti Palace, over the Ponte Vecchio. But when she finally manages to get in, the guard hurries the group along through the art-filled corridor. Rosenbloom was disappointed but decided that the months of anticipation were worth it.
In Istanbul, she visits the Sakirin mosque whose interior was designed by a woman, Zeynep Fadillioglu. In Florence, she discovers that some people had been converting street signs into art: arrows on directional signs dissolved into daisies or turned into an angel, or the stick figure of a construction worker was now shackled with a ball and chain. In New York, she discovers the lobby of the Marlton Hotel in Greenwich with “patterned rugs and wood-paneled walls” where people sat working on their laptops in companionable silence. In Paris, she eats a meal on the sidewalk of a café, watching people and enjoying her food (rather than photographing it for Instagram).
Eating alone can be a joy—some restaurants appreciate a sole diner because they know the person will focus on the food rather than the conversation. Rosenbloom is shy and was self-conscious about eating alone. “I was more concerned about what I might think of me if I didn’t try. I didn’t want to be someone who experienced less of a city, less of life, because I was afraid. So I went.” And did not regret it.
She writes beautifully, with an eye for detail. For example, on a street in Istanbul, there are “cats sleeping on windowsills. A woman leaned out her apartment window and pulled up a string attached to a bucket with a loaf of bread inside. Damp laundry hung from awning poles, reminiscent of long-ago family afternoons in Brooklyn. I passed a small mosque made of wood, like the delicate pastel yalis along the Bosphorus.”
There is such a wealth of information here: references to studies on solitude, historical details, and a long list of resources, tips, and tools at the end for the solo traveler. If you had any hesitation about taking off on your own, this is the book that will inspire you.
Review – Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana
by Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Growing up in Texas, Stephanie Elizondo Griest dreams of becoming a foreign correspondent and roaming the world. The advice of a journalist to learn Russian opens the door to what turns into a “four-year, twelve-nation tour around the Bloc” of communist or ex-communist countries. This book focuses on Griest’s stays in Russia, China, and Cuba.
She visits Russia as an exchange student. Sitting on the ground to wait for her group, she is hauled to her feet by a babushka (grandmother), who scolds her for sitting on the cold ground: “You’ll freeze your ovaries.”
It is 1996, a few years after the end of the communist Soviet Union and things are changing. Young Russians look down on anything communist, while some of the older generations are nostalgic. Griest dates Alexei, who managed to escape cleaning up Chernobyl by slitting his wrists just enough to get sent to an asylum for the mentally ill.
She learns that, for a party, you need a bottle of vodka per person plus one more. She comes into contact with a range of people: an old couple in a village, appalled that her mother does not keep her own pigs; affluent men who get their money from “biznes” (connected to the Russian Mafiya); and abandoned children at the orphanage where she volunteers.
But Griest wants to live in a genuine communist country. So she picks China and gets a job at China Daily, the Party’s mouthpiece. Her job polishing English copy is a long way from her visions of slipping subversive notes to imprisoned dissidents. Her vegetarianism is one of the first casualties of her stay — it was almost impossible not to eat meat (a term that includes a fairly large range of animals). She gets herself a sturdy Chinese bicycle and a brightly colored plastic poncho for the rain. She becomes friendly with the Uighurs on her street, who make sure she never eats alone.
Griest is half-Mexican, something she was ashamed of growing up. She had never visited Latin America. So when her friend Machi invites her to sneak into Cuba with her (Americans were not allowed to visit the country), she agrees. They find Cubans gripped by the drama surrounding Elián González, a boy at the heart of a US-Cuba custody battle in 2000. She joins a march of 10,000 mothers demanding his return, sashays with a well-known dancer, and hangs out with young people who share their dreams with her.
Griest starts out as a naïve young woman, sometimes annoyingly so. She matures as she travels. Being exposed to other cultures makes her reassess her own.
This passage from her time in Beijing about people cycling in the rain illustrates her joy at feeling part of what was once a society alien to her. The streets are “a kaleidoscope of yellow, orange, red, green, and purple polka dot. These were the times I felt most part of this world: cruising down the street with a basket full of eggplants, dodging a downpour in a peacock blue poncho, on my way to where I needed to be, with no better way of getting there.”
