Travelers' Tales (April 2016)

The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 10

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Intro, BWTW Volume 10

Lavinia Spalding

My best friend and I rarely call each other. Not because we don’t enjoy talking; we just prefer to catch up in person, ideally over frosty drinks in a foreign land. But before our recent trip to Nicaragua, I texted her, “Are we taking backpacks or rolling bags?” and my phone rang. “Rolling bags?” she asked, her voice high with alarm and disdain. “What have you done with my best friend?” It was a good question.

Erin and I became friends thirty years ago, in a clear-cut case of teenage supply and demand: she had a car; I needed a ride. But before long, we discovered we were our happiest selves in that car, cruising the streets and cul-de-sacs of our small town, windows rolled down, heat cranked up, and some terrible music blasting from the stereo. In moments of abject boredom, we’d race along a stretch of road with an incline steep enough that if she floored it going up, we caught air on the way down. Other nights we sped in circles around the highway on-off ramp. We never cared where we went—all that mattered was movement.

Over the years we began inching out, driving to the next town over, and the next town after that. Soon we graduated to a cross-country road trip, then our first international border, Mexico, where we drank cheap tequila and haggled for trinkets in clumsy Spanish. In college we backpacked through Europe for three months. Later we lived in South Korea and vacationed in Thailand, Saipan, and Bali. We spent a month in Australia, where we met Erin’s future husband, and we married her off on a beach in Costa Rica. Four years ago, we celebrated our fortieth birthdays together in Cuba.

And not once, in all those years, had I proposed swapping backpacks for rolling bags. What changed? What had I done with her best friend? Was it a symptom of middle age? Did it have to do with the fact that I was recently married and trying to start a family? I’d been working insane hours to meet deadlines—could I blame fatigue? One final ignominious thought terrified me: Were my adventuring days over?

In Nicaragua, Erin and I backpacked, ate street food, stayed in hostels, took “chicken buses” (retired American school buses, brightly painted and squeezed tight with locals) and lanchas (small, crowded boats cheerfully described as “unstable” by one helpful official). All the other backpackers we met—mostly ten to twenty years younger—were hiking volcanoes, clearlythe thing to do in Nicaragua. We’d considered doing it too, but then we weren’t feeling especially motivated, and we hadn’t packed the right shoes, and we’d hiked volcanoes before. We’d also gone skydiving, hang gliding, trapezing, rappelling, ziplining, canyoneering, rafting, snorkeling, and scuba diving—not to mention participated in countless other adrenaline-buzzing activities, like the time in Korea we ran a high-speed relay race using an enormous slithering live eel as a baton. We reckoned our resumé of shared adventures gave us a pass this time. So we decided to skip the volcano boarding, too.

Instead, we walked miles each day in 95-degree heat and 85-percent humidity—blistered and sunburned and bugbitten— traipsing through museums, cathedrals, parks, and plazas, braking only for the occasional Tonya beer or jamaica (hibiscus) juice. In Granada we rented bicycles (I fell off mine), and in the evening we sang karaoke in a tiny bar filed with locals who treated us like American pop stars. We visited the markets in Masaya, still haggling in clumsy Spanish, and devoured heaping plates of vigorón (yuca root, coleslaw, plantains, and chicharrones). We toured the island of Ometepe, lingering in Ojo de Agua, Eye of the Water, a mineral pool the attendant swore would make us younger.

For our final two days I’d booked us into Surfing Turtle Lodge, an eco-hostel that Lonely Planet described as a “utopian beach paradise.” The reviewer wrote that we might stay “like forever.” We wouldn’t, of course—our jobs wouldn’t allow it. Two days would have to suffice. But even two hours sounded dreamy: it was off the grid, on a secluded stretch of island, 100 percent solar powered. Its main tourist draws were surfing and turtles, but since we wouldn’t be surfing (the current was too strong), and no baby turtles were hatching (wrong season), we’d be left with nothing to do but sit on the beach and let our blisters heal. I was enforcing a 48-hour time-out.

