Read an Excerpt
TRAVEL DREAMS and NIGHTMARES
Four Women Explore the World
By Louise Szabo, Barbara Brown, Jan Jacobson, Wendy Quarry
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Louise Szabo, Barbara Brown, Jan Jacobson, & Wendy Quarry
All rights reserved.
WHY WE TRAVEL
A Fool for Ships
The sound and rhythm of moving water has been a source of both serenity and excitement for me ever since I can remember. If I'm anxious I listen to a rainstorm on a CD and it calms me. If I listen to surf, it excites me.
I lived in foster homes until I was 4 years old. Being an imaginative child, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about who I was and where I'd come from. Water often figured in my dreams. The first dream I remember is being on an island with a unicorn, surrounded by ocean, after making my way down a cliff. I felt safe but knew I had to swim to another island farther away where there were no unicorns.
My interest in ships began with trading model boats with my brother Gordon in my second home when I was 4 and he was 9. We were best friends, being the two youngest in the household, and we shared everything. I still remember my foster mother explaining why I couldn't stand up to pee in the outhouse. I suppose I've been somewhat envious of boys ever since.
During those years I also remember a lovely evening during a heavy rainstorm, when Gordon, his 12-year-old sister Eleanor and I sat under the roof on the front porch of their modest house in the country near Etobicoke and played "I spy." I heard the individual drops of rain falling on the tin roof. Rain, especially on a tin roof, is still a comfort to me.
My summers after my adoption reinforced my love of water. I spent time imagining my future at my parents' cottage on Chemong Lake in the Kawarthas. I fished for catfish in a small rowboat with my friends down the road or wandered around the small, wooded point of land at the end of our property where I could hear water lapping on all sides.
As I grew up, I was thrilled with movies or books about sea voyages. I remember reading John Masefield's poem "Sea-Fever" when I was in grade 3, and I still recall the first verse:
I must go down to the seas again,
To the lonely sea and the sky.
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star
To steer her by.
Later in grade 6 I discovered the great explorers in what was then called social studies class. We heard about Columbus and his discovery of America, Hudson and his explorations and Fraser and his discovery of the mighty river named after him. Something in the spirit of those adventurers struck a chord. I started to read adventure literature. Looking at my bookshelves now, I can see Richard Burton's The Source of the Nile, Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone around the World and Tim Severn's The Brendan Voyage. My fiction collection includes Moby Dick ("Call me Ishmael"), The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Gabriel Roy's The Road Past Altamount, in which her protagonist, Christine, discovers the great inland sea of Lake Winnipeg in the middle of a waterless prairie.
I didn't actually see the ocean until I was 22. When I graduated from university, I took the train to Vancouver, thinking I might like to work there. It's beautiful, but English Bay wasn't my vision of what an ocean should be. It wasn't until I got engaged to Zack, who comes from the Maritimes, that I saw the ocean of my dreams. He took me to Cranberry Cove and Peggy's Cove, where wild waves curl up around vast stretches of granite, sometimes sweeping onlookers out to sea. I thought I would like to have my ashes scattered there until the Swissair disaster in 1998 when a fire caused flight 111 on route to Geneva to crash nearby, killing all passengers and crew aboard. Remains of the plane and some of the bodies are still there. What if there are ghosts? I shuddered and reconsidered my final resting place.
When she came to visit us when I was a child, my grandmother, who was a great storyteller, told me about the sinking of the Titanic not far from Peggy's Cove. Later, Zack and I explored the rugged coasts of the South Shore, where many victims had been recovered. Some were buried in Halifax or on the small coastal communities on these wild, sandy coasts of Nova Scotia.
My first seagoing trip was on the luxurious Cunard Line of the Queen Elizabeth II from Southampton to New York following a hiking vacation in Wales. The lowest passenger deck was so far from the ocean waves that I might as well have viewed them from an airplane. It didn't match the memories of those wonderful ocean-based novels I had read, or the accounts of the adventurous explorers who had mapped the inland waterways of Canada or discovered new continents.
My first real ocean voyage was to the Canadian Arctic with a small adventure company. The company had rented a Soviet research ship for its ice-breaking capabilities. My husband was sure it was a spy ship when he saw its electronics and underwater listening antennas. After exploring the part of Greenland where icebergs calve with a noise like distant thunder, we crossed the strait to Baffin Island and then journeyed north past Arctic Bay to land on Beechey Island. The gravesites of the three crewmen from the lost Franklin Expedition who died there in the winter of 1845 loomed out of the mist, a reminder of the dangers faced by real adventurers.