Find out more or buy the book on Amazon
Review – Accidental Travels of a Single Woman
by Terry Woods
Terry Woods moves to Las Vegas but discovers she has an allergy to heat. So, to get out of town during the hot summers, she joins a travel club. This book is a collection of emails she sent friends about her trips, extracted from her journal.
Summers are spent both in the US, in the states of Washington, Texas, Oregon, California, and South Carolina; and abroad: in Canada, Australia, and Europe (France, Italy, the UK, Spain), to list a few. She takes a cruise up to Alaska and a river cruise through Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands.
Woods enjoys meeting people, so her book focuses more on them. Dreading the journey home to Las Vegas, she meets an Iranian woman on the flight, an unexpected encounter that turns things around. In Paris, she meets Dr. Edouard Sakiz, who invented the abortion pill. She visits art galleries in France (some better than others) and discovers Aborigine culture and art in Australia.
The places she stays in sometimes have surprises in store, such as the house in Seattle: two moose heads stare at her as she tries to sleep: “When I got into bed, the moose’s left eye stared directly in line with mine. If I turned to the right, there he was, staring at sideways with his black, cue-ball eye.” And to make her visit even less comfortable, the bathroom is split into three: the bath, the toilet and the sink, each in different places of the house.
Arriving in Madrid on the day of a royal wedding, she can’t understand why her bags are checked at every few paces. She did not know about the bombing in the city just a few months earlier, something I found surprising, given that she is curious about the world. But maybe being in Europe, it was a much bigger deal for us here than in the US.
The first chapter jumped from Italy to the UK, with a description about her and her friend in a fancy hotel pretending to be aristocrats, which is great for friends but is a little out of place in a travel book. And her first stay in Lake Como is all about the speculation about where George Clooney is going to be married.
But throughout, Woods provides interesting glimpses into her personal life and family history. She writes movingly about going to Louisiana to see her father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. He had left home when she was a child, and she hadn’t seen him for years.
And I picked up interesting information along the way: if chased by an alligator on land, be sure to zigzag (they have trouble turning). And to avoid being bitten by mosquitos, rub fabric softener sheets over your exposed limbs. Now, that’s a good tip for my next visit to India.
This book has been self-published, a fast-growing trend, especially in the travel genre.
Find out more or buy the book on Amazon
Review – Travels with My Radio
by Fi Glover
Fi Glover starts each day by tuning into the local radio station; it gives her a sense of being a part of the daily routine, no matter where she is.
The idea of basing a travel book on the radio came to her in northern California, where she was recording an episode of BBC’s The Travel Show.
Two DJs from KZST suggested she ask their listeners where the team should go. (They also told her about the Texan Lick cocktail and took her line dancing, but that’s another story.) Before long, listeners were calling in with suggestions—which is exactly what Glover loves about radio, the immediacy and the connection with people.
She decides to seek out some of the smaller stations, “the people who get phoned up about trailers and local barbeques”, stations with stories to tell.
There are over 350,000 radio stations in the world (and those are just the legal ones), more than 12,000 of which are in the United States. (The book was published in 2001 when internet radio was just catching on.) And so her travels begin.
In Vienna, Glover visits Blue Danube Radio, set up for the international community, whose offerings included English idioms for business travelers. She spends time with Radio Five Live, which has set up a temporary station in Charlesroi, Belgium, to broadcast to England fans during a Euro 2000 match. It’s a pretty low budget, in a room above a café: “A sea of wires and lights and little black boxes and empty fag packets and piles of paper and people”.
She gets a taste of life as a UN peacekeeper in southern Lebanon at Camp Shamrock radio, managed from a small hut in the sweltering heat. The station helps soldiers let off steam, keeping in mind that Hezbollah and Israeli soldiers—the two sides they’re trying to keep the peace between—can also tune in!
The US, with its vast array of radio stations, has something for everyone, whether you’re a conspiracy theorist or a Frank Sinatra fan. People pour out their insecurities, personal problems, and vent under the radio’s cloak of anonymity. Glover travels to New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, and Palm Springs, where she meets members of Dusty Wings, a group of retired air stewardesses, who answer all her questions about planes (no, they don’t use the oxygen masks to get over hangovers). In the UK, she is heartened by a program where local people speak about their lives.
