Stifling her sobs and dabbing her eyes, this week’s Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 contributor boarded a plane to Greece in 2003 and hasn’t returned home to the United States since: Diane Caldwell. The 2009 Solas Awards gold medalist for Best Travel Memoir, Diane has also been featured in the anthology Tales of the Expat Harem. She currently teaches in Istanbul.
When did you first hit the road? How did it go?
I was 16 years old. I had read On the Road and Howl. With a crazed and deluded 21-year-old poet named JC, I left my home in Northeast Philly and headed for New York City in search of “truth and beauty.” The truth is, I ended up among the forgotten misfits of the world. Bill Quinn, an alcoholic panhandler, taught me the art of begging. “Be bold. Don’t let them intimidate you.” Bill gave me pointers as he told the story of how he was supposed to play the lead role in the film “Broken Arrow,” but got tossed aside at the last minute. “Sir, Madame,” he bowed low, obstructing the path of a well-dressed couple, “Would you be so kind as to contribute a sliver of your wealth in my pursuit of inebriation?”
The street savvy Ellen Kennedy, a 45-year-old, dark-haired beauty of transparent vulnerability, gave me pointers on shoplifting. “Ya need a boostin’ bag, kid.” She handed me her large tan straw bag to inspect. “Ya get up next to what ya want, and just kinda slide it into the bag. Three, four, five items top. Don’t get greedy. That’s the main thing. Then ya buy some cheap little thing and walk outta the store like everything’s natural.”
This was my entry into the world away from my middle-class home in the suburbs–a world of winos, A-heads, and beatniks. Comfort and security stripped away, thrown into the vortex of life on the edge, I developed a taste for adventure. It set the tone for the rest of my life. When you know you can survive with nothing, you have a confidence that no matter what happens, you’ll survive. Would I advise this route to other 16-year-old girls? Absolutely not. Yet, what can I say. It makes for good story-telling.
What is “home” for you?
More and more I find that home is this world, this planet. That the people of this world are, as Maude (from the film “Harold and Maude”) told Harold, “my species.”
I’m currently traveling alone for two months in India. Before leaving for this trip, I found myself barraged with doubts and fear. It would be my first trip to India. While gone I would turn 62. As a budget traveler, it would mean hauling, dragging, pulling, and pushing my suitcase into and out-of-state buses, trains and auto rickshaws, along filthy Indian roads into and out of budget guest houses. Would my immune system be up to the test? Would my stamina be up to the test? Would my emotional balance remain even or would it topple, leaving me in a state of catastrophic upheaval?
More than one month into my trip, I am so very happy to announce, it’s been the trip of my lifetime! I’ve made friends on rattletrap India state buses, on the stone steps of holy ghats, and sipping makhanya lassi at outdoor stands. Wherever I go, I look into the eyes of people who look back into mine and we share our humanness.
After a lifetime of therapy, workshops, massages, meditation, happenings, unhappenings, closings and openings, I can ecstatically report: I’m at home in my own skin on whatever bank of whatever river in whatever country I’m traveling in.
At the same time, there is one place, one very special place, I call “home.” Istanbul is for me the greatest city in the world. It’s where I feel more at home than anywhere else. It’s where I can walk down the main thoroughfare of Beyoglu and have people call my name, kiss me on both cheeks, and feel a sense of belonging that I’ve never felt anywhere else. It’s the place where I dance and sing in the street and have a 22-year-old radical feminist friend who tells everyone I’m her daughter. My friends are Turk, Italian, and Austrian; actors, dancers, singers, filmmakers, and circus performers. It’s where I dance to gypsy bands, and wash my hair in rain storms.
What advice can you offer women with itchy feet?
Live. Take risks. Feel your fear, take deep breaths, and jump in. We only get one chance in this body at this time. Nothing beats the experience of travel. But be sure to do your research. Like a good Girl Scout, be prepared. That really helps to minimize problems. The Internet provides us with endless information: use it. And most importantly, keep your sense of humor. Two weeks ago, in India, I hauled my suitcase up the steps of a state bus, fought for a place to place it (there are no provisions for luggage on India’s state buses), threaded my way through the mass of humanity, and then proceeded to lean over the aisle-seated passenger, straining to push my daypack into the ceiling rack. I became aware of everyone watching this unfolding drama and laughing. I initially felt a little peeved. “They could at least give me a hand here.” But with one last thrust, I managed, by my tiny little self, to get the bag onto the rack. Since I had the attention of the entire bus, I decided to use it. I pointed to the stashed bag, then pointed to myself. I flexed my muscles, and then took a big bow. The whole busload of people broke into laughter, and I now had a whole group of new friends. “What’s your name Madame?” “Where are you from?” Heads waggled from side to side, warm eyes met mine, everyone was smiling.
This is the joy of travel. Just do it. With a smile.