The Footprints Women Make

Travel Memoirs are emotional maps

The year travel writer Ann Jones drove from Morocco to South Africa, she passed through more than 15 countries and in so doing met up with more than a few border guards. Again and again, the men would express surprise at this strange creature presenting her passport before them. “Family situation?” they’d ask, and when she’d say she was single, they’d ask why. “I make many long journeys,” she told one Moroccan guard. “My husband would not be happy.” Why then, you must stay at home, he replied. When she told him that she must work, he responded with an astonished pronouncement: You must work at home, Madame.

In a world where repressive regimes such as Afghanistan’s Taliban deny females not only education and employment but also the right to walk uncovered on the street, for many women the act of leaving home at all, much less alone, is one of dangerous self-assertion. It seems that when they exercise their freedom of movement, women pose a direct challenge to the powers-that-be, affirming not only their own existence but also their curiosity about the world around them. And curiosity leads to critical thinking.

Three travel memoirs published this year by Rita Golden Gelman, Ann Jones, and Christiane Bird cover much geographical territory while mapping the emotional territory that’s so often revealed when individuals come into contact with other cultures. And if the impetus to travel is often sparked by curiosity about oneself and others, it is also often inspired by a quest. Gelman wants to fulfill an old dream of being a world traveler; Jones wants to find the Lovedu people of South Africa, a tribe whose lives are supposed to be based on the “feminine” principles of cooperation, generosity, and peace; and Bird wants to rediscover the Iran she first knew as a child.

Each writer’s style reflects her approach to the cultures she explores. While Gelman describes her experiences and the cultures she encounters primarily through her own emotions and impressions, Jones adds social, political, and historical information to her narrative, interspersing essays about African culture and history with episodes from her journey. Bird also uses the technique of weaving personal experience with social and political history, but takes the most straightforward journalistic tone of the three writers.

Tales of a Female Nomad chronicles Gelman’s wanderings through Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Israel, the Galápagos Islands, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Thailand. Her nomadic existence begins as her conventional life ends: In 1986, when Gelman is 48, she and her husband decide to take a two-month vacation from each other, and she heads to Mexico. Her marriage is over by the time she returns, and she sets off for Guatemala, finally free to pursue the travel dreams she’s harbored since childhood. For Gelman, becoming a permanent nomad is the way to become her real self.Using money she earns from writing children’s books, she plans her routes loosely and, because she desires to enter each country and culture as deeply as possible, chooses to stay with people she meets where they live. This decision brings her into contact with Marco, a Guatemalan taxi driver and his large extended family; Mohamed, a Druse man in Israel who hosts a tour of his village and asks Rita to marry him; Biruté Galdikas, an anthropologist who studies orangutans in Borneo; Tu Aji, an Indonesian prince; and Fon, a Thai woman who runs a small resort and teaches Rita to cook ho mok, a creamy fish mousse with coconut milk.

Although she seeks to get as close to people as possible, Gelman is also cautious, not wanting to influence those she encounters and wanting to remain “objective.” Yet this goal is impossible, since her travels are inextricably caught up in her newfound freedom and the romance of self-discovery. While on a tour with an Indonesian guide, she stumbles across people of the Korowai tribe in the Asmat country of Irian Jaya, and in a moment the objective researcher stance she seeks to cultivate vanishes: “We have come upon hunters and gatherers in the forest,” she breathes. “They stand, stiff and formal and beautiful. I can only stare in awe. They are a picture, a dream, a realization of my fantasies.” When she proclaims her efforts to be objective, Gelman’s narrative falters, but when she accepts her lack of objectivity and gives herself over to what she’s feeling, she’s often able to evoke the falling-in-love excitement new experiences can bring.

Ann Jones begins her trans-African road trip with Kevin Muggleton, a British photographer roughly half her age. They set off from England in a 1980 army surplus Series III Land Rover, entering Africa by ferry from Gibraltar, with the ostensible goal of finding the Lovedu (low-BAY-doo), a South African tribe governed by a rainmaking queen. A professor and writer, Jones is ambivalent about Muggleton from the start, alternately grateful for the skills he brings to the expedition and frustrated by the very arrogance that propels him to take on such a challenging journey.She meets him one languid day on a canoe trip along the Zambezi, and when he casually suggests driving from North Africa to South Africa, she is electrified by the prospect. In her book, Jones admits that the Lovedu queen comes later; her first impulse to make the trip was motivated by a powerful nostalgia for her childhood, when she and her father would get in the family car and drive until her father felt like coming back.

