Interview with Marisa Handler

Our first featured contributor of Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 is not only an author, activist, speaker, and singer-songwriter, she is — by her own admission — a viajera loca (crazy traveler!). The author of Loyal to the Sky: Notes from an Activist, which won a 2008 Nautilus Gold Award for world-changing books, Marisa Handler has also written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay Guardian,, The Sun, and Bitch. She speaks and sings about visionary social change all over the country. Check out her album, Dark Spoke, and her website at

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

I’m still figuring that one out.  I grew up in South Africa until my family emigrated when I was eleven, spent a year living in Jerusalem, and have spent at least a couple of other years traveling abroad elsewhere.  The Bay Area probably comes closest, with Cape Town up there, too.  But on some level, when I spend significant time anywhere, it comes to feel like home—it colonizes some new corner of my heart.  I do confess to having some envy of folks who know exactly where home is, and feel unshakable roots there.  But on the other hand, I also get to live in so many ways, and I feel at home, to varying degrees, in a range of places.  At times I have wondered whether I don’t feel most at home while traveling; I am in love with the sense of wonder that arrives with its momentum, the sense of openness and possibility.  Ultimately, however, home strikes me as an inner experience, a sense of longing or belonging.  Is home most present when we’re not?  Is it a strong pull in the chest, a quiet reconciliation with whatever swells in our depths?  Yes, and yes, and yes, I suspect—and yet home also lies well beyond the province of words…

Let’s say you could take a free trip with anyone of your choosing (a historical figure, an ancestor, a super hero, etc). Who would it be, where would you go, and why?

I’d spend a day with Nelson Mandela, specifically visiting Robben Island, where he spent thirteen of his twenty-seven years in prison (the island was clearly visible from the house I grew up in, located in a suburb of Cape Town). Mandela is a huge inspiration, with his unwavering belief in all that is good in the human spirit, and the integrity and fierce compassion with which he both pursued an end to apartheid and led a free South Africa.

Name one place that should top everyone’s travel dream list, ­ be it a nation or a landmark or a village.

India.  I’d say Varanasi, to be specific—the ancient city where devout Hindus go to die—but almost anywhere in India, really.  Of all the places I’ve been, I found India the most mind-boggling, and I think that may be because it exploded so many illusions I had about humanity.  So many elements of western culture that I had assumed inherent to the human condition proved to be simply… notions.  Shared and entrenched, but notions nonetheless.  I haven’t come across another culture as different in so many ways from that of the U.S.  And, India is incredibly beautiful, historically and culturally fascinating, and spiritual in a bewitchingly irreverent way (picture Shiva on bars of soap, Krishna on lollipops).  But I should also confess that I was miserable there for my first couple of weeks. If you go, give yourself some time to adjust, and don’t take the legions of staring men personally: it’s just curiosity. Pretend you’re Brangelina.

What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned on the road?

To trust more.  It’s one I’m still learning.  I feel like I’m constantly balancing how much to trust strangers.  Generally, I go on my gut, and that has seldom proven me wrong.  Traveling solo has a wonderful (and no doubt necessary) way of honing one’s intuition.  At the same time, it can be an utterly alien, and at times frightening, world out there—and as a woman traveling alone, it’s inevitable that at some point you’re going to get harassed.  Yet I feel at times I’m actually too careful about this—defensive or less than friendly with men, particularly, whose intentions really are benign.  And that has closed me to certain possibilities or adventures or even simply connections (I’ve realized this from observing fellow travelers who are a tad more go-with-the-flow).  Of course, I am sensible about traveling alone, and take care not to put myself in risky situations—but it’s a fine balance understanding that when I’m safe, there’s no need to maintain those defenses… and when I do open in this way, unexpectedly lovely connections often bloom.  These are the moments that keep me besotted with solo travel.

What advice can you offer to women with itchy feet?

GO!  Okay, kids and a mortgage are one thing.  I can understand why traveling might be a mite challenging (at least for the first few years!).  But so often I hear: “I wish I could take some real time to travel but I just can’t because of my [fill in the blank]”—and the “blank” simply isn’t all that convincing.  Travel is nearly always possible (and in much of the world, if you’re using dollars, very cheap), but it’s a matter of prioritizing it—of prioritizing exploration, and curiosity, and growth, and you. Yet we live in a society that tells us so many things are so much more important than sojourning, both inward and outward.  But remember: money and success and professional and social demands will still be around when you get back.  If you can make the space in your life and the open road is calling, go.  Whatever you can do or dream you can, said Goethe, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.


  1. What an inspiring interview–thank you! I am making my 2010 travel wish list.

  2. As you probably know, former prisoners who served with Nelson Mandela now guide the walks through Robben Island prison. This was one of the most moving experiences I ever had.

    Seeing Nelson Mandela’s sparten cell, where he spent much of his 27-years in captivity, will be with you forever, but even more moving is experiencing the rock quarry, where he toiled in the harsh sun breaking rocks into into gravel for the Robben Island roads that you will use to access the prison.

  3. S Motivala

    Great interview; Marisa has some insightful comments, especially I think she is spot on about visiting India. I think India is a place everyone needs to visit at least once.

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