The Best Women's Travel Writing, Volume 8 - IntroductionBy Lavinia Spalding
When I was little, we didn’t travel. My parents couldn’t afford airplane tickets, and we were never one of those road-tripping-skiing-camping-fishing-s’mores-by-the-bonfire families. We were a stay-indoors-play-monopoly-read-politely-on-the-sofa people. I do recall one big international trip, however, to Madrid, Spain.
What I remember is that I didn’t get to go. My parents took my older brother and sister, while I stayed home with my Nana. Although I have no memory of their departure or return, I can still vividly recall the resulting 8 x 10 framed photo of my siblings, ages five and eight, posing with a statuesque flamenco dancer. All three subjects beamed widely into the camera as they held castanets above their heads, wrists turned elegantly inward. That grainy photograph hung on our living room wall every day of my childhood, taunting me.
“You wouldn’t have even remembered the trip!” my mom protested whenever I complained about my missed opportunity. “You were two! And in diapers!”
None of that mattered. All I knew was that something rare and magical existed within that photo, and I wanted in.
The summer after I turned ten, I finally got the family trip I’d longed for. My parents moved us from New Hampshire to Arizona, and we spent three glorious weeks on the road. My brother Nathanael and I rode with my parents in a yellow 1965 school bus they’d converted into a camper van and named Gillie Rom (“Song of the road” in Romany, the Gypsy language) while my sister and a friend caravanned in the U-Haul. Nathanael and I spent most of our time at a foldout card table in the back, playing poker for pennies and encouraging passing truckers to honk their horns. I devoted entire days to reading Nancy Drew books, scribbling in my journal, and staring dreamily out the window at cornfields and cows.
My parents braked for all major landmarks: the Hershey chocolate factory in Pennsylvania, the Luray Caverns in West Virginia, the Museum of Science and Technology in Tennessee. I remember a Fourth of July barbecue in Memphis with pulled pork cooked for twenty-four hours, and a late-night bluegrass jam session around a campfire in Kentucky. One night at a KOA in Arkansas, my father jimmied the lock of a rental paddleboat and we all floated on a moonlit lake while he serenaded us with his classical guitar.
I had never been happier or more awakened to the promise of the world and the possibilities that exist within a family. And I’ve probably spent my adult life trying to prolong the experience.
There’s something tremendously potent about family travel, and this fact struck me again while editing The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 8. As I reviewed the stories that make up this year’s collection, an unexpected theme began rising from the ink: among the cast of characters were two grandfathers, a grandmother, two mothers, a father, a brother, a couple of daughters, a son, some ancestors, a friend’s parents, and two sisters-in-law.
Likewise, there’s something singularly powerful about the stories that come from family travel. I find them fascinating, and not strictly because of an unchecked childhood obsession with a photo, or even three weeks spent in a school bus with foldout cots. What excites me in a piece of travel writing is the same quality that makes travel itself meaningful: genuine human connection. When a story involves family, this is nearly always present—often paired with some complicated and long-awaited flash of understanding, the reinterpreting of a shared history, a healthy dose of ambiguity, a deepening of ties, and in the end, a sense of renewal, perhaps even redemption.
To me, that makes for good reading.
In this year’s collection, we have Amber Kelly-Anderson climbing the Great Wall of China in torrential rain with her ninety-one-year-old grandfather who yearns for nothing more than one final journey, and Carol Reichert accompanying her brother to a stem-cell clinic in the Dominican Republic on a desperate mission to find a miracle cure for his disease. There’s Ann Hood’s stunning memoir of seeking a little solace in Tibet after a devastating family tragedy, and Molly Beer’s recognition, on a bridge between El Salvador and Guatemala, that the paths she and her father have taken in life are peacefully intersecting.
In Marcy Gordon’s “Root-Bound,” she recalls a trip to Sicily with her mother to research their ancestry, during which they end up finding more famiglia than they anticipated. Root-bound, a gardening term, refers to the point when plant roots exceed the limits of their container and grow all together in one big, tangled mass.
To me, these are the perfect words to describe the uncommon kinship that emerges from travel.
