By far some of the best travel writing I’ve read. Vivid descriptions of China in the early 1940s, Africa in the 1960s, Moscow in the 1970s. Martha Gellhorn was a journalist, a war correspondent, an avid traveler, someone who appreciated solitude and could only handle 1:1 conversations with friends, and third wife of Hemingway. I have almost softened in my opinion of old Hem based on his association with Gellhorn, my new idol. This collection of stories was first published in 1978 and should have been more widely distributed. There is pure gold in here.
She sets the tone in the preface, noting people’s eyes glaze over when you wax rhapsodic over your recent trip, that “The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster.” After briefly setting forth her credentials (fifty-three countries with repeated trips to twenty-four of those, including every state in the U.S. except Alaska), she reveals her sources–old letters, diaries, scraps of paper–since her memory is unreliable (“I think I was born with a weak memory as one can be born with a weak heart or weak ankles”). Then she lets loose with stories about her biggest travel disasters.
Mr. Ma’s Tigers is the tale of her trip to China in search of a story for Collier’s magazine, dragging Hem along with her, named “U.C.” or “Unwilling Companion” in the story. They set out in Feb 1941 from San Francisco to Honolulu by boat then flying to Hong Kong on PanAm’s flying boats: “We flew all day in roomy comfort, eating and drinking like pigs… dozing, reading, and in the late afternoon the plane landed on the water at an island. The passengers had time for a swim, a shower, dinner, and slept in beds.” She dumps Hem in Hong Kong in quest of her story, flying with the China National Aviation Company via Chungking and Kunming to Lashio (Burma end of Burma Road) then back, harrowing journey since the airline only took off in bad weather to avoid Japanese fighters, in an unheated and unpressurized cabin. While she was gallivanting about with danger, Hem was cozy back in the city yukking it up with generals, finding boxing partners, and just generally being the man’s man that we all know him as. He loved watching the city:
Local customs charmed him, for instance ear-cleaning. Salesmen with trays of thin sticks, topped by tiny coloured pom-poms, roamed the streets; these sticks were ear cleaners. Customers would pause, in the middle of those bustling crowds, to prod away at their ears with the detached expression, U.C. said, of people peeing in a swimming pool. The Chinese passion for firecrackers also delighted him… He found someone to box with and went to the races, saying the dye sweated off the horses and cunning Oriental fraud prevailed. From the first he was much better at the glamorous East than I was, flexible and undismayed.
They head into the countryside with a somewhat useless translator, Mr. Ma. “What trees are those?” “Ordinary trees.” ” ‘Watchumacallit’ served as Mr. Ma’s all-purpose word.” It rains nearly every day, and they’re cold, dirty, and out of whisky due to the popularity of the drink with the Chinese generals they visit. Gellhorn gets into a tiff with Madame Chiang Kai Shek when Gellhorn suggests that the ruling class could do a bit more for the peasantry. Madame retorted that “China had a great culture when your ancestors were living in trees and painting themselves blue.” She seems Hem off at the airport with her oozing infected hand and then continues on without him to Singapore, Batavia.
Messing About in Boats details her 1942 journey by 34 foot potato boat through the Carribean, again on Collier’s expense account, after interviewing shipwreck survivors in Puerto Rico. Everyone was worried about hurricanes the whole time, less so about submarine attacks. From St. Thomas to Tortola, Virgin Gorda to Anguilla, St. Martin to St. Barts to Saba, then Antigua to Surinam.
Into Africa is the longest story, recounting the pleasure trip she took (not on assignment), paying her own way to cross from west to east across Africa beginning in January 1962. She meets various people along the way, including an instantaneous friendship with C. the Frenchman in Yaounde (Cameroon) who invites her to stay with him and they set off to visit Czech pharmacy friends in the jungle. From C: “in Africa you have to know how to play bridge, a life saver; there is no conversation and since one cannot always read, one must find some means of being with others painlessly.” A week later, she’s driving alone across Cameroon and came across ten Kirdi women, asking them how old they are. One who looks fifteen says “Three.” An older woman is aged nine. “How restful to have no idea of time, nor your own place in it. At a certain age, nature indicates that you are ready for marriage. At a certain age you can no longer bear children. Then you are old and in due course you die. No more detailed timetable is needed.”
The most hilarious part of this story is after she gets to Nairobi and hires a car and a driver–Joshua–who a local friend said was reliable (e.g. won’t rape or rob her). “Instinct, which I regularly ignore, told me that Joshua was not the man for the job.” As they hit the road, Joshua refuses to drive the Landrover, and Gellhorn is left struggling with the machine across Kenya while dainty Joshua grips the seat and is terrified for his life. At Lake Nakuru Park, he refuses to get out of the car while she hikes in, afraid of lions and the mud. At one of their stopping points, she enjoys a walk on the terrace:
Inside, you hardly knew you were in Africa; outside the night sky told you exactly where you were… It was cold but that wasn’t why I hastened back to my snug room and drawn curtains. This was not the velvet embracing desert sky at El Geneina; this was infinite space. The idea of no boundaries, no end, is terrifying in the abstract and much worse if you’re looking at it… The machinery that keeps me going is not geared to cope with infinity and eternity as so clearly displayed in that sky.
She drags Joshua to Uganda, where she notes the terrible sign “No dogs or natives allowed” at the entrance to the English club. Independence was seven months away for the natives, and all the foreigners were resigned to their expected fate of having their throats cut. She sees all sorts of wonderful animal and bird life, bemoaning the slaughter of elephants for their tusks, the removal of zebras and giraffes to zoos. “The superb wild four-footed creatures of Africa haven’t a hope. We will preserve sad jailed animals in zoos, for our children. I know this will happen, and it is unbearable to think of the loss. We are really a terrible species; the greediest predators.”
One Look at Mother Russia is a hilarious tale of Moscow in the 1970s when she visits a Russian author who has become her penpal (named only Mrs. M in the book, but I think it must be Nadezhda Mandelstam whose 1970 Hope Against Hope was available in the west right before Gellhorn’s 1972 trip). Among the squalor and hunger of Moscow, we get good bits like “I regard the getting and keeping (and the upkeeping) of possessions as a waste of life. No one can be wholly free but one can be freer, and the easiest trap to open is the possessions trap” and “I feel angry. Every minute about everything.”
What Bores Whom? is a quick glimpse at her 1971 trip to Israel where she interviews a bunch of hippies to try and understand them. “Great, gee it’s great, they murmured. Three words sufficed for the experience of travel: great, beautiful, heavy… I couldn’t imagine any of them ten years hence, having never known such shapeless people.” She ends with “Yes indeed, what bores whom? The threshold of boredom must be like the threshold of pain, different in all of us.”
Apparently died by swallowing cyanide capsule while suffering from ovarian cancer, aged 89.