Since that trip I have been to the barren, windswept Aran Islands, viewed Viking gold in Stockholm, and travelled to Cape Horn. I will keep running away to sea to listen to the calming sounds of lapping water, and I will read about the adventures of those who explore the thunder and power of the waves.CHAPTER 2
Learning to Walk
I was alone on a track high in the Himalayas and couldn't see either the lake or the waterfall that were our destination for the day. The first three days of the hike had been in bright sunshine, but now we were walking through low-hanging cloud. The mist was turning the surrounding hills into the elusive and mysterious paradise that we had all been looking for. The clouds closed in. Several small paths led off at each switchback. I started to feel anxious. Was I still on the right trail? Should I wait for the others? I didn't want to hike downhill in the wrong direction and have to climb up again. I kept on. Then I heard the waterfall. I was fine.
Around a bend came a hiker with a fishing pole over his shoulder. "Don't worry, you're almost there," he called out. Relief and sadness swept over me. I wanted to be on the road to "almost there," but I wasn't quite ready to arrive. In a flash of clarity I realized that despite my many doubts, I could do this. I could walk for seven hours at an altitude of four thousand metres. I wasn't fighting with my knees, my aching back and most importantly my aching soul. Everything still hurt. But now I knew I would get to camp. I would be okay. I had learned at last, here in the mountains of Bhutan, how to walk at peace with myself.
My almost obsessive need to hike in the high mountains had emerged three years before, when I stopped working. I had collapsed in a heap on the finish line of retirement and crawled across. The last year of work had turned into a marathon. I was exhausted. I was also burying my father, dividing up his estate and selling the family home where I had grown up.
For years I had been longing for the time when I would no longer have to use every ounce of my energy on the job. But I had forgotten what it was to have days and weeks of freedom. What would I do with all that time? How would I function on my own, alone at home without work colleagues to listen to my daily woes? I took a couple of retirement courses and read several books. My anxiety level fell; most of my questions remained.
I knew I needed to stay healthy. Both my parents had lived beyond 90, my mother with a heart condition from childhood, and later, congestive heart failure; my father with polyneuropathy, a nerve disease that rendered his feet without feeling and withered his legs to sticks. Neither was an athlete, but both had walked every day until just before they died. I can still see my father at 93, mowing his lawn the summer before he left us, laying out row after careful row of neat designs in the grass.
With these thoughts in my head, I sat down with Janet, my walking companion, and together we planned a hiking trip for the September after I retired. She was in a demanding job and needed a break; I was feeling destabilized. I was not a distance hiker. Janet and I walked once a week near her house in Ottawa or in the Gatineau hills. Our walks lasted one or two hours, sometimes three, but never more. I had never hiked at high altitudes.
Fortunately for me, I was completely naive about what lay ahead. Janet had hiked in Ladakh the year before, crossing 5,000-metre passes. She had found it hard but manageable. She wanted to go back to India. She had friends there to visit and memories to relive. I was not a big fan of India—too many people for this wilderness junkie—but we were going to be high up in the mountains. How many people could there be? So I said yes. We signed up for a 15-day trek at the introductory level, near India's second highest mountain, Nanda Devi, and the die was cast.
* * *
September came. Janet and I checked the trekking company's packing list many times and climbed on the bus for Montreal where we were to catch our flight to Delhi. My diary notations, written two days later in our guest house in Delhi, listening to the rain beating on the roof and worrying about the misery of camping in the wet, carry the first hints of why I am there:
Delhi, September 9, 2009: "Thoughts are less dark tonight; probably I am better rested. I am still looking for some moments of great joy or great peace or both. I'll see if I find that here, now. Must get these legs in gear—am sure I'll be fine despite my panic attacks. Sure hope it doesn't rain during the trek and that all goes well ..."
Several sleepless nights later, I started the India trek in the bright sun. We did not see rain again.
I came back to Canada after that hike in the Indian Himalayas feeling proud. I had not been carried off the trail in ignominy, banished to a hotel to wait for Janet to finish. On the contrary, the end of the hike left me sad at the thought of leaving:
September 26, 2009: "Truly our last day with the team. Back in the same hotel in Rudraprayag, very comfortable but very sad—it almost all feels like a dream. Did it really happen?"
Emboldened by this first success, I quickly made plans for a new mountain hike for the fall of 2010. I chose Europe and a hike around Mont Blanc. But I misunderstood that in this case "around" meant up and down 1,000 metres every day. I soon learned that my 64-year-old knees did not love me. They screamed in protest at every step I took downhill. Only my innate stubbornness kept me going. Rather than finding either peace or joy on the Mont Blanc circuit, I had moments of wondering what I was doing there, spending good money, good time and good will to be miserable.
