What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened lately?
I’m finally having a baby!! (Our sixth.)
Describe a typical day:
We’re staying in the mountains of the Central Valley, with a gorgeous view of the ocean waaaay off in the distance. Grandma and grandpa have come to visit, in anticipation of the birth of our sixth child. We’ve all been a little antsy just waiting around (which is why we took a trip to the chocolate farm, just an hour from our house, on my due date
But now the day has finally arrived. It’s beautiful, the sun is shining and my labor has started. Our new baby will be joining our family soon!
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
Like: The house where we are living has a beautiful ambience. From the balcony of the master bedroom I can see the Pacific Ocean off in the far distance, surrounded by deep, verdant hills that are often clothed with soft, white clouds. Toucans, green parrots and other exotic birds perch in the trees outside my windows.
I feel loved and supported by my husband and children, as well as my cousin, mother and step-dad and midwife who are all in attendance. Pura vida!
Dislike: The only thing I dislike today are my intensifying contractions… but they will result in a miraculous experience, so they are worth the discomfort.
Describe a challenge you faced:
Deciding to have this baby was a huge challenge for me. My fifth birth was extremely difficult, and although I felt that having another child was the right thing for our family, I was scared to death to give birth again!
Now the day is here, and I’m feeling peaceful, confident and surrounded by love and inner power and strength.
What new lesson did you learn?
I did it! She’s here!
She’s beautiful and perfect, and I was strong.
The birth was perfect, and I feel empowered.
Saige Journee Denning, 9lbs and 21 inches long.
Staying put here and enjoying the ‘babymoon’.
You can read the full birth story here.
Five months of extended, slow travel taught me valuable life lessons that I never could have learned from a one week vacation or a weekend getaway. Once I got past the initial lure of traveling to new places (including Guatemala, Taiwan, Australia, and Ethiopia), seeing new things, and doing different activities, the time spent traveling really became a deeper, personal experience; travel became introspective and a journey within to make discoveries about myself and my place in the world.
These are the lessons about life that I have learned after five months of travel around the world…
Be a little nicer to others.
When you travel, you make yourself vulnerable by leaving your comfort zone and putting yourself out in the world. You need help because you normally don’t know where you are, what to eat, and how to speak the local language. People are out there to help you, as long as you let them. You’ll see how people will open themselves up once you show some compassion and kindness.
I once heard a 103-year-old woman answer the question, “What’s the best advice you can give to others on how to live their lives?” She simply replied, “Be a little nicer to others.” All those years of experience and wisdom and she understood that life at the core is made of all the interactions and connections, big and small, that we have with others.
Be nice. Be extra nice. Bring out the best in yourself and others around you.
Money doesn’t buy happiness.
You don’t need a ton of money to travel and you don’t need millions of dollars to be happy. If you’re always comparing your net worth to others’ net worth, you’ll never be happy.
Happiness starts from within. If you’re pursuing things that you’re passionate about and give you purpose, you’ll be happier. When you help others for unselfish reasons, you’ll be happier. And when you connect with a purpose that’s bigger than you, you’ll truly be happy.
I’ve met some of the happiest people in some of the poorest countries in the world and I’ve met some of the most depressed people in some of the richest countries in the world. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Living life on purpose will give you all the happiness you’ll ever need.
Fulfilling work, quality time with your kids, “me” time, nutritious meals, regular exercise, eight hours of sleep every night, and meaningful travel are all the ingredients of a healthy life. You can have it all, as long as you make balance your goal.
Sometimes you overwork yourself for weeks without end. You sleep less. You don’t go to the gym when you should. You eat junk foods and load up on coffee. Then you crash. Hard. And your body needs two full days to recover. You need balance every day all the time.
Too much of anything isn’t healthy or sustainable. Balance is essential to healthy living.
Live your life.
Your life is yours and yours alone. Be who you are. Follow your passions. Trust your gut. Don’t compare yourself with others. Stay true to what you believe.
The key is to live. Many people are dying a slow death in a profession they are bored with; others are in destructive relationships; some are using escapes from actually living by abusing drugs, alcohol, TV, Internet, etc.
