Today’s post is travel writer Nichole L. Reber’s review of the Kira Salak memoir, The Cruelest Journey. Nichole is full-on obsessed with the fraternal twin crafts of writing and reading, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy her insights. Get to know Nichole and her work by visiting her website or her Facebook page.
The women’s memoirs I’ve read since repatriating to the US have repeatedly disappointed me. Rather than travelogues about other cultures and a writer’s (small) place in it, today’s publishers churn out self-obsessive memoirs aimed at women as if we were interested solely in finding boyfriends and making babies with men of foreign accents. Women writing about living in Japan, Yemen, mainland China, and Hong Kong, for instance, focus on infertility or stealing husbands, treading nowhere near anthropological observations of the other cultures. Then there’s Kira Salak. She raises travel writing to the level of explorer writing.
Her book, The Cruelest Journey, published by Brooklyn-based Restless Books, is a riveting read. It, like her other books and National Geographic stories, reveals a women who eschews the easy route, the cliché destination. Salak has crossed Papua New Guinea and made a 700-mile cycling trip across Alaska to the Arctic Ocean. She has ventured into Iranian vistas where local travel guides don’t take their clients, and explored Madagascar, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Libya, Bhutan, and Borneo. At the age of 20, backpacking through Africa at the height of a brutal civil war in Mozambique, she was kidnapped by marauding soldiers.
“Since then I’ve sought out countries that are dangerous in order to reveal situations no one else is covering, like slavery in Timbuktu and genocide in eastern Congo. These tragedies are very emotionally difficult to witness, but if by shedding light on them I can improve even one person’s life, I feel it’s worth the risk,” she wrote in National Geographic.
The Cruelest Journey tells her journey kayaking solo six hundred miles down West Africa’s Niger River in an inflatable kayak toward the Saharan city of Timbuktu. She begins her trip with a single backpack in a torrential downpour from the Malian town of Old Ségou. She reveals how Timbuktu fell from its zenith during the Songhai Empire’s reign from 1463-1591, when its academic and artistic riches were tantamount Florence’s during Europe’s age of Enlightenment until it was sacked by the Moors in the late 16th century, and how it’s come to be the rubble heap and tourist trap it is today.
Salak equips herself for the journey with the writings of 18th-century Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who twice labored over this course but perished along the way. Determined to follow in (most of) his footsteps, she shows us a place that time has all but abandoned. She witnesses polio and leprosy, voodoo priests and shamans, and abundant slavery, despite its being outlawed there. She kayaks through a pod of hippos like tiptoeing through a field of landmines. She learns to discern the differences between tribes such as the Tuareg, the Fulani and the Bambarra, the Bozo and Somono. Most nights she stops at villages, learning to deduce which tribe lives there by characteristics visible from the river, if she can’t already discern that by how the village inhabitants react to her from the shore. Do they wave and exchange greetings, yell and threaten her, or watch her like a zoo animal? All the while she searches for commonalities, for ways of communicating and better understanding by speaking to them in Bambarra.
One particularly enjoyable part of Salak’s book is her ability to alternately make fun of and admire male travelers. (Though admittedly her adoration of Park sometimes reads like Oriana Fallaci’s hero worship of Alekos Panagulis in A Man.) “He doesn’t hide his distress, and his trademark equanimity fails him, revealing glimpses of a traumatizing ordeal. Many male adventurers of his time chose to hide such candor, opting instead for bravado or tedious ethnographical digressions,” she says of Park’s narrative of his capture by Moors. When the women among his captors repeatedly inspected his physique, they became particularly hands-on to find out if circumcision also applies to Christians. Park supposedly had some say in the matter, allowing only beautiful women the chance to inspect his white skin and naughty bits.
As a female traveler, though, Salak isn’t as lucky. On one occasion she is nearly raped – or at least molested – by a male villager. “My gender will always make me appear more vulnerable. But to not travel anywhere out of fear, or to remain immobilized in a state of hypervigilance when I do, feels akin to psychological bondage. I do not want to give away that kind of power.”
She doesn’t decry this reality. She does in a way that can be described as literary anthropology. “The Somono fishermen, casting out their nets, puzzle over me as I float by. ‘Ça va, madame?’ they yell.
“Each fisherman carries a young son perched in the back of his pointed canoe to do the paddling. The boys stare at me, transfixed; they have never seen such a thing. A white woman. Alone. In a red, inflatable boat. Using a two-sided paddle.
“I’m an even greater novelty because Malian women don’t paddle here, not ever. It is a man’s job. So there is no good explanation for me, and the people want to understand.”
Considering the death-defying adventure she’s chosen the reader wants to understand too. What would compel a person to take such a trip? She addresses this and the very fundamental things that, as I learned when living abroad, mark the difference between tourism and travel. Concerning “what we look for when we embark on these kinds of trips,” she writes: “There is the pat answer that you tell the people you don’t know: that you’re interested in seeing a place, learning about its people. But then the trip begins and the hardship comes, and hardship is more honest: It tells us that we don’t have enough patience yet, nor humility, nor gratitude. And we thought that we did. Hardship brings us closer to truth, and thus is more difficult to bear, but from it alone comes compassion.”
Salak’s poetic prose, like the parallel narratives of her journey and Park’s, meanders throughout the book like the bends and curves of the Niger itself. “The late afternoon sun settles complacently over the hills to the west. Paddling becomes a sort of meditation now, a gentle trespassing over a river that slumbers. The Niger gives me its beauty almost in apology for the violence of the earlier storms, treating me to smooth silver waters that ripple in the sunlight. The current – if there is one – barely moves. Park described the same grandeur of the Niger during his second journey, in an uncharacteristically sentimental passage that provided a welcome respite from accounts of dying soldiers and baggage stolen by natives.”
Her deft handling of dynamics, coupled with the occasional sweetener of levity make The Cruelest Journey an energetic read. This Restless Books publication and Salak’s other books such as Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea, traverse the depths of the human condition, weaves between fear and bliss, and blurs borders of time and place.
As Jessa Crispin points out in an essay in the Boston Review: “That the market has not sustained” the work of other, more rugged, less self-obsessive women travel writers “may have more to do with our expectations as readers than with any faults of their writing. We still look to men to tell us about what they do and to women to tell us how they feel.”
Meanwhile, for readers who like their water deeper, there’s the work of Kira Salak.