The Best Women's Travel Writing, Volume 9
|True Stories from Around the World||$19.95|
ISBN 1-609520-84-X 320 pages
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Anyone whose passport has been stamped a few times knows the surest method of keeping the travel fire alive: by reading and telling stories from the road, passing them along like a torch in a relay race.
The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 9 does this and more: it invites readers to ride shotgun alongside intrepid female nomads as they travel the globe to discover new places, people, and facets of themselves. The stories in this edition are as diverse as the destinations, the common thread being fresh, compelling storytelling that will make you laugh, weep, wish you were there, or be glad you weren’t.
In The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 9, readers will:
- Tangle with snakes and alligators in Bangladesh
- Chase tornadoes with Chinese celebrities
- Dodge fireballs while half-naked in Ecuador
- Get stuck in the mud by the Ganges in India
- Hunt frogs in a Louisiana bayou
- Get cheerfully deported from South Africa
- Be transformed by a Mexican revolution
- Survive close encounters with rhinos in Namibia
- Experience life under niqab in Egypt
- Climb a volcano during a hailstorm in Rwanda
- Find love in a tree house in Laos...and much more.
Featuring stories by Holly Morris, Marcia DeSanctis, Apricot Anderson Irving, Laura Fraser, Amanda Jones, and Laura Resau.
by Lavinia Spalding
In January, I sat with six women around a table in a dimly lit restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. And while they drank and laughed and clapped, I cried.
When we first arrived, I was fine. Really. It was a perfectly intimate room with a handful of tables; the ceilings were high, the yellow walls covered with artwork, and a small lamp with a punched tin shade threw stippled prisms of light around the room. We ordered quesadillas, pes a la Veracruzana, tacos de nata, chiles rellenos, margaritas, martinis, wine. We toasted and gossiped and passed iPhones, comparing photos. A week before we had been mostly strangers—just two teachers and a handful of writers convening south of the border. Now we felt inexorably bound by the stories we’d shared and the colonial town we had quickly grown to love.
About ten feet from our table, two men wearing all black sat with guitars in their laps next to a pair of striking women in flamenco dresses. One was young and sexy, in a tight black dress with a flowered pattern; the other was older, elegant, in bright red with long yellow fringe.
As our laughter crowded the small room, the other diners—mostly twosomes leaning into each other—started to shoot tiny annoyed glances our way. We ignored them; it was our last night together and we felt entitled to a little noise. But when the first guitar chords struck, our attention drifted to the musicians. And when the dancers stood and began to stomp their feet and clap their hands loudly, quickly, above their heads, we fell silent.
It didn’t take long for me to start crying, and once I started I couldn’t stop. The musicians’ fingers flurried across the strings, gently, then fiercely, occasionally rapping on the body of the guitar, sometimes muting the sound with a palm of the hand before all ten fingers fired again toward a furious crescendo. I watched and listened, and the stitches on an old hole in my heart tore open.
It was the first time I’d heard live flamenco music performed since my father—an acclaimed flamenco guitarist—died eight years before. I suddenly saw him in front of me, his lanky frame and tanned, balding head bent ever-so-slightly over his own instrument, his long slender fingers flying across the strings. I closed my eyes and listened to the notes. They were his own voice, returned to visit me in the place he once loved.
Marianne, my friend and co-teacher, sat to my left. “Are you O.K.?” she whispered.
“I miss my dad,” I told her—and the music had moved me in ways I couldn’t explain, ways I didn’t even understand.
Before I was born, my parents spent a summer in San Miguel de Allende. I grew up hearing stories of the town where my father studied guitar, and where at dusk my mother loaned my then-two-year-old sister to the local teenage girls so they could parade her around like a doll as they strolled the main plaza—the Jardin—during paseo. And now, almost fifty years later, I was finally in the fabled town myself.
