I’ve always identified with the more romanticized versions of nomads and vagabonds: gypsies, pirates, river rats, camel caravaners. Wanderlust is as much a part of my genes as my hair color; in me it has been dilluted a bit from the previous generation, but it is still there, still very much a driving force in my personality. To help satisfy my wanderlust on a limited time- and money-budget, I often read books that transport me around the world. Stories of women striking it out on their own especially intrigue me – probably the result of long hours spent daydreaming about where Agatha Christie spent those ten days.
A year or so back, I fell in love with a collection of personal essays by women who had traveled the globe. It was called A Woman Alone: Travel Tales from Around the Globe, and my only complaint with it was that I couldn’t follow each of these women beyond their brief chapters.
From that book, I came to Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World, a book that let me do just that. It is the story, thus far, of Rita Golden Gelman, a children’s book author who divorced herself from a “normal” life and became a citizen of the world. Her journey starts in Mexico, where she lives among rural villagers and learns how to assimilate into the culture. From there she goes to Guatemala, and then to Nicaragua. She spends six weeks in Israel, where she learns things she never suspected about her heritage, then heads to the other side of the world to the Galapagos Islands.
From there, Gelman travels to Indonesia, ends up in Bali, and there finds a place where her restless heels feel at home. When she first arrives, she has no idea that she will spend the next four years there, and that she will return there again for years to come. In Bali, Gelman finds her spiritual center as well as her center as a storyteller. Her Bali chapters completely transport the reader to the island, and when she leaves you feel as though you, too, have spent the most important part of your life there. Next she moves to Seattle, then New Zealand, and finally to Thailand, where her descriptions of the food are so delectable that you can practically taste it.
Her adult children don’t understand. Her friends think that her money might be better spent on therapy. Meanwhile, she is becoming the sort of human that we are meant to be but which is repressed under a heavy cloak of the American “dream”. Traveling like this gives her true freedom:
I’ve discovered a new way to live. My life is endlessly fascinating, filled with learning, adventure, interesting people, new and enlightening experiences. I laugh, sing, and dance more than I ever ahve. I am becoming the person inside me…. I’m existing on less than $10,000 a year, including airfares. I’m embracing life….
Tales of a Female Nomad is one of those rare travel books that keeps you engaged and enthralled from beginning to end. Written in the first person present, it has a feeling of motion and immediacy that seduces the imagination and truly gives the sense of being there oneself. Gelman is a real woman, not a superheroine – she offers up all of her fears, fitness issues, and critics in an honest depiction of what it is like to give up everything you have known in exchange for an entirely new way to live.
Gelman’s journey begins when she is 48 years old, and has not yet ended. The closest thing she has to a permanent residence is her website, which is updated blog-style. As of her most recent post, she is in Seattle, working on a cookbook. Last October she spent time in Tanzania, Kenya, and Nairobi. What an extraordinary life… and an exceptional book.