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Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World

Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World

4.3 45
by Rita Golden Gelman

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Rita Golden Gelman is an ordinary woman who is living an extraordinary existence. At the age of forty-eight, on the verge of a divorce, Rita left an elegant life in L.A. to follow her dream of travelling the world, connecting with people in cultures all over the globe.

In 1986 Rita sold her possessions and became a nomad, living in a Zapotec village in


Rita Golden Gelman is an ordinary woman who is living an extraordinary existence. At the age of forty-eight, on the verge of a divorce, Rita left an elegant life in L.A. to follow her dream of travelling the world, connecting with people in cultures all over the globe.

In 1986 Rita sold her possessions and became a nomad, living in a Zapotec village in Mexico, sleeping with sea lions on the Galapagos Islands, and residing everywhere from thatched huts to regal palaces. She has observed orangutans in the rain forest of Borneo, visited trance healers and dens of black magic, and cooked with women on fires all over the world. Rita’s example encourages us all to dust off our dreams and rediscover the joy, the exuberance, and the hidden spirit that so many of us bury when we become adults.

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Chapter One

The Beginning

I am living someone else's life. It's a good life, filled with elegant restaurants, interesting people, and events like the Academy Awards and the Grammies. My husband of twenty-four years and I dine with celebrities, we see the latest movies before the rest of the world, and we're invited to all the book parties in Los Angeles.

Because of his job as an editorial consultant to some top magazines, we've been able to create a life that is privileged and glamorous. But now that I'm there, I realize that I don't like feeling privileged and I'm uncomfortable with glamour. I am living in a designer world that has been designed for someone I no longer am.

I prefer Goodwill to Neiman Marcus, Hondas to Mercedes, and soup kitchens to charity banquets. My house is too big; my garden, too trim; my friends, too white and American.

I first realized something was missing about five years ago when a woman wearing a floor-length muumuu and sandals sat next to me on an airplane. She told me she was in the business of booking sailing tours for captains around the world and was returning from the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, and the Gulf of Mexico. As she was telling me about her trip, tears began streaming down my cheeks.

"I'm sorry," I said, embarrassed. "I don't know where that came from." I wiped my eyes.

But I did know. I was crying for my lost spirit. As the woman spoke, I remembered that once I'd dreamed of sailing around the world, of paddling down the Amazon, of sitting around a fire with tribal people and sharing their food and their lives. I had loved the person who had those dreams. She was daring and idealistic . . . and gone. My husband had no interest in boats or tribal cultures.

"If I were to take a sailing trip," I said to the woman, "there are three things that I would want: a salty old captain who has tales to tell and philosophy to spout, a crew that likes to sing, and a place that is rich in experiences. I hate lying around on beaches."

She didn't even have to think. "Go sail on the Tigris in the Galapagos Islands."

Three months later, I boarded the Tigris without my husband, toured the spectacular volcanic islands, interacted with sea lions and blue-footed boobies, snorkeled the tropical waters, and touched the magic of otherness. I was never the same again.

When I returned from the Galapagos, that long-dormant fire of adventure had been rekindled and the glamour of my life turned gray. The gourmet dinners, the exclusive press screenings, the concerts, the parties, and the evenings at the theater suddenly felt like empty substitutes for discovery, for learning, for penetrating the unknown.

I knew that I couldn't run around the world adventuring, not if I wanted to stay married, which I did. But after the Galapagos trip, I needed something more in my life. I came up with a compromise. I would go to graduate school in anthropology and get my adventure from books.

The timing was right. My two kids no longer needed a full-time mom. Mitch was in his freshman year at Berkeley, and Jan was about to graduate from high school.

I had a fairly successful career as a writer of children's books. I enjoyed the wild and imaginative leaps into fantasy and the visits to schools and the modest recognition, mostly among first- and second-grade teachers; but I happily put my work on hold and plunged into academics.

I spent the next four years at UCLA, reading ethnographies, studying with anthropologists who had lived in exotic cultures, watching films, listening to lectures. By 1985, I am finished with most of the course work for the Ph.D., and I'm ready to choose a place and a topic for my dissertation research. Although my husband puts up with the hours I have to study, I doubt he would join me or endorse the idea of my doing fieldwork for a year in some far corner of the developing world. So I plan to do my thesis among the urban tribes of Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, our marriage is floundering. Over the years, our divergent interests and our personality differences have pushed us deeper into opposite corners. I'm basically laid back and sometimes careless. I tend to excuse my own mistakes as well as other people's; and from time to time I find it necessary to adjust my ethics to the situation at hand. He is a perfectionist, reliable, honest, and prompt. He sets high standards for himself and has high expectations of others. More and more we find ourselves in minor skirmishes. The bell keeps ringing and we come out bickering.