Though this was my first visit to San Miguel de Allende, I’d spent my share of time in Mexico. Growing up in Arizona, border towns were the natural choice for spring breaks, camping trips, shopping excursions, and underage tequila runs. In my teens and twenties I partied in Puerto Peñasco; in my thirties my best friend and I rented a casita in San Carlos. When I wanted to retreat alone after my father died, I chose a quiet old silver-mining town called Alamos. I collected seashells at dusk on a beach in Kino Bay, and one quiet midnight in Puerto Vallarta, I rode on a marine biologist’s ATV in search of turtles hatching eggs in the sand. I was fond of Mexico, but after spending much of my life exploring more remote countries, it didn’t seem “foreign.” To me, it hardly counted as travel at all.
Nevertheless, I was thrilled to spend the first two weeks of 2013 teaching there. I had arrived on New Year's Eve, and standing in the Jardin beneath an almost full moon, an enormous Christmas tree, and the magnificent gothic La Parroquía church (its doors wide open for midnight mass), it occurred to me that nearly everything I saw was illuminated from within, including the locals surrounding me. When the hands on the clock tower met and pointed to the stars, thousands of revelers cheered and twirled two-foot-long sparklers—and when I asked a little girl in pigtails if I could buy one from her, she happily handed me two, refusing my pesos. Then a giant metal “Feliz Año Nuevo” sign exploded in flames and scared the hell out of me, and fireworks brightened the sky. As the band played cumbia, grizzled cowboys danced with their daughters, and gorgeous couples made out shamelessly. Skinny little boys hurled rocket-shaped mylar balloons into the air, and grown men wore blinking plastic Minnie Mouse bows on their heads. I stayed till the end, following the cobblestone streets back to my rented casa at 3:00 A.M.
Now, two weeks later, I was crying into my margarita.
Libby, sitting on my right, rubbed my arm gently, while across the table Jen photographed the performers, sensing I would someday want to see the images. The other women in our party just held my gaze tenderly.
Eventually I stopped sniffling, ate my quesadilla, and enjoyed the show. And after dinner when the guitarists were packing up, I approached one and tried to explain what his music had meant to me. I wanted to tell him about my father—that he studied with Paco de Lucia and played for the Prince of Spain and dedicated his life to music, the very same music they played that night—but my Spanish was limited and his English was basic. He smiled and nodded, but I knew he didn’t quite understand. It wasn’t until later that night, walking the narrow roads home past orange walls and blue doorways, beneath icicle lights and fiesta flags strung between rooftops, that I finally understood. I stopped, closed my eyes, and made a belated New Year’s resolution: I would start playing the dusty guitar that hung on my office wall back home—the one my father left me.
Mexico surprised me. I’d assumed I knew what the country had to offer, but I was wrong; I underestimated it. And while reading submissions for The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 9 this year, I found myself similarly surprised by the number of exceptional stories that came from not-so-far-away. Among the four-hundred-plus submissions I read were dazzling essays from locations that did not seem all that foreign to me—places that, like Mexico, “hardly counted as travel.” There were mesmerizing tales of adventure in the United States, life lessons learned in Mexico, heartbreak in Canada.
Was it a sign of the economy, I wondered? Were people staying closer to home these days? Were travel writers running out of frequent-flier miles? Or had these places suddenly become more popular destinations?
Of course, I still read hundreds of stories that flew (and ferried and taxied and tuk-tuked) me clear across the globe—to Egypt and India and Rwanda and Afghanistan, Laos and Bangladesh and Spain and Cambodia, Jordan and Australia and Italy and Namibia—plus some places I never even knew existed.
But to my delight, this year I was transported equally far, both emotionally and culturally, by stories close to home.
I find international travel ineffably rich and profound; I believe the first taste of foreignness is one of life’s greatest joys and opportunities, and that immersing oneself in another culture for an extended period of time should be required for every human being. I think listening to the words of people far away and returning to tell their stories can help make the world a more tolerant, connected place.
But I’ve also realized that the transformative effect of travel sometimes bears little relation to the distance of destination. That profundity and cultural diversity can be found anywhere. That what we take from a place is directly proportionate to what we bring to it. And that what we gain from our wanderings depends more on our mentality than our locality.
