Saturday, August 27, 2011

Women's Travel — Montague, Kingsley, Bird, Murphy, Davidson, Salak — Four Centuries of Memoir

Clarity comes from within; epiphany is not visible in the external.

By weaving themselves in and out of cultures, Lady Mary Wortley Montague (1762), Mary Kingsley (1897), Isabella Bird (1873), Dervla Murphy (1994), Robyn Davidson (1996), and Kira Salak (2001) explore their own identities and influence readers and future women travel writers who follow in their footsteps.

Patrick Holland in Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing suggests that 'it is true that physical vulnerability affects the way women move through the world' (112). Sonia Melchett in her introduction to Passionate Quests: Five Modern Women Travellers adds, 'travel stretches women's imagination and power of physical endurance . . . By risking hardship, sickness, boredom and even death, and then by surviving' (3) these women validate life, 'not just escaping from a humdrum existence, but. . . reaching for a kind of liberty' (3).

Some women travel memoirists find themselves 'free of the constraints of contemporary society, realising their potential once outside the boundaries of a restrictive social order', according to Peter Hulme in The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (234). 'Travel for some women, it seems, may have offered a means of redefining themselves, assuming a different persona and becoming someone who did not exist at home' (Hulme 234).

Holland contends that in the 21st century women travel writers have been more apt to engage in 'confessional narratives' (114) than their predecessors. However, the evidence offered by Montagu, Bird, and Kingsley proves that these confessions have existed for longer than he would have us believe.

Between Montague and Salak, travel writing has metamorphosed from the writing of letters to a subjective form, an 'impressionistic style with the interest focused as much on the traveller's responses or consciousness as on their travels' (Hulme 74).

Montagu's emphasis on relationships formed and opinions changed as a result of coming into contact with cultures through whose eyes the world takes on different emphasis reminds us that the journey of all women engaged in travel writing 'leads to greater self-awareness and takes the reader simultaneously on that [same] journey' (Hulme 237).

Upon my return from what had been a difficult trip, I discovered an unexpected self-empowerment. I had found the power to will my own life, and for a young woman who had not previously known about nor understood the notion of personal power, it was a profound teaching indeed (Salak ix).

It is precisely this sense of new possibilities that is the most common element in Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea. In her lack of certainty, Kira Salak, author of 2001 travel memoir, has a connection with her predecessors. Salak chooses a less travelled road, one at the end of which she finds partnership with her own sense of power. However, she remains in Papua New Guinea long enough to make a final admission. 'I was supposed to return as someone entirely new, with an almost superhuman strength and confidence, or I wasn't supposed to return at all' (Salak 311).

In 1894 Mary Kingsley, who also travelled rain forests, those of western Africa, expresses a similar understanding near the top of Mt. Cameroon (Kingsley 354). Often in Travels in West Africa, when Kingsley is most self-deprecating in her humour, she is reflecting on what is also most fearful. Instead of admitting to fears in her memoir, Kingsley holds tight reins on her emotions. She is far more apt to share anger than fear:

Unfortunately, I must needs go in for acrobatic performances on the top of one of the highest, rockiest hillocks. Poising myself on one leg I take a rapid slide sideways, ending in a very showy leap backwards which lands me on the top of the lantern I am carrying today, among miscellaneous rocks. There being fifteen feet or so of jungle grass above me, all the dash and beauty of my performance are as much thrown away as I am, for my boys are too busy on their own accounts in the mist to miss me. After resting some little time as I fell, and making and unmaking the idea in my mind that I am killed, I get up (Kingsley 356).

A hundred years later, Salak describes a trek in the rain forests of the Central Range of Papua New Guinea with an indigenous woman as guide:

We reach our first mountain. It doesn't gradually rise but shoots skyward at nearly 90 degrees . . . and now we're not hiking anymore. We use tree roots and branches to pull ourselves up the mountainside. I reach blindly among the jungle plants in search of handholds, sometimes grabbing onto the spiny stems of plants, other times reaching into swarms of red ants. I don't even allow myself to think about snakes, though a couple have slithered away before my sloppy approach. I'm slithering myself, chin in the mud, body sliding up the side of the mountain. When I need to rest, I wrap my arm around a tree root or branch and shove my knees into the muddy slope. Four thousand, perhaps five thousand feet of this to get over–I don’t' even want to think about it. (199).

