Through her wanderings on five continents, this week’s Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 contributor has learned to shear sheep, cultivate rice, sail without a G.P.S., and edit a state-run newspaper with a straight face: Christine Buckley. Her LA Weekly cover story on human rights activist Aaron Cohen was a 2008 LA Press Club and Maggie Award finalist and led to the book Slave Hunter: One Man’s Quest to Free Victims of Human Trafficking, co-written with Cohen (Simon & Schuster Entertainment). Born in New York and currently based in Paris, Christine is working on a second book.
What is “home” for you? Is it a particular place or person or thing?
Before I really started traveling, “home” was synonymous with New York…and in a way, it will always be. If you give that city all you’ve got, it gives you back twice as much. And until I was in my mid-twenties, it was the only way of life I’d known. I was happy there. But at some point in 1999 I realized I needed to experience something totally different before I got too comfortable. New York attracts so many talented people who’ve had to fight their way there, and there I was, just hanging out by default. So settling there before having tried another way of life would have seemed like a cop-out, somehow. Since then I’ve made my home in several other countries—in rural villages, small towns and big cities.
Of course there have been moments when I’ve truly missed New York’s intensity. Whenever I go back there and get that drug flowing in my veins again, I know that I would have been just fine if I’d stayed. But I now feel at home all over Vietnam, in New Zealand, in Paris and a handful of other places where I’ve become part of a community. Give me a decent bicycle and enough vocabulary to order good food and be able to learn what makes the locals tick, and I’m hooked. I’m writing this from a sweaty Internet café on a sticky keyboard in southern India, and I can’t wait to get back out on the street, on my bike and into the traffic in search of some street food. So I guess the concept of “home” is more about the people and the food than the place for me. In the absence of a common language (my Tamil is pretty rudimentary), a sincere smile goes a long way…
When did you first hit the road? How did it go?
We didn’t really travel as a family, although my dad’s job often took him abroad for weeks at a time. My mom was a teacher, and by the time summer rolled around, she was too tired for road tripping. So we spent our summers in a simple house on the North Fork of Long Island, which was paradise for kids. Exploring the estuaries, learning to sail a Sunfish out into the Long Island Sound and imagining that one day my brother and I would make it eighteen miles across to Connecticut, which might as well have been a foreign land… By the time I was 26, I’d driven across the U.S., traveled in Europe and made a few short trips to Mexico and South America. But I’d never really abandoned everything for the open road until I bought a one-way ticket to Sydney, Australia. My intention was to stop there for a few weeks and earn some more money working in a friend’s bar before buying one of those round-the-world tickets—first stop, Indonesia. Fortunately, after spending two weeks in New Zealand (where the plane stopped on the way to Sydney), I’d figured out that ticking world capitals off a round-the-world itinerary was not going to be my style. The intended quick stop in New Zealand turned into an eye-opening year working on organic farms and “tramping” (in the Kiwi sense of the word) around the backcountry learning the names of native plants and birds. I finally completed the Auckland-Sydney leg of the journey on the day before that one-way ticket expired, exactly a year after I’d left New York. By then, my friends and family had figured out I probably wasn’t coming back right away.
How did you break into the travel writing scene?
On that first trip to New Zealand, I was lucky to make contact with an editor who had just left a big job with a national travel magazine for an Internet start-up. She contracted me to write a series of “Off the Beaten Track” columns for her website—which I’m pretty sure nobody read, but I didn’t mind. The money was so good (better than what most magazines now pay, more than a decade later) that it financed my travels for the next two years. By the time the Internet bubble burst, I’d learned that I loved travel, but generally preferred keeping that aspect of my life for pleasure and writing about other subjects. I only occasionally publish things that fall into the travel category. But I’ve found that editing, fact-checking and translation work are a perfect counterbalance to the writing I love to do. I’m happy doing all kinds of jobs, as long as one of them doesn’t take over my life.
What travel story will you still be telling your pals in the nursing home?
I was crewing on a 56-foot yacht around the islands of Vanuatu one winter. Just before we made the long crossing to New Caledonia, we dropped anchor off a small island to rest up for a few days. We crew members had a day or two to ourselves before we set sail again, so I rowed ashore to explore while the rest of the group stayed behind to drink whiskey and sing songs around the guitar. I love singing and I’ve got nothing against “Hotel California” in principle, but there’s only so many times you can pretend to be into it.
After walking on a dirt track for a while, I met a couple of locals who walked me back to their village, where we drank kava and the women invited me to help them prepare a meal in the communal kitchen. By the time we’d eaten, the kava had taken its effect and I was only too happy to accept the woven mat the ladies placed before the fire for me. At one point, one of them ushered me into her hut, where I slept side-by-side with the woman, her husband and children. In the morning, the local man (who called himself Bob) I’d originally met came and told me he’d decided he was going to show me some pristine natural pools and waterfalls, a half-day’s walk. “Must strong,” he said. Bob spoke in a mixture of the English his father had learned from the Protestant missionaries who’d been through the islands, and Bislama, a Pidgin that Vanuatuans (each of whom spoke at least one of the hundreds of local dialects) used to communicate with each other.