Indeed, travel is virtually limitless in its capacity to change our perspective. But then again, isn’t travel itself a matter of perspective? You may someday stumble upon an isolated village on a naked stretch of map and decide it’s the most exquisite, exotic place you’ve ever been. But the villagers, while smiling politely, will wonder what the hell you’re doing there, taking pictures of their laundry and pet cow. And while you might regard your own hometown as hopelessly mundane—the drafty old church, the all-you-can-eat Chuck-a-Rama, the vacuum repair shop—someone from that isolated village on that naked stretch of map will perceive it as impossibly exciting. She will take photos of your Chuck-a-Rama.
And maybe you should, too.
Maybe we all should.
Because if we can extend our definition of travel to the point where we begin to regard our own environs with the same curiosity a foreigner would—and with the same curiosity we ourselves would carry to a foreign land—then maybe we can reproduce that unique sense of awe we feel when we’re out traveling, discovering the weirdest, wildest patches of our planet. And if we practice this enough—though it may at first feel contrived—it might eventually become natural. And then we will find ourselves living each ordinary day with extraordinary wonder and gratitude.
Of the many lessons I’ve learned over the years from the publishers of Travelers’ Tales and the women who submit their amazing-but-true stories to The Best Women’s Travel Writing series, perhaps the most important is this: the entire world is worthy of exploration and appreciation—including the places we live, day in and day out.
Travel has the power to transform us, but it may be like the law of romantic love—to love another person, we must first love ourselves. I propose that as we go about romancing the rest of the world, we also rekindle our affair with the not-so-far-away. And this book is an excellent place to start.
In this ninth volume of The Best Women’s Travel Writing series, you’ll take a trip to the site of Wounded Knee in North Dakota with Jenna Scatena and her mother, who is heading home and hell-bent on redemption. You’ll go late-night frog hunting in a southern Louisiana bayou with Natalie Baszile. Kirsten Koza will drive you (and some Chinese celebrities) on a thrill ride around the U.S., chasing tornados. And you’ll join Suzanne Roberts as she kayaks one hundred fifty miles in the Gulf of Mexico and is put to the ultimate relationship test.
You’ll also visit Mexico a few more times: to Morelia, where you’ll experience Day of the Dead through the eyes of a curious two-year-old (and his pregnant mother, Molly Beer), and to Sarah Menkedick’s Oaxaca, where you’ll fall under the spell of a city caught up in a revolution. Then you’ll fly to Vancouver with Rachel Levin, where you’ll discover that life is never as simple as immigration officials want it to be.
And you’ll travel farther, of course. Julia Cooke will take you antique shopping in Cuba, and Apricot Anderson Irving will lead you on a nostalgic tour of the Haiti of her childhood. You’ll cheer on Abbie Kozolchyk as she strives to fulfill an epic quest to Suriname, Paraguay, Guyana, and French Guiana. And in Ecuador, if you’re Laura Resau, you’ll pay good money to stand in your bra while alcohol is spit in your face and fireballs are thrown at your body.
You will, as you read, wind up far, far away. Perhaps in that same isolated village on a naked stretch of map, dining at someone else’s version of Chuck-a-Rama, praying in someone else’s drafty old church. You’ll confront fears in Bangladesh with Holly Morris and in Rwanda with Marcia DeSanctis. You’ll solve risotto riddles in Italy with Laura Fraser and research rhinoceros in Namibia with Blair Braverman. You’ll unravel family histories with Jill Paris in Scotland and Helen Rubinstein in Moldova. And you’ll witness the abiding kindness of strangers in South Africa with Amanda Jones and in India with Meera Subramanian.
As always, I hope you enjoy the trip, and that it inspires your own journeys, however far or near, foreign or familiar.
When I returned to San Francisco after my two weeks in San Miguel de Allende, I began playing guitar again, little by little. I will probably never be the musician I was at ten years old, practicing every afternoon while my father hummed along, tapping his foot to help me keep time. And I’ll certainly never be as good as he was, or the musicians in that tiny restaurant. But every day I’m a little better than I was before I visited Mexico.
This is the promise of travel. It doesn’t matter where we go: if we give it permission to change us, it just will. I urge you to stay open to the surprises.
