The travel writer: She is not a refugee. Refugees don’t do that, write travel narratives. No, they don’t. It is the Travel Writer who does that. The Travel Writer is a dignified refugee, but a dignified refugee is no refugee at all. A refugee is usually fleeing the place where the Travel Writer is going to enjoy herself—but later, for the Travel Writer tends to enjoy traveling most when not doing so at all, when sitting at home comfortably and reflecting on the journey that has been taken.
The Travel Writer doesn’t get up one morning and throw a dart at a map of the world, a map that is just lying on the floor at her feet, and decide to journey to the place exactly where the dart lands. Not so at all. These journeys that the Travel Writer makes begin with a broken heart sometimes, a tender heart fractured, its sweet matter bejeweled with the sharp slivers of a special pain. Or these journeys that the Travel Writer makes begin in curiosity but not of the Joseph Dalton Hooker kind (Imperial Acts of Conquests) or of the Lewis and Clark kind (Imperial Acts of Conquests) or of the William Wells Brown kind (an African American slave who freed himself and then traveled in Europe and wrote about it). No, not that kind of curiosity but another kind, a curiosity that comes from a supreme contentment, comfort, and satisfaction with your place in the world and this benevolent situation, so perfect and so just, it should be universally distributed, it should be endemic to individual human existence, and would lead an unexpected anyone to go somewhere and write about it. In this case, everyone who goes anywhere and notices her surroundings and finds them of interest will be a Travel Writer.
* This person I have been describing, the Travel Writer, almost certainly is myself. And also this person I have been describing reflects the writers of these essays in this anthology. Especially because I have selected these essays, I see the writers and their motives in much the same way I see my own. I will not be disturbed when they object. I will only continue to see them in this way.
At the beginning of the travel narrative is much confusion, for even though when sitting down to write, to give an account of what has recently transpired, the outcome is known, has been a success; the Travel Writer must begin at the beginning. The beginning is a cauldron of anxiety (the passport is lost, the visa might be denied, the funds to finance the journey are late in coming, a child comes down with a childhood disease). Things all work out, she is on the boat or the airplane or the train. Or he is in the restaurant, eating something that is delicious (that would be William Least Heat- Moon?), but even so there is no respite. For the traveler (who will eventually become the Travel Writer) is in a state of displacement, not in the here of the familiar (home), not in the there of destination (a place that has been made familiar by imagining being in it in the first place). That time between the here that is truly familiar and the here that has come through imagining, and therefore forcibly made familiar, is dangerous, for the possibility of loss of every kind is so real. Yet the Travel Writer, travel narrator, will persist. Nothing can stop her, only death, the unexpected failure of the human body, the airplane falls out of the sky, the ship sinks, the train bolts from its rails and falls headlong into the deepest part of the river. She eventually arrives at her destination; she begins to collect the experience that will constitute the work of the Travel Writer. She gathers herself up, a vulnerable bundle of a human being, a mass of nerves, and she begins.
The first time I traveled anywhere, I was not yet a writer, but I can now see that I must have been in the process of becoming one. I was nine years old and had been the only child in my family until then, when, suddenly it seemed to me, my first brother was born. My mother no longer paid any attention to me; she seemed to care only about my new brother. One day, I was asked to hold him and he fell out of my arms. My mother said that I had dropped him, and as a punishment, she sent me off to live with her sister and her parents, all of whom she hated. They lived in Dominica, an island, one night’s distance by steamer boat away. The boat I sailed on was called M. V. Rippon, and it traveled up and down the British Caribbean with a cargo of people, goods, and letters. No one I knew personally had ever sailed on it, but it often brought to our home angry exchanges of letters from my mother’s family. And sometimes it also brought to us packages of cocoa, cured coffee beans, castor oil, unusually large grapefruits, almoonds, and dasheen, all of these things my mother’s family grew on their plantation. The angry letters and the produce came from the sssssame place and from the same people.
It was to this place and these people that my mother sent me as a punishment for dropping my new and first brother on his head. The M. V. Rippon, which had until then been so mysterious, a great big, black hulk, with a band of deep red running all around its upper part, appearing every two weeks, resting in a deep part offshore from Rat Island for a day or two and then disappearing for another two weeks, soon became so well known to me that I have never forgotten it. My mother took me on board, abandoned me in a cabin that I was to share with another passenger, a woman she and I did not know, and then left. Even before the Rippon set sail my stomach began to heave. It never stopped; my stomach heaved all night. My nine-year-old self thought I would die, of course, but I didn’t. After eternity (and I did not experience this as an eternity; I experienced it as the thing itself, Eternity), it was morning and I looked out through a porthole and saw a massive green height in front of me. It was Dominica. Slowly the Rippon pulled into port. It was raining, and it was raining as if it had been doing so for a long time and planned to continue doing so for even longer than that. All the passengers got off the boat. I could not. There was no one to greet me. In my nine years I had never known this feeling, a feeling with which I am now, at fifty-six, quite familiar: displacement, the feeling that I had lost my memory because what I could remember had no meaning right then; I could not apply it to anything in front of me; I did not know who I was. I remembered that I was my mother’s daughter, but between that and the place I was then, the jetty in Roseau, Dominica, that person had been lost or modified or transformed, and there was nothing and no one on the jetty in Roseau, Dominica, to help me be myself again, the daughter of my mother.
I believe it was the captain of the Rippon, or someone like that, someone in charge of things, who got a car with a driver to take me to the village of Mahaut, which was where my mother grew up and where her family still lived. But the voyage from the jetty in Roseau to the village of Mahaut was as difficult a journey in its way as had been the voyage from Antigua to Dominica. This new landscape of an everlasting green, broken up into lighter green and darker green, was not even in my imagination. I had never read a description of it. Perhaps I had read about it and thought it not believable.
Perhaps my mother had told me about it, for she told me so many things about her childhood and this place in which she grew up, but such a detail as this, the way the land lay, the look of things, did not make an impression, not a lasting, memorable one. In any case, I had thought that mountains were something in my geography book, not something in real life. I had thought that constant rainfall was something in a ch...