Wild on the Road: Kelly Westhoff reviews new titles by women
By Kelly Westhoff
Tamara Sheward was determined to see the world, but she wasn’t big on making travel plans. When she arrived in Bangkok she knew just two things: Her gal pal Elissa was meeting her there and once they joined forces, they had three weeks to backpack a loop through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
So begins Sheward’s travel memoir: Bad Karma: Confessions of a Reckless Traveller in Southeast Asia .
This fall the title, already a success in Australia, crossed the Pacific and landed in America. The book is quite unlike any travelogue I’ve ever read.
Sheward and her companion rarely stay for more than two days in any one place, they rarely make friends with other travelers (preferring to mock them instead) and they rarely linger long enough to make any sort of meaningful connection with local people.
Sometimes, while reading, I was actually offended by Sheward’s — as the title suggests — recklessness.
And yet I kept reading. I kept reading because, if I was really honest with myself, I was Tamara Sheward. I’d like to think I’m a responsible, respectful traveler, but really, who among us can be the ideal tourist 100 percent of the time? I’ve whizzed through towns without a scant glance at their history sections in my guide.
I know I’ve rolled my eyes and giggled about other backpackers. And there’ve been plenty of times when I’ve been so road weary that just I didn’t give a damn about being culturally appropriate.
Bad Karma boldly includes all these moments, and in doing so, knocks any romantic visions of travel on their ass. This is no Under the Tuscan Sun. But Sheward does learn a lesson or two, and when she does, she captures them honestly and with surprising efficiency. In the end, I enjoyed her bumpy backpacker journey.
Home on the Road
Catherine Watson, on the other hand, offers a completely different sort of travel experience in her two recent essay collections: Home on the Road: Further Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth and Roads Less Traveled: Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth .
Any woman aspiring to be a travel writer — or a traveler for that matter — should familiarize herself with Watson’s work.
Watson was travel editor at the Star Tribune, the Minneapolis-St. Paul daily, for 26 years. She took the job in 1978 at a time when women were just beginning to demand equal rights and equal pay.
Throughout her tenure, she journeyed to Nepal, Vietnam, Australia, Alaska, Russia, and just about every other place in the world. She often traveled by herself and often on a shoestring. Since retiring in 2005, Watson has culled her massive archives and chosen her favorites; these two essay collections are compilations of those.
Watson’s writing is measured and clean. She paints vivid images of the people she meets, the trails she hikes and the betel she chews, not with long, over-the-top paragraphs crammed with adjectives, but with one-line metaphors that hit straight home. She is a pro and that comes through in each and every essay.
Dreaming of the Road
Ever since I was bitten by the travel bug way back in college as a student abroad, I have been drawn to women’s travel memoirs. I love reading about other gals’ global jaunts because they offer me an escape. I might be stuck at home, but I’m always dreaming of my next big trip. Women-penned travelogues tie me over from my last journey until my next.
The travel memoirs I’ve read this year have been impressively diverse. Besides Tamara Sheward’s frenzied backpacking tale and Catherine Watson’s finely drawn details, I’ve found plenty of titles to keep me constantly reading. Here’s a sampling of what filled my shelves this year.
Good Reads of the Road:
The River Queen
by Mary Morris
Like Catherine Watson, Marry Morris has been writing travel tales for a long time. Her groundbreaking travelogue, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone , is one my all-time favorite travel memoirs. It was published in 1988.
Morris has been focusing on fiction for the past few years, but this spring, she returned to the travel writing world. A long-time New Yorker, the events of 9/11 deeply affected her. Shortly after, her father died. Then her only child packed up and left for college. Lost, depressed and anxious, Morris turned to prescriptive pills.
To kick the habit and get herself out of her rut, she decides to return to the land of her father – the Midwest and the Mississippi. She rents a decrepit houseboat with the intention of learning to pilot a boat down the river. Except the boat’s seen better days, so have her two sailors and so has the accompanying rat terrier. They all pull it together and manage to navigate the mighty waters, with lessons learned and friendships forged along the way.
Buy The River Queen: A Memoir from Amazon
A Year in Japan
by Kate T. Williamson
Reading A Year in Japan is like reading a college student’s diary of her semester abroad. That’s because Williamson’s travel memoir is basically that—her travel journal. In it, she combines sparse prose with detailed drawings to retell her time abroad.
Food is one of her favorite subjects, as are socks and flowering trees. My favorite entry is a drawing of the inside of a Japanese taxi. Lace doilies cover the seats, a selection of magazines awaits the rider, and next to the driver is a vase filled with flowers. “Japanese taxis are quite elegant,” Williamson scrawled in the bottom corner of the page.
The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan’s Pleasure District (P.S.)
by Louise Brown
Louise Brown is a British academic studying prostitution in Southeast Asia. She develops a close relationship with one particular woman, Maha. Maha lives in the red-light district of Lahore, Pakistan.
