During this sabbatical year in Asia, my husband, George, has inspired me to follow the road less traveled. Over the last seven weeks from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Mumbai (Bombay), we have spent nearly 130 hours on buses and trains traversing and learning about parts of the East and West coasts of India. During the 10- to 20-hour rides, my companions were travel literature by incredibly creative authors.

Several of them offered to share personal encouragement and enlightenment, from Jennifer Steil‘s account of her year in Yemen, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, to Halle Eavelyn‘s evolution in Egypt in Red Goddess Rising, and then a major shift to family travels with Bill Richards and E. Ashley Steel’s Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids and Nancy Satre-Vogel’s Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World. We hope their books will inspire you to join in our Travel Writing Contest! Do it today! Entries are due by February 14th!

***Wondering what to wear in India? 5 tips from Wanderlust and Lipstick!****

Steil’s book, “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky,” is described on it’s cover as:

...a memoir of the most difficult, thrilling, hilarious and surprising year of my life — the year I spent as the editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a, Yemen. It details the challenges of revolutionizing a newspaper in a wildly different culture, as well as the blossoming of my reporters. It is also the story of my own personal growth, and of the unexpected friendships — and a lifelong love — that flowered in the desert.

This book makes me want to travel in Yemen. The New York Times called it “a completely winning account of [Steil’s] adventures as a feminist mentor and boss… A riveting tale of a life’s journey that reads as if it will need a sequel.”

Steil writes about inspiration:

I think it would actually be harder for me not to write than to write. Writing reveals my own mind to me. But it is the people around me and the stories they tell that inspire me the most. It was the stories of my reporters in Yemen, especially the women that inspired me most when working on my first book.

One of the main reasons I travel is to gain perspective. It still astonishes me how different one’s life looks from another country. Every time I had my heart broken, I took a trip to somewhere exotic. It always, always helped. You just cannot wallow in your own self-pity when you get a good look at what goes on in the rest of the world.

Red Goddess Rising follows Halle Eavelyn’s transformation from reluctant spiritual tourist, through the staggering revelation of the truth of her soul, to her new life guiding other travelers though the mysteries of ancient spirituality. Halle’s experiences of Egypt are woven into her vignettes of spiritual realization and growth.

Eavelyn reveals that “Traveling inspires me to write for two reasons: I am able to see the world around me and draw on it for interesting characters, tales, even plots, and it takes me away from my everyday world, clearing a space in my mind that allows my creativity to come rushing in; this is an alchemical combination.

If you are thinking about writing your own travel book, or traveling to write, it’s important to carve out the time to do it. I wrote my first book five minutes at a time whenever I went to the bathroom, because that was all the time I felt I could spare! Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, make the time to write.”

Bill Richards and E. Ashley Steel, Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids, talk about the partnership required as parents and travelers to share the wonders of the world with their children. The book’s jacket describes it as follows:

Wondering how to turn a journey with your kids into an enriching and rewarding adventure? This book is about how to travel anywhere successfully with kids: from planning and drumming up excitement to teaching kids to pack themselves, from enjoying a museum visit to journaling for fun, and finally, from making memories stick to finding opportunities for cultural exploration close to home.

Their favorite travel quotation is by Robert Louis Stevenson: “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Steel told me that “Traveling hopefully” is inscribed in her wedding ring! People wonder how George and I can travel together 24/7 for so many months. Richards and Steel motivate me with their choices to voyage on long trips with multiple children and the way they create meaning for each member of their clan.

Nancy Satre-Vogel, author of Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World, asks all of us, “What would you do if you were not afraid?” Changing Gears is the true story of one woman asking herself that very question. What followed was a family journey of epic proportions — a journey of physical challenge, emotional endurance, teamwork, perseverance and tremendous learning opportunities. Would the journey be a dream come true — or a mother’s worst nightmare? Satre-Vogel’s insight from her experiences? “You might fail — in fact you might have a very good chance at failing — but you might not. If you don’t try, you are looking at a 100% chance of failure.”

Reading remarkable travel literature provokes me to contemplate my sabbatical year in Asia. I wonder what will happen next? Where will we go? Who will we meet? What will we learn? I am honored to share the skillful tales and vision from these vagabonds. Look for more inspiration in part 2!

A version of this article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

About the Author: During her sabbatical year in Asia, Lisa Niver Rajna, Huffington Post Blogger, was published in National Geographic and the Myanmar Times. She was recently on National Televison as a science teacher and is a nominee for the National Science Foundation 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. Follow her trip at

The area known today as Yemen was named by the Romans as Arabia Felix, a moniker that holds less truth in the current age.

Before 1972, Yemen, then split between the old British protectorate to the south and the feudal country of North Yemen, was closed to outsiders.  The north opened suddenly, and with that new window to the world, foreigners arrived in droves.  As a terribly poor country, well-meaning but misguided officials from a variety of international agencies moved in, armed with grandiose plans for development, most of which came to naught.  The Yemenis were a proud people, disdainful of central government, and treated these strangers like the fools most of them were.