Finally, after yet another squabble that escalates, I suggest that we take a break from each other for a couple of weeks. I need time alone, I tell him, to figure out what's wrong with the marriage and how we can fix it. When I come back, I say, I'd like us to try some marriage counseling. He agrees to a break and counseling but adds that two weeks is not enough. He suggests two months in which we are both free to see other people.

His response surprises and frightens me. Eight weeks of independence is very different from a two-week break to clear our heads. And I hadn't even thought about dating. I'm not sure I can be with another man after twenty-four years of marriage; I don't really want to. But I accept his suggestion. When he leaves the room, the tears roll down my cheeks. As in so many of our conversations these days, we are talking different languages, and I realize that once I introduced the idea of a break, I could not control his reaction.

If the break had been for two weeks, I probably would have checked into a hotel near Los Angeles. But two months is too long for a hotel. I decide to go to Mexico. It's a place I've always wanted to go and my husband hasn't.

By the time I leave, we both fear that this is more than "a break."

I walk weak-kneed down the steps of the plane into hot Mexico City. My eyes are red, my nose is stuffed, and I feel as though my head is filled with lead weights. I am more frightened than I have ever been. I've initiated something that has already taken off in a direction I never intended.

I slip my arms into my backpack and follow the signs out of the terminal. In spite of my heavy head, I warm to the musical sound of Spanish all around me. I've loved the language from the first day I entered Mrs. James's Spanish 1, as a sophomore in Bassick High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

When I step outside, I am greeted by five young men waving brochures. The hotel I decide on looks decent, the price is right, and I don't have to pay for a cab. I'll only be there for two nights anyway. In two days I begin a Spanish language course in Cuernavaca; the school has arranged for me to stay with a family. It's the only plan I've made for the two months.

It is seven-thirty at night when I check into the hotel, which gives me plenty of time to clean up and find a restaurant for dinner. As I salivate for Mexican food, I realize that I have never, in my forty-seven years, had dinner alone in a restaurant. When I was young, I had plenty of friends to share meals with. I married at twenty-three, and then I had a husband. I have never eaten out by myself . . . and I don't feel like beginning tonight.

I use the phone in my room to call for room service.

"Discoelpeme, Señora. No hay comida en el hotel." My high school Spanish registers the words. There's no food in the hotel.

When I think about going out, an advance video runs through my head: I am sitting at a table trying to look content. The restaurant is filled with smiling, chatting people. I am the only one alone. They are staring, pitying me, wondering where I'm from and why I have no companion.

I sit on the bed and think about having to choose a place, get there, eat the meal while pretending to be happy, and then return to the hotel. How do I pick a place? Do I take a cab or walk? Is the neighborhood safe?

I can't do it. I'd rather not eat.

So I shower, put on my nightshirt, and curl up with the guidebook. Tomorrow I will go to the market. I plot the route to the central market on buses, and then I turn out the light, hungry and disoriented, as though I am not connected to the body lying in the bed. Who is this person in this strange hotel, alone for the first time in her life? Why am I here? What have I done? I feel as though I'm in a play, following a script that was written by a stranger. Part of me is scared; but there is another part, deep inside, that is excited at the idea that I am about to enter the unknown.

As a child, I loved the unknown. Every summer my parents, my brother, Pepper the dog, and I went on a one-week vacation in the car. My father would drive and my mother would sit next to him, a map on her lap. Every once in a while, when my mother said, "Turn right," my father would get a funny look on his face and turn left. Within minutes we would be lost. Then we'd have to knock on a farmhouse door (when it happened, we were always in farm country) to ask directions. Sometimes we'd be invited to see the newborn calves. Or watch the cows being milked. Often we'd get to throw a handful of grain to the chickens. Lost meant adventure, and I loved it. It's been years since I've been lost, and I can't remember the last time I stepped into the unknown.

I am out on the street at six-thirty in the morning. The day is sunny, the Spanish language sings its musical sounds all around me, and cars whiz through the city ahead of the morning rush hour. Early mornings have a special energy that I like. I decide to walk the couple of miles to the market and get something to eat on the way.

