American Female on the Loose: Part II

In writing this series of entries, I have realized I actually do think about gender more than I knew.  So much so, in fact, that I have developed my own set of expectations (okay, maybe biases or stereotypes is more accurate) for how I will be treated by men in different cultures.

I used to think the USA was gender neutral.  I grew up here, and because of that experience, I am fortunate enough to assume that I will be treated as an equal member of society.  No one looks twice at me driving myself, paying for myself, walking by myself.

I have learned that is not universally true around the world.

A case in point is the Middle East.

I took at sightseeing trip to Israel, and then went scuba diving in the Red Sea.  When I got to Israel, I started to understand what it would really be like to be somewhere gender neutral.  (Disclaimer: I know this may be offensive to Israeli men, but I am only recounting my experiences.)

In Israel, my friend Valeria and I were pushed, shoved, had doors slammed in our faces, were expected to carry our own (very heavy) scuba tanks and kayaks, and even had tall men push us aside at a concert so they could stand in front of us and get a better view.

These are behaviors I take for granted as being frowned upon in the “gender neutral” USA.  It made me realize that the USA is not really gender neutral, and I am okay with that.  I don’t mind living in a nation that is “gender aware,” where the taxi driver will help me with my luggage and my male friends will offer me their sweaters if it is cold outside.

I decided (because I am always doing root cause analysis in the back of my mind) that, in Israel, the fact that Israeli woman serve right beside men in the army is, perhaps, why there is such gender-blindness in how men treat women in public.  I don’t mean to imply that I am against women serving in the U.S. military – quite the contrary.

But because 100% of the population serves in the military in Israel, and woman are enlisted along with men, my theory is that has changed the societal norms for that country.  Thoughts?

So, coming from Israel where we felt genderless, it was a complete shock when we crossed the border into Jordan.  On the one hand, we were looked after.  Our dive masters carried our heavy tanks, took care of our fins, and offered to escort us to dinner afterwards.

They were protective and kind, and fun to be around.  On the other hand, I had one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life there.  When my dive master, Akmed, and I were coming out of the ocean after snorkeling, a man was walking by with his two sons.  The man asked if I would take a picture with his boys (2 and 5 years old).  I said yes, by now used to being my own walking tourist attraction.

But, his sons were terrified of me: a foreign speaking blond lady wearing just a bathing suit (in a conservative Muslim country where woman’s bodies are modestly covered).  They started crying, and screaming, and pleading, and grabbing on to their fathers’ legs, trying desperately not to be forced any closer to me.  I smiled and started to walk on, sure that Dad saw how bad an idea the photo was.

Nope.  The father started to physically force the boys closer to me, and their screams raised to bloody murder level, as huge tears poured down their faces and snot streamed out of their noses.  I kept walking, and the father started yelling something at me and Akmed.  Akmed shook his head no, and told me to keep walking.  Apparently the dad wanted us to help wrangle his hysterically terrified children, and now wanted me to pick his younger son up for a picture.

We escaped into the confines of the dive center, with the children’s inconsolable wails and the father’s angry shouts audible through the walls.

It’s a lesson in being careful what you wish for.  I claim to want gender neutrality, but when I experienced it, I was irritated at the disrespect and wanted to be seen as a woman.  Hours later, I was treated very differently for being a woman, and longed to disappear into the cloak of gender neutrality.

Those contrasting experiences within one trip highlight the magic of travel.  Travel isn’t just an opportunity to learn about the world, it is a chance to learn about yourself.  And, in some cases, what I’ve learned (about a place or about me) can be confusing, or uncomfortable.  In all cases, I am a better person for having learned it.

Mongolia Infection

My sister took me on the Trans Siberian Rail, from Beijing to Moscow.

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That experience is fodder for a future blog entry (or series), where I hope I’ll be able to capture how truly life-changing it was.

But, I want to carve out our time in Mongolia separately.

