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Travel Stories From Award-Winning Women Writers

By AFAR Editors

Mar 6, 2020

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In her story about climate change, writer Rahawa Haile explores Dry Tortugas National Park, which is home to Fort Jefferson, a massive brick hexagon built in the 1800s.

Photo by Rose Marie Cromwell

In her story about climate change, writer Rahawa Haile explores Dry Tortugas National Park, which is home to Fort Jefferson, a massive brick hexagon built in the 1800s.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we went back in the AFAR archives to honor some of our best storytellers.

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Answering the question, “What’s it like to travel as a woman?” can be hard to answer. Impossible, even. There’s no one response, because no one woman is the same as another. Each carries with her a lifetime of her own interactions and moments. 

Yet in honor of Women’s History Month—and given the fact that travel writing remains a male-dominated field—we decided to celebrate a few of our best stories written by women, which we’ve excerpted below. Some, like Leslie Jamison’s piece on motherhood, selected for 2017’s Best American Travel Writing anthology, are experiences unique to the sex, while others, like Rahawa Haile’s road trip through Key West, touch on more universal conversations: climate change, conservation, and a disappearing way of life. One thing they all have in common? They’ll make you want to get out and see the world. 

Key Change: How a Shifting Climate Is Transforming Florida
By Rahawa Haile

"Hot, humid air, like a weighted blanket, draped itself around me as I exited Miami International Airport. As a native Miamian who now lives on the opposite side of the country, I live for this sensation. It’s something I crave when I’ve been away too long, though my northern friends can’t fathom why. One of the reasons South Florida feels like home to those born here is that nowhere else in the country quite feels like South Florida. It’s the only stretch of the contiguous United States that sits in the tropical climate zone.

When I was a kid growing up here in the early ’90s, I spent my weeks in Miami with my nose buried in one book or another. But weekends were spent far from the city center with my father, paddling through the Everglades or, more frequently, road-tripping through the Florida Keys—the 44 islands connected by 42 bridges, stretching 113 miles from Key Largo to Key West."

> Read the rest of the story here.

Why a Road Trip Is the All-American Way to Build a Friendship
By Emma John

"Halfway to the coast, Genny announced that she hadn’t brought a gun. I glanced at the glove compartment of the Toyota Corolla with a sting of surprise and relief. Her nephew had given her shooting lessons for her last birthday, when she’d turned 76, but apparently she’d decided not to take up the offer of a pistol for our road trip. “They say you shouldn’t have a gun if you have any doubt whether you would shoot it or not,” said Genny, turning her eyes from the road to look at me. “I don’t own a gun, but the one thing I do know is: I would shoot.”

We were only two hours into our trip, and I was already nervous about what else I might learn about Genny on our way. We had been pen pals since a chance meeting in North Carolina four years ago; she was an avid reader and a curious soul, and our shared love of books and meeting new people had kept us corresponding after I returned home to England. But Genny rarely talked about herself. The idea that she—at five feet tall with white hair and impeccable Southern manners—might be the Thelma to my Louise had never occurred to me."

> Read the rest of the story here

The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis in Samarkand was built over 800 years.

On the Modern Silk Road, Discover the Colors and Characters of Uzbekistan
By Anya von Bremzen

"It was when the blue bowl fell and broke that a desire to revisit Uzbekistan swept over me in a sudden tremor of remembered colors and patterns.

The bowl, made from fragile, salty clay by the masters of Khorezm, a historic pottery center in western Uzbekistan, sported an intricate, pale azure design I could gaze at forever. It was my trophy from a trip I had made in 1990 to Uzbekistan, the history-saturated crossroads of the Silk Road.

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The trip was an act of homage. My beloved paternal grandmother, Alla, was born in 1917 in the fertile Fergana Valley east of Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. She was raised there by her grandmother, Anna, a prominent Bolshevik women’s rights activist. In the 1930s, Anna was transferred to a political job in Moscow, and later, like many Bolshevik activists, she ended up in a gulag. Alla never talked about Anna—except on those special occasions when she got very drunk and made great fragrant mounds of plov, the carrot-strewn Uzbek lamb pilaf."

> Read the rest of the story here.

Meet the Revolutionary Women Strumming Their Way Into the World of Flamenco Guitar
By Lavinia Spalding

"I’ve been in Spain only two days, and already my fingers hurt. It’s a prickly, high-pitched sting, like when a fallen-asleep limb returns to life. The sensation delights me. It means I’m doing something right.

Yesterday, after arriving in Madrid, I took the metro to the Delicias neighborhood, home to Picasso’s Guernica (in the Reina Sofía Museum) and the magnificent iron-and-glass Atocha railway station. I didn’t visit those places. Instead, I walked to a nondescript apartment building and knocked on a stranger’s door. A thin, soft-spoken woman with sleepy eyes and floppy bangs invited me in. We chatted a bit, and then she handed me a $3,000 guitar. “Can you play something?” she asked.

This was the reason I’d come to Spain. Because I once believed I was destined to be a tocaora."

> Read the rest of the story here

On the beach in Belize, where Leslie Jamison found locals settling in for hair braiding.

