Stephanie Elizondo Griest: ‘100 Places Every Woman Should Go’
Travel Interviews: The writer wants to inspire women to set out on their own sola adventures. Jim Benning asks her about the best and worst destinations for women travelers -- and the use of "male repellent."
02.23.07 | 7:48 AM ET
Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s first book, Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing and Havana, established her as an adventurous traveler and travel writer. The New York Times Book Review recommended the 2004 book for summer reading, and the San Francisco Chronicle named it one of the best books of the year. Now, Griest wants to inspire other women to light out on their own journeys, and she has some ideas about just where they should start. In 100 Places Every Woman Should Go, which hits bookstores next week, she highlights great cities for women travelers (including Berlin and Austin); pilgrimage spots (among them, Rouen, France, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake); and even entire nations (including Lithuania, where, she notes, citizens “worshipped many female deities in primeval times”). Beyond simply identifying potential destinations, however, Griest offers plenty of historical context, tips and travel philosophy, making the book a surprisingly compelling read even for those not planning trips. I recently traded e-mails with Griest to learn more about the book and her thoughts on travel by women.
World Hum: The world is so big. How did you arrive at these particular places?
Stephanie Griest: Every place is glorious in its own special way, but every now and then, I stumble upon somewhere sacred. When I scan the room (or wilderness) for a pair of eyes to share it with, it is inevitably in the eyes of another woman that I find a similar spark or sense of wonderment. Afterward, I can only describe it as a place where “every woman should go.” When Travelers’ Tales approached me with this book project, memories of these places surged forth. I scribbled down half the list in just one sitting, then started calling my girlfriends (and a few select boy friends)—nearly 100 travelers in all.
Initially, my goal was to choose destinations where local women, indigenous people and the environment are treated with kindness, but it was nearly impossible to find 100 of them. Inequities are omnipresent. Instead, I tried to highlight the work of local community groups and activists so that travelers know where to volunteer or send a check. I also searched for places of significance to women: where we made history (i.e. the church where Joan of Arc stood trial), created works of art (i.e. Frida Kahlo’s studio in Mexico) and performed miracles (i.e. the fields of Fatima, Portugal, where the Madonna once made the sun do a swan dive over the sky). And places where goddesses reside within, like the volcanoes of Hawaii.
Do you have any favorite places in the book?
I am a native Texan who has traveled extensively in the communist/post-communist world and Mexico, so those places are especially revered (and featured prominently in the book). The best part of writing this book was discovering so many new destinations. I can’t wait to float down the bywaters of Kerala, India in a houseboat, or dance with voodoo priestesses in Benin. I fantasize about undertaking the 870-mile pilgrimage to the 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku, Japan.
Do you have any travel heroes—women who blazed travel trails and inspired your own journeys?
My first travel heroes were the men in my family: my great-great uncle Jake was a hobo who rode the rails, and my father drummed his way around the globe with a U.S. Navy Band. But while I’ve dreamed of traveling since early childhood, I never thought I actually would—largely because I couldn’t fathom how. I could conceptualize buying a ticket and boarding a plane, but what would I do after it landed? Then, my senior year in high school, a friend’s neighbor returned home after a semester studying abroad in Europe and introduced me to the magical world of youth hostels, backpacks and Lonely Planet. She was only a few years older than me and downright adamant that if she could roam in foreign lands, I could too. She inspired me to study abroad in college, and I ended up spending six months in Moscow in 1996. Though I deeply loved that experience, I was under the impression that traveling was something you did in college—until I crossed paths with a 67-year-old English woman at a hostel in Vilnius, Lithuania. She had rambled to more than 90 nations, and told me stories half the night as we drank tea from an old chipped pot. That’s when I realized traveling could be a life-long endeavor. I haven’t stopped since.
Who are the women travel writers you turn to for inspiration?
In order to write my first book, “Around the Bloc,” I moved back in with mom and dad at age 25. It was a very trying year: having no money, car, health insurance or “day job,” I essentially locked myself into my childhood bedroom and wrote, researched and edited between eight and 12 hours a day. I can’t even begin to describe the self-doubt I endured in that time period, but the works of three women kept my sanity in check: Hitchhiking Vietnam by Karin Muller, Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris, and Holly Morris’ Adventure Divas special on PBS. These women took to the road on their own terms, and related their stories in their own way. They deeply inspired me. And how is this for serendipity: when I moved to Brooklyn soon after completing “Around the Bloc,” Mary Morris was my neighbor! And Holly Morris wrote the foreword for “100 Places.”
I’ve since befriended a number of women travel writers, including Ayun Halliday, Amanda Castleman, Jessie Sholl, and Jen Leo (who founded the blog Written Road, which has been indispensable in the field). I’ve also read a ton of travelogues. My current faves are Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another and Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma.
You note in the introduction that pains were taken to include places where men are respectful of women. Were there places you excluded because the men are not respectful of women? What places do you warn women about?
While researching the book, I asked dozens of women about this, and Morocco, northern India, southern Italy and the Tokyo subway topped the list of the most challenging places for women travelers. However, it is important to note that women aren’t always similarly received on the open road. A Bulgarian friend of mine, who has dark Mediterranean features, strolled across Sicily without incident, while a busty blonde American friend got harassed at every turn. I often got cat-called while living in Moscow, but my best friend—who had an elfin haircut and wore baggy clothes—never did. Our perceived race, class, religion and sexual orientation can have just as much—or more—impact abroad as at home.
Among the tips you offer women travelers in the book is the use of “male repellent.” That cracked me up. Would you talk about that?
We all know how catcalling from street corners and wandering hands in crowded subways can tarnish an otherwise fabulous trip. So “male repellent” comes in handy. Some women wear fake wedding bands and carry photos of hulky men they call husbands to ward off sexual advances. I try to learn key phrases in the local language. (“I’m meeting my boyfriend here. He is a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps,” is a useful one.) Public guilt/humiliation is probably the best way to deal with mobile molesters. Loudly and firmly, say: “How would you like it if someone treated your wife/daughter/sister like that?” or simply: “Shame on you!” Chances are, your fellow passengers will come to your rescue. If you turn around and slug him, however, they likely will not.
What do you say to women who are anxious about embarking on their own travels?
The root of their uncertainty is almost always fear. Fear of safety. Fear of getting lost. Fear of being alone. Yet, women never really travel alone. We are constantly becoming someone’s daughter, mother, sister. We elicit the empathy—and curiosity—of the people of the planet. There is always extra shelter or food for us.
I think it is vital for every woman to travel alone at least once in life, to better hear “Mother Road.” She is one of the most formative teachers around. She will push you to your physical, spiritual and psychological limits—then nudge you one step further. She will teach you to be self-reliant and self-sufficient, which will in turn make you self-confident. That is my greatest hope with “100 Places”: that women will discover a new place that really speaks to them, and decide to venture there sola.
I’m sure many of them will. Thanks, Stephanie.