But the cherry on the cake is Radio Montserrat. In 1997, the volcano on the island erupted, destroying homes and uprooting people. Radio Monserrat, with Rose Willock at its head, helped people through the crisis, providing regular updates. It shows radio at its best: a space where people could come together for comfort and advice. Even now, Rose says, “Each time the volcano sneezes, someone will call and tell us”.
Glover is a funny and informative companion. I think I would enjoy traveling with her—we share a love of hotels and a tendency to nick the freebies! I also learned a lot about radio, which is much needed now, when TV and video are so ubiquitous.
Find out more or buy the book on Amazon
Review – Her Fork in the Road: Women Celebrate Food and Travel
Edited by Lisa Bach
Food and travel—what more could you want? Her Fork in the Road is a collection of pieces by women writers including MFK Fisher, Isabel Allende, Francis Mayes, and Dervla Murphy.
I love the way that the taste and smell of a particular food can immediately transport you to a place and time. The smell of chapatis cooking over a coal stove takes me back to my grandmother’s house and the expectation of a delicious lunch.
These women writers write evocatively about food—either eaten on their travels to other countries or cities or by exploring the surroundings where they live. It is a real smorgasbord of what Bach calls “the world’s culinary bounty”—a lot of it appetizing and some a little stomach-churning, even for me, who is usually quite adventurous about food. No less fascinating are the people they eat with and those make and serve the food.
MFK Fisher is the only customer in a restaurant in rural France and is served by a slightly manic waitress. The waitress determined that her captive audience sample as much of the menu as she can, keeps bringing out plates of food until Fisher staggers out, happy and sated.
Margi O’Connell-Hood finds the place where the perfect curry is made, in the backwaters of Malaysia. She joins the women who earn their livelihood stirring it, one of whom has a business degree but has come back to follow in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother.
Ashley Palmer gets involved in an “unfamiliar food” competition with a Japanese grandmother (the grandmother wins). Isabel Allende samples alligator and piranhas with the Sateré Maué Indians in the Amazon.
Some of the stories are more personal. Laura Harger remembers eating blue crabs as a child with her dying mother; Michelle Hamilton overcomes anorexia as she hikes around the US; and Chitrita Banerji writes about the foods forbidden to her mother when she becomes a widow.
This is just a sample of the variety of experiences in this book that make it so enjoyable. As with all compilations, there are pieces that are better than others. My one complaint is that the voices are not diverse enough. With a few exceptions, most of the writers are from the United States. I would have loved to have heard from more women from around the world.
Maybe it’s time to bring out another collection?
Review – 203 Travel Challenges
by Maria Angelova and Ivalina Nenova
Even though we travel more, we seem to engage less with our surroundings, often content to be mere spectators.
This book aims to turn that around: to quote the authors, it’s not a book for reading but for action. Whether you enjoy adventure or quiet—coming face to face with polar bears or looking for a legendary bookshop—you can travel along without running out of things to do for a long time.
And because the book aims to engage people with their surroundings both abroad and at home, there are also things you can do where you live.
Would you consider riding a camel in the desert, taking a parachute jump, or following the story of a song? What about outdoor challenges – like jumping into the snow after a sauna? Or things you do once in a lifetime like fishing for piranhas in the Amazon? There are even suggestions to help you find yourself (do something that scares you). I have a friend who gets a haircut at every new destination—another of the challenges—and has a photographic record to prove it!
The two authors have thought up some universal challenges that are perfect for women who want to change the way they see the world. Some of the challenges may force you out of your comfort zone, but… isn’t that the point of a challenge?
Find out more or buy the book from Amazon
Review – A Bike Ride: 12,000 Miles around the World
by Anne Mustoe
Anne Mustoe retired as a headmistress of a British school for girls in the mid-1980s and decided to go for a bike ride around the world. She was attracted by the idea of being part of the landscape instead of gazing at it through the panes of car windows.
Mustoe heads east, and her journey takes her through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United States.