Mongolia was unexpected, awesome, fascinating, and infecting.  By infecting, I mean I “caught” an unexpected love for the country and its history and its people.

In preparing for the trip, I had read all kinds of accounts of the Trans Siberian experience itself, and I had read about the nomadic camp in the Gobi desert thatin which we’d be staying in a ger tent.  So I had done my research, but I hadn’t really spent any time considering its people, history or culture.

After having “caught my infection” I am now an avid reader of Mongolian current events, and am fascinated by its history, ancient and modern.

First, our trip…

We exited the train at Ulan Baatar, Mongolia’s capital city, and were struck by the juxtaposition between being in the middle of nowhere, and being in a highly industrialized soviet city.

That is only the first of many contrasts we encountered: food that is a cross between Russian, Chinese and “nomadic”; a language that is written in Cyrillic (although the Mongols are highly resentful of their Soviet history); a poor economy, rich in minerals (see Soviet resentment); a people who are working to regain their pride, identity and nationalism, and yet trying to also enter the modern world culture and economy.

All of this is dizzying, and I found it addictive as well.

On our drive to the nomadic camp where we stayed in a ger tent (which is like a yurt) for a few days, our modern van broke down.  So, we had to hike miles through the Gobi Desert, until we were rescued by carts and horses.

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At the ger camp, we rode horses, watched cultural shows, feasted, drank fermented milk, and hiked in the desert.  And we played volleyball, fell in love with the wild dogs, and flirted with the cowboys.

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It was sad to say goodbye to Mongolia, it was, by far, the hardest place to leave on the whole trip.

When I got back to Chicago, I was still buzzing with my love for the place, and quickly read two books:

1. Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World 2. Michael Walter’s The Shadow Walker

Between these two books, you get an excellent idea of the ancient history of and the current situation in Mongolia.

The best thing about Weatherford’s book on Khan is that he focuses on more than the bloodthirsty conquering aspect of the historic icon.  I finished his book with a real appreciation of why the Mongols are trying to resurrect him as a national hero.  Of course, they want to identify with the man who helped the Mongols become a fearsome powerhouse (he conquered more in his reign than the Romans did in centuries).  But, also, they want to celebrate the progressive man who promoted tolerance of religion and cultures, and who opened new trade and communication channels.

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Walters’ fictional murder mystery was fun to read because Ulan Baatar and a ger camp make up the setting, and he does an entertaining job of bringing to light a lot of modern Mongolia’s quirks and challenges through the eyes of a foreign (British) detective.

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I can’t honestly be sure if I would have enjoyed the book if I hadn’t been to Mongolia, or at least had an interest in it.  But, as both are true, I turned the pages as excited to see how Inspector Nergui solved the crime as I was to read about the setting and surrounding events.

I think of Mongolia on a daily basis, since I have named my dog Gobi.  She looks just like one of the dogs my sister and I met and adopted for the duration of our stay.  Like my dog, my memories of Mongolia are never far from my heart.

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American Female on the Loose: Part I

Something I really do not spend a lot of mindshare on is my gender.  I love being a woman; I am proud of it, I wouldn’t change it for the world.  But, I simply don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.

During all my travels, it has become clear that the rest of the world sees me as a woman, first and foremost.  Some of the my most colorful memories are directly related to the fact that I am a woman, and I am thankful for each and every one.

Here are just a few cherished nuggets…

Africa

Traveling in Africa (Mali and Ethiopia specifically) as a solo female traveler allowed me to interact with local women and children in a way I would not have otherwise been able to.  I was alone, so the interaction felt intimate and non-intimidating.  And because I’m a woman, there weren’t any social taboos preventing the women from touching me, inviting me into their homes, handing me their babies, inviting me to cook with them.

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Girls braided my hair, boys held my hand so I wouldn’t fall on steep hills or in rivers, women invited me to dance at weddings and try on their clothes.  I had given embarrassingly little thought to what it would mean to travel alone as a woman in Africa, and I am glad I didn’t.