You need to choose to live your life. That choice begins with trusting yourself and moving forward with your heart.
Love the journey.
Life is not a race, so enjoy the journey. Each step you take and each personal connection you make hopefully gets you closer to your truest, most authentic self. When you value the journey more than the destination, you are grateful for each step and blessing. You realize that failures exist not only as small lessons, but also as opportunities for mercies to come through. And you are present in every moment.
When you let your heart lead the way, you’ll be on the path towards realizing your dreams. Sometimes what we want isn’t what the world says we should want, what our parents say we should want, or what our peers say we should want, but your path ultimately is the product of your choices.
Stay the course. Listen to your heart. Let the love flow.
Love the journey and you’ll be on your way.
For more about Cliff’s travels, visit his website: LiveFamilyTravel
“There is very little mystery left in driving around America when you can search a million photos of the Grand Canyon online, or when you hew rigidly to the route laid out by the automated Google Maps voice as you roll through the desert. You can travel anywhere you want before you actually go there. Inevitably, this changes how it feels to arrive at a new place — leaving you with that nagging sense of having been there before, of having lived this moment before. Digital culture demystifies something that strains to remain legendary, demoting an enigmatic frontier to the banality of a default desktop photo. • The effect of digital culture isn’t just how it alters our old dreams, but also what it offers as an alternative. If physical space feels finite even when we couldn’t possibly see it all in person, the new worlds we create for ourselves feel truly limitless. The Internet, of course, is the main venue in question, with its countless portals to wherever we wish to go, with the way it fragments us from a single person into a Facebook self, a Twitter self, etc. What is perhaps less considered is how open-world video games have, for a not-inconsequential portion of a certain generation, supplanted that notion of discovering yourself somewhere in the American continent. • There’s still plenty to be said for the experience of driving across America, but increasingly, it’s the virtual worlds that trigger our imagination. We no longer have to be concerned about arriving at the opposite coast and realizing that we still have ourselves to deal with when we arrive. Now we can acutely craft how we present to others with our various profiles, or disappear entirely into characters in some sprawling digitized world. Mostly, these kinds of games still operate in a fantasy/sci-fi vein, offering the player a world entirely dissociated from our own. We require different things out of video games than other art — we seek an active performativity, and games like ‘Skyrim’ or ‘World of Warcraft’ deliver.”
–Ryan Leas, Move over, Kerouac! “Grand Theft Auto” is the American Dream narrative now, Salon, 1/5/14
Have you ever wanted to leave civilization behind and embark on a multitude of journeys where you simply live and explore?
That’s exactly what Lisa Alpine did.
At 18 years old, she left sunny California for the rainy streets of Vienna and beyond, Europe. In Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman, she recounts 14 stories gathered from her next 28 years of traveling.
Each chapter of the book encapsulates a complete story, set in a different year, spanning the arch of her life from 18 years old to mid-fifties. You would expect changes in her traveling viewpoint. But, other than a new love of B&B’s and 1000 thread count sheets, her love of adventure and finding herself in quirky situations never vanishes.
Deeply personal stories, they read more like imaginative fiction than non-fiction. The writing occasionally glosses over parts where I’d like more detail, but once you become accustomed to her newspaper-like style, the stories flow easier.
As a single girl in her 20′s, she travels the world, game for any new adventure. She spends a week with a Amazonian native and her three young children deep off the Amazon river. In her thirties, her young child gets passed around a remote tribe, held high above their heads. She licks a Monet to sample what art tastes like. She gets charged by an amorous dolphin who loves her polka dot bikini, his attention infuriating his harem.
Winner of many awards, including Best Travel Story of the Year 2014 Solas Silver for Fish Trader Ray, Lisa has an undeniable gift of seeing the good in people. And she has an enviable talent for making friends in unlikely situations. Add to the mix, her unshakable curiosity about the world and need to travel.
She sounds like a perfect traveling companion: unflappable, up for anything with an innate ability to attract a ride to her next destination. She’s the person who laughs instead of cries when things don’t go according to plan.
