Ten female writers reflect on how their many and varied journeys around the planet have enriched them.
‘Becoming a mother of three hasn’t changed my rhythm’
Michelle Jana Chan
My first ever memory is standing on the forecourt of Kai Tak, Hong Kong’s legendary old airport where the approach was between towering apartment blocks and passengers could watch locals hanging their laundry as the plane turned on to finals. I was probably three years old. I remember looking up in wonder at the vertical signs of neon Chinese characters twinkling in the night. It was hot and humid. I close my eyes now and still remember the sticky feeling on my skin.
My dad was an airline pilot for British Airways and I grew up tagging along on his trips — at a time when the world wasn’t moving like it is today. The Golden Gate Bridge in mist, the Milky Way above the Maasai Mara, climbing Diamond Head in Hawaii, in the shadow of the Gateway of India — these are my strongest childhood memories.
We’d wait on standby, be given jump seats or quite possibly get left behind in far-flung places, which made it even more of an adventure of course.
I first chose medicine because it was a profession that would allow me to move. When I shifted into journalism it was because there was even greater scope for travel. I never considered the world riskier because I was a woman. In fact, travel seems to me the great leveller. Becoming a mother of three hasn’t changed my rhythm. Sometimes I take one or two or all three along. For trickier assignments they’ll stay at home.
I remember a cherished conversation with Hilary Bradt, 76, founder of Bradt Travel Guides. ‘It’s going to get better, you know,’ she said cheerfully. ‘Respect for women increases with age. You’re less likely to be robbed or harassed, and people will give up their seat for you on a bus.” Happily, it seems there is much to look forward to yet.
Michelle Jana Chan is an award-winning journalist and travel editor of Vanity Fair. Her debut novel, “Song”, is a story of emigration set in Guyana and published by Unbound this June.
‘Travel has taught me that most people are kind and trustworthy’
Travel has done more than shape me, it’s defined me. Apart from launching an unexpected career in publishing, it’s taught me that most people are kind and trustworthy, and reinforced the fact that women travellers are often less at risk than men. Our very vulnerability can work for us, bringing out the male protective instinct. We just need to know how and when to use it.
A three-month hitchhiking trip to the Middle East started the process, but the real test was a solo journey through South America in 1969. I had no firm plans, spoke very little Spanish and felt horribly vulnerable. When I found myself alone at night in a railway carriage with a soldier, on a broken down train with an intermittent power supply, I deflected his attempt at conversation, staring out of the window at the black night and planning an escape route. The bushes beside the track sparkled and twinkled with hundreds of fireflies, and I exclaimed in delight. The soldier muttered something and jumped down onto the tracks, perhaps for a pee but my anxiety increased. He returned triumphantly, with a newspaper covering his hat and released a half dozen fireflies into the dark carriage, laughing at my evident pleasure. I got out my phrasebook and a torch and we managed a conversation of sorts. It was a turning point. After that I gave men the benefit of the doubt and had very little trouble and none that I couldn’t deal with.
Hilary Bradt is co-founder of Bradt Travel Guides. Now in her mid-seventies, she still hitchhikes.