Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I am often asked about traveling alone. But the questions are invariably directed at the possibility of loneliness, and I already wrote a post about that. When women travelers are asked about solo travel, the emphasis tends to be on safety instead. As a man, it’s not up to me to say how safe women should feel about solo travel, and many female travel bloggers have weighed in on the subject.
Instead I want to highlight a few great female travelers and travel writers whose examples seem to me to demonstrate that women, as long as they have the ovaries for it, can be every bit as intrepid as any man.
Let’s start with Gertrude Bell, perhaps the best known great female travel writer not least because Werner Herzog just made a movie about her, “Queen of the Desert,” in which she is played by Nicole Kidman. Soon after graduating from Oxford, in 1892, Bell visited Persia, now Iran. Two years later she published her first book, Persian Pictures. This and her later volume on Syria, The Desert and the Sown, remain classics of Middle Eastern travel writing even today. She spent the next decade traveling the world and learning languages, coming to speak Arabic, Persian, Turkish, French, German, and Italian.
She became acquainted with T. E. Lawrence and later would all too often be compared to him and referred to as “the female Lawrence of Arabia.” Just as Lawrence came to prominence through his role in the Arabian campaign in World War I, so in 1915 Bell joined British army intelligence in Cairo and later in Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq.
Indeed, Bell was instrumental in the creation of Iraq as a state and the drawing of its problematic boundaries, making her legacy in the Middle East a complicated one. Perhaps that is another way of saying that a woman can make all the same mistakes that a man might make, which may be the whole point. The British travel writer and parliamentarian Rory Stewart wrote that, when he served as an administrator in Iraq in 2003, Iraqis still commonly compared the women in the British Foreign Service to Bell, whether as praise or denigration.
Then there was Martha Gellhorn. Again, a movie was made about her a few years ago, again (somehow), Nicole Kidman played her, and again, she was in many ways overshadowed by a more famous man, in this case her one-time husband Ernest Hemingway.
After dropping out of Bryn Mawr to pursue a career in journalism, Gellhorn became one of the twentieth century’s most intrepid war correspondents. In her youth she covered the Spanish Civil War and World War II in both the European and Asian theaters. In middle-age she covered the Vietnam War and the Arab-Israeli conflicts. In her 70s she went to Central America to cover the civil wars there. In her 80s she covered the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.
Gellhorn’s was a tumultuous life, and, sick and frail at 89, she would die of an apparently suicide. But damned if it wasn’t a full life, a life of romantic adventure, a life of the utmost disdain for convention, a life unafraid. In her lifetime she would publish numerous works of journalism, fiction, memoir, and travel writing.
And then there was Freya Stark. Born in 1893 to a British father and Italian mother, Stark received a copy of One Thousand and One Nights as a nine-year-old child, which would begin a lifelong fascination with what Europeans called “the Orient.”
It was not until she was in her 30s that she finally began traveling to the Middle East. Trekking into dangerous parts of northwestern Iran, she would reach places that no Western travelers had ever been before. And she succeeded in locating the fabled Valleys of the Assassins, where a medieval Islamic sect of hashish-smoking assassins hid out in formidable castles. I would visit the area belatedly in 2015. In 1935 she would also reach Hadhramaut in southern Arabia, which few explorers had seen.
After service in World War II, Stark traveled extensively in Turkey and later in Afghanistan, where she wrote about the still mysterious Minaret of Jam, a beautiful but nearly inaccessible tower in a remote part of western Afghanistan. Stewart, visiting in 2002, still puzzled over its purpose and origin.
So is it safe for women to travel alone? I don’t know. I’d have to ask Gertrude, Martha, and Freya.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."