Introduction: Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011

Most of us can easily pinpoint the moment we began identifying ourselves as travelers. It was Paris or Jaipur or Chiang Mai—we were perched on a medieval castle wall or sitting cross-legged in a temple at dawn or riding an elephant through a dense jungle. We were someplace entirely foreign, doing something wholly unexpected, when we felt a sudden and overwhelming sense of astonishment, bliss, gratitude—or even horror. And from that instant, we would never be the same.

My defining moment was a little different. I was seated at a cramped kitchen table in Jersey City, drinking gin and tonics with a group of older women who had just announced that they wanted to sit down and have a talk with me.

I’d arrived two days earlier from Boston, where I was working at a Hallmark store while deciding what to do with my post-high-school life. My older sister Blake was visiting her girlfriends in Jersey City, and to my amazement, she had invited me to tag along.

On the first morning of the trip, we took the train into Manhattan, disembarking inside the World Trade Center. We wandered the city for hours, window shopping, squinting into the sun to photograph skyscrapers, hovering over artists as they made sidewalk chalk drawings, listening to street musicians. Eventually we stopped to rest on some steps across from the Hotel Fifth Avenue, and at that instant, a cavalcade of black state sedans, police cars, and motorcycle cops pulled up in front of us with lights flashing and sirens blaring. We watched as Benazir Bhutto stepped gracefully from a limo and hurried into the hotel, escorted by bodyguards. Then Dan Aykroyd sidled up to us. “This is exciting, isn’t it?” he asked me.

I ate my first gyro, played the giant floor piano in FAO Schwarz, and strolled through the Museum of Modern Art, where Blake and her friends rhapsodized over the Rothko exhibit and I tried to make sense of what I perceived to be enormous paint swatches. Back in Jersey City that evening, we climbed to the roof of their apartment building and looked out at the Twin Towers and a chocolate factory. We drank, danced, and sang “That’s Amore.” It’s possible I’d never been happier.

“We think you’ve caught the travel bug,” she said. “And we want to talk to you about it.”

But it wasn’t until the second day that my moment of travel truth happened. It was late afternoon in Jersey City, but according to Blake, cocktail hour. She made us a round of Tanqueray and tonics and summoned us to the tiny kitchen table by the window. I waited nervously.

My sister and her friends, so wise and experienced at the ripe age of twenty-five, intimidated me. Sophisticated, adventurous, strong, and creative, these women bartended for money, rafted class-five rivers for fun, wore vintage camelhair coats and alligator-skin shoes, dabbled in ceramics and jewelry making and photography. They dated mysterious men, howled with laughter at things I didn’t yet understand, and—most impressive—they traveled. They sent postcards from Greece, Turkey, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, and the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and sometimes brought back small souvenirs. They regaled me with stories of clambering up a spiral staircase to a secret upper section of the Parthenon to drink ouzo under a full moon or of being scolded by women at the Turkish bathhouse for being too thin to ever find husbands. But one thing they did not do was sit me down to have talks with me. I was still young enough to worry that I might be in trouble.

Finally, Susie leaned close and looked at me intently, like a doctor about to deliver a critical prognosis.

“We think you’ve caught the travel bug,” she said. “And we want to talk to you about it.”

They were serious, and I’m sure they offered up all manner of sage advice that afternoon. Perhaps they urged me to save money or invest in a quality camera, to hoard frequent flier miles or head directly to college, to stay single or marry rich. The only advice I distinctly remember was to avoid buying unnecessarily heavy objects: furniture, art, books.

“That stuff will only weigh you down,” they insisted.

I nodded and drank my cocktail, grinning with delight. I wasn’t yet a traveler; before this trip, my experiences were limited to spending one spring break lounging on a Mexican beach and moving from Arizona to Massachusetts so I could stock greeting cards. But these women—these real travelers—recognized in me a kindred spirit, and that was all I needed. I would not let them down.

Since my visit to Jersey City twenty-odd years ago, I’ve steadily ignored their advice, carting unnecessarily heavy objects to thirty-five homes in six states, back and forth from one edge of the planet to the other. I’ve accumulated dozens of boxes of books and art, and despite my best intentions, I invariably return from even the shortest trip abroad with more luggage than when I departed. My desire to nest among heavy objects is as strong as my need to keep moving.