We set off in bare feet, Bob carrying only his machete, which he used to whack our way through thick brush as well as to bring down coconuts and gnarly vines that contained potable water. He procured the fruit by shimmying up a tree in the length of time it took me to find a shady spot in which to sit. I’d long abandoned my rubber flip-flops, which were useless in the calf-deep mud that prevailed in the rainy season. At some point on the walk, we’d been joined by a second bearded man also wielding a machete, who seemed to be a bit slow and conveyed his thoughts by grunting, smiling, or pointing, which made perfect sense to me. The three of us spent a peaceful afternoon swimming in the pools and clambering around the waterfalls before Bob announced it was time to begin our descent. It wasn’t until it was getting dark and Bob stopped to pray at a small shrine built into the volcanic rock that I understood we were lost.
“Dear Lord,” said Bob, “Please do not let us stay in jungle tonight with wild animals who want to eat us.” Then he looked at me for some prayer input. “Um, yes, that would not be good,” I said, wishing I could swap brain states with our bearded friend, who was not the least bit concerned at our predicament. At this point, my head lamp, which I’d initially been reluctant to use in mixed company, became useful as we stumbled down the mountain, stopping every few minutes to disengage our feet from a mud pit. I never could have guessed the origin of the excruciatingly loud “Boom!” that suddenly issued from a place very nearby. Fortunately, Bob was there to interpret. “My God,” he said. “Volcano. Run.”
I remember my limbs working very efficiently to carry me down the mountain and away from the imagined hot lava and ash that would have turned me into a stone figure not unlike the Pompeii housewife who’d been preparing the primi piatti until all life was suddenly stopped in time. Such was the adrenalin rush that I did not even feel the thorns and brush tearing at my calves and hands. (Later I’d inspect my wounds with detached amazement.) We came to a clearing, and there, in front of us (and, I was delighted to note, definitely located on the adjacent island, not more than a kilometer away but still, safely separated from us by a whole lot of water) was an erupting volcano. Electric red lava was spewing and gurgling out of the top and running over the sides and down the hill, just as it did in the neon painting of Mt. Vesuvius I’d bought on my last trip to Napoli. Bob assured me that the island was uninhabited. “First time I see this,” he added, as impressed by the sight as the bearded man and I clearly were. “My grandfather time have, father no have. Very lucky.”
We made it back to shore in another half an hour, and when I swam back to the boat and told my drunken shipmates about the erupting volcano nearby, they laughed me off and went back to the ninth verse of “Hotel California.” By the time they’d organized their own expedition to see the spectacle, late the following morning, the lava had turned to smoke and ash and the top of the volcano was clouded over. “You’re full of shit,” one of them told me, bitterly.
“No, just very lucky to have met Bob,” I said. A week later, I had jumped off that boat in Noumea and was hitchhiking around New Caledonia. Feeling really lucky again.
Name one place that should top everyone’s travel dream list, be it a nation
or a landmark or a village.
I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else what might blow their mind…but I do think there’s something to the mode of transport one opts to use. I try to do as much travelling as possible on a human scale…on foot, by bike or boat. Month-long hikes with everything on your back or bicycle journeys with only the bare necessities in your saddlebags. It’s liberating to learn how little you need to be happy.
What specific travel resources (websites, guidebooks, blogs, etc) do you
always consult when planning a journey?
When I first started traveling, I’d pick up a copy of Lonely Planet or a Guide de Routard, but lately I’ve been moving away from guidebooks. Although they’re indispensable for the practical stuff, I prefer random discovery and the unexpected. This India trip is a great example of the joy of serendipity. Since I only received my visa the night before my intended departure, I barely had time to pack a bag, much less buy a guidebook. Now 10 days into my 3-week trip, I’ve managed to find a decent map, a book on learning Hindi, and a history of India’s rulers. Under normal circumstances, I try to learn a bit of the local language beforehand (or at least on arrival) and usually carry a phrase book and/or dictionary. I like to discover the culture and the history of the place from a local perspective first, then read up on it in more detail when I get home.
Which travel writers or books have been especially inspirational to you?
The first thing that comes to mind is Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which was not supposed to be a travelogue. He intended to write a literary biography of D.H. Laurence, but ended up writing mostly about avoiding the assignment, and running away to all of Laurence’s old haunts to try and find focus. I guess you could say I identify with his difficulty in sitting still…
What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned on the road?
I still have a hard time admitting this, but after a couple of close calls, I have learned to put up a few filters now and then. Trust is important, but so is tuning into your instinct. This also applies to subletting your apartment!
What advice can you offer to women with itchy feet?
If you don’t have kids, sell or give away most of your possessions, pack lightly, make a plan and then plan to alter it as you go. If you’re willing to find creative ways to earn a living, you can make a bit of money last a long while without making too many sacrifices. Lifelong friendships with people from different worlds are more valuable to me than the mortgaged apartment I suppose I could have bought at some point.
For women who think they’re tied down by kids or work or whatever, just know that the world will not end if you’re away for a while. And that kids under 6 are carry-on size!