Readers won't be bored drinking in the adventures of Laurie Gough. They may be alarmed, they may be annoyed, and they will probably be amazed as they read about the sojourns of this headstrong lone traveler who throws herself into foreign cultures with the subtlety and shyness of Courtney Love. But ennui probably will not factor in when one cracks open Kite Strings of the Southern Cross: A Woman's Travel Odyssey
, an energetic travelogue set in locales such as Fiji, Bali, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Fez, and told in a loose, fluid style that is part personal journal, part after-dinner tale.
Gough, a teacher in her late 20s who hails from Canada, is so feisty and independent she makes Amelia Earhart look coddled and wimpy. She thinks nothing of trekking through a Fijian jungle at night, pooh-poohing warnings about the area's previous cannibalistic ways with an attitude of "you shouldn't knock eating people until you try it yourself." She doesn't hesitate to throw a hissy fit on an airborne Asian plane: when erroneously seated in the smoking section, she stomps up to, and reseats herself in, first class. She rips up credit card originals in Morocco when she realizes she's been swindled. In Hawaii--which she despises--she doesn't think twice about trespassing on Sylvester Stallone's property and taking a dip in his pool. She continually encounters what most people would consider dangers, including men who equate lone female travelers with wanton women, though she--usually--walks away unscathed.
Immersion is the key word in her far-flung journeys, many of which are to the South Pacific. "I don't travel to see the museums, galleries, and palaces of the glittering cities," she writes. "I travel to see the faces of the villagers in their markets ... or to hear what women say at bus stops. I watch to see how the moon rises over unfamiliar land.... I watch to see if my reflection has changed."
She drinks the hallucinogen kava, she befriends strangers waiting for the full moon to rise, she lives in hollowed-out trees, rides motorcycles with Hell's Angels wannabes, stays in the homes of people unknown to her. She hitchhikes, she breaks toes, is drugged by carpet sellers, is devoured by bedbugs, and becomes host to head lice.
There is a payoff for jumping into foreign cultures alone and avoiding all things that smack of tourism: Gough gets true glimpses into these exotic worlds and gleans cultural insights rare for someone who doesn't speak the local tongue. She attends funerals where the practice is to sniff the corpse. She sits around campfires with natives, singing along to beat-up ukuleles, telling travel tales, and gazing at piercingly bright constellations. She discovers pooftas--Fijian men raised in daughterless households as females. She learns that cannibalism was a way to humiliate families of the victim, and that cabbies in Malaysia might carry your luggage to the hotel room--and then hop in the bed. She embraces the novel and the mundane, such as drinking milk fresh from the coconut with a Fijian friend. "It slides down my throat like sweet wine," she notes, and then she learns how to dig into the fruit's flesh with a spoon fashioned from the husk. "This feast wouldn't be the same anywhere else. Only on a green island this saturated, in a forest where sweet decadence is deeply hidden, could this occur, this delicate ancient feast."
One doesn't necessarily walk away from this book wishing that they'd walked in Gough's shoes and experienced her journeys. But this book is colorful and inspiring, showing the richness of foreign travel when one takes the road untrodden by tourists, and proving that lone female journeyers--even those who are fearless occasionally to the point of foolishness--can return in one piece, along with stories sometimes as beguiling as Marco Polo's. --Melissa Rossi