Brief synopsis (from the back cover): Tales of a Female Nomad is the story of Rita Golden Gelman, an ordinary woman who is living an extraordinary existence. At the age of forty-eight, on the verge of a divorce, Rita left an elegant life in L.A. to follow her dream of connecting with people in cultures all over the world. In 1986 she sold her possessions and became a nomad, living in a Zapotec village in Mexico, sleeping with sea lions on the Galapagos Islands, and residing everywhere from thatched huts to regal palaces. She has observed orangutans in the rain forest of Borneo, visited trance healers and dens of black magic, and cooked with women on fires all over the world. Rita’s example encourages us all to dust off our dreams and rediscover the joy, the exuberance, and the hidden spirit that so many of us bury when we become adults.
Rating: Travel companion
Long story short: It took me longer than I expected to get through this book, not because it was boring, but because there was just so much to it that needed slow and careful unpacking (see what I did there? Heh).
Gelman writes about her experiences traveling through Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Israel, Galápagos Islands, Indonesia, Canada, New Zealand, and Thailand. I personally enjoyed the second half of the book a lot more starting with her trip to the Galápagos Islands, when the narrative became more fluid as Gelman became more comfortable in her new nomad lifestyle.
It was especially fascinating to witness Gelman transform from a shy, lonely woman to a self-assured person who knows her worth. At first she has some difficulty reading people and situations, but she quickly grows accustomed to the occupational hazards of solo travel like tagging along with other backpackers, not having fixed itineraries, and having to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Another theme I liked that unfolded throughout the course of the novel was understanding your role in a culture that is not yours. As a traveler, what rights or privileges do you have when you’re a guest in somebody else’s home? As a student of anthropology, Gelman often struggled to identify her place among the people she visited. Was she an observer of the culture or a participant? There were many times she refused to get too involved with her host families, declaring that she had no right to interfere with their way of life; other times she gets wrapped up in family politics and is unable to separate herself from those she had come to love. It’s a very interesting dilemma, for short- and long-term travelers alike. Gelman learned to play by each culture’s rules and adjusted her relationship accordingly.
This book played a big part in my decision to travel to South East Asia this summer. I am planning to be on the road for about a month, and hope to see Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar. If you have any travel recommendations, please note them in the comments! And if you have recommendations for other travel novels, add them too!