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Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for Women Who Are Changing the World

Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for Women Who Are Changing the World

by Holly Morris

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After years of working behind a desk, Holly Morris had finally had enough. So she quit her job and set out to prove that adventure is not just a vacation style but a philosophy of living and to find like-minded, risk-taking women around the globe. With modest backing, a small television crew, her spirited producer-mother, Jeannie, and a whole lot of chutzpah,


After years of working behind a desk, Holly Morris had finally had enough. So she quit her job and set out to prove that adventure is not just a vacation style but a philosophy of living and to find like-minded, risk-taking women around the globe. With modest backing, a small television crew, her spirited producer-mother, Jeannie, and a whole lot of chutzpah, Morris tracked down artists, activists, and politicos–women of action who are changing the rules and sometimes the world around them.

In these pages, Morris brings to life the remarkable people and places she’s encountered on the road while filming her PBS series Adventure Divas and other programs. We meet Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther and social activist and now a fugitive living in exile in Cuba; Kiran Bedi, New Delhi’s chief of police, who revolutionized India’s infamously brutal Tijar Jail with her humanitarian ethic; New Zealand pop star Hinewehi Mohi, a Maori who reinvigorates her native culture for a new generation; and Mokarrameh Ghanbari, a septuagenarian painter and rice farmer who lives in the tiny village of Darikandeh on the Caspian plains of Iran, where her creative talents run counter to the government’s strict stance on art.

Along the way, Morris herself becomes a certified Adventure Diva, as she hunts for wild boar with Penan tribesmen in the jungles of Borneo, climbs the Matterhorn short-roped to a salty fourth-generation Swiss guide, and memorably becomes the first woman ever to enter the traditional camel race of the Saharan oasis town of Timia.

Intelligent, phenomenally funny, and chock-full of rich and telling details of place, Adventure Divas is a pro-woman chronicle for the twenty-first century. In a pilgrimage fueled by curiosity, ideology, and full-on estrogen power, Holly Morris has paved the way for all of us to discover our own diva within and set out on our own adventures.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A delightful triangulation of adventure travel, telecommuting and self-reinvention...[Morris] can be hilarious….[Her] self-deprecating wit, sense of pacing and brainy insights into the nature of fear and self-reliance hold the book together….When Morris becomes her own subject, the result is always vibrant honesty.…[she] is not afraid to show her everyday self on the page, which is invigorating in a genre that too often has only two speeds: turbo self-aggrandizement and ambling naturalist instrospection. The female perspective is also refreshing: how many men could survive not one but two international waxing appointments–Brazilian and Persian?”
The New York Times Book Review

"Writing with compassion, humor, and activism, Morris empowers women to follow their dreams by showing that determined women can indeed effect change in their lives. Highly recommended."
Library Journal

“Morris shows an admirable fearlessness… genuinely interesting subject matter.”
Kirkus Reviews

“This is not just about travel, although it’s as adventurous as can be.…Morris’ interviews…are thoughtful and probing…[and] her text adds context–and humor–to the project, warts and all.”

“Smart, sexy, inspiring! Holly Morris is the ultimate adventure diva. Whether she's deconstructing Cuban politics, finding meaning in a Brazilian bikini wax, or succumbing to the pleasures of a Tehran security pat down, Holly lives and writes like a brainy bad girl. I loved reading Adventure Divas is like riding shotgun on a high-octane global road trip.”
Cameron Tuttle, author of The Bad Girl’s Guide to the Open Road

"Let us celebrate Holly Morris and all of the other amazing, hilarious, tough, and tender Adventure Divas in this book. There is no substitute for the old-fashioned adventurer with frequent flier miles, dirt on her boots, and new ideas."
Sherman Alexie, author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

“Beware. If you read this remarkable book you will pack your bags and go. And you will want to take Holly Morris with you as your friend and guide–she notices everything and she’s wickedly funny.”
Susan Fox Rogers, editor of Solo: On Her Own Adventure

