I wrote this in response to the question, “How has travel influenced your writing?”
Some people know where they’re going in life from a very young age. When I was in first grade, I planned to be a Roller Derby queen, as soon as I was grown up, which, at the time, I believed would be around my 7th birthday. Then, later, when I was 11, I wanted to be a famous rock star. Inspired by Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” I imagined zooming around in a Maserati in between gigs at sold-out arena shows.
So, okay, we don’t always know exactly who we’re going to grow up to be, but Roller Derby and rock-and-roll fantasies aside, I always knew I would travel, and I always knew I wanted to write. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and while there is something to be said for living in a town small enough that you know nearly everyone, I always itched to get out into the big world, and I itched to tell stories.
At first my travel ambitions were modest. I dreamed of being a city girl. I wanted to see what was beyond the seemingly endless corn and soybean fields that surrounded my home. But, I was always a bookworm, and as I got older and learned more about the world, I wanted to see it all. I dreamed of backpacking across Europe, of exploring the Alaskan wilderness, and of seeing the animals of Africa.
I saw Alaska several times, first as part of the crew of a fishing boat and then later, as a self-supported backcountry biker. To this day, Resurrection Pass on the Kenai Peninsula stands out as the most magical and beautiful place I have ever seen (the inside of the pollock fishing boat, not so much).
By the time I made it to Europe the first time, I had outgrown backpacking, but I’ll never forget the excitement of entering Paris on the bus from Charles de Gaulle Airport to my hotel near Rue la Fayette, or the bittersweet knowledge that never again would I be able to see Paris for the first time. I went back to Europe a few times over the next several years, and have always enjoyed it, while at the same time recognizing that visiting Western Europe doesn’t require much of a cultural stretch.
Then, in 2005 I had the chance to go to Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore, India for a mixture of work and vacation. I came home convinced that I could spend the rest of my life exploring India and still come away understanding only a fraction of it. I loved it. I hated it. I was exhausted by the constant hustle and harassment on the streets, but energized by the burgeoning flow of humanity. I want to go back, because I didn’t even scratch the surface of the surface of that amazing and complex country.
Since then, I have visited Southeast Asia a couple of times, and experienced a 10-day overland trip through the African countries of Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. The Africa trip came about as one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for adventure that I find irresistible: A friend asked me to help move her car from Kampala, Uganda, to Maputo, Mozambique, after she had moved her family by air.
Of course I signed on immediately, and with the car owner’s brother (who is also a good friend), made the 3000 mile drive in late 2012. Generally when Americans visit Africa as tourists, they see a lot of wildlife parks. We saw roads. Red dirt roads, roughly paved and deeply potholed roads, surprisingly smooth and well-marked roads. Along the roads we saw village after village, often assembled and supported almost entirely from materials that were taken directly from the local land – small huts made from homemade bricks; beehives made from hollowed out logs, a diet of local produce and meat and dairy from individually owned animals.
We saw scores of women and girls in every town, carrying 5-gallon buckets of water on their heads; we’d often see them a mile or more outside their villages, walking from some central water source, spending the better part of the day just acquiring that one necessity. It made me realize how little we all really need. Yes, I am glad that I have water piped directly to my house, and I’m glad that if I need shelter I don’t have to build it from bricks that I had to form by hand and fire in a kiln in my backyard. And, I’m very glad for modern sanitation. All that aside, my experiences in less developed countries has made me realize that a lot of us could do with a lot less, and maybe that would allow others to have a little more.
I was asked how my travels have influenced my writing. The answer isn’t obvious, because while I do write about my travels in my blog, my fiction doesn’t directly incorporate travel stories. However, I believe that what shows up in my writing is the sum of the my experience. All the experience goes into my subconscious and gets ground up and processed and spit out again, not immediately recognizable, but containing bits of all the raw material. I think travel has made me grateful for the life I have, and appreciative of life in general – it’s made me see that while the world can be a harsh place, there is beauty and grace everywhere, and even when the story is sad, life is still good, and life is still worth living.