Entering the market through a side entrance, I am immediately surrounded by piñatas: Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck, and an assortment of animals and aliens dressed in their colorful papier-mâché? skins. They are standing on the floor and hanging over my head, hundreds of donkeys and dinosaurs, cats and dragons, boys and girls, hogs and bugs. All the colors of the rainbow are swirling in front of me, swinging to the salsa music that is blasting out of unseen speakers. I am swinging too. The brassy, percussive rhythm of the Caribbean is contagious.

Then I am out of piñatas and into avocados, shades of green and brown in massive piles on flowered oilcloth. Then mounds of sweet smelling mangos fight for my attention with the pineapples. There are booths of papayas, red, yellow, and green; bananas, big and small, thin and fat; dozens of varieties of peppers and chiles fresh and dried and mounded in cubicles; tomatillos, j'cama, carrots, tomatoes, and bunches of green leaves. For a while, cilantro dominates the air, until I pass a table full of oregano. Seconds later, I stop next to a table covered with yellow squash blossoms and wonder what they taste like.

There are children in the booths, babies swinging in tiny hammocks, nine-year-olds wooing customers, "Señora, buy my watermelon. Good taste. Sweet."

The music streaming through the fruits and vegetables is a whiney, unrequited love song that I know from the Mexican radio stations in Los Angeles. It's called ranchero music. Though the music is sad, my body is light. My fears of the night before have turned into excitement.

I pass through mountains of green and red and brown and rust-colored pastes, three feet high, the essence of mole sauces, redolent of cloves and garlic, oregano and cinnamon. Nothing is wrapped in plastic or sealed in containers. It is all out there to be smelled and seen and tasted and bought. I am surrounded by the colors, the smells, the sounds of a culture that lives life full out.

In meats, fifty little butcher shops compete for the shoppers' business. There are brains and stomachs and kidneys and tongues, feet and tails and intestines. Butchers are slapping and smashing meat on huge wooden blocks, beating red blobs into tenderness. They are scissoring and chopping up yellow chickens that have been fed marigolds so their skin and flesh are gold. Heads here, feet there. Innards sorted.

The butchers are mincing beef and hacking pork, sharpening knives and chopping slabs. Cleaving, slapping, scissoring, beating. It's a spectacular percussion band, with its own peculiar instruments.

The shoppers, thick in the aisles, are carrying string and plastic and cloth bags full of newspaper-wrapped packages of their purchases. I walk among them, enjoying the touch of our bodies.

I wriggle through the crowd to peer into waist-high vats of thick white cream and barrels of white ground-corn dough called masa. I cannot stop smiling at the explosion of joy I have felt since I passed under the canopy of piñatas. It's exciting to be exploring a world I know nothing about, discovering new smells, and moving through a scene where I am a barely noticed minority of one, swallowed up by the crowd.

I follow my nose to the eating area of the market. Sausages are frying, soups are bubbling, chiles are toasting. I sit at a picnic table and eat and smile, surrounded by Spanish-speaking women. I bite into my quesadilla stuffed with stretchy Oaxaca cheese and strips of sweet, green chiles.

"Muy sabrosa." Delicious, I say to the woman sitting on my right. She asks me where I am from. I answer some simple questions and ask her name. When our conversation runs out of words, I move to another table and try a sopa de flor de calabaza, squash blossom soup with garlic and onion, zucchini, corn kernels, green leaves, and bright yellow squash blossoms . . . with strips of sweet chiles on top. The blend of flavors, the texture of the different vegetables, the thickness of the broth are like the Mexican people, filled with spice and spirit.

