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Fernweh, Sehnsucht, Brame

Amanda Bell

Elsewhere by Rosita Boland, Doubleday, 288 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1781620496

Writers collect words as travellers collect destinations; this is the structuring principle of Elsewhere, a collection of essays by poet, intrepid traveller and award-winning journalist Rosita Boland. In a beautifully written introductory chapter, “Fernweh”, Boland the poet is to the fore as she describes how she set about composing her own dictionary, adapted from Chambers. Some of these arcane words are used as chapter titles, and also provide a rationale for the content. The collection as a whole is framed by Fernweh, “the pain of not being in foreign parts. A desire to travel. An ache for distant places,” and Sehnsucht, “a longing and yearning in the heart for travels that have been and travels yet to come”.

This use of words as keys is an artful way of structuring a book, with a number of topics being constellated around a particular destination. Australia is subtitled “Eleutheromania – an intense desire for freedom” and the chapter describes just this, as Boland’s travel bug took firm hold while on a year-long trip to Australia in 1988.

England is “Wunderkammer – A cabinet of curiosities”; the conceit here is that “the cumulative experiences of travelling are akin to creating your own Wunderkammer, which you can perpetually curate afterwards in your memory”. Pakistan is “Brame – a fierce longing, passion”; the backdrop to this excursion is a passionate but complicated love affair back home. Thailand is “Fortuna – goddess of luck, chance and fate”; this trip segues into a contemplation of mortality, her own and that of friends and colleagues, notably a much loved and admired friend and editor at The Irish Times. Japan is “Kintsukoroi – To repair with gold”; it deals inter alia with breakages of all kinds, including that of the human heart. Antarctica is “Quiddity – the essence of a thing”; it touches on the importance of photography in capturing the essence of an experience. Peru is “Onism – awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience”; the side-story in this trip is the author’s reluctance to become involved with a man twelve years her junior, in spite of obvious mutual attraction.

Iceland is subtitled “Enfilade – a number of things arranged as if strung on a thread”; it looks at how her varied and unpremeditated life experiences ultimately lead to her career as a feature writer. The final essay, Bali, is subtitled “Volitant – able to fly”. In this, the writer opens up about her involuntary childlessness, and comes to a type of acceptance, because “Elsewhere had mended me; had performed its unique sorcery, as it always does; had allowed me to find a perspective and a peace I had needed so badly.”

In the acknowledgements, Boland thanks Tanya Sweeney for encouraging her to “suppress the reporter within” so as to listen to, and trust, her own voice. It’s a difficult thing for a journalist to cast off a lifetime of reportage, and some essays have a quite journalistic feel while others are deeply personal, and some quite poetic. By the final chapter, the writer exposes herself completely, revealing a moving vulnerability in tandem with an enduring sense of invincibility. Going into painful detail about her unrealised hopes of becoming a mother, she states: “If you remember nothing else about this book, please remember this: don’t ask people you don’t know if they have children.”

Happily, there is much else that the reader will remember. Much of the material is sourced from diaries written over thirty years of adventurous solo travelling. The result is a very thought-provoking book in which Boland uses her decades of world travel to explicate her evolution as a writer, and her personal journey towards acceptance.

It’s hard to grasp how profoundly mobile phone technology has transformed travel in the period spanned by the book. Whereas the contemporary backpacker has a smartphone for everything from GPS services to keeping in contact with family and friends, Boland’s early trips involved using poste restante services, queueing for hours and even days to make and receive phone calls, and sending long missives home to her loved ones (and even that depended on local post offices being able to identify Ireland as a country). The contemporary backpacker is also much more likely to be aware of the dangers faced by a solo woman traveller, particularly in parts of India and Pakistan. It seems that the dangers were equally pronounced in the 1990s; a look at an Amnesty International report on the position of women in Pakistan published in 1995, the year Boland travelled there, makes horrific reading, noting that “women in Pakistan suffer widespread human rights violations”. And yet the Karakoram Highway, considered the “eighth wonder of the world”, has exerted a fascination over young women writers such as Boland and Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, who travelled there alone in 1992, a trip resulting in the publication of The Golden Peak, which was reissued in 2002 as Among Muslims. Weighing up local warnings, Boland decided to trust in her demonstrated ability to judge risk, and to walk the stretch of the Highway from Gilgit to Karimabad. She arrived at the other side having narrowly missed a landslide. Having successfully navigated that route, she next undertook the Indus Highway to Skardu, a journey so terrifying that she was unable to contemplate making the return journey. Stranded in Skardu while waiting for optimum flight conditions, she was stoned by a group of children.

These genuinely life-threatening experiences lead to a thoughtful examination of bravery, risk, and fear:

You are only brave when you do something you were afraid of, and although lots of times I did not like it all, as now, I wasn’t afraid of travelling alone. There were things I was deeply afraid of along the way, such as the thought of travelling on the local bus back to Gilgit, but I would not allow myself to be afraid of travelling alone. What was the alternative? Deny myself all these experiences on the road, the marvellous as well as the difficult ones? Stay at home and never go anywhere? It’s that thought, the one of involuntary stasis, that has always filled me with genuine fear.

May she have a joyful continuation of her travels.

1/6/2019
Amanda Bell is a writer and editor based in Dublin. Her most recent publication is The Loneliness of the Sasquatch, a translation from the Irish of Gabriel Rosenstock, Alba Publishing.  www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie.

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