By Kelly Westhoff
I read a discussion thread posted on an Internet forum for travel writers. The original comment was a complaint about the lack of prominent women in the travel writing field. Why weren’t there more big shot, women travel writers?
Lots of people responded to the post. Some agreed with it. Others objected. I didn’t post any words as I wasn’t sure where my thoughts fell on the continuum.
I sympathized with the original complaint: In the world of travel writing, the names with the most pull and recognition tend to belong to men.
Yet I disagreed with the post as well. My bedside list of books to read was filled with travel titles penned by women. Obviously, women were publishing travel tales. Were their books just not getting equal air time?
Instead of adding to an online discussion string that would soon get buried and archived, I decided to do something more proactive. I decided to move all those women-written travel books on my list of things to do up to the very top and review each one.
And so, without further ado, here is what I’ve been reading:
If you were to meet Majka Burhardt on the street, you would never guess that she is capable of outrageous physical strength. She’s not any taller than a typical, 30-something American woman, not any bulkier, beefier, or bustier. But she is, perhaps, ballsier.
Get your hands on a copy of her travel memoir, Vertical Ethiopia, and you’ll see what I mean, literally. It is a hard bound coffee table book filled with unbelievable photographs of Burhardt scaling sheer towers of rock in northern Ethiopia.
Burhardt, a contributing editor for Climbing magazine, took a team of women climbers to Ethiopia in 2007. Once there, they were tasked with figuring out how to put together a climbing exhibition in a country where few climbers have dared to tread.
I whiled away an entire morning pouring over the pages of this book with a pot of coffee. It is photo heavy, but the interspersed essays are touching and poetic. They showcase Burhardt’s love of travel and her respect for the land and people of Ethiopia.
Catherine Sanderson is a “petite anglaise.” In other words, she’s a British girl living in France. Paris, to be exact. Actually, she’s doing more than just living there.
She’s in love with a charming Parisian man and together they are raising their daughter, a sweet, bilingual toddler. And yet…
And yet she’s not convinced her charming Parisian is it for the long haul. And motherhood has packed on some troublesome pounds.
And her job is on shaky ground. Turns out, deep cracks are running through her romantic French life. So she starts a blog.
She titles her blog “Petite Anglaise” and begins to chronicle her crumbling life. To her surprise, the blog becomes immensely popular and a regular reader, a man who keeps posting comments, is promising an escape.
But that escape soon turns into a love triangle complicated by the pressure Sanderson feels to keep up her tell-all blogging routine.
I was quickly drawn into the drama of Petite Anglaise. It was incredibly readable and so much more than a series of blog postings. It would make a great beach read or airplane book.
This book spent a year on my reading list. It shouldn’t have waited so long. This slim memoir about a Peace Corp volunteer’s stint in a small, dusty African village is sweet and touching.
The author, Kris Holloway, was fresh out of college when she landed in Mali. Once stationed at her post, she is paired with the village midwife: Monique. Besides birthing babies, Monique served as all-around medic for the town.
Monique, it turned out, was in dire need of a friend. As the two women worked side-by-side, they formed a tight bond. Because of this friendship, Holloway gained real insight into Monique’s life.
While Monique is the shinning star of this story, a big part of the book is women’s health, or lack there of, in Mali, which lends a sort of anthropological tone. But this wasn’t distracting. Instead, it was fascinating.
This is a smart book and I’m so pleased it was written by a woman. Emma Larkin makes several trips to Burma (Myanmar) on the trail of George Orwell.
Orwell spent five years in Burma before becoming a writer. Once he did, he penned a novel and several essays about Burma, all of which are disturbing.
Because of this, Larkin hypothesizes that something awful must have befallen Orwell in Burma, the circumstances of which she hopes to uncover in her journeys there.
You don’t have to be an Orwell scholar to pick up this book, but once you finish it, you might wish you were. Beyond her Orwell obsession, however, Larkin’s book is also a travel tale and her accounts of the Burma she encounters are fascinating.
Her explanations of Burma’s past and present are interesting and accessible. You’ll leave this book better informed about one of the world’s poorest and most troubled countries.
Annie Griffiths Belt
Many travelers have dreamed of working for National Geographic. A post with this illustrious publication would send you crisscrossing the globe photographing unspoiled landscapes and witnessing the fascinating rituals of hidden Amazon tribes. Right?