Her stories made me want to revisit New Orleans and taste the food she sampled that I somehow missed out on. Her persistently optimistic view on people makes me fight my impulse to tuck my bag closer into my body and eye my surrounding humans with distrust. She inspired me to embrace spontaneity and saying “yes,” instead of my knee-jerk “no.”
Luckily for me, I had a chance to ask her about her unique views on travel.
That the world is an inherently good place filled with kind and generous people who open their hearts, minds, and lives to wandering strangers. (Despite what you read in the newspapers!)
I also trust my intuition and in the rare circumstances where I didn’t or don’t feel safe, I leave without excuses or guilt.
Hearing adventure stories from older women in my life when I was a teenager. I dedicated Wild Life to several of these adventuresses including my Grandma Lucy who lived in a mining camp in the Atacamas Desert in Chile in the 1920s. Of course, many years later I went there—the highest and driest desert on the planet— and stared at the full moon. It is a very mysterious place.
Also, I was an explorer from birth—always curious about what was around the next bend. Even as a baby I would crawl off to find bugs or wander down the street eating sour grass as I scooted along. The old lady’s koi pond a block away was a big draw. My mom called the police several times when you couldn’t find her baby girl.
Books also lured me to dream of exotic places and fed my craving for foreign-ness—the unknown—the colorful: Arabian Nights, Green Mansions, Bitter Lemons, Nobody’s Girl.
I have known since childhood that life is a gift. Freedom is a gift not available to everyone, sadly.
One of the greatest insights traveling has offered me is the opportunity to befriend people who have suffered due to loss and wars. My story “Rada’s Bloom” in Wild Life is an ode to a woman who lost every family member in Auschwitz and yet survived with a loving, generous, non-judgmental nature. If Rada can smile and embrace humanity after that hell realm—I can be fully appreciative of this wonderful life I have been given.
“Smile and the whole world smiles with you” is my motto.
Many times my travels are inspired by a book. I had to go to the Amazon after I read Green Mansions. Ditto for Israel after I read Exodus. Or I hear about a remarkable place from another traveler and it awakens an urge to see this place with my own eyes.
Most of my trips have just happened out of the blue—I met Lloyd Cottingam at a nightclub in San Francisco while dancing to Zydeco music. He invited me to work for him at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
I said “Yes”. I usually say “Yes” without thinking about it first.
Spontaneity led me to discover my love of New Orleans and all things Southern. And that leads me to my stories. “Two-Steppin’ and Pussy-Poppin” is about my nine-year annual trek to volunteer at the Jazz Fest and all the crazy people and events that happened to me there.
Recently, I wanted go to a country I’d never been before; was inexpensive (not on the Euro); and had an undeveloped tourist infrastructure: Albania!
I spent a month wandering there. What a delightful people and the countryside is gorgeous. The food is delicious and organic. There is outstanding hiking in the Albanian Alps; pristine white sand beaches on the Adriatic & Ionian Seas; intriguing Ottoman, Greek and Roman ruins; and nary a tourist in sight. A first rate travel destination, and it is safe!
Maybe I shouldn’t be sharing this information…
Instead of landing in a new country and hitting the road, I like to settle down a bit and meet people.
A good way to do that is to volunteer for a short period at a bookstore, or an orphanage, a school, an archeological dig, etc… Of course, there are organizations that can set this up but they usually come with a high price tag. Instead, put a shout-out through your social media connections.
I did this before I went to Albania. One of my writing students had a church group member who had moved there 20 years ago and become a missionary. She connected us via email. The missionary visited my website and noted I also teach dance. She invited me to teach her youth group a salsa class.
What a hoot! Not only did I hear eye-popping stories from the missionaries of their tumultuous times in Albania— but I really like Korca—the town where they live.
My son, Galen, has also traveled on many one-to-two year trips and always ends up helping people. He worked at an orphanage in Cambodia and volunteered at the Christchurch Earthquake Relief Center in New Zealand. None of this was planned but he just said “Yes” when the motorcyclist in Cambodia gave him a lift while hitchhiking and invited him to his orphanage.