What Happens When Life Turns You Into a New Kind of Traveler?
By Leslie Jamison

"The flight was 15 minutes to San Pedro Town, in a 14-seat Cessna over crystalline waters, with the sky impossibly close at our shoulders and our life jackets folded into pockets at our knees. My husband, Charles, said the duct-taped sun visor over the pilot’s seat looked like something from a ’75 Chevy Vega. My daughter, Lily, tugged my sleeve and told me, nearly breathless, that we’d just gone inside a cloud. She was almost six and three-quarters, the salad days of six and a half receding behind us faster than the pink plush snake she’d begged for at the Belize City airport gift shop.

We’d spent the night in Houston, an unexpected layover after we missed our first flight from La Guardia because we didn’t have a copy of Lily’s mother’s death certificate. You see, Lily is not my daughter by birth. She is simply the daughter I am helping to raise—as if simply could ever apply to her loss, or our family, or any family; as if you could control everything, or even really anything, about taking a six-year-old to an island 1,800 miles away. Travel is ultimately a series of intentional disruptions, and we found that our disruptions had been disrupted."

> Read the rest of the story here.

How Working in the French Quarter Showed Me a Different Side of New Orleans
By Sarah M. Broom

"When I began my barista job at CC’s Coffee House, my brother Michael, a veteran employee of the French Quarter, explained which streets I was to avoid on the way to the bus stop at night and demonstrated the forward posture in which I was to hold myself in order to appear most threatening. Every day, Michael broke from his own work at K-Paul’s Restaurant on Chartres to walk the few blocks to where I worked on Royal Street. I fed him dark chocolate–covered espresso beans and a frozen drink called the Mochasippi.

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From time to time, he’d look to me and say: 'What, you don’t like to do nothing to your hair?' My brothers were always asking me this about my hair, an unregulated mass standing up and pointing whichever way. I was not interested in hair, especially not in taming it. I wanted my hair to project a freedom I did not feel. My brothers were vain men, all of them, starched like my grandmother and her offspring: Joseph, Elaine, and Ivory. 'Have you seen Einstein’s hair?' I had the nerve to say back."

> Note: This is an excerpt from Broom's debut memoir, The Yellow House, which won the National Book Award in 2019. Read the rest of the story here

An onsen pool along the trail in Japan.

Escape From the Modern World on a Pilgrim's Path Through Japan
By Peggy Orenstein

“'You’re going alone?' a friend asked me.

We were hiking in the hills of Berkeley, California, something I do several times a week (OK, try to do several times a week), usually with a few girlfriends and our dogs, or at least with my phone, so I can listen to music or an audiobook or chat with my sister-in-law in Minnesota. I had been talking about a five-day trek on Japan’s Kumano Kodo, a 10th-century network of trails roughly 100 miles south of Kyoto that was named one of two 2004 UNESCO World Heritage spiritual pilgrimage sites. (The other is the Camino de Santiago in Spain.) My 42-mile route, dotted with more than 100 Shinto and Buddhist shrines, would traverse the secluded Kii peninsula through sleepy farm towns and forests of cedar, cypress, and bamboo, over mountain passes, across rivers, and past waterfalls.

And yes, I was going alone."

> Read the rest of the story here

Do You Really Have to Stop Traveling When You Have Kids?
By Freda Moon

"I’m waist deep in water that’s brisk only in contrast to the sultry air of a 90-degree day. The sea is the color of the sky, a pale wash of blue, and clear to the sandy bottom. But I can’t see my feet. They’re obscured by my pregnant belly, which is round and taut and frighteningly large. As I stand, acclimating to the faint chill of the Panamanian Pacific, a school of tiny, transparent fish moves toward me like a stampede of Pamplona bulls. Thousands of see-through fish in a see-through sea.

I slowly lower myself into the shifting, undulating cloud of marine life, letting the buoyancy of my belly pull me to the surface, where I bob like an apple in a barrel. From sea level, I look up at the nearby hillside—steep and cluttered with small, Easter egg–hued homes—and imagine my mother here, in this water, on this island, 35 years ago."

> Read the rest of the story here.

The Ultimate Way to Seek Solitude
By Lisa Abend

"I was about 20 minutes into the four-hour train ride from Glasgow to Fort William when I realized I couldn’t stand the two men seated in front of me. This realization was based on nothing other than what I could overhear—which was every bloody word—of their conversation. They were traveling to a friend’s house, but before they arrived they would need to stop at the supermarket for cheese and wine, of course; though white, not red, since the carpets were beige and the host had a policy. One of the men also had a sister of whose parenting skills he disapproved, a nephew who would likely end up in juvenile court, a new backpack whose every compartment required minute explication, and a penchant for a Danish television series whose plot twists he could recall in terrifying detail. Did I mention that the train ride was four hours long?

I know. The problem wasn’t Mr. Chatty and his mate. It was me. In the weeks before I went to Scotland, I had found myself increasingly irritated by the constant crush of other people, crowding me in line at the market, checking their phones at movie theaters, coming at me nonstop in tides of emails, tweets, and status updates. This happens to me periodically: The deadline pressures and everyday annoyances that normally pass unnoticed accumulate until even benign human interactions begin to feel like too much, and the only thing that helps is radical solitude."

> Read the rest of the story here.

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