Wild Life by Lisa Alpine: a book review and interview on the importance of spontanous travel
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.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from traveling?
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.
What inspired you to start traveling?
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.
In the book, it seems like you’re always up for an adventure — how do you maintain that upbeat attitude?
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.
In the book, you enjoy venturing off the beaten path. How do you pick your next destination? Do certain countries speak to you?
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…
Many people are used to shorter trips, but struggle with the mentality of longer trips. From your years of traveling, do you have any tricks/tips on having a successful longer trip?
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.
Read Lisa’s book
Laura blogs at Waiting To Be Read where she writes about why book reading is a dying and valuable skill, next to traveling.