Galen went to New Zealand, planning to go tramping, but landed in Christchurch just two days after a big quake destroyed much of the city. He decided on the split second he would find a place that needed his help, so instead of hitching to the mountains, he went into town and asked around. The three months he spent volunteering led to life-long friends, many invites to visit remote regions of NZ, and real job offers.
Which leads us back to being spontaneous and saying “yes” and not over-planning your trip so that when the opportunity knocks—you invite it into your life.
And it will change you and make you a fuller, richer person who can give back even more than you have received.
Laura blogs at Waiting To Be Read where she writes about why book reading is a dying and valuable skill, next to traveling.
It was December of 2004 when I took my first Contiki trip for two weeks in Australia. On the first night I met two girls from Minnesota and that’s where the love affair with the State Fair began. For years Cara has been teaching this New Yorker about all things Minneapolis and although I’ve now been many times I was never able to hit it at the right time to take part in the festivities. It took just about a decade but I finally made it to the Minnesota State Fair.
I learned a lot from Cara. I learned about ‘Minnesota nice’, throwing my hat by the Mary Tyler Moore statue and the structural brilliance that is the Spoon and Cherry. I’ve spent time making s’mores on Lake Superior, walked across the border into Wisconsin and listened to loons at a few of the twelve thousand lakes. There has been fun at the mall, a visit to the Jolly Green Giant, photos at lock and dam number one which was a first for this ocean loving New Yorker and then a return visit for her wonderful wedding. And let’s just talk about the fabulousness that is an ice-house and an ice party-Oofdah! Minnesota is a wonderful place.
We were finally were able to schedule a trip at the end of August 2011. We were even able to catch up with another travel friend (who also lives in Minneapolis) we met two years prior in Europe. When Hurricane Irene hit our Long Beach shores and the ocean waves were quickly encroaching up the beach nearing our car park and sea wall, we were safely ensconced in the twin cities waiting for the day we would get to head to the fair and finally see the truth behind the heads carved out of butter. Ten years ago I heard of these butter heads and couldn’t come close to picturing what it would be like at all. Would I really get to meet a Dairy Princess?
We hopped a bus to the fair, got our tickets and smiled wide as we entered the gates of what could have been many, many football fields worth of fairgrounds. I guess had I been to the New York or any other state fair ever in my life, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as excited, but this was special. My Aussie husband had never been to anything like this either so it was a treat and a half for us both. For Cara, it has been a yearly event for as long as she can remember. When those ten days roll around at the end of August people from all walks of life flood into Minneapolis to take part in, work at, eat at or visit this fabulous spectacle. Concerts take place, competitions are won, farm animals are shown and dairy princesses take center stage in the dog days of summer at the fair. We went, we watched, we ate and we smiled.
First of all, this is one of the best people watching spots I’ve ever seen. Thousands of people wander the roadways and sections and the fashions of decades past forced some of us to raise a quizzical eyebrow-but it was all part of the fair. Our first stop was the Dairy pavilion. Not for my lactose intolerant friends, this is where you can get fresh ice cream & yoghurt, whole milk in abundance and here in all their glory are the butter heads. Children and adults press their faces as close to the panes of glass as possible as if New York City’s Macy’s Christmas windows had come alive. The incredible artist sculptor comes each year to create masterpieces at the fair. She’s an amazing artist and manages to take the exact likeness of these chosen Dairy Princesses and carve their features into blocks of butter. The artist and the princess she’s working on adorn puffy parkas to keep warm in the frozen tundra that encapsulates them so that the butter can stay at a temperature warm enough to carve and cold enough to keep its sculpted form. It’s a huge honour to be crowned a Dairy Princess and after the fair is over the family of the princess gets to keep the butter heads if they choose. We watched in awe of this artistry and marveled at this magical moment that could only happen here in the land of dairy. And then Cara told me that I too could get my head carved out of butter! You should have seen the look on my face! With the help of the Internet, we went to the butter head station, uploaded my photo and within minutes my face appeared as a butter imprint on a pin that I could proudly wear. After years of wondering, I finally got to see a head carved out of butter-this was a huge check off my travel list!