Table of Contents
BARREN IN THE ANDES
REMEMBER THIS NIGHT
EIGHT MILLION MILES
THE RICE MAN COMETH
A DAY IN PHNOM PEHN
THE CODEINE OF JORDAN
J. S. Brown
THE RISKY PATH
THE WOMEN’S SITTING ROOM
THE MIGHTY BIG LOVE TEST
THE GULF OF MEXICO
WHO MADE THIS GRAVE?
FILL IN THE BLANKS
DREAMS FROM MY FATHER
Apricot Anderson Irving
BUSINESS OR PLEASURE?
CONNIE BRITTON’S HAIR
WE WAIT FOR THE SUN
THE ROAD TO WOUNDED KNEE
THE SAFFRON RABBIT
YANET’S VINTAGE EMPORIUM
CITY OF BEGINNINGS
THE BLACK BITCH
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Connie Britton’s Hair
By Marcia DeSanctis
Climb every mountain. Or maybe don’t.
“How much longer?” I ask Eugene.
“We have a very long way,” he says. “Also, it gets much steeper.”
In our short acquaintance, I already know our guide isn’t one for sweetening the news. In fact, he seems to relish his role as grim realist, the battlefield reporter with the cold hard facts. It’s difficult to say which half of his response fills me with greater dread.
“Long way, like another hour?” I ask, panic leaking into my voice. “Steeper than this?”
With an upraised palm like a hostess at a car show, I indicate the vertical swathe of mud looming above me.
It’s not yet 9 A.M., but an hour since we started up Mount Bisoke, a dormant volcano in the Virunga range, which straddles northwest Rwanda, southern Uganda and the eastern reaches of the DRC. My legs are trembling, periodically forcing me to lurch off the wet, shiny stones into clusters of stinging nettles and pools of black magmic sludge.
There are seven other climbers, and the Greek one won’t shut up. Between his white noise and the realization that my body is already failing me, I know I need to make quick work of this mountain. The woman who booked my excursion assured me I’d be back at the hotel in time for lunch. The idea that I’d also be alive was implicit. Yet I already feel the heat of a fresh bruise spreading across the upper quadrant of my right thigh after one humiliating tumble. I have no idea for whom or what I am traipsing upstream of a landslide. And I kind of want to get back to Nashville and Connie Britton’s hair.
When I arrived at the park earlier this morning, after registering and filling a mug with coffee, Pierre, my driver and companion for the week, directed me to the briefing with Eugene. The man was all business, laconic and unsmiling. From the outset, I tried to soften his bluntness with my usual attempt at charm. It was a cry for reassurance, the obvious ploy of the terminally insecure.
“I hear this is a snap,” I said, my voice larded with cheer. “Couple hours up and back?”
“Oh no, not during the rainy season,”—which we were smack in the middle of—he said. “It is a strenuous climb. You must be very fit.”
I scoped out the other climbers. Demetrius the Greek, already chattering pointlessly, was no David Beckham, nor were the Russians exactly Olympic decathletes. The rest I surmised were roughly on a par with me. Only Monica from Holland looked to be in fighting shape, but she was about twenty and, well, Dutch.
I took a spin class once in a while. I’d manage.
The air was laced with the smell of eucalyptus at the clearing beyond the entrance of Volcanoes National Park, the staging area for the day’s excursions. The other tourists, most of whom were preparing (or at least hoping) to see the gorillas, milled about under a large gazebo sipping coffee and tea to ward off the chilly morning. I snickered at the safari folk tricked out in gadgetry and pricey adventure wear—gaiters, air-permeable layers, and high-performance hiking boots. I was awfully confident in my trail-running shoes and my teenage daughter’s surf hoodie.
Sunlight shot across the mountains and fields, rapidly erasing the shadows from the landscape. It was a gorgeous morning for a trek, much like the one I’d enjoyed a year before when I set off with seven other people and two guides in search of gorillas. We’d been unusually lucky that morning; our group had barely broken a sweat when we got word that “our” family of primates, which included a set of newborn twins, was about to swing into view. On that trip—my first to Rwanda—I’d been captivated by the sight of the gorillas, but also by the vision of five volcanoes that formed a sensuous but formidable ridge cradling the forest. It didn’t occur to me that I’d be back a year later to climb one.
