Intro: BWTW 9

In January, I sat with six women around a table in a dimly lit restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. And while they drank and laughed and clapped, I cried.

When we first arrived, I was fine. Really. It was a perfectly intimate room with a handful of tables; the ceilings were high, the yellow walls covered with artwork, and a small lamp with a punched tin shade threw stippled prisms of light around the room. We ordered quesadillas, pes a la Veracruzana, tacos de nata, chiles rellenos, margaritas, martinis, wine. We toasted and gossiped and passed iPhones, comparing photos. A week before we had been mostly strangers—just two teachers and a handful of writers convening south of the border. Now we felt inexorably bound by the stories we’d shared and the colonial town we had quickly grown to love.

About ten feet from our table, two men wearing all black sat with guitars in their laps next to a pair of striking women in flamenco dresses. One was young and sexy, in a tight black dress with a flowered pattern; the other was older, elegant, in bright red with long yellow fringe.

As our laughter crowded the small room, the other diners—mostly twosomes leaning into each other—started to shoot tiny annoyed glances our way. We ignored them; it was our last night together and we felt entitled to a little noise. But when the first guitar chords struck, our attention drifted to the musicians. And when the dancers stood and began to stomp their feet and clap their hands loudly, quickly, above their heads, we fell silent.

It didn’t take long for me to start crying, and once I started I couldn’t stop. The musicians’ fingers flurried across the strings, gently, then fiercely, occasionally rapping on the body of the guitar, sometimes muting the sound with a palm of the hand before all ten fingers fired again toward a furious crescendo. I watched and listened, and the stitches on an old hole in my heart tore open.

It was the first time I’d heard live flamenco music performed since my father—an acclaimed flamenco guitarist—died eight years before. I suddenly saw him in front of me, his lanky frame and tanned, balding head bent ever-so-slightly over his own instrument, his long slender fingers flying across the strings. I closed my eyes and listened to the notes. They were his own voice, returned to visit me in the place he once loved.

Marianne, my friend and co-teacher, sat to my left. “Are you O.K.?” she whispered.

“I miss my dad,” I told her—and the music had moved me in ways I couldn’t explain, ways I didn’t even understand. Before I was born, my parents spent a summer in San Miguel de Allende. I grew up hearing stories of the town where my father studied guitar, and where at dusk my mother loaned my then-two-year-old sister to the local teenage girls so they could parade her around like a doll as they strolled the main plaza—the Jardin—during paseo. And now, almost fifty years later, I was finally in the fabled town myself.

Though this was my first visit to San Miguel de Allende, I’d spent my share of time in Mexico. Growing up in Arizona, border towns were the natural choice for spring breaks, camping trips, shopping excursions, and underage tequila runs. In my teens and twenties I partied in Puerto Peñasco; in my thirties my best friend and I rented a casita in San Carlos. When I wanted to retreat alone after my father died, I chose a quiet old silver-mining town called Alamos. I collected seashells at dusk on a beach in Kino Bay, and one quiet midnight in Puerto Vallarta, I rode on a marine biologist’s ATV in search of turtles hatching eggs in the sand. I was fond of Mexico, but after spending much of my life exploring more remote countries, it didn’t seem “foreign.” To me, it hardly counted as travel at all.

Nevertheless, I was thrilled to spend the first two weeks of 2013 teaching there. I had arrived on New Year’s Eve, and standing in the Jardin beneath an almost full moon, an enormous Christmas tree, and the magnificent gothic La Parroquía church (its doors wide open for midnight mass), it occurred to me that nearly everything I saw was illuminated from within, including the locals surrounding me. When the hands on the clock tower met and pointed to the stars, thousands of revelers cheered and twirled two-foot-long sparklers—and when I asked a little girl in pigtails if I could buy one from her, she happily handed me two, refusing my pesos. Then a giant metal “Feliz Año Nuevo” sign exploded in flames and scared the hell out of me, and fireworks brightened the sky. As the band played cumbia, grizzled cowboys danced with their daughters, and gorgeous couples made out shamelessly. Skinny little boys hurled rocket-shaped mylar balloons into the air, and grown men wore blinking plastic Minnie Mouse bows on their heads. I stayed till the end, following the cobblestone streets back to my rented casa at 3:00 A.M. Now, two weeks later, I was crying into my margarita.

Libby, sitting on my right, rubbed my arm gently, while across the table Jen photographed the performers, sensing I would someday want to see the images. The other women in our party just held my gaze tenderly.

Eventually I stopped sniffling, ate my quesadilla, and enjoyed the show. And after dinner when the guitarists were packing up, I approached one and tried to explain what his music had meant to me. I wanted to tell him about my father—that he studied with Paco de Lucia and played for the Prince of Spain and dedicated his life to music, the very same music they played that night—but my Spanish was limited and his English was basic. He smiled and nodded, but I knew he didn’t quite understand. It wasn’t until later that night, walking the narrow roads home past orange walls and blue doorways, beneath icicle lights and fiesta flags strung between rooftops, that I finally understood. I stopped, closed my eyes, and made a belated New Year’s resolution: I would start playing the dusty guitar that hung on my office wall back home—the one my father left me. Mexico surprised me. I’d assumed I knew what the country had to offer, but I was wrong; I underestimated it. And while reading submissions for The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 9 this year, I found myself similarly surprised by the number of exceptional stories that came from not-so-far-away. Among the four-hundred-plus submissions I read were dazzling essays from locations that did not seem all that foreign to me—places that, like Mexico, “hardly counted as travel.” There were mesmerizing tales of adventure in the United States, life lessons learned in Mexico, heartbreak in Canada.