As with any fair, food is a huge attraction. Mat was the first to get a lesson in all food Minnesota State Fair. Cara, being an expert in all things fair steered us to her favourite pronto pup vendor. You should have seen the look on my husband’s face when she said ‘you have to have one of these’! And just like that we learned the difference between a pronto pup and a corn dog and the magical taste sensation that happens when you put anything on a stick! Her reasoning for the pronto pup was that when dipped in pancake batter the hot dog takes on a whole new flair. I photographed, he ate and all was right with the world. Me, I went in the direction of salty and sweet. First there was an oozy and gooey s’more from the S’mores truck that melted in my mouth and fingers. Next, there was the pickle (on a stick of course) that was bigger than Mt. Rushmore. Then when we wanted some French fries we were steered past about fifteen different vendors to the only one Cara said was good enough to try-and again, of course, she was right. Who could say no to a jumbo sized red bucket filled with salty chips?
It’s no surprise that the fair lasts ten days since it would take us that long to be able to see every part. I sat on a tractor at the John Deere section and Mat happily adorned some paper animal hat on our way to the animal pavilion. Visions of Charlotte’s Web and the words to ‘Zuckerman’s Famous Pig’ danced through my head as we ventured into the barns to visit the pigs and goats and watched in amazement as we saw baby ducklings born right in front of us. So far, it has been even better than expected. Passing the prize winning vegetables, more rides and playing our own personal games of Frogger as we weaved in and out of crowds, we even got to have a look in the 4H pavilion taking me back to all of those special summers of my youth spent at 4H Camp in Riverhead, New York.
According to our host, no day at the fair is complete without a taste of her favourite squeaky cheese. What? She hasn’t steered us wrong yet, so with perplexed looks on both of our faces, we followed Cara and her then boyfriend (now husband), Wade, into the only food court that she liked for this mid-west delicacy. For us, this was a first. She ordered. We waited. Within minutes a small basket filled with oodles of fried goodness was upon us. Small dollops of fried cheese awaited and as Cara’s eyes lit up she watched as we took our first bite of these fried cheese curds and we all quietly listened for the squeak….and squeak it did!
We could have stayed forever. There were endless rides, countless pavilions filled with amazing sights, vendor after vendor of fried deliciousness and people as far as the eye could see. Sadly, we only had one day to spend at the Minnesota State Fair, but in that one day it far surpassed all of my expectations that started when I first heard about it on a boat in the Great Barrier Reef all those years ago. For a girl who has smiled every time I’ve landed in the dairy land, the fair was a huge success. For me, the end of the official summer season is always showcased by days at the beach listening to the ocean and saying goodbye to our friendly lifeguards-but, I always look forward to hearing Cara’s stories and reliving those moments when I got to meet a real life Dairy Princess at the Minnesota State Fair.
Have you been to the Minnesota State Fair? What’s your favourite thing about state fairs?
For more of Stacey’s travels check out her website.
I am often asked why I travel. What is the benefit? Is all the work, preparation, and planning worth it? So, I set out to identify what it is I really feel I have gained through travel. While this list may not be the same for everyone (and I expect it wouldn’t be), I bet most travelers can identify with each item on this list. So, here it is…. the top five gifts travel has given me.
5. Patience. Anyone who travels long term will tell you that patience is a major key to making it all work. Waiting for a train in New Delhi, cooking a meal for 4 on a single burner in San Marcos, dodging touts in ChiChi market, crossing the border into Panama, trudging through monsoon rains in Kolkata, avoiding eye contact with leering men in Egypt, or trying to coordinate travel plans in a foreign language in Nepal- the longer you travel, the more you value your own ability to call on your patience like a super power. Cultural differences and language barriers make time, space, and dimension very subjective terms. Patience is a virtue that gets practiced and (almost but not really) perfected the longer you travel.
4. Connection. True human connection, that which transcends cultural barriers, is something I value on a very deep level. Traveling allows me to see, smell, touch, taste, feel, and experience what visitors and immigrants to my home country hold in their memories and consciousness. Travel presents the opportunity for me to recognize the common human experience between myself, a circus performer in El Salvador, a business woman headed to work in Switzerland, a genocide survivor in Guatemala, and everyone in between. I get to connect with people all over the world, all the time and experience our shared humanity on a regular basis.
