Women Travelers: More Trips/Books

Wall-to-Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by Rail by Mary Morris

I discovered Mary Morris back in the 1980s when I picked up her Bus of Dreams, a collection of short stories that offered emotional, true-to-life glimpses through the windows of other hearts and minds.   Sometimes the stories left the reader hanging in the air, but sometimes life does the same thing. Lots of travel narratives to choose from by this author, too — Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, set in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and other towns in Latin America and The River Queen: A Memoir about traveling down the Mississippi.  Both books are as much about the traveler as about the places visited.  Wall-to-Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by Rail is also a very personal portrait of the author’s travels through the Soviet Union and China during the last years of the Cold War.  When Ms. Morris begins this long journey on the Trans-Siberian railroad in Beijing she has high hopes of visiting her Russian Jewish grandmother’s birthplace in the Ukraine, but the Chernobyl nuclear disaster threatens to change her plans.  Personal issues color the trip, from those dealing with her need to reclaim her own childhood to the decision that looms large when she discovers she’s pregnant.  Much of the book is internal, personal, but the reader also gets to share these special experiences of place and time.  Of Leningrad she says, “It was here on the shores of this river that Russian literature came to be…I wandered its streets as one does through a museum, silently, with reverence.”  The reader will, too.  (You can also follow Ms. Morris on her latest adventures at The Writer and the Wanderer blog.)

Through Iran in Disguise by Sarah Hobson  (Originally titled Through Persia in Disguise)

Ms. Hobson, at 23 years old, went to Iran to study Persian designs and crafts.  Riding an old moped, however, she decides to head out across the country to visit the shrine of Qum, a place forbidden to women.  So she cuts her hair, straps her chest with a girdle, and becomes a boy named “John.”  The trip takes place in a time before the fall of the Shah, and Ms. Hobson draws a picture of the Iranian people at that time, along with both the beauty and bleakness of the landscape.  Some of the men are suspicious;  some offer her a bride.  She gets into and out of a number of bizarre “situations”  and treats the reader to conversations overheard — funny, sad, interesting — and to pretty descriptions of places — the Persepolis, rest houses, tea houses, shrines and villages — with a little history and a nod to two of Iran’s most famous poets.  She visits the tombs of Hafiz and Sa’di, reads and recites from their works, watches women and children kiss their tombs.  Ms. Hobson has been criticized by some for having disguised herself and defied cultural codes.  Though her book is interesting for its picture of a time and place in history and for her unusual experience, you may agree or disagree with the decisions she made.

Travels with Fortune: An African Adventure by Christina Dodwell

1975.  Christina Dodwell was 24 years old when she answered an advertisement in a magazine and took off with three other people to cross Africa.  This was the beginning of a three-year journey.  Sometimes she’s with others; sometimes with only one friend, a New Zealand nurse, and sometimes alone.  Imagine two women alone, heading downriver in a dugout canoe along the banks of Zaire, Congo, Central African Republic, doing battle with hordes of mosquitoes, raging currents, and “fields” of water hyacinths winding themselves round the boat’s rudder.  The women fall overboard more than once, get drenched from the night rains, and daily face the unbearable heat.  The payoff is the breathtaking beauty of the place — “Dawn in an iridescent world, hushed as the inner wall of a shell.  Mist floating suspended in a never-ending sky…”  Trees with pink bark, leaves like fans or feathers, parrots flying overhead, the perfume of flowers.  Ms. Dodwell shifts from the description of an especially harried day to a dawn or twilight or midday of sudden, astounding beauty.  And, perhaps, a reason for it all — “Now we were on our own and I felt an overwhelming sense of freedom.”  That sense of freedom that comes with travel to new places is different from other freedoms; it allows the traveler to rediscover his/her younger self or “inner child” or become someone entirely new.  This sort of adventure is fun for the reader, too.

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