To get there, we hired a taxi from Leon, a canoe across a river, and a tiny horse cart through the jungle. When we finally arrived at the remote hostel, a British kid in a tank top that read, “¿Porque no?” gave us a tour, starting with the outside bar, which had swings instead of stools and served two-for-one Nica Libres all day long. A sign read: “Happy Hour is Every Hour.” As we settled in and met the other guests—all beautiful, tan, barely clothed twenty-somethings draped across couches and hammocks and beach chairs—I realized the Lonely Planet reviewer wasn’t being hyperbolic about guests staying “like forever.” The first three we talked to had been there three weeks, six months, and seven months, respectively.

Déjà vu hit. Erin and I had once made a habit of lingering in spots like this—sunny hostels in Greece, Thailand, Bali, Australia. We’d arrive intending to stay a night, and weeks later still be installed poolside or surfside. We could do that then; time was elastic and languid, belonged only to us. Now there’s less lollygagging. Travel obliges us to pay closer attention, squeeze more from each moment. Plus, we have careers and husbands and homes to return to now. But truthfully, these days we’d also go stir-crazy, staying still that long.

“Age doesn’t matter,” he said.

~ ~ ~Our first night at Surfing Turtle, one of the owners, Aldo, joined us for a beer. He was closer in age to us than to his guests, and I confessed that although I loved his place, I was feeling self-conscious—after all, we were decades older than the others.

Cliché, I thought.

Aldo leaned forward. “I’m going to tell you a story,” he said, “about Barbara.”

He used to lead adventure tours, and Barbara joined one of his trips through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. A dozen travelers made up the group, all young, fit backpackers except Barbara, a tiny octogenarian who arrived hauling a gigantic flowered rolling bag behind her.

Erin shot me a grin, which I ignored.

“Central America is a hard place to travel,” Aldo said, “with its cobbled and uneven roads, but there was Barbara every day, dragging this huge bag behind her, bump bump bump bump, everyone offering to help—but she always waved us off, insisting she was fine.”

Aldo regaled us with story after story about Barbara: how she misplaced her passport and emptied her suitcase onto the airport floor in Costa Rica, flinging clothes everywhere until she located it; how she refused a short flight from Nicaragua to Honduras in favor of a two-day haul on multiple chicken buses because she knew she’d get a seat (and how she then sat comfortably while the others stood, hanging on for life, sardined and cursing her name); how one afternoon Aldo discovered her clutching a coconut she’d found on the ground and hacking at it with a knife, and when he asked what she was doing, she answered, “I need mixer for my rum!”

“Barbara was awesome,” Aldo said. “In fact, she’s the only person I remember from that group. So you see, age reallydoesn’t matter.”

This time it didn’t sound like a cliché. Over the next two days while Erin and I read in hammocks and got massages, the twenty-somethings surfed, played volleyball in thong bikinis and—like backpacker versions of Midas—turned everything they touched into drinking games. They tried to recruit us, and though we declined, we liked being asked.

Our last night at Surfing Turtle, rain brought out the wildlife. As we walked to the bar in the dark, dozens of baseballsized moon crabs scuttled across our path, and we screamed and ran, laughing hysterically. Later we huddled under a mosquito net reading by the light of our phones, like kids at camp with flashlights under covers. I felt young and—so what if we hadn’t volcano-boarded or surfed or even played hula-hooping drinking games?—like we were having a great adventure.

It gets confusing.

~ ~ ~I’ve been traveling for more than twenty years now, and the thrill of being on the road has always been wed, for me, to the thrill of never knowing what a day might involve, knowing only that I’d say yes. But lately when I travel, I struggle to reconcile my aging, mellowing self with the younger, intrepid me who leaped at every daring stunt. While plenty of my friends—some decades older than I—continue to leap, and while I still want to leap, sometimes I just really don’t feel like leaping anymore. And while I wholeheartedly celebrate the fact of aging (on good days at least), I deplore the thought of slowing down. Yet I also truly enjoy the actual practice of slowing down. At the same time, the exhilaration of accomplishing something physically challenging is unbeatable.

What helps, I’ve found, is reading travel stories, because the more I read, the more I’m reminded that adventure is limitless, since it can mean absolutely anything. It’s deeply personal—one woman’s gutsy escapade is another’s ho-hum afternoon. Adventure is also ageless, evolving as we do. I can attest to this, because in some regards I’m far braver than I was when I began traveling in my twenties. Meanwhile, certain acts I’d have classified as ordinary back then strike me as exciting now. Getting married was an adventure. Trying to start a family is an adventure. Practicing foreign languages, eating weird foods, making new friends: these all feel like adventures. Getting back on a bike was clearly a misadventure (I have the bruises to prove it), and come on: when is karaoke not an adventure?