When I attended my friend’s wedding in India, I didn’t need a transistor to explain the side ways smile on her groom’s face as she walked towards him or the joy she radiated when she finally got to see him after a full week of ceremonies and preparations. When her parents visit and I am offered a cup of chai I am reminded of hot, humid, monsoon mornings in Mumbai and I can almost hear the chai wallahs, just like they can. When I beg her to make me mattar paneer and she chides that it’s “not really healthy, you know”, I know that she is smirking because she is (not so secretly) thrilled that I loved an Indian dish so much and that I know exactly how it tastes in her hometown. When she asked my friend and I to be present at her son’s birth, her parents hugged me and told me to take care of her, knowing that only true friends would have traveled to India to see their child get married years ago. My friend is an awesome person and I would be friends whether I had traveled to India to watch her get married or not, but I am thankful for the richness travel has brought to our friendship. Sometimes I think we over think things and place too much emphasis on cultural differences (as beautiful as they are) and forget to look for the moments that don’t need translation. Do you have to travel to find connection? No. Does travel magically make connections happen? No. But travel has expanded my understanding of what connection can mean, presented opportunity after opportunity to explore human connection, and made my circle wider and deeper than I ever thought it could be. My connection with this friend and every single person who has touched my life along the way, is a gift I carry forever.
3. Clarity. Time spent away from home and all things comfortable has a way of clarifying that which is most important. Trekking from place to place with everything you own strapped to your back will make you think twice about your material “needs”. Watching a mother drop her child off at an orphanage because she doesn’t have the money to feed all three of her children will make you reconsider what “good parenting” means. Working with an NGO in a foreign country will forever make you look more closely at where your donated dollars are going. Visiting Mother Theresa’s homes in Kolkata will make you question the party line about mission work in the third world. Watching the sun cast shadows over ancient Mayan temples will make the history you think you know look dull. Meeting living victims of your country’s foreign policy will make you wonder just what else is being done in your name.
If it sounds like travel raises a whole lot of questions and not a whole lot of clarity, that is only partly true. Travel certainly and inevitably does raise innumerable questions…but the clarity lies within those questions. Clarity does not mean “figuring it all out”. Some questions will be answered, some will not. The very realization that the questions exist is clarity in itself.
2. Empathy. Over the course of this long, continuous journey, I have come to the conclusion that pity and empathy do not look the same. Pity is what I had for people who were “less fortunate” than me back before I had met any of “those people”. Pity allowed me to see myself in some small way as “better than” and in no way did it serve me or those I thought needed me to do something for them. Pity paralyzed and disconnected me.
Empathy is what I hold now that I have helped birth babies, cook meals, and redefine education with people who would have previously been considered “less fortunate”. The key word in that last sentence is WITH, not FOR. I recognize the core of our shared human experience reflected in circumstances I will never fully understand. I have learned to actively remind myself that poor is not synonymous with “less fortunate” any more than rich is synonymous with “happy”. I still struggle with the “why” of our world’s inequality but I now know that the “how” for doing something about it depends on our ability to empathize, not pity.
1. Perspective. Triumphs and tribulations have a way of seeming really, really big when we have nothing to compare them to. Exploring our vast and varied world has given me the opportunity to step outside of the day to day that we all get caught up in and see the larger picture. Long term travel reminds me regularly that no matter the political, philosophical, or economic agendas being pushed back home, this is the one and only shot we have got at this life. I could spend every day hemming and hawing about the socially acceptable way to live this life (according to my home culture) or I can actually live it. The mundane must still be dealt with and the day to day must still be lived but at the end of my life, I will be damned if I look back and think ” I should have done more”.
What are the best gifts travel has given you?
$25 per person
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
It was strange watching fisherman on the river covered from head to toe, including a sort of ski mask, in scorching heat.
Describe a typical day:
Work and homeschool in the early morning, as always. Breakfast would be at our guesthouse.