As a historian, she decided to follow historic routes whenever she could: the Romans through Europe, Alexander the Great up to the Khyber Pass, the Moghuls in India, and the American pioneers. This means that the past overlays the present throughout the book, making for an interesting contrast. She had to skip certain countries like Iraq and Syria because of security. It took her 439 days to cycle 11,552.1 miles.
Friends join her to cycle part of the way, but for the most part, she’s on her own. She stays in small towns and spends time with the local people. The fact that she is a woman cycling by herself provokes curiosity and breaks down barriers. In Greece, she finds lodgings in the house of an old patriot, who wheels her cycle to the woodshed, puts his finger to his lips, and whispers to it, “Ipno” (sleep). She is invited into the homes of complete strangers and becomes part of their lives for a brief time. In Turkey, she doesn’t see many women on the streets but finds they rule the home. A garrulous and confident café owner becomes a “subdued, dutiful member of a female establishment” at home. In Pakistan, she often stays in muzzafarkhanas, normally meant for truck drivers. But the men look out for her and make sure she is not disturbed.
India doesn’t go so well for her, which as an Indian, I am sorry about. It isn’t an easy trip, but I don’t think she really gives it a chance. Mustoe complains that she couldn’t get fresh fruit and vegetables, which I find hard to believe. That is something we have—and eat—in abundance.
Although the trip took place decades ago, it is still encouraging to think that a middle-aged woman who was not a keen cyclist or terribly fit could do something so adventurous. A lesson to us all that it is never too late to be on your bike!
Review – Go, Girl! The Black Woman’s Book of Travel & Adventure
Compiled by Elaine Lee
Elaine Lee is an African-American woman who has made travel a way of life. Her compilation of 52 pieces of travel writing by African-American women encourages black women to travel by saying if these women could do it, so can you!
The book covers all continents, with a focus on Africa.
Maya Angelou recounts her visit to Ghana when she was told she belonged to the Bambara tribe; Alice Walker describes her visit to Bali and finding peace there, and Gwendolyn Brooks tells of her visit to the Soviet Union as part of a group of American writers.
Marianne Ilaw gives a laugh-out-loud account of some of the men she came across in the Caribbean. One of them, Humphrey, offers to be her bodyguard because he tells her, he had killed three men with a machete. But Virgil, a beachside vendor, tells her the truth: “Dat bwoy kunna kill a damn mosquito if it lands on him nose!” Adrienne Johnson and Opal Palmer Adisa write movingly about visiting the Door of No Return in Ghana, from where slaves were sent to the Americas. Palmer Odisa describes the “ironically beautiful” view of the sea, in contrast to the cramped, dark rooms in which they were held.
Travelling is also about taking chances (intelligently, of course!) On her first visit to Egypt, Evelyn C. White is left behind in a small town while she’s cruising down the Nile. In spite of her unfamiliarity with the country, she decides to hire a taxi driver called Aesop to deliver her to her next destination.
I know travel is liberating, but one of the things that stands out in this collection is how much that is true for African-American women—liberation from the racism, overt or covert, they face in the United States. There is plenty of racism abroad, of course, but it can be tinged with curiosity and African-Americans are often seen as Americans first.
For me, reading the book felt, in a way, very personal—a camaraderie of sorts. I was familiar with some of the writers but this collection introduced me to others.
This quote by Dawn Comer, who goes to Venice for the Carnival in spite of warnings from her friends, sums up the book: “Yes, the world can be dangerous… We see and hear about tragedy every day. But, for me, the tragedy would be not going out and exploring the world.”
Review – Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World
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 traveled 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 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 traveling. 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.
Review – Tracks
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 colors 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 favorite is the last one, in which a camel stands on a beach, gazing at the sea. To me, it represents freedom, complete liberation from expectations, which is what this journey was about. This book inspires me to take up a challenge myself.
Review – 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.
Review – 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 humor. 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.
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.
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 Mediterranean 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. Traveling 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.
Review – Just a Little Run around the World
by Rosie Swale Pope
Rosie Swale Pope loses her beloved husband Clive to prostate cancer. In honor 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 the 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 come 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 wildlife. In Siberia, a pack of wolves keeps watching 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. Fortunately, 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.
— Originally published on 09 August 2015