Voyages, vacations, and road trips

To celebrate summer travel, some excerpts from Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn, an American journalist and novelist who covered wars from WWII to Vietnam.

As anyone who travels much knows, things on the road―or water―don’t always go as planned, and that is often where the adventure begins. The focus of these essays are some of Gellhorn’s voyages that didn’t go so well, and include China, Africa, the Caribbean, and Suriname.

The pictures are my own, taken in Northern California.

 

The airline, called China National Aviation Company (CNAC) consisted of two DC3s and three DC2s, elderly machines and no nonsense about comfort. Compared to passenger planes now, these were flying beetles.

We climbed, as if climbing a spiral staircase, in tight jolting circles over Hong Kong until we reached fourteen thousand feet. All lights went off except the dim light in the pilot’s cabin and we crossed the Japanese lines, brightly lit far below. In half an hour, the storm hit us. I had been watching the flickering exhaust flame on a wing, but the wing vanished into cloud that looked grainy and hard as granite. Hail sounded like a threshing machine. Everything froze including the air speed indicator. Roy explained that if the speed dropped below sixty-three miles per hour the plane stalled and went into a spin, but there was no cause for anxiety; he opened his window a crack and judged air speed that way; he’d done it often.”

 

The dinghy was not as long as I am. Carlton put the hatch cover in it, making a peculiar seating or lying arrangement, a convex curve for two thirds of the length then a drop to a concave curve. I spread the blankets on this surface, placed the pillow at one end, slid my legs under the seat and established myself with umbrella for sunshade. All I had to do was duck when the boom swung over.”

 

With a picnic, water and heavy sandwiches, I set off to explore. St Martin was a magic island. Secret white sand coves indented the shore. I chose one far from town, walled in by thick bush that the rain had polished and framed by swaying royal palms. Under a china-blue sky, I sat naked in the shallows to watch schools of fish, recognizing only silver baby barracudas. And waded out to swim through glass-clear Nile-green water, where you could see below to the sand and more passing fish, into silky deep sapphire sea.”

 

[Paramaribo Grand Hotel, Suriname]

“I was swooning with happiness by five o’clock when I settled on a ruptured cane chair in the lobby to listen to the going gossip. At five o’clock promptly the mosquitoes arrived. ‘Union mosquitoes,’ a soldier observed. ‘They work from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.’ They were the biggest mosquitoes I had met anywhere and fearless, they zoomed in to cover one’s arms and legs and died feeding while others replaced those you had beaten to death. When the blazing sun went down, the air refused to cool despite nightly rainy season cloudbursts. The rain was lukewarm, encouraged the mosquitoes, turned the streets into quagmires which dried to deep dust a half hour after sunrise. Between five and six in the morning, there was a very faint freshness to breathe.”

Find the book here

Read about Gellhorn, and the journalism prize awarded in her name, here

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Writing what we know vs. going where the writing scares us

A few days ago, wading through a tsunami of belongings at a storage unit, a thought about writing jumped out at me. There is a danger in writing what we know, and I was basically surrounded by the physical manifestation of it.

Over-writing, narratives loaded with enough detail to make the most patient reader wince. I’ve certainly read a lot of work like this and have produced computer files full of it myself. The problem with writing what we know and staying on familiar ground is this: we can end up like guides who know so much about their subject that they can’t get out of the way of the story.

When we’re writing about something we don’t know, something we’re not sure we have the CV to take on, we haven’t got that life’s worth of detail to immerse ourselves and our readers in. It’s like trekking toward a summit we’ve caught a glimpse of. We take only the bare essentials along, and don’t waste energy or oxygen on the unnecessary.

Yes, we have life experience. We have cultural, historical and personal perspectives we can layer insparingly. But we let the path and the scenery speak for themselves, because they are so new, so fresh, and so bare-knuckle present, we don’t want to obscure any of it.