We spent a lot of time simply relaxing at the beach or on the river. Our days were spent exploring the region by motorbike. We rode over to Kep, a nearby beach town. Other days we found caves, salt fields, little bars with docks we leapt off of into the river below, a national park we biked through and a pepper plantation, a local crop that is renowned the world over.
Evenings we usually spent in the small town, along the river, eating at one of the local restaurants.
Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
I talked with one local about her experience living in Australia for two years and her return to Cambodia. She explained that for years she wanted to return to Australia to live because there were far more opportunities for her.
However, she was very happy to report that this slowly began to change, for her, about eight years back when tourism began to take off. She said twelve years ago the idea that she would have more opportunities in Cambodia than in Australia was unfathomable. But for her this was now true.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
I really like the laid back pace of Kampot. After the heaviness of Phnom Penh it was just what we needed. It’s a small town so everything is easy, e.g. finding food, parking, accommodation. People are very friendly and the river is beautiful, especially at sunset.
There was little I disliked about Kampot. If I had to choose something it would be that a lot of the roads are under construction, so, depending on your location, the air can be extremely dusty.
Describe a challenge you faced:
Getting lost on the motorbike in the midday sun with no water, Google maps being inoperable and an inability to speak Khmer. There were very few people we could even stop to ask directions and no real way to explain the main road—any main road—we were looking for.
We finally found a small gas station and were able to get our bearings and make it out of there. Three people crammed on a motorbike in that heat, with that much dust and no water is something we can luckily now laugh about. Not so at the time.
What new lesson did you learn?
We’d already learned this lesson before, but I guess we needed to learn it again. When venturing outside of town be sure to bring a paper map in addition to a map on your phone. Being able to point to any spot on the map will save if you have no way of telling a willing person where you want to go. Oh, and bring more water than you think you need.
Some writer once said; “There are only two stories: man goes on a journey; or stranger comes to town.”
Some other writer said; “Those are the same story.”
The quotes above have been attributed to writers as diverse as Dostoevsky and John Gardner. Despite their flippancy, there’s an undeniable verisimilitude there – a sense that yes, we are constantly stuck (or liberated) in the same tale, time after time: the same quest, the same novel.
True in a way, but every single perspective is unique and new and completely unknown to science. I’m lucky enough to teach writing at a small New England college, and every week I’m reminded of the newness of experience – when I read a student essay about the first time they traveled to Europe, or went abroad for a semester, I’m completely absorbed, even though I’ve read those types of essays before. But each view is unique, each experience individual.
But – taking into account the anonymous quotes at the beginning – there is this sense that all writing of a certain kind can be reduced to commonalities, to large scale, Way-Out-In-Space-Google-Earth perspective. In this sense, I would offer the following: all writing is travel writing.
Travel writing is fun to read, hard to write. Good travel writing does two things simultaneously; it takes the reader on a vertiginous journey through narrow mud-walled towns, or along alpine goat paths, or through bustling marketplaces; and it also marks the internal journey of the writer, the transformation that takes place. And while we love poling down some jungle river the color of tea, or palavering with herders in some felted yurt, if the author isn’t taking us on the interior journey, we are bored.
Leonard Michaels has this to say about stories in his essay ‘What’s a Story:’
The problem with storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of “and then”) and the latter belong to art.
Transitions versus transformations is a good way to look at it. Both words start with the prefix ‘trans’ which comes from the Latin and simply means ‘across,’ but have different meanings. ‘Transition’ comes from the Latin transire, which means to go across, hence over. It has cognates in trance, transient, and other words, which overall create an etymological pastiche that brings to mind rootlessness. Transform, on the other hand, while it shares the same prefix, is rooted firmly in the word ‘form,’ which means shape.
‘Transformation’ means to change the shape of; literally, to become another form.