The architecture of Yemeni cities rivals that in any country but the adult men’s penchant for wearing rhino horn knives has decimated world-wide populations of the animal.  Yemen is a true country of contradictions.  The population uses most of the arable land to grow khat, an amphetamine-like substance that takes the place of food and robs its citizens of  life’s longevity.  Nevertheless, it is not our business to judge.

Their music runs to the wildly frenetic, with lute-based instrumentals and voice accompaniment.  Their hospitality is legendary as is the severity of their violence.  In 1977 I hitchhiked with my brother around the country, braving rides with 15 year-old kids driving pick-up trucks toting AK-47s strapped to their shoulders who held complete disregard for traffic laws.  Hardly better were the foreign aid workers who sometimes gave us a lift.  Their dislike of the country was often painful to absorb during extended conversations over the bad roads.

We stayed in shabby hotels, camped in the ruins of Ottoman-era forts, and wandered the country at will and were almost always warmly greeted.

Somewhere in the south a British business person picked us up, and for once we departed the paved highway.  He was headed to a remote area to talk to tribal leaders about water supplies or cheap-labor factories or whatever English commercial salesmen do these days.  (We even met a shoe seller from London near Mocha when traveling along the Red Sea).  We wanted to get away from the main road, if the “highway” could even be termed as such, so we asked him to let us off at the edge of a tiny village, miles from anywhere.  Not knowing what to do with ourselves, we started walking along a dirt track at the edge of a planted field. Without warning rocks came whizzing by our heads.  We were getting stoned, and not in the sense that Bob Dylan used the expression.

Turing toward the incoming missiles we saw a small group of teenagers yell and pick up more rocks. We became frightened.  Had we trespassed on land forbidden to kafirs (non-believers of Islam)?  What would become of us?  Now grown men rushed to where we stood, immobile with fear.   We could have been killed and buried and our embassy (with whom we hadn’t even registered) would never have been the wiser.

But the men sat us down and apologized profusely for the behavior of their children.  With great gestures and loud voices they bade us to wait while women folk arrived with a huge picnic lunch, which we were invited to enjoy and share.  Expensive canned drinks were produced, pre-packaged snacks, and other goodies that these kind farmers could scarcely have afforded to offer.  Over lunch the men told us that the boys would be severely punished.   They pantomimed the act of cutting off hands.  I was horrified, as was my  brother.  Surely such teen-age silliness would not be so harshly dealt with.  I tried, again with my  limited language ability, to ask that the children be subjected to lesser sanctions.   Perhaps the adults were exaggerating their intentions,  perhaps not.  But the afternoon was a tense one.  We felt ourselves responsible  for the trouble, and despite the fine show of gracious hospitality we left the village depressed and walked back to the main road, praying that our visit had not resulted in the permanent disfigurement of any young boys.

But this was Yemen, a rough land with tough inhabitants who lived by their own code of conduct, and nothing we could have said or done would have changed their mind-set.


1) Yemeni men

The country today is much maligned for the governmental elements that support al-Quaida, but I suspect most of this is propaganda created for the benefit of the Western politicians who wish to use fear to control and scare their “democratic” constituents. I do believe that there are radical fundamentalists among the Yemenis, but most of the land’s citizens are more interested in their own lives and probably think little about the outside world.

I remember a lesson in Islam given to me on one occasion by a small boy. He asked simply, “Where does the sun come from?”  I said I didn’t know.  He then said, “Where does the moon come from?”  Again I admitted my ignorance.  He looked at me with disbelief and said, ‘From Allah, of course.”

When we first arrived in the capital of Sana’a we were quite intimidated by the chaos in the streets, the automatic weapons, and the rampant drug consumption.  But we soon learned much of this bravado was strictly for show.  The market in the city was a fascinating place, full of spices, bargaining merchants, and exotic (if sometimes illegal) goods.

2) The entrance to the old city, Sana’a

3) Khat trader, Sana’a

Prices in the Sana’a market gravitated to the expensive side.   Those famous rhino horn-handled knives were going for tens of thousands of dollars, although I would not have been tempted to buy one at any price.  We also saw plenty of jewelry of uncertain provenance, but were not knowledgeable enough to consider purchases.  I did buy an old silver gunpowder pouch, but its current whereabouts thirty years later are a mystery.

Obtaining food was always an issue.  What few restaurants we found looked like grubby dens, and served mostly unidentifiable gruel.  We ate a lot of hard-boiled eggs and flat bread with cheese as viable alternatives. This held true almost everywhere we journeyed although fresh fruit was available in the lowlands around the sweltering city of Hoddaida, and most Yemenis were fans of that delicious sugary fruit “juice” and offered it as a matter of course for hospitality’s sake.