“Holly Morris is hip, wise, concerned, endlessly curious, fearless, and fiercely independent–and her richly textured account of her adventures is filled with more fun and excitement than The Perils of Pauline.”
Nick Lyons, author of Full Creel

“The Adventure Divas really do go where angels fear to tread. Meet the 81-year-old Cuban poet and her 41-year-old husband; the rebellious spirit behind Iran's foremost women's magazine; a female Maori band-leader. Holly Morris has written a lively and fascinating old-girl’s-guide paean to never holding back on life. What woman–or man–can ask for more? Move over, Mr. Hemingway.”
Jacki Lyden, National Public Radio

“Holly Morris has given us a fresh and individualistic take on the American tradition of lighting out for the territory.”
Howell Raines, author of Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis

“Find your passport to excitement, enlightenment, intelligence and ingenuity in Holly Morris's spirited exploration of the global sisterhood. Adventure Divas is what the world needs now!”
Evelyn C. White, author of Alice Walker: A Life

Adventure Divas will inspire you to set out on your own journey. Holly Morris is a delightful and trustworthy guide through many exotic countries, friendships, and even the world of television production. Still, Adventure Divas greatest contribution is the female treasures–the obscure, ordinary, and fabulous–Morris unearths around the world.”
Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, co-authors Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism and Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future

Adventure Divas is an internal journey as much as a movement through a foreign landscape–a personal odyssey through uncharted territory. Holly Morris encounters dragons, real and imagined, within and without, finds shelters among strangers, and falters, then moves on. In the end she returns with new knowledge–of herself, the world, the act of journeying itself–to share in this terrific book with those who stayed behind.”
Karin Muller, author of Along the Inca Road: A Woman’s Journey into an Ancient Empire

“Part travel narrative, part cultural and political analysis, with a scathingly hilarious mother-daughter memoir deftly worked into the mix, Adventure Divas is a deeply satisfying read.”
Inga Muscio, author of Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil

"[Morris is] a winning companion, a keen cultural observer, a free but not falsely upbeat spirit."
Chicago Tribune

“Smart. Funny. Sarcastic. Creative. Gutsy. Morris…is all of the above.”
Seattle Post Intelligencer

"An unusual mix of activism and entertainment bringing the comlexity and struggle of women's lives into focus."

“Only a few women warriors have successfully stormed prime time. There’s Xena. And the Femme Nikita. Now travel temptress Holly Morris is giving it a try.”
Orange County Register

