I’ve always loved travel books. Somehow, reading about a place; the dirt, discomfort, inhabitants, food and sleeping arrangements (I’ve got my own priorities) is almost as good as going there, without any of the actual hassle. This is especially true of women travel writers.
‘In Papua New Guinea’ by Christina Dodwell the reader accompanies the narrator through crocodile infested swamps, thick mud laced with tree thorns, swarms of mosquitoes and leech everywhere in this corner of the rainforest. In she goes, into huts perched on decaying stilts, into cooking areas where indescribable things are made into dinner – except that Christina does describe them- possum stew, grubs and all. Her grasp of pidgin enables her to ask questions, her practical nature ensures she is often treated as an honorary man, while her friendship with the women she meets and her willingness to share her food and their hardships gives her an insight into the intimate lives of the tribeswomen she meets. Maybe women writers notice and write about domestic settings that male writers would not be expected to take an interest in, but the emphasis is different.
Freya Stark, dressing in traditional Arab costume the better to pass un-noticed in a crowded evening market, was able to use her fluency in the language to listen to the gossip and gain information. She decided not to live in an ex-pats’ enclave but chose a humbler apartment in a different part of town. This way she was much more integrated into the goings-on in the street and was able to enjoy her independence. Her books are full of the delicious detail readers delight in.
Mildred Cable and Francesca French, redoubtable women writing of their years travelling through China and the Gobi Desert (The Gobi Desert, Hodder 1950) include details of their lives no male writer would be privy to. Who slept where, who cooked what, what clothes were worn, what local medicines were in use; all these details give a rounded picture of the lives of nomads, male, female, child, animal. We learn that artemesia, or mugwort, keeps away flies when hung by a door, that melons ripen fast when grown next to sun-warmed paving slabs, and that camel-thorn twigs when burned give off a delicious honey-like substance. It’s the practical details that are so intriguing.
Travel writers such as Thoreaux and Bruce Chatwind have written eloquently about Patagonia and the Australian coast, but as a reader I don’t feel the presence of women in their work, unlike Dodswell’s books, where she is often getting the males she meets to tell her about their fishing, pig rearing, carving and rituals and in doing so introduces us to them. She asks the men to show her how to carve, the women how to recognise and prepare tobacco leaves for smoking. Having no children is seen both as a blessing and a misfortune by the tribeswomen Christina meets and in discussing this we have insights into their lives as the women talk about babies they have lost and the rituals of childbirth. The other side of the picture, regarding male initiation ceremonies for instance, is not so well explained.
Wilfred Thesinger, leather-faced nomad of the desert and beyond, made no pretence of being interested in the lives of the girls and women whom he met on his travels, and contented himself with the company of young men. Some of these young men requested that he circumcise them, as this had not been carried out in infancy, as was normally the custom. Accordingly he had a more intimate knowledge than we might think proper. The male eye has historically been drawn, or expected to be drawn by battle, hunting, rituals, animal husbandry, constructing shelters,weapon making, disputes, drinking and smoking. I love reading about all this, but long live the female adventurer and travel writer who can give us the low down on food gathering, domestic chores, family relationships, traditions and decoration of the body, clothing and jewellery. Back to the book…