But again, what always astonishes the first-time visitor is the architecture found in Sana’a and the other major towns.

4) Centuries ago, the Yemenis became masters at building multi-story houses of mud and stone

One of the most amazing buildings is fifteen kilometers from Sana’a and is a former palace of the Imam Yahya.  Located in Wadi Dahr, the tower was built on top of a high rock for protective reasons.  The locals grow a lot of khat nearby, and we had fun watching them climb the trees, shouting to each other in glee when they found a particularly potent branch of the stuff.

5) Dar al-Hajar, Wadi Dahr

Especially interesting is the portal near the top of the house, from where night soil was dumped over the years, staining the walls an interesting shade of brown and yellow.  Not the most hygienic system, but it  functioned well enough for the purpose.

Near Wadi Dahr I had another instructive conversation with a local fellow, this time about the moon.  Nixon’s administration had given Yemen, along with all the countries on Earth, a moon rock, which they proudly displayed in the main museum of Sana’a.  (Recent studies have found that many of these “gifts”  were fake.  I especially wonder about the sample, which now rests in Hanoi, that the American government bestowed on the government of South Vietnam.)

In the event, we began to discuss the moon launches.  The man asked me, “So, we hear Americans went to the moon. Is this true?”

“It is,” I said.

“Well, we hear the project was filmed in Hollywood.  But if the story is true, what did they find there?”

“I’m quite sure the landing on the moon was real, not that they found much.  You must know one of the moon rocks is in Sana’a.”

“So they found nothing?”

“If you want put it that way,” I said.

“Hah,” he replied.  “It is just as is written in the Koran.  The only life in the universe is here on Earth.  Americans waste all that money, and for what?  To bring back rocks.  We have plenty of them here.” He laughed without mirth. ” You people have no sense.  Money should be given to poor countries like Yemen so we can improve our lives.”

Again, I was at a loss for words, confronted with a logic that could not be refuted with my limited understanding of Arabic.  This kind of exchange became the norm during my time in Yemen, and I was often flustered by the implacable belief system, although I did my best not to show uncertainty.  One always has to maintain face in these situations and countries.

On another occasion, we decided to thumb to Taiz, hoping to see that beautiful city first brought to the world’s attention by Ibn Battuta.

6) Minaret

We didn’t have time to get there before dark, and so asked our driver to drop us off at the bottom of an imposing hill, on top of which was an abandoned castle – one of the series of those fortifications I later learned was built by the Ottomans in their stupid,  futile attempt to control the country.

7) Ottoman-era fort

We made our way up the hill to the stone fort.  Inside the building the architecture was beautiful, with graceful archways and a stone courtyard, in the middle of which a pleasant pool and fountain had once provided soldiers respite from the heat.  We settled our sleeping bags under a covered cloister, and just after sunset thousands of bats, awakened either by us or by their nightly urge to hunt, swooped and swarmed around us in huge swarms.  At first we were alarmed, but the bats meant no harm; they exhibited natural curiosity only.  Of course nowadays the medical world says they are frequent carriers of rabies, but since none of them chose to bite us we didn’t find out if this bunch carried that peculiar affliction.

8) area around Taiz

But now we must come to problem that Yemen represents in its modern incarnation.  The media tell us of disaffected Muslims, anxious to kidnap foreigners while at the same time disdaining well-meant aid.  We hear that the increase of khat production, the bush being a thirsty one, is rapidly depleting aquifers that will be necessary for future agricultural production, given the current explosion in population growth.  Statesmen pontificate, the Saudis bribe, and various countries, notably China, covet Yemen’s proximity to the Red Sea and the crude oil passageways.

None of these facts mean shit to a tree, to borrow a phrase.  The Yemenis are people who deserve to live, to be left alone if that is what they wish, and above all, they deserve to create their own future, free of Western intervention and attempts to “democratize” their tribal society.  They are an honorable race whose ethics we should admire rather than criticize.

The Al Quaida elements now entrenched  in the country have arrived as a direct result of decades of European and American meddling and deal-breaking.  From the first broken promises of Balfour after World War One to the recent American perfidy in Iraq, hardly an iota of respect has been given to the Arabian Peninsula’s inhabitants.  When oil was discovered  in the Saudi desert, dishonest Western businessmen arrived like flies on a freshly killed goat, ready to devour the sudden and unexpected feast.  Yemen, fortunately, was largely forgotten in the feeding frenzy; the north of the country possesses almost no crude.  But being untouched became akin to a two-edged sword.  The country ended up all but abandoned by the rest of the world.

Now in the post 9/11 age,  Predator drones fly and kill, Yemeni citizens have been turned over to the tender mercies of the Americans at Guantanamo, and the ensuing radicalization of Yemeni politics grows ever faster.