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Instead of feeling afraid or self-conscious I was ready to embrace these moments of joy.

Morocco

Road tripping through Morocco gave me some slightly less pleasant, but nonetheless, memorable moments.  And, as every traveler knows, sometimes the worst experiences make the best stories and most vivid memories.  This is true about my Moroccan experiences.

An old woman threw stones at me because my calves were exposed (I am sure my blond hair didn’t help), teenage boys spit at me (I assume for the same reason), a man tried to buy me from my boyfriend (who was posing as my brother), and a woman pressured me to marry her son and take him to America.

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I safely pin-balled my way through this series of bizarre events, heightened in their craziness by my dysentery and our rental car’s breakdown in the Sahara.  While these experiences only occurred as a result of my gender, I also believe (maybe in a sexist way) that, had I been a man subjected to these insults, tensions would have surely escalated.  Instead, I accepted them as cultural phenomena and moved on.

Portugal

In Portugal, my friend Ellen and I were invited aboard a warship, and given a private tour of the bridge.  The ship was open for public tours, so the fact that we were invited aboard had nothing to do with our gender.  But, all the other tours were groups of twenty-five people, and none were invited to the bridge.

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Just moments earlier we had been lamenting that we had spent our entire weekend in Portugal without getting on a boat, and if we hadn’t been women, I think the weekend would have ended boat-less as well.

Zanzibar

There were three gender-specific moments in Zanzibar.  Two occurred in Stone Town.  One was in the market, where I was given a tour through all the meats, fruits, vegetables and spices.  The first section we went through was the seafood section, and the smells were overpowering — as were some of the images of fish being hacked to bits.

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But when we got to the meat section, I found myself wishing we were still with the fish, as the bloody cow heads were lined up to be made into soup.

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I didn’t even notice, at first, that my guide kept abruptly pushing me down all these different aisles, trying to avoid a man who was chasing us through the market, trying to touch me.

What could have been a terrifying experience wasn’t because as soon as I noticed my pursuer (who was clearly not mentally competent nor aware of what he was doing), I also noticed that all the vendors and the shoppers were forming human walls to keep him away from me.

If I had not been a blond woman, I would not have been this man’s target.  But, I also believe that if I had not been a foreign woman, I would not have received the protection and aid from over thirty strangers.

The second Zanzibar experience was in a museum.  Two teenage boys wanted me to take their picture, which I did as they posed with their arms around each other.  Then, they each want to take a picture with me.

The one posing with me first asked, “Can I touch you?”  I think he meant, “Can I put my arm around you like I just did with my friend when I posed with him?”  But it was a strange question to be asked, especially in such a Muslim area, where women are not supposed to be touched.

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So, by saying yes, what was I saying about myself?  But, this was all processing in the background while we posed since I immediately said “of course” and proceeded to smile for the pictures.  I am sure it was just two young boys who were excited to practice their English and pose with an American lady.  But, had I been a man, I probably wouldn’t even remember the incident today.  And actually, the boys probably would have been too intimidated to practice their English with me as an adult American man, so I wouldn’t have had the experience at all.

The final Zanzibar experience took place at my resort later that day.  I changed into my bathing suit and took my camera to the beach to photograph the intricate rock formations, aqua-blue water and baby powder sand.  The rising tide caught me by surprise and I was faced with a dilemma: the safe move (from a drowning-and/or-ruining-my-camera-prevention perspective) would have been to get out of the water and walk back to the resort through the town.

However, I had been warned that outside of the resort, I needed to be modestly dressed.  While my bathing suit was indeed modest by resort-wear standards, it was not modest by rural Muslim village standards.  So, my other choice was to brave the rising tide and waves, now crashing against the rocks.

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I opted for the latter, especially given my fresh memories of the market and museum.

Had I been a man, I could have safely walked back through the village and probably taken hundreds of awesome pictures along the way.  But, I would not have the story about how I risked life and limb (and camera).