Over the course of four years, Brown returns to Lahore, again and again, to check in on Maha and her family of five children. Because Brown is a professor, the tone is sometimes heavy. She takes a scholarly approach to prostitution and its modern-day and historic place in a Muslim land.
But the friendship that develops between Brown and Maha is quite touching. Ultimately, this book is about the author’s inexplicable fascination with a foreign culture. She tries so hard to fit in and must come to realize that it will never happen.
Beauty School of Kabul: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil
by Deborah Rodriguez
After 9/11, Deborah Rodriguez learned about the plight of the Afghani women and yearned to help them. A hairdresser by trade, Rodriguez decides that the best thing she can do is go to Afghanistan and teach the women there how to become beauticians.
Rodriguez is hardly a sophisticated or educated traveler. She doesn’t know what to expect when she lands in Kabul, manages to step on many cultural toes and opens her beauty school, not because of her ability to finesse the system, but out of her sheer blind determination.
The book is hardly fine literature. Rodriquez is a hair stylist, not a journalist, and there has been some squawking about whether or not she truly represented her tale, but I must say, I zipped right through it and enjoyed it.
Buy Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil from Amazon
Child of the Jungle
by Sabine Kuegler
Sabine Kuegler grew up in the jungle. Her German parents were missionaries and when she was just a girl, her family moved to a hut on the banks of a tropical river to live amongst the Fayu, a previously unknown tribe with a history of cannibalism.
Most of the book takes place in the jungle and recounts tales of tribal conflicts, massive insects and childhood friendships. Once she reaches her teenage years, Kuegler has to decide whether to stay with her parents or return to Europe for boarding school. She chooses the latter.
After a girlhood in the jungle, she struggles to readapt to Western life. This book was first published in Germany and it’s just recently been translated to English. It was a fast read and this is what I found most fascinating: The author is in her 30s. That means these stories, these tales about this lost jungle tribe, happened in my lifetime. Amazing.
Es Cuba: Love and Life on an Illegal Island
by Lea Aschkenas
Lea Aschkenas didn’t go to Cuba to fall in love. She went because a previously-plotted trip to Ecuador fell through and Cuba seemed an intriguing plan B. Once she arrived in Havana, however, she did fall in love—with the city, the people and one man in particular: Alfredo.
Aschkenas is extremely wary of the cultural divide that exists between them, but she just can’t extricate herself from the relationship. In fact, when she does return home to the States, it’s to begin the legal process that will bring Alfredo here to her.
Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island is an impossibly romantic travel tale. It’s obvious that Aschkenas, a professional librarian, knows how to write. Her prose pulled me in and never let me go.
Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for Women Who Are Changing the World
by Holly Morris
Holly Morris was uninspired by her desk job, so she left it and set off about the globe in search of empowered women in other lands.
She goes to Iran, New Zealand, Cuba, Borneo and more, always seeking interview opportunities with remarkable women. Each chapter tells a travel tale from a different place, and Morris’ own rowdy experiences are highlighted just as often as those of her interview subjects.
She also managed to haul a video crew with her and has produced a series of PBS segments called…what else…Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for Women Who Are Changing the World. If you’ve ever seen the shows, some of these chapters offer an interesting glimpse behind the scenes.
Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia
by Elizabeth Gilbert
This year, Elizabeth Gilbert captured the one title that every American author dreams of: Guest of the Oprah Winfrey Show. I liked her book. Oprah liked her book. And according to an interview published in Marie Clare magazine, Hillary Clinton even liked the book. What’s more to say? Well, perhaps a little more.
This year-long travel account takes Gilbert to three different lands — Italy, India and Indonesia — where she spends her time doing exactly what the title suggests — eating, praying and falling in love.
But before she could ever hit the road, she had to get divorced. Gilbert was approaching 30, married and terrified at the thought of having kids. All she wanted to do was travel the world. Alone.
Eat, Pray, Love has attracted so many readers because, while it is a travel tale, it’s really a book about the power of intention. The moral of Gilbert’s story is that if you dream it, if you put the energy out there and pay attention to all the signs the universe sends, that your heart’s desire really can come true.
Bad Karma: Confessions of a Reckless Traveller in Southeast Asia by Tamara Sheward
Home on the Road: Further Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth by Catherine Watson
Roads Less Traveled: Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth by Catherine Watson
Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone by Mary Morris
The River Queen: A Memoir by Mary Morris
A Year in Japan by Kate T. Williamson
Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez
Child of the Jungle: The True Story of a Girl Caught Between Two Worlds by Sabine Kuegler
Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island by Lea Aschkenas
Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
Authors’ Web sites:
Kate T. Williamson
Sabine Kuegler (in German)