Whether it’s winning a Paralympic gold medal, becoming Thailand’s first black nun, getting attacked by a pack of angry wolves in Yugoslavia or sneaking into a Mexican prison to meet gay resistance fighters – today’s female travel writers are defying all odds.
On the coldest winter of 1965, Dervla Murphy remembers setting out from her hometown in Dunkirk to Deli by bike, which led her to write her first book, Full Tilt: Ireland to India by bicycle. She went on to write; The Waiting Land, The Spelling Nepal, Ethiopia with a Mule and Tibetan Foothold. Her first trip to India involved cycling through Europe, Persia, Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan and into India. She can recall the exact moment she made the decision to embark on her first travel trip, which marked her as one of Britain’s ‘travel legends’:
“I had the idea since I was 1943, when I was ten. I was just getting to the top of this hill and I can still remember looking down at my legs and thinking, well if did this for long enough, I could get to India. I loved cycling, so it seemed logical to cycle to India. I knew there would be a lot of interesting countries on the way. It just happened like that.”
With a 25. pistol in her pocket, Dervla protected herself against thieves, rapists and a hungry pack of wolves in Yugoslavia. She eventually sold her gun to a police officer in Afghanistan,
“I became an arms dealer” she laughs heartily and then says in a more serious manner,
“But I always carried a good knife on me. I decided that the knife would be enough. I didn’t need a gun, which could be more dangerous if there was hand to hand fighting and the gun was taken from me. That was really why I decided to sell it.”
Travelling has become a popular notion of today’s generation since cheap flights, the internet and handy phone apps have made travelling to the far-out corners of the world easier to access. Yet Dervla feels that we’re not spending enough time within each place in order to properly appreciate and understand the region since,
“The main problem is that young people dash from country to country getting stamps in their passports and not really staying anywhere long enough to get the feel of the place.”
Dervla’s first trip to India took her six months and cost her just sixty-four pounds. She sees travelling as a woman “as a great advantage.” She describes how the people have,
“A very strong hospitality code, for any stranger appearing in their territory is made most welcome, sheltered and fed. The ordinary people are very kind, it’s the people that rob the world who are unkind.”
When I ask her why she likes travelling so much, she pauses for a moment, and then tells me:
“There’s not one answer to that, I think people are born with wanderlust and when that happens you don’t think about it’s your nature is just to travel.”
Dervla challenges the way we see areas of the world that are usually only depicted through the media as inhospitable towards women, perhaps even suicidal. In Full Tilt, she describes how she wakes up in the shade of a tent that had been placed over her by nomads whilst she slept on the side of the road. This heart-warming and deeply sincere account of travelling in Full Tilt is a must read.
So, why travel? It could be a career failure, a break-up or even a breakdown. For some, this might be the perfect moment to get away, alone, somewhere very far away. In an interview with Karen Darke, Britain’s Gold Paralympic Champion of the Rio 2016 Olympics in the road time-trail H1-3 and a silver winner in London 2012 Olympics, travelling opened up a new paradigm, despite all odds. Author of If You Fall: It’s a New Beginning and Boundless: An adventure Beyond Limits.
Karen Darke tells me,
“Travelling can give you a new perspective and it’s important to see the world out there, in order to reflect on yourself.” Believing in the power of visualisation, rather than the sometimes unrealistic approach of positive thinking, Karen goes on to say she sees her writing as,
“a way of dealing with stuff and opening up about things that was going on. I see writing as finding a snapshot in time.”
Having used her arms to push her along on skis across ice caps in Greenland, hand-cycling the Himalayas as well as riding from Canada to Mexico, Karen finds “simplicity” in extreme landscapes.
When I ask Karen if she’ll be competing in her first Commonwealth games and maybe, the upcoming Olympics she seems apprehensive,
“Perhaps with a bit more training”, she says. This is a woman who really sees no limits. She confesses that her problem is “not knowing when to stop.”
Like Karen Darke and Dervla Murphy’s work, defying expectations lead to the birth of female travel writing. Travel writing is still an area dominated by male writers and old ideas such as; Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson, who claim most of the shelves of the travel section down the local library. Year after year, less than a quarter of the Dolman’s Travel Book of the Year Awards are women, let alone women from around the world, in the areas that we’re all curious about exploring.
People questions, ‘where are all the female travel writers gone?’ They exist. Yet female travel writing is always looked upon romantically, only thriving within the Golden-Era of literature. What happened to the ladies of leisure? For example, Lesley Blanch’s, The Wilder Shores of Love, a quartet of women roamed the crystallised deserts of the Middle East in sleek, designer-dressed looking for exotic love affairs.
In order to understand how travel literature as transformed today, I speak with Stephanie Elizondo Griest, an award-winning Chicana (someone of Mexican heritage living in North-America) writer, author, and activist from South Texas. In her first book, Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, Stephanie describes how she, “mingled with the Russian Mafia, polished Chinese Propaganda, and belly danced with Cuban Rumba queens.” In the third sequel of her books, Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines, she explores the concept of identity.
In America, it’s often common that second-generation Mexican’s don’t speak Spanish anymore, Stephanie tells me this is because “grandparents had it humiliated out of them. In the 40s, 50s and 60s women were really punished for speaking Spanish by American authorities.”
In Mexican Enough: My life between borders, she does some root digging, but also stumbles across social justice movements, whilst visiting families of undocumented workers from back in her hometown. This fascinating account of her trip takes many turns from witnessing the popular luchadores (professional wrestlers) and investigating the murder of a prominent gay activist by sneaking into a prison to meet with indigenous resistance fighters. She’s devoted to her work, and has spent her life travelling, writing and bearing witness to the world:
“I never married, I never had children, bought a house, owned a pet… because I live for moments when you are one and truly connecting with something completely outside of yourself.”