As you can see from these few anecdotes, my travels would be very different if I weren’t a woman.  As much as some of them were a little trying at the time, I am immensely grateful for each experience, as both a life lesson and a colorful tale.

Bird by Bird

I am a big believer in learning about something before I jump in with both feet — or at least while I am jumping in.

I did it when I used to work for a company that made navigation maps, which is why I can sound a whole lot more proficient than you’d imagine while discussing links, nodes and APIs.

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I did it when I learned to surf, which is why I own three books on surfing (my favorite being Surf Diva: A Girls’ Guide to Getting Good Waves) and watched countless hours of Point Break, Endless Summer, Blue Crush, and the like.

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I did it when I decided I wanted to open an import business for my favorite purses from Argentina (which is why I quickly realized I should not open an import business for my favorite purses from Argentina).

So, it should come as no surprise that when I decided I seriously want to be an author (beyond just my junior high wish list of jobs), I started doing my homework.  I researched the industry and the craft.  I joined associations like SCBWI, I took classes (with Mediabistro), I continue to attend numerous workshops and conferences, and I am (go figure if you know me at all by now) reading books.

A book that just blew me away is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.  It is informative, funny, well-written, enjoyable and inspiring.

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“Bird by Bird” refers to advice Lamott’s father gave to her brother, who was overwhelmed with a report on birds he needed to write for school…

“He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’ ”

Lamott offers this kind of simple advice related in a compelling, emotional, accessible way throughout the book.  She does not get into the nuts and bolts of style the way Strunck & White do in The Elements of Style (another favorite of mine from college that I recently reread).

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Instead, she focuses on how to be a writer, and the actual process of writing.  Her direct honesty is offset by her effusive humor, so I found myself laughing aloud at her stories, even as I was wincing inside at her warnings.

Starting something new, like being an author, is exciting.  But it is also scary.  Having Lamott to look up to as a woman ahead of me on the trail, and not only surviving, but thriving, is reassuring.

Time Warp

Guest Post by Terri Lydon (http://redfacedmama.blogspot.com)

As anyone who has traveled with young kids can attest to, it’s all in the planning.  You need to be sure you thought through and predicted all possible outcomes, and planned accordingly.  If you did not pack medicine, it is guaranteed your child will get sick at 2am.  If you packed for winter in Chicago, I promise you will come across the only heated pool complete with built-in slides and a slushy bar and you will need a swim suit.  And if your plan was to order room service for dinner, there is a 85% chance the hotel’s kitchen will be closed at that hour.

This weekend, my kiddos and I headed to Michigan for a family wedding.  The ceremony was at 4pm MI time, which is 1 hour later than Chicago time (I was prepared for this hour change).  I decided we were going to drive out the day of the wedding to enable naps to take place…if we drove out the day before, there is no way my kids would nap which would result in them turning into sloppy puddles around 7pm.

Here was the plan:

– 7:30am: Auntie was sleeping over, so she was going to take the kids to Dunkin’ Donuts.  I would shower and get myself ready.

– 8:00am: Eat breakfast.

– 8:30am: Pack the car.

– 9:00am: Get the kids ready.

– 9:30am: Leave for MI.

– 11:30am: Get lunch.

– 12pm (which would be 1pm MI time): Arrive at hotel.

– 1pm-2pm: Relax in room, unpack, etc.

– 2pm: Get ready for the wedding.

– 3pm: Leave for the ceremony which was about 30 minutes away.

Here’s the reality:

– 7:30am: Auntie has the kids buckled in the car, and calls me to tell me the car dashboard is lighting up like a slot machine and the car has locked itself in “park” and will not budge.  We are not mechanics, so we press buttons and start and stop and car, turn it on and off (like a phone, right?).  Crap.

– 7:45am: New plan.  Auntie is going to get breakfast sans kids while mama just says “CRAPCRAPCRAPCRAP” silently to herself and makes coffee.