I’m not much of a nature girl. But because I come from hardy immigrant stock—ship captains and quarrymen on one side, farmers on the other—I’m a bit ashamed of my predilection for pure linen sheets and finely tooled Italian pumps. It’s always struck me as a weakness—a trait I should at least resist, if not someday overcome. When I was young, although I’d have preferred to spend summers perfecting my country club backhand, I nevertheless marched off to camp in Vermont every year with my three older sisters, outfitted in flame-retardant shorts and rubber boots that even then offended my fashion standards. I was certain (as was my mother, probably) that if I could rough it, even briefly, I would be a better and more selfless person. There were no tennis courts or bubble baths or even pillows on the flume slide trail of Mount Washington, but the stew we slung up in our mess kits was tasty and the hardship temporary. I didn’t exactly love the nights I spent shivering in my sleeping bag on a floor covered with grit and spiders and eleven other campers, but I did appreciate the camaraderie and shared purpose—at least in retrospect.
Many years later, when I could make the choice, I almost settled down with an Argentinian clotheshorse, but instead married the reincarnation of Ernest Shackleton—an outdoorsman who has bestowed his love of adventure and fresh air upon our children. And I appreciate this, because it takes the heat off me.
While my family sets out on summer mornings before dawn on twenty-mile hikes through the Adirondacks, I sleep in. Long after the sun comes up, I enjoy the view of the mountains from my perch across the lake over slices of toast with marmalade. I have taken on the role of Princess in our family narrative, and my children and husband play along, coddling me, but also needling me lovingly about my preference for the languorous lie-in over physical exertion of any kind. They fall short of calling me “lazy” but their knowing euphemisms speak their own truth, or so I imagine. After a hip replacement at forty-five (it was trashed by high school sports and faulty anatomy) I finally had the excuse I needed to basically never go outside again.
But now, a few years later and a few years older, I’ve begun to find this conceit tarnishing with age, and my adventure phobia turning into one of many oncoming regrets. When my family pushes off with their water bottles and trail mix, I still wave goodbye cheerfully, but with the nagging sense that by hanging back on solid ground, I’m missing—how many?—seminal moments, the gorgeously-lit future memories that will, if I can only bring myself to participate, flood my mind when I am nearly done on earth, a day from dying. I have never seen my son run up ahead on antelope legs, nor have I ever extended my hand to my daughter over a steep patch of trail and seen determination flood her being.
And there’s something else. Not since my summers trudging up the White Mountains have I experienced the singular do-or-die obstinacy it takes to make it up and down a tricky slope, heart and legs begging for mercy. Lately I’ve begun to envy the accomplishment my family feels after a day’s climb and how honestly they have earned their fatigue. Several months ago, with a reporting trip to Rwanda on the calendar, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to tackle a mountain. And after some online research, I determined that Bisoke—“the easy one”—was the one for me.
Which is why, with the clock running out on opportunities to conquer things, I am inching up the side of a volcano this morning. Only now, an hour into the climb, I’m beginning to understand that Bisoke’s reputation might be relative—like calling Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino’s least violent movie. And I’m also realizing that people who climb volcanoes for fun apparently blog for other people who climb volcanoes for fun—not for people like me.
I frequently travel solo. Often this is because I’m on assignment, but the other truth is I’m someone who craves brief, solitary journeys. I live for these respites when I eat meals alone, answer to no one, keep my own counsel. It’s only after dinner, during the hours of extreme quiet in my room while the single glass of wine drains from my system and I wait for sleep, that I get twinges of loneliness. I wonder where my kids are and begin to question what problem I’m trying to solve in my need to escape.
I’ve found that the best distraction from the torture of my misgivings and the attendant insomnia is entertainment. But twenty-five-watt bulbs, the bedside standard in a certain kind of hotel, offer my eyes little sustenance for reading. Nights on international assignments, therefore, have turned into an excuse to watch whatever TV series I’ve missed that everyone insists I should see. And this time, here in remote Rwanda, it’s Nashville, a nighttime drama about generational rivalry in country music with gorgeous tunes, often sung by Connie Britton.