It occurs to me now that my sister and her friends might have done better to advise me against, say, falling for the Balinese painter with the hair down to his knees and the two other girlfriends. Or losing my passport in Thailand, or sleeping on flea-infested mattresses in Cambodia, or inhaling tear gas in South Korea, or drinking the water in Cuba. In the end, it wasn’t the advice that mattered. What marked me was the sensation of being invited into a community where I would become what they were convinced I already was. It was my first glimpse of how limitless life could be when I surrounded myself with women who believed that by entertaining the impossible, it became possible.

Many of us grew up hooked on a different kind of tale, one in which the heroine’s hardships are ultimately rewarded with true love, a royal home, and an unwavering sense of stability. So a story in which we choose instead to search for our happily-ever-after by wandering off to remote, grubby corners of the planet may read as a bit unorthodox and irresponsible—not to mention daunting. After all, it’s not easy to embark on a life of travel, much less continue once you’ve begun. It takes courage and sacrifice, flexibility, creativity, time, and money.

But first—and most importantly—it takes a spark of inspiration and a fan to coax that spark into a fire. Travelers’ Tales’ annual collection of women’s travel writing is both the spark and the fan. By reading the words of women who have accomplished what we dream of doing, obstacles and implications vanish, leaving nothing but a sisterhood of permission and validation.

Over the years, I’ve visited thirty-some countries on five continents—more than I ever imagined I would—yet reading the stories in this year’s The Best Women’s Travel Writing makes me feel like I’ve barely begun. More than ever now, my brain is like a world globe that spins endlessly on its axis, never slowing down, a constant blur of cities and nations and provinces and possibilities.

Suddenly, I want to ride a camel with a Bedouin through the Syrian Desert as Anena Hansen did and take samba lessons in Brazil so I can swing my hips like Jocelyn Edelstein. I want to experience Holikan in India with Kasha Rigby, and Tihar in Nepal with Laurie Weed, and I want Abbie Kozolchyk to take me shopping in Bhutan. Thanks to Angie Chuang, Marcy Gordon, and Anna Wexler, I’m now dying to taste ice cream in Kabul, pork fat in Italy, and even barbecued goat testicles in Serbia. I imagine myself joining the Peace Corps and moving to Niger as Susan Rich did, struggling alongside Nancy Kline to rekindle a love affair with Paris, and moving to Havana if only to be Conner Gorry’s next-door neighbor. I wish I were more like Bridget Crocker, who realized that if she could survive that river in Costa Rica, she could survive her broken heart. And I fantasize about leaving it all behind, as Annie Nilsson did, to slop pigs on a farm in Ecuador.

There are also stories in this book that may not inspire envy but underscore why we travel: to pay closer attention, to do more, care more, matter more, to change and be changed, to siphon some understanding out of a confusing world—or simply to bear witness. There’s Laura Flynn’s first trip to violence-torn Haiti, Sarah Bathum’s experience caring for a sick child at a nunnery in Ethiopia, and Kelly Hayes-Raitt’s return to Iraq, just months after the U.S. bombings and invasion.

This book will take you from Arezzo to Zinder, Baja to Barcelona, Baghdad, Boracv, Belfast, Bahrain, Buenos Aires. You’ll have lunch with a mobster and drinks with an IRA member, share your boat with a corpse and get naked with a student. You’ll lose your heart in Oahu and shed your inhibitions in Seville, search for your son among the ruins in Cambodia and meet the brother you never knew in France. You’ll get divorced and married, sick and healed, lost and found. Such is the way of travel.

If your passport has been stamped a few times, you probably already know that the surest method of keeping your travel fire alive is by reading and telling tales from the road, passing them along like a torch in a relay race. And if you haven’t yet traveled but aspire to, I hope this book provides the fan to turn your own spark of interest into a blaze of inspiration. Either way, consider this your invitation into the community of the thirty-three incredible women whose stories make up this year’s anthology. They think you might have caught the travel bug, and they want to talk to you about it.

Order The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011

To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” –Yiddish proverb