– 8am: Auntie texts that she can’t park at Dunkin’ Donuts (apparently everyone in the area decided it was donut day.  Bastards.)

– 8:30am: Auntie is back with food.  Coffee is ready.  Breakfast is consumed.

– 9am: Auntie takes the kiddos for a walk while mama starts the process of moving the car seats to her Camry.  Now, being a very safety-minded mother, I of course bought the super-safe seats that lock into place in multiple places.  Straps.  Clips.  Belts.  Needless to say 1 hour later with Auntie’s help both car seats were finally secured.  Car is packed.

10am: Mama showers.  Gets ready.

10:30am: Kids are ready.

10:45am: Off we go.  As we head toward the freeway, I explain to John and Annie what it means to be “rolling with the punches” which they think is just the best thing ever!  OK, so at least I am still in an happy-ish mindset…

We stopped for a very fast lunch at some point…but this is where the time-warp happens.  We find the hotel, and have to bring in all of our bags (kids + bags + parking lot + no “check in” parking = insanity).  We check in and get to our floor and see another wedding guest…dressed and heading out to the ceremony…it’s 3pm.  WTF?????

We get in the room and I announce “TAKE OFF YOUR CLOTHES AND GET DRESSED!”  Everyone’s confused.  OK.  That made no sense.  (1) Take off your clothes.  (2) Put on your wedding clothes.  FAST.  FAST.  FAST!!!!!!!!!!  And then of course my dress was cut too low and I had a plan to safety pin it.  However, attaching a safety pin to your own clothes when you are stressed and rushed does not work well.  For eff sake.

Took 1 picture of the kids to prove they were quaffed:

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We raced to the ceremony in full NASCAR style, parked in the chapel’s driveway (completely illegally) and walked down the aisle 3 minutes before the procession.  I’ve heard it’s all about your entrance 😉

The kids were all wound up, and were having a hard time sitting still.  I was too.  At one point, the priest said if anyone couldn’t hear him to raise their hand.  If you could hear him but didn’t want to, raise 2 hands.  Well, I’ll let you guess what John did.  Twice.

So much for thinking and planning.  Rolling with the punches.

Paddington Bear

As I wrote in one of my first blog entries, my childhood was full of travel.  It was also full of books.  It’s only recently that I’ve realized that most of my childhood heroes were adventurers…

…Paddington Bear, Curious George, Mary from The Secret Garden, Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth, Max from Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Madeline, The Little House, Make Way for Ducklings, Miss Rumphius, Babar, Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Jackie Piper and Puff, Ping…

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I had some heroes who didn’t travel, but even their stories were travel-related.  The Box Car Children lived on a train, even though it never moved.  And Mr. Popper may not have traveled, but his penguins did.  And, I don’t remember the story clearly enough, but I have a distinct sense that Jo from Little Women was a traveler, even if only in her heart.

My first big international trip was to England with my mom, sister and aunt.  I wasn’t necessarily reminded of any books I’d read until we were on the London Underground, and I set eyes on Paddington Station.  Suddenly all the Paddington Bear stories I had read as a kid came back to me, as if I was sprinkled with magical fairy dust, gifted with all the images from the books.

The Queen's 80th Birthday - Paddington Arrives

From that moment on, I advocated for afternoon tea and marmalade each and every day of our trip, a tradition I continue to relish and associate with Paddington and that trip, to this day.

Boats, Trains and Automobiles

I love road trips.  And boat trips.  And train trips.  And, not coincidentally, some of my favorite books involve those very trips…

Around the World in 80 Days

This book has trains and boats (and an elephant and sledge to boot!).  I will never forget the first time I picked up this book, and realized for the very first time that people like to travel to new places just for the rush and adventure of travel, itself, and not necessarily only to get somewhere specific.