"The Adventure Divas have some advice for firing up your soul!"
USA Today

Louis Jarvis Flynn
All this could make for a scattered story line, but Morris, formerly the editorial director of Seal Press, a feminist publishing house in Seattle, cleverly layers her assorted personas and plots. Chapters alternate between her paid television work - she's sent to the Malaysian jungle, the Swiss Alps and the Sahara - and her adventure-diva interview trips to Cuba, India, New Zealand and Iran. Morris's self-deprecating wit, sense of pacing and brainy insights into the nature of fear and self-reliance hold the book together.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Morris, in partnership with her mother, produced a PBS documentary series meant to empower women by traveling to exotic locales and seeking out "divas": women creating positive change in their societies through passionate and often convention-defying actions. Among her subjects: the first female beat cop in India, who later reformed the prison system; an Iranian publisher of a feminist magazine fighting strict censorship laws; and a pop star who rocked New Zealand's cultural divides. With these women as the focus, Morris and her crew provide novel and extensive explorations of different cultures. Despite the author's objective to avoid reinforcing stereotypes, she does occasionally stumble on her own biases. For instance, her aversion to organized religion clearly colors her translation of cultures heavy with holy history. Morris's writing is clean, rhythmic and full of both storytelling flair and journalistic pragmatism. The story of the spunky project itself, from the obstacles overcome while producing an independent documentary series to Morris's adventures along the way (she takes on a side job hosting another travel show, eats with Malaysian headhunters, climbs Switzerland's Matterhorn and rides through the Sahara Desert on camelback), is as inspiring as the divas themselves. B&w photos, illus. Agent, Leigh Feldman. (On sale Oct. 4) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The word diva comes from the Italian word for goddess, which shares its root with the word divine. Here, Morris details her experiences filming her award-winning PBS television series, Adventure Divas, and in the process proves herself an adventure goddess indeed. She recounts how she quit her job as a desk-bound book editor to go to Sumatra, thus beginning an illustrious career traveling to the most exciting and remote parts of the globe and meeting and interviewing some of the world's most accomplished women. Morris and her small television crew take us across the Sahara, to the top of the Matterhorn, and through the environs of Iran, Cuba, and India. Along the way, we meet women like a former Black Panther in exile in Cuba, the New Delhi chief of police, a Maori pop star in New Zealand, and female taxi drivers in Iran. Morris, founder of Adventure Divas, Inc., and author of two fishing anthologies, shows that traveling and adventure are an integral part of a philosophy of living life to its fullest. Writing with compassion, humor, and activism, Morris empowers women to follow their dreams by showing that determined women can indeed effect change in their lives. Highly recommended.-Melinda Stivers Leach, Precision Editorial Svcs., Wondervu, CO Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Seal Press editorial director Morris sheds her stuffy old life to become a television producer, criss-crossing the continents in search of intrepid women. Working at a feminist publisher had been a fine job, but Morris (A Different Angle, 1995, etc.) was ready for a change when she decided to go into business with her mother and create a TV series about inspiring women around the world. Mother and daughter dug deep into their own pockets to fund their pilot, a video shot in Cuba. With footage of female teenage rappers, a filmmaker and a poet all working in the shadow of Castro, they created something that caught the eye of PBS producers, and the diva series was off and running. Morris gives a first-person account of starting the business, directing the shoots and moonlighting as a TV host for another adventure series that was focused on the remote and the strange rather than the female and empowered. In her accounts of India, New Zealand, the Matterhorn, Iran, Borneo and the Sahara, she relates the director's anxiety about interviews, the producers' concerns over funding and the writer's fascination with her material. Morris shows an admirable fearlessness when it comes to chasing down the money shot, whether it's a pig hunt in Borneo or a "ram cam" to capture a sheep's-eye view in a charging herd. She also isn't afraid to discuss menstruation or pen a phrase such as, "Poets are the ones who torch up an eight ball of life's giant je ne sais quoi and distill it down to a pot of sweet nectar." This combination of eagerness and earnestness, unfortunately, sometimes distracts from the genuinely interesting subject matter. Occasional self-conscious pontifications on the big questions areforgivable in light of the author's genuine enthusiasm for her broad but appealing topic.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.66(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


We do not have the right, in the name of social justice, to bore people to death.

—assata shakur,

black panther in exile

In Cuba

I insert the latch into the metal buckle, pull the strap low and tight across my lap, and am scribbling notes on a slightly waxy barf bag when two white guys approach down the aisle. One is a collared priest and the other, big-bellied and teetering on the last rungs of middle age, carries a blue gym bag emblazoned with cia in gold letters. They plunk themselves down on either side of me.

Flanked by paradox.

The Cubana Airlines Yak-42, a Soviet-built plane bound for Havana, looks as if it got left in for a few extra tumble cycles. The plane’s interior is a chamber of chaos: broken seat belts and floppy chairs. Disconcerting smokelike vapors billow around my feet.

The threadbare burgundy fabric itches. I shift and try to look demure. Why would a priest be on a flight to one of the last communist (as in, aggressively secular) strongholds in this part of the world? And why would anyone sling a CIA gym bag?

The Spy turns to me and offers intelligence. “Don’t worry. The vapor is normal. These old Russkie air conditioners aren’t what they used to be.”

