Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World, by Rita Golden Gelman. Three Rivers Press (2001), 306 pages.

If you love meeting new people to the extent that for you the entire point of traveling is to talk to strangers, then this book will make you very happy. It did not make me that happy, because I found this author harder and harder to relate to. I did try hard to not let her bizarre point of view annoy me because I was curious to read about where she would go next, but by the halfway point of the book her smug and self-righteous tone was becoming very wearying.

Another reviewer noted her “obvious left-wing contempt for her own country.” I noticed this as well, on page one: she writes that one of the reasons she’s itching to leave the country is because her friends are “too white.”  Why is it okay to complain that one’s friends are too white? One doesn’t complain in print these days that their friends are too Latino, or too Asian. Her comment is no different.

The author believes that total immersion in every culture she visits is an absolute necessity, even if it means setting aside her own beliefs about right and wrong. She believes she must be completely nonjudgmental at all times, which is just silly because it’s not only humanly impossible but also inappropriate when one is faced with something that is truly wrong. Some things are wrong, Rita. Littering is wrong, and wife-beating is wrong.

In Guatemala she has a picnic on the beach with the locals, who throw all their trash onto the beach. She writes that “it is hard for me to throw garbage” because of years of conditioning not to, but she forces herself to do so. She didn’t want them to think she was judging them, and was afraid that they would feel judged if she disposed of her own garbage properly. This is so absurd for so many reasons I began to wonder if I’d be able to finish the book.

In Mexico she stayed in a Zapotec village in a backyard shed, and woke to the sound of her hostess screaming outside her door because her husband was beating her. The author watches, but doesn’t open the door. She portrays herself as responsible by writing that she was planning to open the door if things got “serious.” Apparently the screams weren’t serious enough for her. After all, “This life is [the wife’s] destiny.”

And yet in Bali suddenly we see that she does draw a line, after all. Where is this line? Inconceivably, the line she finally must draw is this: she will not learn Balinese, despite living there for eight years (this from somebody who is religious about the obligation to learn the language of the locals) because that language is based on caste, which makes her uncomfortable. Sounds to me like she’s judging the local culture.

The main problem with the book is the totality of the author’s people-centric focus. Personally, I travel because I’m interested in local wildlife and scenery as well as humans. I want to hike all day, watching the landscape change and appreciating the unique flora. Rita doesn’t hike. She’s so out of shape that she actually writes (and she’s serious, I swear) that looking out of the window of the car instead of walking “is spiritually and physically very satisfying.” (There is one trek, in New Guinea, but I’m not sure it qualifies as an appreciation of nature, because for six days, everyday, the author loudly sings preschool songs such as “The Eentsy Weentsy Spider” and “I’m a Little Teapot”!!)

“Thousands of huge bats burst into the air from one island when our motor wakes them up. They are a scene from a horror film…” What an ignorant traveler (and writer) to fall victim to such a naïve cliché—using “bats” and “horror” in the same sentence! On the next page, she meets a group of natives with bows and arrows and six-inch white bones in their noses. This sight leaves her almost speechless with happiness: “I can only stare in awe. They are a picture, a dream, a realization of my fantasies.” I believe she has these two scenes completely backwards. The bats are a dream and worthy of awe, while the bone-wearing locals are a scene from a horror film. Really, this author is quite difficult for me to relate to.

Throughout the book, this lack of attention to anything other than people, people, people prevented me from getting a sense of where we were. I wasn’t even inspired to look up her exotic locations on a map, which is mightily strange, since it generally takes very little to send me running to the atlas, so we must conclude that something vital is lacking in her descriptions. The missing elements are landscape, history, and animals. With a total focus on what the locals are eating for dinner that day…it’s just hard to care. Hard for me to care. Again, if you’re very much a people person, if you sometimes forget there are any nonhumans on the earth, then this is the book for you.

In Indonesia the author explores an empty cave that had once been filled with thousands of the sort of bird’s nests that are considered a delicacy by the Chinese. The birds are gone now, but she doesn’t reflect on this—she’s too absorbed by a cave ceremony in which her friend’s wife enters a “trance” and berates her husband for not attending family functions enough and not being nice enough to the neighbors. I thought this was quite funny—the funniest scene in the book—because it’s clear to me that the wife is using the excuse of a religious trance to tell her husband things she is normally forbidden to say. The author apparently is confused, though, wondering if she has “heard the voice of an unseen world.” Anyway, fast-forward 85 pages. She now lives in Vancouver and raves about the “T & T supermarkets”—Asian supermarkets that carry anything necessary for any Asian recipe. She exclaims breathlessly about a long list of ingredients one can find there, including Indonesian bird’s nests. Hmmm. Now, I remember the scene back in the Indonesian cave. Is the author going to maybe suggest that it’s a shame the nests are in a Vancouver supermarket rather than where they belong? Nope. No ability to make that connection. She adores Asian food too much.