Was it a sign of the economy, I wondered? Were people staying closer to home these days? Were travel writers running out of frequent-flier miles? Or had these places suddenly become more popular destinations?

Of course, I still read hundreds of stories that flew (and ferried and taxied and tuk-tuked) me clear across the globe—to Egypt and India and Rwanda and Afghanistan, Laos and Bangladesh and Spain and Cambodia, Jordan and Australia and Italy and Namibia—plus some places I never even knew existed.

But to my delight, this year I was transported equally far, both emotionally and culturally, by stories close to home.

I find international travel ineffably rich and profound; I believe the first taste of foreignness is one of life’s greatest joys and opportunities, and that immersing oneself in another culture for an extended period of time should be required for every human being. I think listening to the words of people far away and returning to tell their stories can help make the world a more tolerant, connected place.

But I’ve also realized that the transformative effect of travel sometimes bears little relation to the distance of destination. That profundity and cultural diversity can be found anywhere. That what we take from a place is directly proportionate to what we bring to it. And that what we gain from our wanderings depends more on our mentality than our locality.

Indeed, travel is virtually limitless in its capacity to change our perspective. But then again, isn’t travel itself a matter of perspective? You may someday stumble upon an isolated village on a naked stretch of map and decide it’s the most exquisite, exotic place you’ve ever been. But the villagers, while smiling politely, will wonder what the hell you’re doing there, taking pictures of their laundry and pet cow. And while you might regard your own hometown as hopelessly mundane—the drafty old church, the all-you-can-eat Chuck-a-Rama, the vacuum repair shop—someone from that isolated village on that naked stretch of map will perceive it as impossibly exciting. She will take photos of your Chuck-a-Rama.

And maybe you should, too.

Maybe we all should.

Because if we can extend our definition of travel to the point where we begin to regard our own environs with the same curiosity a foreigner would—and with the same curiosity we ourselves would carry to a foreign land—then maybe we can reproduce that unique sense of awe we feel when we’re out traveling, discovering the weirdest, wildest patches of our planet. And if we practice this enough—though it may at first feel contrived—it might eventually become natural. And then we will find ourselves living each ordinary day with extraordinary wonder and gratitude.

Of the many lessons I’ve learned over the years from the publishers of Travelers’ Tales and the women who submit their amazing-but-true stories to The Best Women’s Travel Writing series, perhaps the most important is this: the entire world is worthy of exploration and appreciation—including the places we live, day in and day out.

Travel has the power to transform us, but it may be like the law of romantic love—to love another person, we must first love ourselves. I propose that as we go about romancing the rest of the world, we also rekindle our affair with the not-so-far-away. And this book is an excellent place to start. In this ninth volume of The Best Women’s Travel Writing series, you’ll take a trip to the site of Wounded Knee in North Dakota with Jenna Scatena and her mother, who is heading home and hell-bent on redemption. You’ll go late-night frog hunting in a southern Louisiana bayou with Natalie Baszile. Kirsten Koza will drive you (and some Chinese celebrities) on a thrill ride around the U.S., chasing tornados. And you’ll join Suzanne Roberts as she kayaks one hundred fifty miles in the Gulf of Mexico and is put to the ultimate relationship test.

You’ll also visit Mexico a few more times: to Morelia, where you’ll experience Day of the Dead through the eyes of a curious two-year-old (and his pregnant mother, Molly Beer), and to Sarah Menkedick’s Oaxaca, where you’ll fall under the spell of a city caught up in a revolution. Then you’ll fly to Vancouver with Rachel Levin, where you’ll discover that life is never as simple as immigration officials want it to be.

And you’ll travel farther, of course. Julia Cooke will take you antique shopping in Cuba, and Apricot Anderson Irving will lead you on a nostalgic tour of the Haiti of her childhood. You’ll cheer on Abbie Kozolchyk as she strives to fulfill an epic quest to Suriname, Paraguay, Guyana, and French Guiana. And in Ecuador, if you’re Laura Resau, you’ll pay good money to stand in your bra while alcohol is spit in your face and fireballs are thrown at your body.

You will, as you read, wind up far, far away. Perhaps in that same isolated village on a naked stretch of map, dining at someone else’s version of Chuck-a-Rama, praying in someone else’s drafty old church. You’ll confront fears in Bangladesh with Holly Morris and in Rwanda with Marcia DeSanctis. You’ll solve risotto riddles in Italy with Laura Fraser and research rhinoceros in Namibia with Blair Braverman. You’ll unravel family histories with Jill Paris in Scotland and Helen Rubinstein in Moldova. And you’ll witness the abiding kindness of strangers in South Africa with Amanda Jones and in India with Meera Subramanian.

As always, I hope you enjoy the trip, and that it inspires your own journeys, however far or near, foreign or familiar. When I returned to San Francisco after my two weeks in San Miguel de Allende, I began playing guitar again, little by little. I will probably never be the musician I was at ten years old, practicing every afternoon while my father hummed along, tapping his foot to help me keep time. And I’ll certainly never be as good as he was, or the musicians in that tiny restaurant. But every day I’m a little better than I was before I visited Mexico.

This is the promise of travel. It doesn’t matter where we go: if we give it permission to change us, it just will. I urge you to stay open to the surprises.

Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.