Thirty-some years have passed since the summer I spent on the road with my family. Since then I’ve traveled to thirty-some countries and inhabited thirty-some homes. I’ve lived in seven states, and for six years I called South Korea home. I’ve gone hang gliding in Australia and horseback riding in Costa Rica, driven a Fiat 500 across Sicily, and danced the sevillana on a rooftop in Spain. I’ve hidden from Chinese police in a hillside monastery in Tibet, outrun a typhoon in the Philippines, and lain on a dirt road by a rice field in Bali watching fireflies light up the dark. I’ve trekked with hill-tribe Hmong girls in Vietnam, learned to salsa in a tiny Cuban living room, ridden an elephant through a jungle in Thailand, and meditated at dusk in an ancient, deserted temple in Cambodia.
I’ve nursed a lifelong love affair with movement, straying ever farther from those I love most. But somewhere along the way, it dawned on me that I was always traveling with family—because the act of travel, to the extent that it separates us from our relatives, also extends, manifests, multiplies, and completes family.
Travelers’ Tales’ editor-at-large James O’Reilly once wrote, “It is a cliché to say that we are all kin, but it is true. Even if we hail from different clans, travel makes you certain that kinship is true not only in sentiment but in fact.”
On the road, how quickly strangers become our sisters, sharing stories, tips, meals, and maps; how seamlessly our guides morph into overprotective brothers, herding us through crowds and shielding us from mysterious dangers. Our hosts become self-appointed parental figures who insist we’re not eating enough. And if we aren’t careful, our travel companion can turn into something resembling a conjoined twin.
Many stories in this year’s collection illustrate this category of “family.” Bridget Crocker learns about the enduring power of sisterhood in a river community in Zambia, while Abbie Kozolchyk forms “a funny little family” on an island in Vietnam with locals who don’t speak a word of her language. Jocelyn Edelstein finds a home in a slum in Brazil with three generations of women who teach her about survival. And Jess Wilson joins a “pilgrim corps” to walk the Camino de Santiago from France to Spain—and becomes part of what she calls “an unmistakable we.”
There’s something profoundly intense and intoxicating about friendship found en route. It’s the bond that arises from being thrust into uncomfortable circumstances, and the vulnerability in trusting others to help navigate those situations. It’s the exhilaration of meeting someone when we are our most alive selves, breathing new air, high on life-altering moments. It’s the discovery of the commonality of the world’s people and the attendant rejection of prejudices. It’s the humbling experience of being suspicious of a stranger who then extends a great kindness. It’s the astonishment of learning from those whom we set out to teach. It’s the intimacy of sharing small spaces, the recognition of a kindred soul across the globe.
It’s the travel relationship, and it can only call itself family.
For years, Travelers’ Tales has brought together tribes of travel writers whose stories make the world a more familiar place and tribes of travel readers who connect to the storytellers, making it a more familial place. With each tale, we move closer to one another, and closer to someone in a faraway part of the world, and it seems a new leaf sprouts on a branch of our extended family tree.
This book will take you from Afghanistan to Brazil, from Cambodia to the Dominican Republic, from England to France and Guatemala, and all the way to Zambia, with umpteen points in between. The women in this book will take you on inner journeys as distinct as each destination. As you read, you may find your paths crossing, your lives colliding, and your stories becoming inexorably intertwined—perhaps even root-bound. You might develop a feeling of affinity for not only the authors, but also the amazing characters they’ll introduce you to.
You’ll meet a beautiful boatman in Belize, a blundering bicycling guide in Kyrgyzstan, a cocky cab driver in Argentina, and a puzzling palm reader in India. In France, you’ll learn a thing or two about marriage from a famous restaurateur and find your preconceptions challenged by a village ice cream maker. You might even fall for a stubborn Brit in Oman, a butterfly photographer in Mexico, a dreadlocked soccer coach in Kenya, a long-lashed Muslim in Afghanistan, or a quiet, pancake-making bird researcher in New Zealand.
After all, anything can happen on the road—especially when you’re traveling with family.
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