Reading travel stories also strengthens my belief that adventure isn’t a physical feat or even an experience, but a state of mind. I think true adventurers are those who treat every ordinary day like the mysterious gift it is; who greet strangers with an expansive mind and an eager, helpful heart; and who aren’t necessarily fearless but who confront fears, little or large, and attempt to transcend them. (“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life,” wrote the great artist Georgia O’Keeffe, “and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”)

This is precisely why many of us travel—to face fears and slake our thirst for the unknown. To force ourselves to be a little bolder, a little bigger. We seek renewal, and we’ve discovered it’s most easily attained with passport in hand. Travel is one of the most important acts we can engage in as humans, if only because it reboots our regular lives. The more we set out to discover the universe, the more we habituate ourselves to pursuing rich opportunities and infusing wonder into every moment. Being alive—truly alive, not merely existing—requires a refusal to grow complacent, and a deliberate effort to routinely wake ourselves up. And in travel we have an obvious—and exquisite—wake-up call.

So answer the call to adventure. Dare to do something different. Book a ticket to a place you can’t pronounce, and when you arrive, climb a volcano. Go trapezing. Or hang gliding. If you’re invited to run an eel relay race, say yes. Or don’t, but say yes to something. Wherever you go, find an experience you can turn into an adventure.

From Australia to Afghanistan, Thailand to Tanzania, Ireland to India, Cuba to Croatia, thirty talented writers have invited you along on their expeditions of body, mind, heart, and spirit. Some stories are of journeys requiring not only physical but also mental fortitude, such as Peggy Orenstein’s deeply moving account of dog sledding in Greenland after her mastectomy. I think you’ll find Jill K. Robinson’s diving trip through the cenotes (underground caves) of Mexico moody and mesmerizing, and Serena McClain’s journey of 400 miles along the Camino de Santiago in Spain—with some nasty travel companions—downright terrifying.

~ ~ ~This year I had the great privilege of reading 450 submissions to select the 30 essays forThe Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 10. As always, the process was enormously fun and ridiculously challenging. The quality of writing astounded me, and I was left with heaps of stories I would have loved to include but couldn’t—stories that kept me reading late into the nights, set fire to my wanderlust, gave me shivers, brought me to tears and laughter. Stories that still walk around inside my head, rearranging my notions of travel and adventure. And indeed, although the essays I selected for this year’s edition are wildly diverse in geography, subject, and tone, they are all alike in that they are tales of true adventure, because each author made the same simple but critical decision: she went.

You’ll read tales of bona fide danger, like Eva Holland’s “Chasing Alexander Supertramp,” a fascinating profile of the pilgrims who risk life and limb each year in Alaska to reach an abandoned bus, and Jayme Moye’s “The Road Not Ridden”—about courageous young female bicyclists in Afghanistan who continue to ride, though doing so endangers their lives.

And of course, there are plenty of essays that prove adventure is beyond definition. Carly Blitz perfectly illustrates my thesis that getting married is an adventure (especially if you do it the way she did, at Burning Man). Sarah Katin finds her adventure crossing the road in Vietnam. And Judith Campbell’s “Indian Ocean Commotion” illuminates, to my mind, the highest form of travel adventure: finding yourself an unexpected guest stuck in an unpopular, untouristed place—and welcoming the experience with sheer delight.

Along with chocolate, coffee, and rum, I carried something equally delicious home from Nicaragua: a clear vision of Erin and me, two little old ladies rolling our bags along cobblestoned streets someday. Misplacing our passports, riding chicken buses, hacking away at coconuts. It brings me joy to imagine. And so does the realization that Aldo was right: age doesn’t matter. Nor does baggage (literal or metaphorical). What matters is continuing to sign up. Hurtling into unknown places—or merely inching out, even if all that entails is driving fast over a hill to catch some air. What matters is going.

I hope you enjoy this tenth-anniversary edition of The Best Women’s Travel Writing, and that the thirty stories within (and Barbara’s, of course) inspire you to grab your backpack—or your gigantic flowered rolling bag—¿porque no?—and go have your own definition of adventure.


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Don’t ever live vicariously. This is your life. Live.” –Lavinia Spalding