When Jones eventually suggests that a meeting with the queen should be their mission, Muggleton bristles, concerned that she is looking for some “feminist la-la land” and that she’s going to “go all wobbly” on him in a quest for her “true self.” Jones reassures him: “Anyway, all that transformation stuff is just a literary cliché. Somebody takes a trip, has some ‘peak experience,’ and comes back a new person…. It’s wish fulfillment.”

Of course, Jones does discover some things about herself, particularly when she breaks with Muggleton in Nairobi and continues the trip with two women, an Australian named Caro and an African named Celia. Although with Muggleton she had often chafed under what she felt was his relentless pressure to move forward and accomplish goals (like crossing the Sahara without a guide), as she travels with the two women she discovers that she is actually more like Muggleton than she realized, taking on the role of the bossy taskmaster concerned only with reaching the destination rather than enjoying the process.

For Jones, the primary culture shock of her travels across Africa comes from this conflict between what she sees as masculine and feminine. Looking for Lovedu explores the issue of whether a woman traveler really fits into the category of “woman”: If many cultures dictate that the natural sphere of woman is the home, does a woman have to become a sort of man in order to leave that sphere?

As a child during the 1960s, Christiane Bird spent three years living in Tabriz, a city in northwestern Iran. Her father, a surgeon, and her mother, a homemaker, had moved with their young family to Iran under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church, to fill in temporarily for a full-time missionary on leave. Drawn by the complexity of the culture and emboldened by the softening toward the West she hears in president Mohammad Khatami’s speeches, Bird returns in 1998 with the aim of writing a safarnameh, or travelogue. Like Gelman and Jones, she has a multilayered quest, part self-discovery and part cultural study: “I went to Iran to flirt with my childhood. I went to Iran to court the unknown. I went to Iran to see the effects of the Islamic Revolution for myself,” she writes.She explores Tehran and nearby Jamaran, the neighborhood where Ayatollah Khomeini lived his last years. She attends a Friday prayer service at the University of Tehran and visits the Imam Khomeini Holy Shrine and Behesht-e Zahra, a cemetery south of Tehran where many soldiers from the Iran-Iraq War are buried. She makes a pilgrimage of sorts to Mashhad, a holy city 100 miles from the border of Afghanistan, and manages to gain entry into the inner chambers of the Imam Reza shrine, where she witnesses a sea of women in chadors — full-length veils — literally entranced by prayer.

Yet even at moments of high intensity throughout her narrative, Bird remains strangely outside her experiences, as if she is able only to narrate them, rather than live them. Despite her emotional connection to Iran through her childhood memories, Bird tends to emphasize the facts of her experience, recording encounters in almost an interview format. At a zurkhaneh, a traditional Persian wrestling demonstration, she becomes aware that she is the only woman at the gathering, and an American woman at that. To deal with her discomfort, she retreats further into her role as a journalist: “I wasn’t a woman; I was a journalist. The same thing seemed to be happening to the men. I sensed their awareness of me fade as they turned to the task at hand, transforming themselves from men into warriors. There are many good reasons for role-playing in this life, I thought — including the distancing of self from emotion.” Unlike Gelman, who brings the people and cultures she enters as close as possible, Bird uses her safarnameh as a lens to look at Iran from a distance and so gain what she hopes is a clearer perspective.

In an epitaph that begins her book, Bird quotes Graham Greene from his Journey Without Maps: “The motive of a journey deserves a little attention. It is not the fully conscious mind which chooses West Africa in preference to Switzerland…. A quality of darkness is needed, of the inexplicable.”All three women begin their journeys with murky motives. Gelman leaves in confusion as her marriage disintegrates. Jones heads for South Africa looking for a queen she’s not sure even exists. And Bird sets off for Iran to find — what? — perhaps an incarnation of her childhood experience in the contemporary culture. What motivates them is a complicated alchemy of desire to test their own mettle, to find a hidden part of themselves, and to understand childhood experience more deeply. For all three, the mystery of the unknown and their own curiosity about it proves to be a call too seductive to refuse. And so they go.

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