Then, at about twelve o'clock, after nearly five hours in the market, I head off to the anthropology museum. I have never been big on museums or churches or most tourist attractions. As I wander through, I am thinking that I want to move into the enclosed tableaux, to live with these people, to celebrate with them, to cook and eat with the families. I want to experience their lives, not look at them through glass.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Rita Golden Gelman is the author of more than seventy children’s books, including More Spaghetti, I Say!, a staple in every first-grade classroom. As a nomad, Rita has no permanent address. Her most recent encampments have been in Mexico and New York City.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 45 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While I admire the courage of her travels, I found this book to be very irritating. She overstates the whole; "I am an independant woman who doesn't need a man so I can live my life how I want. So there." After a while it sounds like a cliche 1972 Woman's Lib manifesto. She is a very self absorbed baby boomer. Another annoying tactic she uses is by just putting on a native dress she proclaims herself "one of them." Sorry, sister but you ain't. I've sat in Jamaican slums smoking ganja with Rastas playing Bob Marley songs on a guitar. Does that make me a Rastafari? No. It makes me a friendly visitor. There is also a simplistic left wing political view throughout. Anyone who is a little well off is thinly veiled as am imperialist, capitalist, slaver. Poor people are good. And as far as the Nicaraguan Sandanista "they are the people!" No mention of the pesky problem of their viscous human rights violations.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was excellently segmented for busy readers that do not have long stretches of time to sit and read an entire chapter. It was an exotic vacation I could actually afford. Highly recommended for travelers, humanitarians, and those of us who feel like we've abandoned our dreams. Written in a simple, yet sensitive, style that brought me into her experiences.
www.LindaBallouAuthor.com More than 1 year ago
This book did not begin for me until Ms. Gelman arrived in the Galapagos Islands and achieved "total freedom." From this point forward, I was intrigued with how ingenious she was about getting hosted by various government entities, and families about the globe using her children books as her calling card. Trusting in herself and her instincts and in the kindness of strangers, she takes exotic and exciting treks for a fraction of the cost it would take the average person. Being an amateur anthropologist, she craves to live with families of indigenous tribes and even spends sometime living on an orangutan preserve getting to know the nuances of her fellow primates. I am not given to such intimacies, but I enjoyed receiving her insights. Though a thoughtful, caring traveler, I did want her to interfere when the activities she described that were of an environmentally threatening nature. Her stance is one of objective observer that reports on a circumstance, but does not take action that would lead to change. This is more a memoir than a travel narrative relating more about her personal interactions with family and friends, dinners she ate and less about describing the places she visits. Still, an enjoyable informative read that made me want to move to New Zealand and try every green mussel recipe she talks about in her book. Linda Ballou Author of Lost Angel Walkabout-One Traveler's Tales
Guest More than 1 year ago
From the moment I finished the first page I was hooked. The whole time I was reading I felt as if I were there with Rita, it encouraged me to go traveling. A week after I finished the book I packed up what I had, and went on a trip that lasted nearly a month, it was wonderful. When I got to my destination 'In the San Juan Islands' nearly 700 miles away from home I took on a new outlook on traveling and geting to meet people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She makes me want to see the world because through her eyes I can see there's more love out there than what I previously believed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really, really liked this book! One testimonial says, '...I just inhaled your book. I could not read it enough.' That is how I feel. I wish it had been a lot longer. I wish that she would have gone into even more detail. I wish that there would be a sequel. What has she been doing since the book ended? I am intensly curious!!!!! An intersting facet is that her episodes are not seen through rose colored lenses. She is an ordinary woman. When faced with these extraordinary circumstances, she experiences lonliness, self-doubt, fear, etc...just as we would. In addition, she experiences the guilt of leaving her loved ones behind just as most women would. She mentions that when meeting married couples in the US, she feels negative emotions from the husbands. She realizes, with surprise, that they do not like their wives' fascination with her lifestyle. The husbands do not like their wives asking her questions. They do not like hearing the enthusiasm in their voices as they discuss Rita's experiences. It comes as no surprise that I recommend this book! :-)
ALG64 More than 1 year ago
I got this thinking it would maybe be interesting...maybe. I was hooked on page 1. She's an excellent writer. I felt like I was right there beside her on every adventure though on a couple I stood well behind her...(tense)...it never got boring, you met a lot of people you really grow fond of and places you'd LOVE to see. I so admire her bravery for stepping out...I have a feeling I would have turned back rather quickly but she trudged and trekked forward and it's miraculous the way things fell into place. I don't think you'll be sorry if you buy it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bet many people would like to be a nomad.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author, at the age of 48, decided to live in various countries around the world, with the local population as one of them. She no longer has a fixed address and has been living out of a suitcase so to speak for decades. Her adventures are interesting and her writing is good but something did not entirely engage me. I'd give it a B.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading about the adventures. It was an inspirational book, and definitely made me want to pack up and go. I did, however, get tired of her bragging. She acts like she is the only person who has ever taken off on an adventure. Although it's commendable that she did it at her age, she didn't need to go on about how great everyone thinks she is.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As an American woman who 'rushed through' backpacking trips in the past, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read. It's so great to know that just because we hit speed bumps in the road, that the journey doesn't have to end. You can keep up with Rita's ongoing journey on her web site too. After reading this book, I feel compelled to thank you her for sharing her life, and to spread the word around. Enjoy!! :)
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Nikki Dancy More than 1 year ago
this book feeds your soul. its in depth and invigorating! Makes you want to give everything up and travel the world to reconnect with all things lost in te real world. It has been in my top 20 since it was published and thats hard to attain...a serious MUST READ!
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