Spend an hour or so with Annie Griffiths Belt’s coffee table book, A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel, and you’ll find out whether or not that National Geographic dream job is worth all the fuss.
The book is a beautiful collection of photographs culled from Belt’s years as a National Geographic photographer, years which happened to coincide with her days as a mother of two young kids.
Short essays accompany the pictures, telling how she got her National Geographic job, and then how she juggled the globe-trotting demands of that job with motherhood.
This book would make a fantastic gift for a travel-loving woman who now finds herself at home with children. Or not. It just might fuel her wanderlust.
A woman I barely know told me to read The White Masai. “It’s about this gal who goes on vacation in Africa and falls in love with a Masai. She marries him, moves to the bush and lives in a hut,” she said.
Of course I had to look this book up. It sounded like something I might like—a heap of culture clashing mixed with a little bit of travel and a little bit of love.
After reading some online reviews, I ordered myself a copy. Once I cracked the cover, I had a hard time putting it down.
To say I was floored by the author’s experiences would be putting it mildly. I don’t have the patience, resilience or desire to stick out the illness, diet and gender-role woes she lived through.
But here’s the worst part: There is a sequel. There is even a volume three. And I know that I will be reading both.
Polly Evans didn’t know how to ride a horse. That didn’t stop her, though, from planning a trip to Argentina with the purpose of riding horses wherever she could find them.
She found plenty of opportunities, and even managed to stay upright in the saddle, but several chapters go by in which no horses are involved. Instead, she fills the pages by visiting every corner of Argentina and spinning tales of the country’s history.
I often felt as though I were on a tour, with a knowledgeable guide at my beck and call. Evans includes oodles of research and managed to do it without boring me to tears. There were even a few spots in which I found myself chortling out loud at her self-deprecating humor.
Her story was easy to fall into and admirable in that she traversed much this massive land by herself. Plus, as an Argentina aficionado, I must say that this travelogue fills a void in the genre. I’ve looked and looked for a good, modern travel story set there and had always come up empty handed, until now.
Marie Javins was already an experienced traveler when she landed in Africa. She’d been on the road for nine months and had traipsed through much of the world on her own.
The African leg of her trip was to stretch from Cape Town to Cairo and she planned to complete the trek without ever boarding a plane.
Along the way she struggled to survive a hippo attack, a band of gassy gorillas, a high-speed drive through the midnight desert and the secret codes of the Ethiopian postal system.
The World Trade Towers collapsed while she was in Zanzibar and her experience watching the terrorist attack unfold from a little-know part of Africa was both well-described and fascinating.
Javins kept a web site chronicling her path, and even posed excursion options to readers back home, so in the book, she’s often on the hunt for an Internet connection, too.
Rachel Manija Brown
What if—while you were still just a girl—your parents joined a cult and moved you to the community compound? And what if that compound was in rural India? Surely, things would get interesting.
And they do in Rachel Manija Brown’s memoir. While her parents, followers of a guru named Meher Baba, devoted their lives to an obscure, dead spiritual leader, Brown attended a horrific local school.
She suffered extreme loneliness, yet she also grew accustomed to the mysteries of her new surroundings like lurking cobras, walking catfish, and psycho librarians.
Her adventures, when written in the child’s voice, are engaging and sharp. Her adult voice, in my opinion, wasn’t nearly so clever, but without that older perspective many questions would have gone unanswered.
Have you ever traveled to a faraway land, excited for your exotic journey, only to discover living conditions so other-worldly that you just don’t know how to reconcile the experience with your first-world, privileged life?
Did you vow to “do something” once you got home, only to get home and promptly forget your promise?
Most likely you didn’t forget. You probably dropped the cause because you didn’t know how to effect real change.
Enter Isabel Losada and her book A Beginner’s Guide to Changing the World. After a journey to Tibet, she becomes obsessed with the call for Tibetan independence and eventually founds a nonprofit toward that cause.
I hesitated over whether or not to add this title in this list of “travel” books. When I first picked it up, I thought travel was going to be the prominent theme. It is not. Acting for the betterment of the world is. I kept the title in this line-up, however, because I admire the fact that the very act of travel so transformed this woman.