Amid the pandemic, a writer finds inspiration in century-old travel stories

Kathy Stevenson

THE WASHINGTON POST – Several years ago, I was wandering through an outdoor antiques and collectibles fair, and I chanced upon an antiquarian book dealer with tables of books laid out in a tempting display.

Before my husband could hustle me safely away, I had purchased an eight-volume set of books called With the World’s Great Travellers published in 1901.

The pages were intact, if a bit brittle and musty, and although the bindings are now crumbling, the books remain in remarkably good shape.

My reason for the purchase made complete sense to me, if no one else.

Mainly, as a writer and reader, how could I resist such an alluring premise? Or maybe I should say promise, because that’s what the books were: a promise to take me to places in the world I knew I would never go. Not only geographically, but also because many of the worlds these firsthand accounts describe no longer even exist. Some have been displaced or erased by nature (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, locusts) while others have evolved because of political upheavals and wars.

And now, of course, the nature and logistics of travel itself have been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.

My satisfaction with my purchase came not only because of the reasonable price (USD35), but also because as a writer I envisioned immersing myself in the accounts of these World’s Great Travellers and coming away with inspiration for my own stories.

I have learned, over decades of writing, to trust my instincts when it comes to sources of inspiration.

Sometimes a promising lead turns into a dead end, but more often than not a quickening of the heartbeat is reason enough to pay attention.

Indeed, those first weeks, whenever I had free time, I would open one of the volumes and jump right in. I might end up at Alaska’s Muir Glacier in 1890 with Mrs Septima M Collis, who had this to say upon viewing the massive expanse of ice for the first time from aboard a ship of tourists, “I pray heaven that neither age nor infirmity may ever efface from my memory the sight and the sensation of that moment.” She then goes on to describe, in harrowing detail, her two-and-a-half-mile ascent of a path along the glacier (which she remarked seemed more like 10 miles) with a guide, “It has been said that persons have been missed and never found who made this ascent.”

In fact, many of the accounts of travels, no matter where in the world they are – the Arctic seas; Algiers; Brazil; Seville, Spain; Damascus, Syria – are harrowing; narratives filled with wonder, danger, a sense of the epic.

They are often also, when read with today’s cultural and historical awareness and sensitivities, both subtly and overtly racist and culturally tone-deaf.

But to read lived history is to learn. Who is to say that 100 years from now our customs, our tweets and blogs of our daily lives, and our language use won’t be parsed and found wanting?

Some narratives sound as chatty as if they had been written last week, like this small observation by Harriet Beecher Stowe during her trip to Paris in 1853, shortly after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“In the evening I rested from the day’s fatigue by an hour in the garden of the Palais Royal. I sat by one of the little tables and called for an ice. There were hundreds of ladies and gentlemen eating ices, reading the papers, chatting; scores of pretty children were frolicking and enjoying the balmy evening.”

But most of the narratives are steeped in danger; whether from nature, native populations who don’t take kindly to visitors, sickness, or sheer recklessness.

Curiosity may have been at the root of most the explorations these world travellers undertook, but simple luck was a common thread among many who survived.

What reader or travel enthusiast could resist firsthand narratives with titles like Adventures With Tunisian Bandits, Fugitives From the Arctic Seas, or Mount Etna in Eruption?

Several chronicles are relayed by familiar names in history and exploration: Eliot Warburton, Henry M Stanley, Mungo Park. Mostly men. Hopefully when today’s volumes are published, women will be on more equal footing. But at some point in my reading, I had to put aside my own perspective – that of a white woman, age 67, in 2020 – and just go with the flow. Making note of the prejudices of the age, but also trying to learn and contrast.

Who could fail to be thrilled by the breathless narration of Thebes and Its Mighty Ruins, recounted by Warburton, “It was late when we returned to our tents, after 14 hours’ exposure to the powerful sun of the Thebaid. The Prince’s boat was just putting off, with a parting salute, as we dismounted; by the time the last echo of our return guns had died away among the mountains, I was asleep.