Who is this woman? In Nashville, she plays Rayna Jaymes, a woman roughly my age, give or take a couple years (O.K., ten), a beloved country singer facing challenges from an ambitious up-and-comer. I’m hooked after three episodes, and all because of her. It isn’t just the pitch the actress strikes perfectly, portraying both celebrity and suburban hausfrau—it’s her character’s take on middle age. She never lapses into self-pity—she has too much going on to dwell on the inevitable downsides of aging. Instead, she keeps evolving by working harder than anyone else. And in so doing, she spares us the usual “Forty and Fabulous” bromides and cougar manifestos endemic in pop culture. It helps that—with wavy strawberry-blond hair coiffed with curling irons and volumizer, and a wardrobe that changes in the course of fifty minutes from jeans to a sheath dress to spangles and back again (along with her nail polish: navy blue, then aubergine, ending with flannel gray)—she is endlessly fascinating to watch. She is groomed and rich and desired by men of every age, and never wears the same pair of Louboutins twice.
And I confess, as I look down at my legs trudging up Mount Bisoke in these god-awful hiking pants, I hate her for all of it. But mostly I admire—and even envy—her. “Time is precious,” her actions insist, as she braves one creative leap after another. Unlike me, the woman is afraid of nothing.
What I have never told my family, what they don’t know, is that I am averse to nature writ large because, in fact, it terrifies me. I fear insects and unseen branches that could draw blood from my neck. As for mountains: I fear I won’t make it up, and even more that I won’t make it back down. What doesn’t scare me are the four soldiers from the Rwandan Armed Forces with AK-47s strapped to their torsos who are accompanying us on our climb. That’s security, as far as I ’m concerned. We are spitting distance from the DRC, where a brutal war is in full swing and refugees and soldiers are rumored to be seeking cover in the dense forest. I don’t care if some hopped-up Congolese rebel interrupts our peace, I’m not even afraid of the wild buffalo known to pose an even greater threat to tourists. I’m only afraid of confronting my own helplessness.
But at least I had the good sense this morning to hire Foster. Since I’d convinced myself the hike would be a snap, at first I balked at the idea of engaging a babysitter.
“Do I look like I need a porter?” I asked Eugene after the orientation.
He didn’t laugh. As they had done on the gorilla trek, the young men lined up at the trailhead to be snapped up, rather like migrant laborers for the day, working only for tips. I caught Foster’s eye and handed over my backpack filled with three bottles of water, some cashews, a Milka bar, and a raincoat. He smiled broadly, and later I wondered if he was just happy to be hired or if he knew he’d be saving my life that day.
There is little to see on the way up, and after two hours I stop looking. Eugene, Dr. Doom, keeps bearing bad news, but I ask for it, appealing desperately for word that we are almost there. We aren’t. We don’t even bother to veer off for the mile-long walk to Dian Fossey’s grave. According to Eugene, we still have five kilometers until the crater lake at the top. It’s treacherous going, and the temperature is dropping.
“And if it rains,” he says, “we will really have a problem.”
The sun is toasting my bare shoulders and I am drenched with sweat. There doesn’t appear to be a cloud anywhere within a thousand miles of the African continent.
“It’s not going to rain,” I say.
“Yes, it will rain,” Eugene says.
“You need to work on your delivery,” I tell him.
There are three things on this hike. There is the ground in all its viney chaos, studded by rocks glazed with mud. Then there are the Greek guy’s dire prognostications, delivered on a continuous loop but somewhat mirthfully.
“One of us is going to slide off this mountain!” Demetrios offers. “And our friends with the Kalashnikovs are not here to scare buffalo, I can tell you this.”
Lastly, there is Foster’s hand. I have friends who, when I am in a crisis, know better than I do what I need. This is Foster. He is pure instinct, like a farmer who knows from a scent threading the air that the weather will change. Sometimes when Foster reaches for me, I wave him off. “It’s O.K. Fos, I’m fine,” I say, and lose my footing anyway—it’s a game of millimeters—while his hand appears from the ether to lock into mine and right me standing.