9) Yemeni woman, probably a lot younger than she looks

Does the country need Delta Force operators roaming the hinterlands with their newly-grown beards and clumsy native attire?  Does Yemen need the massive aid projects that create mountains of plastic waste and garbage, all paid for with Saudi slush funds and the IMF?  I don ‘t think so.

They are a strong, intelligent people who should be given the advice they will need to modernize in their own way at their own pace.

10) Traditional village south of Sana’a

Yet at the same time we romanticize the country in the same manner Rousseau yearned for the return to the state of nature found in the “Noble Savage.”  This attitude is little more than a modern form of racism.  The Yemenis need a better electrical grid, better government services, schools, and a list of amenities too long to document here.

God help them, and God help us for our shabby mistreatment of a proud people.  We can only hope that one day the country will once again become Arabia Felix.

11) Sadeh, a town in the mountains near the border with Saudi Arabia, said to be completely off-limits to foreigners now, due to strenuous disagreements between the residents and the weak central government

12) The town of Thula: no sign of modernity

Post Script:  The year after my brother and I traveled around Yemen we convinced our parents to go as part of a group with Lindblad Travel.  As long-time friends and business associates of Lars Lindblad, they were among the first Americans to travel with a tourist group to Yemen.  As a favor, I provided Lindblad Travel with an English-Arabic phrase book, since Yemeni Arabic is far different from the dialects spoken further north in better-traveled countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.  Arabic-language questions such as, “May I take your picture?” and “Would you mind flipping the safety back on that AK?” came in handy on many occasions during my parents’ visit (just kidding about the second query).

During my first sojourn, I did in fact see two or three groups of European tourists huddled around one another in Sana’a, but the hinterlands were still completely unvisited.  The State Department warnings about travel in Yemen during the 1970s were as dire then as they are today.

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Article first published as Yemen: To Go or Not To Go? on Technorati.
Yemen has been on my mind lately with the recent intercepted mail bomb, the attack on the USS Cole and the book, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky in the news.  I was scheduled to travel to Aden, Yemen, in 2001 as senior assistant Cruise Director on Renaissance Cruises 50-day sailing from Athens to Bangkok. Prior to our sailing, the USS Cole was bombed on October 12, 2000.
We changed our itinerary and did not go to Yemen, however, our ship did have two ports of call in nearby Oman. Being in Muscat and Salalah during Ramadan was amazing; the gorgeous sand colored 16th century Portuguese forts high on the cliffs, listening to the call of the mosque and trying not to get lost, and the intricate blue tiled mosques with the azure seas made for amazing contrasts. We sailed with a pod of over 100 dolphins, one of the most memorable days in my seven years at sea.
During the port talk about Oman, I  stressed the importance of respectful dress, and not drinking or eating in the souks in front of Moslems, during their month of fasting.
When CBS World News reported on November 10, 2010 that British police said “a mail bomb intercepted last month at an English airport could have exploded over the East Coast of the United States,” Yemen was again front page news due to the potential devastation.
On that same cruise, we also canceled a port call in Colombo, Sri Lanka due to the civil war. This summer, George and I spent six weeks in Sri Lanka and I read Jennifer Steil’s The Woman Who Fell From the Sky about her work in Yemen as a journalist.
In the book, Steil remarks that “in many parts of the country, people are living exactly as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. They herd goats and cows; they grow wheat, pomegranates, and grapes; they travel long distances to fetch water. They live in simple square mud-brick homes.”

It is amazing in this time of jet planes, smart phones and speedy internet connections that parts of the world feel like you are traveling back in time. In the hills of Viet Nam, in Steil’s Yemen and a few other pockets of the world, it can feel that time has stopped. 
For many people who will not personally visit some of these places, Steil comments that , “Books are one of the few ways in which we can truly get into the heads of people we would never meet in our ordinary lives and travel to countries we would otherwise never visit.” Steil’s book and relationships with her co-workers at the newspaper really enlightened me on the people of Yemen. When I was briefly in Oman and Dubai, I wondered about the veiled women and the woman only shopping line at the market.
During her time in Yemen, Steil was able to rent a house, shop, travel with locals and really explore what it was to be a foreign woman.
Her observations on the freedom allowed by wearing a veil surprised me. Steil says in her book; “I thought of the veil as an oppressive practice that kept women from being who they are…These women consider their coverings a statement of identity, an important defense against men, and a source of freedom.” 
This reminds me that until you walk in someone elses shoes or wear their veil, it can be challenging to understand their perspective. But in the end, no matter where you go, you bring yourself and the traveler is the one most changed by the experience. 
Every journey has ups and downs. My 50-day cruise long ago always made me wonder about Sri Lanka, which was an amazing place filled with friendly people, many elephants and great discoveries. I know that someday we will go to Yemen and explore great ancient sites, meet wonderful modern people and discover many things, mainly about ourselves. 

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