Travelers' Tales (December 2017)


The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 11 Introduction

On the first day of 2017, I sat in a room I love—a small, bright space with green wicker furniture, three neglected but determined ferns, and five slim hardbacks in an old wooden crate. My toddler was napping, my husband was working in another room, and the next two hours were all mine.

As winter sunlight streamed through the windows, I sipped coffee and leafed through the stack of books, all collections of poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The pages were old, sepia, and brittle. I paused on the first stanza of a poem called “Exiled.”

Searching my heart for its true sorrow,

This is the thing I find to be:

That I am weary of words and people,

Sick of the city, wanting the sea;

Wanting the sticky, salty sweetness

It’s best to go with an open heart, the inclination to practice human kindness, a sincere intention to build pathways of understanding, and the willingness to be transformed.

Of the strong wind and shattered spray,

Wanting the loud sound and the soft sound

Of the big surf that breaks all day.

The words didn’t exactly apply to me, but they spoke to me and made me think. About sorrow and weariness, words and people, and wanting. And about water.

I’m not a water person, never have been. I can’t swim, and I’ve always been scared of any body of water bigger than a hot tub. I don’t even like to drink the stuff. Though I enjoy lying on a beach, I’m not drawn to water the way Millay was and countless others are. I was born near the New Hampshire seacoast, but raised in Arizona. My grounding place is the desert—its perfect stillness and quietude allow my busy mind to settle.

When I travel, however, my life seems to turn aquatic. I’ve bobbed in the waves of Mexico, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, and Cuba (up to my shoulders, anyway); snorkeled in the Philippines, Indonesia, Costa Rica, and Saipan (I had fins, and sometimes a flotation device); and tried to scuba dive in Guam and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia (both attempts largely unsuccessful).

I’ve also taken passage on innumerable waterborne vessels: an inflatable raft on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon; a hastily assembled bamboo contraption in Northern Thailand that wound up sinking (we were rescued by another hastily assembled bamboo contraption); a couple of shaky motorboats and a barge in Nicaragua; a junk on the Mekong in Vietnam; a river boat in Cambodia that got stuck in the mud (we passengers got out and pushed). There was a barfinducing overnight ferry from Ireland to France, a civilized overnighter from Tunisia to Sicily, and half a dozen jaunts between South Korea and Japan. That’s the short list.

So, even as I’ve habitually rejected water—refusing to jump in lakes or stand beneath waterfalls or dive in pools or even take swimming lessons—water has trickled into my travel life, mesmerizing me with its bioluminescence, its schools of startlingly blue fish, its coolness on a hot island day. I have been lulled by the flutter of an overhead sail, restored by the steam of a natural hot spring, transported while my fingers dipped into the current as I floated downriver. It’s hard to deny its power.

Water grew even more difficult to resist when I became a mother two years ago and started traveling with my family. Everywhere we went, Ellis, our son, was happiest and most entertained (meaning we were happiest and most entertained) in the presence of water. In Hawaii, we squatted in tide pools while he gaped at minnows, and one afternoon I carried him into the lagoon to admire a sea turtle swimming amongst the rocks. In Cape Cod, where he took his first wobbly steps, he clutched our hands in terror as the chilly Atlantic tide washed over his feet—but soon delighted in watching it swirl between his tiny toes. In Portugal, fountains abounded, and he splashed in them with unmitigated glee. One evening after eating at a beachfront restaurant, my husband walked him straight into the surf, unconcerned by their soaked pants. Ellis was wary, then thrilled.

I began paying more attention to water, observing how easily this tiny human loved it, how effortlessly he overcame his initial trepidation. I realized I had never fully examined my own fear of water. It took a toddler shrieking in joy, drenching me with his fervent splashing, to turn my focus to it.

It also took editing this anthology. To select the thirty-one essays for The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 11, I read nearly five hundred. The job was more challenging than ever, as this was the deepest pool of submissions I’d ever stepped into. I dreaded having to pass on literally hundreds of wonderful stories, many by friends I adore and writers I admire.

I based my decisions on answers to the usual questions: Was the piece well written and developed? Original? Personal? Did it evoke a strong sense of place? Were there compelling characters? Did something happen? Did it surprise me? Move me? When at last I chose the finalists, I began putting my table of contents in order, reading and sorting, re-reading and re-sorting, careful as always to separate essays that were similar in theme.

These two stories, I thought at one point, are about water. I separated them. Oh, and so is this one, I noticed. And this one. This essay also has water in it. So does this one. And this one. And this one.

It appeared water had seeped into my travel anthology just as it had my travel life. And so I was obliged, once again, to think about it.

To think, for instance, about Zora O’Neill’s remarkable account of stumbling upon refugee camps while vacationing in Greece—her essay a potent reminder that just as water can steal lives, so too can it save them, delivering them to safety and a new beginning.

And to think about Maggie Downs, who signs up to raft in class V rapids at the source of the Nile River in Uganda, unsure of what is ahead, knowing only she has to do it to complete her mother’s bucket list.