He reads my body, pointing to a spot in the mud where he intuits I can safely place my shoe so it will not veer sideways in the other direction of the rest of me. If he thinks I look completely idiotic to be on this march, he never lets on.
“Very good, very good,” he says after sparing me a pirouette off a boulder or untangling me from the brush with one deft tug. They are the only words other than “thank you” he knows in English. If Foster were to ask me to help him hold up the Bank of England today, I would dutifully follow.
As I climb, I pray not to God but to Dr. Schutzer, the surgeon who installed a titanium rod where my hipbone had been. Even my good joints are giving out, my legs quake from exertion, and my lungs are tight and breath halting from the elevation: we are climbing to over twelve thousand feet.
I am appalled that as I bushwhack, vertically, through this supposed war zone, I’m not contemplating lofty geopolitical concerns, the kind I went to graduate school to ponder. No, as I slog ahead, I’m thinking about Connie Britton, seeking life lessons from ABC primetime entertainment. Take risks, her character tells me—but be true to yourself. It’s all kind of boilerplate self-help stuff. But maybe boilerplate is what one needs when one has no business trying to summit a Rwandan volcano in flimsy footwear in January.
Just above the tree line, I hear a text message jingle inside my bag. I know my guide, Pierre, is worried about me. I’ve already been climbing for five hours and am meant to be back by now. Foster turns to let me fish the phone from my backpack. As my hand clutches it, I fall backwards into the basin of mud and roots I have just labored across. My skull grazes a stone that juts from the swamp like the head of a shark, and my knee smashes against another rock. Nausea pools in my stomach. I push the button with a mud-soaked finger. “Vodafone welcomes you to the DRC!” it says. Foster grabs my other hand and as he pulls me up, I fall against him and weep.
“Very good,” he says.
I turn to Eugene. “I will not make it down,” I sniffle. “There is no way I will make it down.” As I utter the words, a horizontal wind slashes across my face, ushering in a dense curtain of sleet that paints the sky dark gray.
“We are really fucked now,” says the Greek guy.
“Demetrios,” I say, “Could you lighten up?”
“Do you think they could send a helicopter?” he says, turning and laughing. Maybe he isn’t so bad.
An hour later, we summit. The crater lake sits under the weight of heavy clouds, with only brief slivers of water visible through the mist. As we stand together looking at absolutely nothing, hailstones the size of gumballs start pelting us, making hollow conking noises as they bounce off our heads and shoulders. Demetrios has no raincoat and I worry for him. But with a flourish, he yanks an umbrella out of his pack.
“Come seek refuge from the elements,” he says.
I crouch with some of the others in a huddle. Even Monica, the strapping Dutchwoman, looks wretched. Demetrios’s arms are still bare, now pink from the wind and chill. I reach for his arm and for a second rub it vigorously.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says. “Never better.” Somehow, I believe him.
The hail continues to pound us. Eugene is sheltered under a ficus tree with Foster, the soldiers, and the other porters. After a while he approaches our group.
“We’d better head down.”
“What is the word for hail in Kinyarwanda?” I ask him.
“Hmmm,” he says. He looks miserable too—or maybe just grave. “I’ve never seen this before up here.”
“How long have you been climbing this mountain?”
“Will we make it down?”
“Of course,” he says.
I cannot move my hands. “What do you think is the temperature?” I ask.
“It is below freezing.”
My fingers are frozen into claws. I think of the cocktail ring Connie Britton twirled on her index finger in the episode last night. I think of her manicured nails and smooth hair, no doubt scented with Parisian styling crème, the kind I might be massaging into my own waves if I weren’t on this fucking mountain. I think of my children, this voyage and my self-inflicted misery, which when I recount to them, they will surely assume I’m exaggerating. I contemplate my need to triumph over something, anything, if only because I’m afraid that time is running out. And I think about how exhausting it is to do battle with your own character.
As sleet slips behind my neck, carving rivers of ice down my back, I consider an entirely new option: maybe I don’t need to be ashamed that I like to be safe and warm and out of harm’s way. What if I’m not fearful and lazy, but rather cautious and observant, with a preference to stand apart from adventure rather than be in the thick of it?