Despite her long line of fascinating work, Stephanie has witnessed gender inequality, which is still prevalent in travel writing:
“I feel women aren’t given much of a platform. This is the reason I edited the anthology, bestsellers women’s travel writing. And wrote ‘100 places everyone should go… It’s about the sacrifices women make for their artwork… It’s so difficult for us because we only get the fraction of the pay cheque. I see this in travel writing a lot.”
Despite the lack of platforming, social media has become an area where young writers are opening up the platform. It’s also an area where women are questioning their role and learning from sharing each others experiencing and connecting over these issues, even if it’s an army of total online strangers. Stephanie believes:
“There is something quite amazing and powerful about social media because as women we do rally behind one another now and that gives us the extra push to go out and take the world on our terms.”
Most recently the heavily scrutinized #metoo campaign against sexual assault was followed by former China Editor, Carrie Gracie’s dispute with the BBC over equal pay. The editor at Channel 4 News, openly supported Gracie’s move, and believes the publicity her walk-out received boosted the confidence of other journalists:
“Carrie has galvanized a whole generation of women journalists to ask ourselves whether we may have been discriminated against throughout their career. We don’t know yet, of course, until all the figures come out elsewhere.”
Stephanie’s experience reflects a wider problem within journalists from the UK have been facing in the newsroom. Carrie Gracie was backed by other senior BBC employees in a protest against the pay gap. Having felt “moved” by the support she received, Gracie’s open letter, published in The Times, revealing mistreatment and illegal discrimination within her career.
So where is travel writing heading? A new age of writers are coming forward and redefining what we really mean by travel writing, Stephanie says,
“I hope the genre takes on more social justice terms, but it’s hard to say because travel writing come out of colonialism. I still see a lot of travel writing that smacks-up the old empire. I think reading more people of colour and people from colonized communities brings a different dialogue. This will be the true turning point to travel writing.”
How is travel writing changing and adapting itself towards a different audience that never existed in the print world? Faith Adiele is Nordic-Nigerian writer, in her first book Meeting Faith: And Inward Odyssey, she encounters a deep spiritual awakening which pushed her to become Thailand’s first black Buddhist nun. She’s the Award-winning author of The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems and has been named as one of Marie Claire’s “5 women to learn from”, and she certainly has a lot to teach about the way we can reflect the world around us through the power of words.
Faith Adiele brings up the problematic narrative in the way Africa is portrayed in the media. Especially within books, such as Paul Theroux’s Star Safari. It does little to communicate the African people and to portray the true nature of African society.
Admittedly, Theroux’s African Safari you start wondering whether his 50-years of travel have taught him anything, but with every page it seems more and more evident that he travels with such painful disconnect to the place, the people… apart from the ‘child-like’ African tribal women and the visits to underage brothels on a ‘getaway’ from his wife and children. Since travel writing and travel itself was born from colonialism, the narrative is not surprising, but you’d have hoped we’ve moved on since those days. So Faith attempts to redefine the way we write about the world:
“At the moment I’m really questioning what is travel, travel writing, how we write about that. The language we use can be so ‘othering’ out of the imperial endeavor… It’s problematic, the way the media represents Africa. When you read Paul Theroux Star Safari and he references Heart of Darkness ten times during it, how am I mean to believe in what he’s saying because he’s using Heart of Darkness as his guide?”
Faith’s writing is a mixture of genres, a combination of travelogue integrated with moments from her personal journey: “The travel journal is such a rich space because when you’re travelling all of your senses are ignited, you’re looking at everything and questioning everything, whether or not you’re failing or succeeding on the road.”
Being a woman traveling alone can be seen as risqué and often dangerous, depending on what part of the world you visit. But when traveling solo, you’re often putting yourself in the position of being vulnerable, and this sometimes works in your favor. Faith tells me,
“There’s nothing like being a woman alone traveling, it’s scary but I’ve had really wonderful things happen because you have an opportunity to engage.” Since going without a companion can push you to reach out and seek the care of strangers.
When I ask Faith if she can give some advice to ammeter travel writers, she tells me that research is key. Advisably, something that has been written by someone from your chosen travel destination. Without knowing about a culture or its customs, Faith agrees that “without research, we could simply be rehashing old things. She tells me that, “if you have the proper building blocks in your journal you could be teaching something wonderful” She goes on to say, “Sometimes travel writing is very sloppy. No one talks about power dynamic, the people of color who are being visited, we’re not hearing those people’s voices.”
There are plenty of inspirational black female travel writers, although it’s apparent that this literature is lacking a visible platform. Faith sees this as a very segregated area, especially within glossy magazines and the travel community that is popular where San Francisco, where she is based. But the internet has been bringing forward a greater variety of writers, talking about different things, other than what hotels and restaurants are good.
Black female writers have long challenged some of the most pressing issues; such as identity, politics, poverty, and racism. Raw and detailed witnessed include Zora Hurston’s, Tell My Horse, which includes a fascinating first-hand, vivid account of mysterious rituals of voodoo practices in Haiti and Jamaica in the 1930’s. Other writers include Maya Angelou, author of All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes where she writes about the ‘myth of mother Africa’ through the eyes of someone who experienced the poverty, discrimination and true cruelty of the world.
It’s clear that there is a long road ahead for travel writing and the way in which we define our experiences, through the places and people that are being visited. 100 years women’s suffrage, (although only a partial one) marks a point where we can see how far we’ve come, as women, and how far we need to go before we reach true equality. But in order to celebrate, I thank all the female’s who redefine the world through the power of their words. These are by far the most courageous, witty and vivacious women, carving the path out sisters will continue to walk on.