“Oh . . . okay.” I respond with a half-smile, leaving only an infinitesimal crack in the door of airplane social etiquette. The Spy slams his foot in the door and is off: “First time? Traveling without your husband?” The only thing I fear more than sitting next to the CIA when trying to sneak into a country and avoid getting busted for violating the Trading with the Enemy Act (which holds a penalty of up to ten years in prison) is sitting next to a lonely person on an airplane. I have no problem with loners. I just don’t like being pinned between one of them and . . . God. Don’t know whether I’d burn faster in Langley or Hell, but I’ve challenged their respective moral codes enough to ignite on contact.

“Reagan gave me this gym bag in 1985,” the Spy rattles on, “and I’ve been to a cocktail party or two with Castro,” he adds casually. Sounds like an oxymoronic social gathering to me.

Luckily, the Spy is mostly interested in hearing himself talk, so there is no pressure to explain my own presence on this flight. Just as well. With no visa and six thousand dollars in cash strapped to my body, I might raise suspicion. My hand brushes over the important bulges: cash and passport. Ordinarily I list these as the only two essentials for a journey, but this time the list has lengthened considerably to include two cinematographers, a load of 16mm film, a sound person, and—my mother. A hurricane delayed us in Cancún but eventually we made it onto this flight, where we are now scattered about the plane in single seats. We are finally on our way to film the pilot episode for Adventure Divas. I wonder if my colleagues are as nervous as I am.

We tried to go legally. Really we did.

For months we begged and pleaded and touted our professional stripes, but no one would grant us the journalist credentials we were after. We had not foreseen the antipathy, or, in some cases, simple apathy, of the U.S. government and the Cuban Interests Section (Cuba’s officiate in lieu of an embassy).

Fruitless pandering to bureaucrats left us desperate and defiant. “We’ve got to go guerrilla, through Mexico,” I eventually concluded to Jeannie.

“Yep. No choice,” she’d agreed.

Deciding to go on the sly raised a new set of anxieties. Would we piss off our hard-won investors? (Would we tell them?) Would we get sent upriver or fined into bankruptcy? Would our film get confiscated on our return to the United States?

A host of stressors have replaced the damn-the-torpedoes hubris that accompanied the early, blushing days of our endeavor. I jot “Can adventure really be institutionalized?” onto the barf bag.

Now and then, throughout the Spy’s monologue and my internal mantra of worry, I turn to God, not as my savior, but because I cannot believe he has poured himself a tumbler of Johnnie Walker Red from his shoulder bag and is settling in to the latest issue of Vanity Fair.

Three aisles ahead are two men I recognize from the Cancún airport, where we waited out the hurricane. When I saw the long fishing rods wedged among their luggage at the airport, I began to eavesdrop: “Yeah, you won’t believe it. They’re plentiful and beautiful,” the guy with the comb-over said to his friend in the Rangers cap. “A girl so hot she wouldn’t look twice at you in the States is all over you like a fly on shit in Cuba.”

Fly on shit, indeed. These guys are not going to Cuba to angle for fish, but for women who, for access to dollars and excitement, hook up with foreign men.

The in-flight purgatory thankfully ends when the Yak, rattling like a crateful of kindling, hits the tarmac at José Martí Airport. I walk down a rickety metal gangway that leads into the grays and blacks of night. The tinny taste of fear spreads through my mouth and catapults me behind several iron curtains, and four decades back in time. Outlines of soulless post-Stalinist buildings stretch out ahead. I feel like I just drank a whole pot of coffee.

I drift along a wave of muted, slurry Spanish, into a customs line. All five of us—the crew—are scattered about in different lines, warily making eye contact. My line moves and I shuffle forward, repeating to myself the six most important words of the shoot: No estampa mi pasaporte por favor. Three months of intensive Spanish back in Seattle and these are the only words that matter now. A Cuban stamp would raise the ire of U.S. customs officials on reentry to the United States, and the entire game might be up.

Scenes from Midnight Express flit through my consciousness as I step up to the counter. The forbidden is seductive from afar, but when you get right down to it, it’s spooky.