It takes three hours to get back down the mountain. Demetrios keeps me company on the descent, and I appreciate his optimism. When he falls silent on occasion for a minute or two, I worry that he is as scared as I am.
“Hey Dima,” I yell, “how ya doing?”
“Good thing I know how to snowboard!” I watch him skid down the mud, now a foot deep.
The storm has sluiced cascades where the path used to be, and the trail is now a waterfall flowing with the same icy sludge that paints every inch of me and soaks clear through to the molecules in my pancreas. Foster keeps a permanent grip on my hand, and if I ask to be carried, he will surely toss me over his back like a sack of potatoes. For a moment I consider this option. I am utterly helpless—we all are—in the downpour. I fall hard and often, sometimes bringing Foster down on top of me, and I laugh to show I am still conscious and to prove that there is something pretty comical in almost-tragedy. And then, at the very end, I begin to enjoy myself a little. But only because I am almost off this mountain.
When we say goodbye, Demetrios and I exchange kisses but not e-mail addresses. I know he will remember me with a certain tenderness, as I will him.
“Murakoze,” I say to Foster, hoping the Kinyarwanda word for “thank you” might also mean “I love you.” I give him all of $40, four times the going rate.
I spot Pierre in the parking lot, and he doesn’t recognize me as I approach. I collapse in his arms. “It was so scary,” I say.
Eugene catches a ride with us back to the staging area.
“You did it,” he says to me, grinning for the first time all day.
“I felt very safe with you,” I admitted. “Was today an unusually tough climb?”
“It was normal,” he says. I give him a look. “Actually a little tougher.”
“Were you scared?” I ask.
“It’s a mountain,” he says. “They make their own rules. It’s nice that people climb them, but maybe sometimes they shouldn’t.”
We head back to the hotel, where the staff scrapes the mountain off my walking shoes and polishes them clean. I de-cake myself of mud in a rose-scented bath, and my fingers defrost with the help of South African brandy. Later, a man appears out of the darkness to build a fire with eucalyptus logs in my bungalow.
“How was your climb?” he asks as he rearranges and lights the pile of logs.
“It was hard.” I am aching and bruised but sweetly exhausted and a tiny bit lonely. “For me.”
“It’s a big mountain,” he laughs. “You must be very strong.”
As the flames grow in the fireplace and the room fills with the spicy smell of burning wood, I take in his words. Is it strength that brought me up that mountain? Or weakness? If I’d remained true to myself, I would have stayed on terra firma. Who exactly am I trying to be? My children aren’t keen on changing me, so why am I? Maybe, I consider, maybe, not every fear is there for the conquering.
After the man leaves, I slip into the big warm bed and feel my body collapse from the day’s strain. I relieve my loneliness by watching a nighttime soap opera from Hollywood via iTunes. Of course Connie Britton has a glorious head of hair throughout the episode, and in one scene she sports killer chocolate brown eye shadow with the perfect dash of shimmer. I don’t envy her tonight, though. I finally understand for myself what her character already seems to know: time is unstoppable, but so am I. And I don’t have to climb a volcano to prove it—not to anyone else, and especially not to myself.
Marcia DeSanctis is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in Vogue, Town & Country, O the Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Tin House, Travel & Leisure, The Best Women's Travel Writing 2011 & 2012, and The Best Travel Writing 2011 and 2012. In 2012, she was the recipient of three Lowell Thomas Awards for Excellence in Travel Journalism, including the Silver award for Travel Journalist of the Year. Visit her at www.marciadesanctis.com.
About the Author
Lavinia Spalding is the author of Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler (named one of the best travel books of 2009 by the Los Angeles Times), co-author of With a Measure of Grace, the Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant, and editor of the 2011, 2012, and 2013 editions of The Best Women’s Travel Writing. She’s a regular contributor to Yoga Journal, and her work has appeared in many print and online publications, including Sunset, San Francisco magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Gadling, Post Road, Tin House, Inkwell, and The Best Travel Writing, Volume 9. She lives in San Francisco, where she’s a member of the Writers’ Grotto and co-founder of Weekday Wanderlust, a monthly travel reading series.