To think about Sandra Gail Lambert, whose decision to go on a solo pre-dawn kayaking trip in the Florida Everglades requires unusual planning, great resolve, and impressive fortitude.

And Suzanne Kamata, who encounters an art installation in Japan in which small puddles of water inexplicably morph into snakelike shapes, “squiggling toward a larger puddle and joining it.” The water, she writes, seems to be alive.

And Anna Vodicka, who overcomes her fears while scuba diving in Palau (“I had experienced the grip of the waves, the buoyant joy that suddenly turns perilous with the change of a tide or an undertow”) and witnesses “the most ordinary and extraordinary” thing she has ever seen.

For several writers in this anthology, water becomes a place of healing and release. For Jenna Scatena, it’s when she stands in the Arabian Sea at dawn in Oman, gazing at the horizon, that she feels herself finally able to battle an evil spirit that has haunted her. For Lindsey Crittenden, a swimming pool in California helps move her forward through painful memories. And for Pam Mandel, it’s the ocean in Hawaii, under a full moon, that receives her grieving heart.

For other writers, water creates a path to understanding. For Yukari Iwatani Kane, a visit to a Japanese hot springs is a surreal experience during which she finds herself grappling with—and uncovering answers to—a lifelong identity crisis. For Holly H. Jones, water is the subject of a Sufi fable that illuminates her days in Pakistan at a time when some consider the country to be the most dangerous place on Earth. In the fable, a stream making its way down the mountains overcomes every barrier. But when it tries to cross the desert, it dries up. I won’t reveal the entire tale—you’ll have to read the essay—but I’ll say the stream discovers it can only progress by allowing itself to be changed.

I reflect on this again and again after reading Jones’s essay, and come to the conclusion that to be good travelers, we must embody the qualities of water: its beauty, strength, mutability, fluidity, and determination. We need its capacity to ebb and flow; to permeate the most hidden and unreachable places; to soften and smooth what it moves against; to carve a path through seemingly impenetrable obstacles; to change form, and allow itself to be changed.

And I come also to this: Just as we travelers would be wise to adopt its qualities, perhaps we need them equally in our everyday lives. We are navigating a troubling time when merely watching the news can cause us to sink into anger and sorrow, a time when women’s rights are in grave danger, and when xenophobia and intolerance threaten the fabric of our country and the freedoms of so many of its people. In these days, what may be required of conscientious global citizens is nothing short of transformation.

Since becoming a mother, I’ve learned a lot, and perhaps the most important lesson is that while joy is contagious, so is fear. Thus, as my son watches me to learn how he should behave, I’m increasingly mindful to exhibit as much joy and as little fear as possible. As he grows up, I never want him to perceive me as afraid, at least irrationally so. Instead, I hope he’ll witness me facing my fears and working to conquer them.

I have to assume he will become a traveler, and when he someday embarks upon the world by himself, I hope he’ll emulate the amazing women writers in this book whose stories tell of reaching out to embrace the unfamiliar and create meaningful cross-cultural connections.

I hope he will be like Maxine Rose Schur, who discovers in Iran that a language barrier is no barrier to warmth and friendship. And like Colette Hannahan, who surrenders her self-appointed mission in France when an eccentric host insists on befriending her. And like Jill K. Robinson in Switzerland, whose immediate kinship with a stranger offers an opportunity to view his country in a whole new way. I want him to learn, like Marcia DeSanctis in Russia, that even when all you crave is solitude, sometimes companionship can be comforting. I trust he’ll discover, like Elen Turner in Nepal and Colleen Kinder in Iceland, that love makes everything taste better. And finally, I hope he will take a page from Anna Badkhen in Mali, who journeys to the farthest extremes of the world and returns to generously share the intimate stories of people who live there.

I have no idea who my son will become. All I know is someday I’ll give him a copy of this book (it’s dedicated to him, after all), and what he’ll learn from the stories herein is that whether one travels to Arizona, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Ethiopia, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Montana, Mongolia, or Singapore—it’s best to go with an open heart, the inclination to practice human kindness, a sincere intention to build pathways of understanding, and the willingness to be transformed.

As for me, I’ve decided this is the year I’ll learn to swim—in more ways than one. Says Crittenden in her essay, “The laws of swimming are simple: you stop, you’ll sink…. Swimming is not about memorializing or staying still; it is about moving without thinking about it.”

I will not stay still. Like the mysterious water in Kamata’s story, I will move and morph and squiggle and become alive. Like the stream in Jones’s story, I will allow myself to be changed, in order to make progress. And like the waters that offered understanding and solace to several authors in this collection, I’ll do my part to help and heal others. I won’t let fear stop me or sink me. I’ll swim, forward.

I hope these stories inspire you as they have me. May they remind you of the enduring radiance of other places and people, and the timeless gift of sharing their stories. I invite you to jump in. The water is fine.

Order The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 11

We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” –Charles Kingsley