“No estampa mi pasaporte por favor,” I say, tentatively, to the customs official, whose downcast face is in the shadow of harsh fluorescent lights. He has dark hair and the moody, bored look hardwired into the DNA of customs guys the world over.

His brown eyes flick to meet mine, and he stifles a little laugh.

I can’t tell if it’s my bad Spanish or just a friendly duh-you-have-an-American-passport-so-of-course-I won’t-stamp-it chuckle. Either way, I glide through customs unscathed and unstamped, and quickly pass my duffle through a boxy gray X-ray machine that looks old enough to have been used by Lenin himself.

I walk out of the José Martí terminal into the humid, windy evening, high on the razor-sharp awareness that there is no safety net. One by one my colleagues clear customs and meet me on the other side. Seasoned Cubaphile Pam Yates, later dubbed “Encyclopedia Pam” for her vast knowledge of this country, unshoulders her sound equipment bag and flips her long, dark hair into a ponytail. New York–based cinematographer Cheryl Dunn steps up wearing a smile and a charcoal-colored retro raincoat and has her hand-crank Beaulieu camera tucked under her arm. Seattle-based cameraman Paul Mailman, low-key and talented, gently sets down a giant silver equipment box and runs his hand through a thick crop of what could be Latin hair. Jeannie comes through last, the thrill of having made it over this first hurdle evident in the bounce in her sneakered step. Excitement has won over fatigue and we revel in our success, and in that scary, wonderful state of no return. We are smoke jumpers behind the fire lines; Sally Ride breaching the atmosphere; a teenager who just got laid.

Just then a five-foot six-inch gringa with blue eyes, brownish-blond hair, and a personality I’d come to identify as Woodstock warmth and Harvard brains walks up to us. I know immediately that it is Catherine Murphy.

“Buenas, como están?” she says with the lilt of a compañera. “It’s so nice to meet you in person.”

Catherine is the rare American who has lived in Cuba for years, and is, as of this moment, our new best friend. We met her through Global Exchange, an organization that fosters cross-cultural communication and leads tours from the United States to other countries—especially those with whom the United States has “complicated” relationships. Catherine has provided a font of information throughout a series of crackling international calls routed through Mexico City (U.S. phone companies cannot do business with Cuba).

When making a TV show abroad, it is imperative to join forces with someone fluent in the language, as well as in the business of getting things done. Negotiator. Point person. Translator. Person who knows what restaurant serves after midnight, what palms might need greasing, and how to find unfindable people. These are just some of the roles of this critical crew member called, in television’s to-the-point vernacular, a “fixer.” Catherine, our fixer, is relaxed and moves fluidly in her loose cotton pants and long-sleeved blue shirt. She was raised by her Cuban grandmother in Northern California, and has been living in Cuba for the past several years studying the country’s world-renowned organic farming program.

“Over here,” says Catherine, who has arranged for a rattling blue ’58 Chevy to take us to our hotel. “We’ll have to avoid certain streets because of the flooding,” she says. The storm that grounded us in Cancún hit Havana with a vengeance. We drive down the Avenida de Rancho Boyeros, alive this warm blustery night with shadowy American autos from the forties and fifties, and with East German motorcycles, but mostly with bicycles. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its chief economic sponsor in 1989, gas became a rare commodity. With that, Castro led the Cuban people in a reverse technological revolution by importing 200,000 bicycles from China: thus, the “bicycle revolution.”

“When the Special Period disappears we mustn’t abandon this wonderful custom,” Castro told his people, using the spin-doctored term for the post-Soviet era. The evaporation of the Soviets’ annual six billion dollars of support and the continuing U.S. economic embargo has created a vicious economic double whammy for the people of Cuba.

There are few streetlights this late at night in Havana and vehicles appear as silhouettes, dodging into and out of recognition. We pass by the Plaza de la Revolución and a five-story metal image of Che Guevara—beret tipped, chin jutted—is ablaze on the side of the Ministry of the Interior building.

“Because of the energy crisis,” Catherine says, nodding toward the monument, “it’s only lit up on Saturday nights.”