When the lamps and supper came from the boat, I found the tent was literally swarming with hideous insects; winged centipedes, horned dragonflies, monstrous ants, livid-looking beetles, moths, and locusts, were crawling, as if the butterfly were giving her celebrated ball upon my cloak.

They had probably been attracted by the smell of the mummies and their cerements, that lay strewn about the tent. When again I fell asleep, I was suddenly awakened by the cold, slimy pat of a bull-frog falling on my cheek. Such are some of the consequences of sleeping amongst Pharoahs.”

Tales of extreme peril are many, as travellers and explorers set out to lands whose geographies, animal populations and native citizenry were unknown to them.

One narrative, Besieged by Peccaries, written by explorer James W Wells, tells of a particularly frightening encounter when his camp was attacked by hordes of wild animals in the far interior of Brazil (1886). A short time after bedding down, “suddenly, from all around us, came a blood-curdling sound of the simultaneous snapping of teeth from vast numbers of the enemy, followed by the appearance of a crowd of charging black animals, rushing with wonderful speed towards a common centre, the fort.” And, further on, “… the extremely disagreeable and nauseous odours of the animals, their snapping of teeth, like musketry file-firing, the reports of the firearms, the shouts of the men, the howling and barking of the dogs, and the dim light, created an indescribably strange and exciting scene.” This modern-day reader couldn’t help visualise the whole scene as some sort of modern-day horror film. Or maybe the next Indiana Jones?

In another riveting account of danger, Viennese world traveller and explorer Ida Pfeiffer wrote (circa 1851) from Petropolis (north of Rio de Janeiro), “We had no arms, as we had been told that the road was perfectly safe, and the only weapons of defence which we possessed were our parasols, except a clasp-knife, which I instantly drew out of my pocket and opened, fully determined to sell my life as dearly as possible.”

After descriptions of an attack on the road by a “native” (Pfeiffer’s naming and descriptions of local peoples and their characteristics are truly appalling), a rescue, and dinner of roasted ape and parrot, she meets a party of hunters riding on elephants, tags along with them (she is given her own hunting knife this time), and then comes near a lair of tigers. “Shot followed shot; the elephants defended their trunks with great dexterity by throwing them up or drawing them in. After a sharp contest of half an hour, we were the victors, and the dead animals were triumphantly stripped of their beautiful skins.” Yikes.

Quite often, during these narratives, which are heavy on geography, animal life, local customs and attributes of native populations, the writer will offer his or her own bit of social commentary, as in a recounting of Life in Cape Colony and Natal (1875) by Lady Mary Ann Barker, an English writer. She writes of attending the wedding of a young girl, a native of the Kafir tribe, “Kafir girls dread being married, for it is simply taking a hard place without wages.”

Nearly all of these travel narratives read like fiction to a modern-day reader. Stories of danger, lost civilisations, exploration, unusual flora and fauna, newly discovered topographies, ships lost at sea.

But one in particular spoke to my writerly sensibilities, and prompted me immediately to write a short story. The 1885 account The White and Pink Terraces of New Zealand by historian James Anthony Froude gripped me for several reasons.

First, the sheer poetry of the title had a cadence and visual element that drew me in.

Then the fact that this unusual geologic formation was once considered to be the eighth wonder of the world but was obliterated in a volcanic explosion that removed every trace of it in 1886.

Add to that the inclusion in the story of two female Maori guides, and there was a story.

“We could stand on the brim and gaze as through an opening in the earth into an azure infinity beyond. Down and down, and fainter and softer as they receded, the white crystals projected from the rocky walls over the abyss, till they seemed to dissolve, not into darkness but into light. The hue of the water was something which I had never seen, and shall never again see on this side of eternity.”

What could be more intriguing to the traveller and the writer? A wonder of the world that simply vanished. Although they say that if you stand at the edge of Lake Rotomahana and gaze into its depths, you can see a stair-like in appearance, spreading downward as far as the eye can see under the rippling surface of the water.