Interview with Sara Bathum

This week’s Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 contributor has lived with nuns in Ethiopia, skied Sara Bathumdown volcanoes in New Zealand, gotten her heart broken in Taipei, and nearly been abandoned at the border in Honduras: Sara Bathum. She currently lives in Seattle with her husband and newborn son.

What is “home” for you? Is it a particular place or person or thing?

I’m a Seattleite. The Pacific Northwest is my home. Mount Rainier. Puget Sound. The giant trees of our coastal rainforest. My great grandmother arrived in Washington State in the late 1800s, shortly after it joined the Union, making my eight-month-old son a fifth-generation Washingtonian. There aren’t many of him around these parts. I’ve visited and lived in a fair number of other places in the world and I figure one of them will always be pulling at me, no matter where I am. As long as that’s happening and I can’t run out the door at every tug – especially now that it requires a diaper bag – I want to help my son develop the same strong sense of place.

When did you first hit the road? How did it go?

I crossed the equator for the first time when I was two years old. My father is an artist and former high school art teacher and packed our family off to New Zealand for a year on a teacher exchange. After we landed, the pilot of the Air New Zealand flight gave my four-year-old brother and me special certificates and pilot’s wings. It all seemed very official and serious. One of my very first memories as a child is of that trip – being wheeled across a tarmac in a stroller. It was dark outside, the plane ahead was loud and enormous and all lit up, lights flashing red and blue. I remember my bare toes stuck out of my blanket. In those days you couldn’t fly direct from the western coast of the United States, so we island-hopped our way across the Pacific – Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti.  That year we stayed in another family’s home in Manurewa, outside of Auckland, while they stayed in our little dairy town outside of Seattle. (My biggest concern was whether the other family would take down our bunk beds while we were away!) I remember things about that year that a two and three-year-old would find very important: the toilet flushed very loudly and swirled down the drain in the opposite direction (so my mother told me), the neighbor girl had a big blue trampoline, and my brother got to go to school and I didn’t.

Sara Bathum

How did you break into the travel writing scene?

Dumb luck. The first story I wrote about living with the nuns in Ethiopia was published by Travelers’ Tales. It was really just my way of making sense of the whole experience. More specifically, how I could find the courage to travel alone to middle-of-nowhere East Africa – this bright blue sky world – only to find myself suddenly under the thumb of one stern and unforgiving Mother Superior who insisted I couldn’t go out after dark. Or travel around with friends when I wasn’t teaching. Or be late for dinner because I’d lingered for a moment one evening in a field full of fireflies. (We don’t have fireflies in Seattle…)  Writing about it was my way of getting even with her, I suppose. Her insistence that I become one of her flock and behave like a nun. (I realize some may think I should have known what I was getting myself into, agreeing to live with Roman Catholic nuns, but I was raised Lutheran and my limited experience of nuns growing up was of joke-cracking, card-playing ladies who didn’t wear habits.) The other sisters in Ethiopia saved me with their kindness and humor. Washing dishes after dinner – when Sister Thomasina wasn’t around – they would snap each other on the butt with tea towels and then shout, “Hey, that’s only for Jesus!” I loved them. I’m still convinced that I’m going to hell for writing such things about Sister Thomasina, or – worse yet – that she really will use her supernatural powers to find me and punish me for it. Years later, she still has this ridiculous hold on me.

Let’s say you could take a free trip with anyone of your choosing. Who would it be, where would you go, and why?

I want to take my husband and son (when he’s old enough to really remember) to Ethiopia – to the village where I lived.  It’s that simple.

Sara Bathum