I look at Che, the Jack Kerouac of Marxists. “It’s really important that we get the real story, not the party line,” I say to Catherine, anticipating the interviews in the days to come and revealing my strange mix of compassion and wariness about Cuba.

For most of my life, Cuba has been an enigmatic pinko blip on my radar, and Fidel an aging revolutionary stuck in a fatigued fashion rut. But stories of a country with a spirit far from the dour lockstep reality one might expect from a communist outpost were seeping out, and captured my attention. The economic embargo had become a de facto information embargo and it seemed time to explore what lay behind one of the last tinfoil curtains. Witnessing revolution in action (and Cuba’s—in theory, anyway—is still going on) spoke to the Adventure Divas ethos. A major goal of Castro’s socialist revolution was to liberate the poor and uneducated from the dire conditions created by U.S.-backed dictator. And to liberate the poor and uneducated is to transform women’s lives. “Cuba’s perfect. It’s political and sexy—good for TV, right? And it’s only ninety miles away, so flights will be cheap,” I had said, lobbying Jeannie some months ago. “Yeah, ninety miles of political minefields,” Jeannie had responded, correctly anticipating our battles to come.

The stakes had been raised, and a sense of urgency created, when we decided to make the pilot without the support of a broadcaster—all of whom had warned us away from Cuba. Now we have no choice but to get the story right, and my comments to Catherine reflect my slightly paranoid determination to do so.

“You know,” Catherine responds calmly, gently setting me straight, the light of Che now just a dull flicker behind us, “some Americans think that if you come to Cuba and Cubans complain, that is the real story, and if Cubans don’t complain, then that’s the party line. Neither is fair. Life in Cuba is a very complex reality with hardship and with a lot of really beautiful, inspiring aspects as well.”

Certainly the hardship is evident. Havana looks war-torn, but here it is decay, rather than violence, that is the nemesis. Much of Havana was built with armadas of money that flowed through the city from the Americas in the 1600s and 1700s. Havana’s access to transient cash continued through the 1940s and ’50s, often controlled by the American Mafia. At the time, Cuba was a playground for Americans with a penchant for dancing girls and casinos. Wealthy Cubans, along with their money, began to flee Cuba in 1959, when Castro’s nationalist revolution prevailed, and the exodus quickened over the next handful of years as Castro began to show his communist colors.

I try to lean out the window of the car for my first, forbidden glimpses of Havana, but I’m jabbed by the dozen wads of twenty-dollar bills that are strapped with duct tape all over my body. We are officially not here, so we can’t exactly write a traveler’s check or whip out a Gold Card. I look arthritic and feel like a coke dealer.

Twenty minutes later we are at the front desk of a modest deco hotel in La Habana Vieja. I pull two twenty-dollar bills from our finite cache, and hand them to the concierge. “Doesn’t feel like trading with the enemy,” I whisper to Jeannie, as he smiles warmly at me and hands over three skeleton keys attached to pieces of chestnut wood bearing numbers.

“No going back now,” she says. “This is it.”

Paul yawns big, and we can all relate to his exhaustion.

A rooster’s optimistic crow quickly followed by a belligerent truck muffler rouse me at seven the next morning. I am fully clothed, spread-eagled on the center of a concave bed, my open mouth pressed flush against the pilled, off-white cotton bedspread. My feet and a thousand dollars in cash are in my still-laced Georgia boots.

Meet the Author

Holly Morris is the founder of Adventure Divas, Inc., a multimedia production company, and is executive producer and writer/director of the award-winning prime-time PBS documentary series Adventure Divas. She is the former editorial director of Seal Press and the editor of two fishing anthologies, A Different Angle and Uncommon Waters. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Ms., Outside, and numerous anthologies and on abcnews.com. When she’s not writing or producing television documentaries, Morris is a correspondent for television series such as Lonely Planet Treks in America, Treks in a Wild World, Globe Trekkers, and Outdoor Investigations.

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