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The Black Stallion

In this book, the significance of the boat trip isn’t about the journey.  The boat is a catalyst.  It is onboard a boat that Alec meets Black, and befriends the feisty stallion with kindness.  When the boat sinks after an explosion, Black and Alec fight for their lives.

I remember being riveted as a kid, and grasping immediately that the reason Black is drawn to Alec is his kindheartedness.  And I remember staying up way past my bedtime, feverishly turning page after page to see how Alec and Black survive the open seas.

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The Odyssey

Of course, the oldest and most famous story of a boat trip is Homer’s epic.  This was assigned reading in high school, and at the time, I didn’t think of it as a travel story.  It was mythology, and history, and classic literature.

But, on my first voyage to Greece, during spring break of my senior year of university, it all came back to me.  Having devoured the story of Odysseus’ journey home from Troy to Ithaca, that trip (and later trips, to Greece and Turkey) totally resonated.  The funny thing about books is, when I read them, the story becomes personal; it becomes mine.  I hear my voice in my head telling the story to me.  So, it was my voice that I remember relaying Odysseus’ trials and tribulations, and it was intoxicating to feel personally connected with Greece (and Turkey), even though I had never physically set foot there before.  I had been there in my head.

This was especially true during the two trips in the region that involved boats – I imagined that I was sailing in the same waters as Odysseus, strolling the same shores, exploring the same cities.  And, I imagined I was doing it for the second time, because the first time I had accompanied him (at least in my head).

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The Old Man and The Sea

Hemingway’s classic about an old Cuban fisherman was a simple, yet deceiving story.  Similar to Black Beauty, the boat is important because of a journey, but it sets the required tension for the story.  In this case, it is a story about man’s powerlessness.

The Old Man and The Sea

Moby Dick

Wow, lots of books on my high school reading list took place on boats, now that I think about it!  I haven’t even touched on Tom Sawyer or The Tempest.  But, Moby Dick definitely makes my list.  What a remarkable story about passion to the point of madness and determination to the point of obsession, all set on a whaling ship.

Every time I’ve gone whale watching, whether its off Nantucket like Ahab, or Hawaii, or somewhere abroad from America’s coast, I think back to the adventures of the Pequod.

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Murder on the Orient Express

This is the first book, (and subsequently all the Hercule Poirot and Agatha Crisitie novels), that my mom and I read together as adults.  As such, more than being inspired by the romance of the train adventure, I realized books can be connections to family and friends as we each journey together (and separately) through the chapters of a story.

The idea of an epic train adventure stayed with me, and was the impetus for my (real-life!) journey with my sister on the Trans Siberian Railway.

When my friend Dawn and I were in Istanbul a couple years ago, we visited the hotel, The Pera, where Agatha Christie stayed while she penned this murder mystery.  And, we saw the railroad station where Hercule Poirot boarded the Orient Express in (then) Constantinople.  This is the book that just keeps on giving in my life!

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On the Road 

I had never read Kerouac’s classic novel of angst, freedom and the Beat Generation until a boyfriend and I took a couple road trips across the country.  There was something addictive about being on the open road, seeing the country mile by mile, and entering and leaving state after state, and city after city.  I was hooked.

When I told people about my love of the crossings, they universally recommended Kerouc’s book.  I dove in and immediately related to his intangible search for himself, and for finding a way to truly experience life.

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Motorcycle Diaries 

I was drawn to Che Guevara’s memoir of his motorcycle (steamship, raft, horse, bus and hitchhiking) journey from Argentina to Peru, solely to relish his magnificent descriptions of South American people and landscapes.

By the end of the book, Che and I were both changed forever.  I had fallen in love with South America, and Che had thrown off his upper-middle-class identity for a dedication to the plight of the poor, and to the cause of a united Latin America.

In the diary, I saw Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama (and Florida).  And since reading it, I have been lucky enough to visit Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, (and Florida).  But, like all “firsts”, my first time “visiting” those places, with Che, has colored all subsequent times.  I am glad my first time was with him.

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