Stories can provide us with both of these experiences. Good literature can take us on a journey, a quest, and we can be ‘transient’ for a bit while we read. But great books transform; remake us in some new shape. Books help us redefine our interior landscape; our moral and spiritual superstructures. Recently, I’ve been paging through two Paul Theroux classics; Riding the Iron Rooster and The Happy Isles of Oceania. And while Theroux can sometimes be criticized as a cranky old man, he is a master of balancing the personal with the external, giving the reader hearty glimpses into his own personal transformations and journeys and quests. It’s a balancing act to be sure – we want our sub-continental marigold merchants but also want to know our author and how he or she is like us.
Reading his old classics compelled me to pick up Theroux’s newest travel book. The Last Train to Zona Verde, which came out last year, is about Africa. Theroux has written about African journeys before – Dark Star Safari was a bestseller – but this book is so much better, for reasons I’ll explain briefly. Africa, in Dark Star, is the backdrop to Theroux’s usual thoughts on travel and people and himself, but it lacked – for me – that edge that good travel writing needs. I liked it fine, but Zona Verde seems to me to stand against the times in a way that’s edgier, angrier, more insistent and interesting. In Dark Star, we hear a lot about how Theroux is writing an “erotic novella” during the trip. But in Zona Verde, we are given a much different impression of why the septuagenarian novelist and travel writer is absconding to the land of lions and giraffes.
Theroux tells us early on that of the reasons for going to Africa, “The main one was physically to get away from people wasting my time with trivia.” He then goes on quote at length from that other great wanderer, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in ‘Life Without Principle;’ “I believe the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things…so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” Right; hello, Facebook newsfeed.
This sense of separation Theroux is looking for – and is willing to travel the remote regions of Africa to find – is central to our understanding of self, particularly in the age of iPhones. “To travel unconnected, away from anyone’s gaze or reach, is bliss,” Theroux writes, and particular attention should be paid to his word-choice; ‘unconnected’ is perhaps a direct reference to the ‘connectedness’ that the internet provides.
Theroux gets right to the point as he relates his adventures with the !Kung in South Africa. “Travel in Africa was also my way of opposing the increasing speed of technology – resisting it and dropping back, learning patience and studying the world that way.” That patience, he believes, is exemplified by the !Kung. Theroux likes them, though, that much is clear: “And I was thinking, as I thought for years traveling the earth among humankind: the best of them are bare-assed.”
Part of getting out and about in the world – part of any real journey – is that vital separation from what we expect at home; annoying details, obligations, and trivial matters. Once we start traveling, the triviality is blasted to bits and we’re mercifully released from the impingement of pop culture and domestic concerns; we’re happily returned to a state of wonder and curiosity.
One of the things about travel – both in the world and within ourselves – is the opportunity to explore regions that we’ve never been to before. “But there is such a thing as curiosity, dignified as a spirit of inquiry,” writes Theroux. It is that spirit that allows us to wonder, to imagine, and to be the best bare-assed specimens we possibly can.
If ‘stranger comes to town,’ and ‘man goes on a journey’ are in fact the same story, then the common theme is that of movement, of adventure, or getting out there in a new place, or meeting new people. The common theme is simply walking out the door.
Books that change us – books that transform – are in essence travel literature. As I get older, I’m less and less interested in the distinction between external and internal travel, as I think real travel, or adventure, never exists in singularity – real travel, real writing, and really great books take the reader on both the external and internal journey, and when I come back to the real world after reading such a book I’m not quite the same as I was before. I’m a bit dusty and road-worn.
“Of course, writers of any kind are never the norm; those of us who write about travel are different from the start, since we usually head out alone. The reason cited most often is freedom from distraction; when you’re by yourself, you’re more attuned to your surroundings. Less discussed, but just as important, is the fact that, alone, you’re also more sensitive. You not only notice your surroundings more clearly, you respond to them more deeply. Smiles and small kindnesses mean more to the unattached traveler than they do to a happy couple. A merchant in Fethiye adds a few extra sweets to my purchase and I’m extremely touched, in part because no one has paid any attention to me in days. If I’d been there chatting with my wife, I wouldn’t have been so moved; I may not have even been aware. And the merchant quite possibly would not have been inspired like he was by my lonely presence.”
–Thomas Swick, A Moving Experience, The Morning News, 12/03/2013