From an entirely different perspective but an equally devastating one, in 1996 Robyn Davidson's Desert Places, tells of the local Bhopavand women stopping by for tea:

They began going through my things, grabbing at them, and when I tried to stop them I realized that any action on my part would only increase the frenzy. I stood in front of the tent, arms folded and stared resolutely at the horizon. I wasn't frightened, not exactly, but it was deeply unsettling to be confronted with crowd hysteria in the face of which I was entirely powerless . . . When you are so tired, frustrated and filthy that you would like to cry but cannot because people are watching you; when your period has come and you are in pain but you must not display it; when you do not know what is going on because you cannot understand the language but you sense the atmosphere is not right; when you are operating on twenty levels at once and not sure if you are correct in any of them, when you have entered a place where the people are suspicious of you, or frightened of you, or hate you because you represent something evil to them; when you cannot make your intentions understood; when there are children, hundreds of them, pressing against you, shouting, pulling at your hair and clothes, or pelting you with rocks; when you are so fed up with humanness that you would like to shoot everyone you see, including yourself; when the village dogs race towards you howling and slavering; and when finally, you make it back to the tent to have a cup of tea, the only luxury you have, you find that the milk has turned to yogurt ( Davidson 101- 103).

Salak echoes Davidson. 'It was due in large part to an increasing lack of confidence in myself, a feeling that anything that came out of my mouth was worthless and unimportant; there was nothing I could say or do that would impress anyone' (Salak 38).

Reference to difficulties with communication, one of the most frequent topics about which all of these women write, can be found in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's travel letters in 1774. She must learn Arabic in order to understand the wit of her hostesses in the Ottoman Empire.

Mary Kingsley objects to forever being referred to as 'Sir'. In Dervla Murphy's memoir of her 1997 cycle through South Africa, North From the Limpopo, she writes of the frustration created by her inability to understand the language of the Boers and of several Zulu dialects.

The most frequently discussed topics in Salak's Four Corners echo those issues raised by other women. Salak's sense of independence is countered by her need to be rescued. Her admission that she travels to promote resilience and healing is countered by fear, conquered myriad times in her trek. And finally, all of her sharing, like that of Isabella Bird in her 19th century memoir, A Lady's Ride Through the Rockies, has as a backdrop her descriptions of the extraordinary setting in which she finds herself.

At the beginning of her adventure Salak writes, 'I always try to rely on myself, find it amazingly hard to ask someone for help, but today my ignorance and helplessness feels overwhelming' (122). She adds, 'I wish there were some way to keep this moment in the present, fresh and unadulterated by the imperfections of memory . . . I feel, for the first time in my life, absolutely superhuman. I feel what it means to live' (135). These could be the words of Montagu, Murphy, Kingsley, Davidson, or Bird.

Salak reflects on her emotional needs to a greater degree than any of the women except Davidson. 'Here is when the idea of travelling by myself seems like insanity, like masochism at its worse; when I most need someone to hold and comfort me, there is no one. Just the furious warring of my own thoughts. And the fear' (Salak 164). Her admission moves the narrative forward and affirms that there is personal growth in meeting fear and moving beyond it:

I'm surprised at how suddenly it occurs–not in days, months, or years, as one might think, but in a single moment. Suddenly, now, it happens: I unwittingly grow up. My innocence abandons me, and I'm left only with a fear of the world that I know to be irrevocable (12).

Kingsley admits to a similar awareness as she is solo climbing the last pitch to the top of Mt. Cameroon in West Africa. Perhaps travel in tropical rain forests with very little horizon on which climbers can depend affects the two similarly. It is difficult to see where one is going when the canopy never really opens up or if it does, as when Kingsley finds herself finally at the top of Mt. Cameroon, the forces of nature conspire and fill the environment with clouds that allow her to see only a few feet in any direction. (Kingsley 355) Clarity comes from within; an epiphany is not visible in the external.

Salak comments on the last page of her memoir: 'but if I fear anything now, it's what I might be missing by not taking any chances and limiting the experiences of my life' (319). She realizes 'That I'm secretly terrified of nearly everything, but most of all, my inability to change' (Salak 266).