September 15, 2010: "Day three was horrendous. It's day four, and I simply couldn't have written last night. Without Florent (our guide) insulting me for the last half of the climb, I could not have done it. It took me more than five hours to get to the top and four hours to get down. I promise never to do this to myself again ..."
Only later did I realize everyone has bad days on the mountain. For those days it's important to have a friend nearby. On the Mont Blanc circuit I hiked with an injured knee and in a group of strangers. I promised myself I would not do that again. After the hike I could barely walk. I had not an iota of sadness at the end.
A year later, as I made my way toward that elusive waterfall in the mountains of Bhutan, did I find the peace or joy that I had been looking for? Not really. I did have moments of quiet happiness: the first morning at the hotel, stepping out onto the porch of our cottage, the mist rising from the river and the mountains bright with orange sunlight; arriving at Taktsang Monastery, the oldest Buddhist temple in Bhutan, after hiking up to 3,300 metres without any problems, just like that; sleeping soundly every night; having a small epiphany of sorts alone on the trail upon realizing that I could hike without pain and misery at these altitudes; leaving my panic attacks far behind.
Why do I do this, beating up my aging body on rocky tracks at altitudes that left even the guides gasping for breath? Maybe it's my way back to myself, the self that I lost in all those meetings during my years of work. In Bhutan I learned the importance of hiking with friends, surrounded by people who knew me and who could tease a smile out of me in bad moments. I broke through my fear that somehow I would not be able to finish. Friends were good for honest feedback too: "You worry too much about being the last to come into camp, Barbara. It doesn't matter. Just enjoy the walk." I haven't yet learned how to simply enjoy the walk while my lungs gasp and my knees protest in pain. But I'm getting better at it.
As I reflect on why I hike in the mountains once a year, I remember one of Peter Matthiessen's thoughts in The Snow Leopard: "The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply which I do not ... I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share."
I am waiting for the mountains to teach me, as they taught Matthiessen, how to "ring with life."CHAPTER 3
Writing Stories in my Head
I have lived almost exactly the kind of life that I had imagined for myself. Of course it hasn't been perfect. Given the chance, there are lots of things I might have changed along the way. But, more or less, I got what I dreamed of during those days at high school staring out at the tended lawns of my all-girls' school. I was sent there by my parents to get a good education. But in the middle of Grade 10 algebra I'd usually be elsewhere, maybe parachuting out of airplanes to infiltrate the enemy hidden in the jungle below. Unfortunately, I am not at all as brave as those daydreams would suggest and have to confess to abject terror at minor episodes such as staying by myself on the farm. My sister always comments that she cannot imagine how I lead the life I do when I seem so fearful at home.
But I have not lived a conventional life, not really. And that matters very much for someone who grew up in the 1950s in Toronto. Anything to avoid the two-car garage and husband who worked at an ad agency or a bank while I stayed home with the three children or, if lucky got to work "until the baby came along." Come to think of it, a husband in a bank doesn't seem so bad at this point in my life. Oh well, you can only marry once or twice or end up like Elizabeth Taylor (to my mother a person who illustrated the horrors of multiple marriages). I pushed myself away from any notion of conventional life and out of Toronto as far as I could go. And even by 1960s standards, I went pretty far.
I left Toronto in 1959 and, aside from short visits, have never actually gone back. And yes, I did do some of the things that are becoming commonplace today. I went to school in Spain, attended bullfights every Sunday and stood by as the bulls ran in Pamplona. But I have also travelled by pirogue past hippopotami down the Niger river to Timbuktu; slept on a wooden school desk through a coup in Niamey; hidden under the eaves in the attic of a priest's house in Guatemala; taken a steamer across Lake Titicaca and climbed Machu Picchu at dawn. I have escaped rape by a police chief in Morocco, running across the rooftops of Marrakesh while my boyfriend was locked in the police cell. I have also tasted the warm sweetness of fresh tomatoes in a Madrid café after a year in West Africa without them. I have had tea with the King of Afghanistan in the drawing room of his palace in Kabul and have twice been a guest of the Maharajah of Kapurthala, a former princely state in the Punjab in India. I feel as much at home in Islamabad as I did in Toronto—if not more so—and have delicious memories of sitting at a table at a heavily guarded outdoor Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, talking with friends of every nationality and feeling completely happy.
Excerpted from TRAVEL DREAMS and NIGHTMARES by Louise Szabo, Barbara Brown, Jan Jacobson, Wendy Quarry. Copyright © 2013 Louise Szabo, Barbara Brown, Jan Jacobson, & Wendy Quarry. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.