Fear connects all of these women. Their decision to allow change in their lives is balanced with their fear of the indefinite future in which they cannot be confident that change will be allowed. Kingsley deals with her fear by making jokes at her own expense. Bird deals with fear by moving beyond it. Montagu is fearful of returning to London to coffee spoons and ladies' luncheons, to a life that seems meaningless after her travels. (Montagu 192) Montagu also records fears in the same manner as Kingsley with a good deal of understatement and a bit of humour:

We passed by moonshine the frightful precipices that divide Bohemia from Saxony, at the bottom of which runs the river Elbe; but I can not say that I had reason to fear drowning in it, being perfectly convinced that, in case of a tumble, it was utterly impossible to come alive to the bottom. In many places the road is so narrow, that I could not discern an inch of space between the wheels and the precipice. Yet I was so good a wife not to wake Mr. Wortley, who was fast asleep by my side, to make him share in my fears, since the danger was unavoidable, till I perceived, by the bright light of the moon, our postilions nodding on horseback, while the horses were on a full gallop, and I thought it very convenient to call out to desire them to look where they were going. My calling waked Mr. Wortley, and he was much more surprised than myself at the situation we were in, and assured me that he had passed the Alps five times in different places, without ever having gone a road so dangerous. I have been told since it is common to find the bodies of travellers in the Elbe; but, thank God, that was not our destiny; and we came safe to Dresden, so much tired with fear and fatigue, it was not possible for me to compose myself to write (Montague 80).

Murphy fears not so much for herself, although she frequently is confronted by nature in the guise of hail and rainstorms and unrelenting sun. She does fear exposed heights and makes no secret of her need for support in the midst of climbing perilous cliff faces. She describes her attempt to inconspicuously and illegally cross the border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe on her second entry into South Africa:

As the vehicle disappeared I stood still, allowing my eyes to become accustomed to starlight . . .

dawn came: a quiet pastel dawn, light slowly seeping through the surrounding dense tangles of dwarf acacia and euphorbia. From afar, through binoculars, this had looked like a fairly direct path across a wide valley. But it was no such thing. For a variety of topographical reasons it wandered to and fro, up and down, this way and that, often meeting other paths. Twice I near-panicked: I have no sense of direction and a wrong turning might expose me to the full fury of the Zimbabwean and/or Mozambican immigration officers (Murphy 272).

On another occasion in May 1994 while waiting for the newly elected Nelson Mandela to arrive in a parade after his inauguration, Murphy describes an epiphany about the connection between fear and joy:

Worry? I wasn't worried, my guts were twisted with terror as time and again the surge behind us pressed on my buttocks and I strained harder to pull the wire towards us and push on the metal bar. This was grotesque, to be so frightened during the happiest event I have ever attended–frightened as rarely before in a long lifetime of travel (Murphy 257).

Davidson fears the crowd as well, the masses of India who find her a curiosity. After a long hike up the 'first of the nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine steps leading to the summit and the ultimate temple Ambadji' (Davidson 168) she simply needs to be alone:

I walked around the town looking for a den to crawl into. I was followed by men who hissed and giggled. I found a stone and sat on it. A crowd gathered. I put my head down into my hands and absented myself mentally. A few moments later I looked up and there, not a foot from my face, was a row of men's crotches. Above the crotches was a row of eyes looking at me in that dead way. A chocking sensation filled my throat, burst behind my eyes. I began hurrying through the streets thinking I hate India, I hate India, I hate India. . . they were looking at me. And their eyes were peeling my flesh away (174).

Finally, Salak is able to explain the fear inherent in all travel outside of one's culture:

I walk around with an out-of-body feeling, only the shudder of my steps telling me I'm occupying a body. I don't know what it means exactly . . . A certain kind of momentum consumes me now, pressing me on regardless of risk. So am I actually going through with this? But I must. Stopping would mean failure, giving up on myself, succumbing to a fear of the future, the unknown (92).

Their unwillingness to succumb to extraordinary circumstances as well as their willingness to share their experiences is a gift given by six women who travel to those of us who read of their travels. Whether on interior journeys or into hitherto unknown territories of the globe, each reader carries within a memory of the adventurer's example.

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Bird, Isabella L. A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains. Denver, Colorado: The Long Riders' Guild Press, 2001.

Davidson, Robyn. Desert Places. Victoria, Australia: Penuin Books Australia Ltd, 1996.

Holland, Patrick, and Graham Huggan, ed. Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Hulme, Peter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Kingsley, Mary. Travels in West Africa. London: Macmillan, 1897.

Masse, Mark H. "Creative Nonfiction: Where Journalism and Storytelling Meet." The Writer 108.10 (1995): 13-18.

Melchett, Sonia. Passionate Quests: Five Modern Women Travellers. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.

Montagu, Mary Wortley, Lady. Letters of the Right Honourable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Written During Her Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa. London: Theophilus Barrois, 1906.

Murphy, Dervla. South from the Limpopo: Travels through South Africa. Woodstock, New York: Peter Mayber Publishers, Inc, 1997.

Salak, Kira. Four Corners: One Woman's Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea. Columbus, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2004.