Tag Archives: travel

My Life in Passports

Photo by Janet Riehl

Photo by Janet Riehl

Essay and photos by Janet Grace Riehl

A post on Facebook inquired “How many countries have you been to?” Okay, let’s count.

Europe = 11

Mexico & Colombia = 2

St. Vincent & Barbados = 2

Asia = 4

Africa = 16

For a grand total of 35

Photo by Janet Riehl

Photo by Janet Riehl

Top photo: high school year book photo Bottom photo: the world traveler sets forth

Some of these countries I merely passed through on my way to somewhere else.  In some I was a tourist. In a handful of countries, I was really there.

Now we come to My Life in Passports. In my collection I hold 8—including my current passport. These contain untold stamps and multiple extension pages.  I have 3 of the older, bigger, green ones which I used from 1968 to 1977 as I went to Europe twice and then later lived and worked for 5 years in Botswana and Ghana. I have 5 of the newer, smaller, blue ones spanning 1982 until now.

It’s the 3 green ones that draw me most strongly, for between 1968 to 1977—20 years old to 29—I grew more fully into my womanhood as I morphed from Janet G. Thompson (my maiden name) to Janet Grace Clark (my married name) to Janet Grace  Riehl (my grandmother’s maiden name, and the one I’ve kept since 1975).  Only three things stay the same. My hair and eyes remain recorded as “brown.” My height stays 5’4”. And the emergency contact is always my father Erwin A. Thompson always living at R. R. 2, Box 117, Godfrey IL, 62035. Through all my meanderings it’s family and the home place which anchor me.

Of these three green passports the 1975 one is my favorite.  It records my journey into the unknown—a true leap of faith—as I left Peace Corps after 3 years of teaching in secondary schools in Botswana and Ghana—to strike out on my own. Alone. I traveled on foot, public transport, and hitchhiking equipped with a small canvas rucksack holding one change of clothing and an orange nylon tent strapped to the top. The tent was secured with Ghanaian strip cloth I’d sown on in preparation for my journey.

Photo by Janet Riehl

Photo by Janet Riehl

I would travel from West Africa to Southern Africa where I found my calling back in Botswana working with villagers to set up a sewing center.  In Fall of 1975 I set off from Ghana traveling through Togo, Dahomey (now Benin), Northern Nigeria, and Cameroon in West Africa where I then caught a plane to Zambia. I continued overland through Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) entering Botswana on foot through the northern Botswana border gate of Kazungula on December 19, 1975. Then, my adventure began in earnest. After my work was done of launching the village sewing center (which later became a multi-village vocational-technical college), I went back to the United States via Malawi, Kenya, and Ghana. From fall of 1975 to fall of 1977 I lived on my Peace Corps re-adjustment allowance designed to cushion me during my transition back to America. I carried this money in my “bank.” The sheaf of travelers’ checks snuggled in a hidden pocket sewn into a long skirt of my design.

No wonder my parents worried about me. No wonder that they arrived to visit in 1976 begging me to come back home. In the 1970s security and job stability with a pension was real, not an illusion. How could I carry on in my adult life if I didn’t get started on that? And, most compellingly, my father told of his difficult adjustment coming back from World War Two.  If I didn’t come back to the United States soon, I never would be able to come back in any real sense inside myself. That clinched it, and I agreed that when my work was done I’d come home.

Photo by Janet Riehl

Photo by Janet Riehl

The 1975 passport photo shows a saucy young woman looking off to the side at someone outside of the frame. I no longer know who that was. She is wearing an outfit she designed and sewn by a local tailor made from traditional Ghanaian waxprint cloth. On the outside of her blouse she wears a necklace made from beads bought in an outdoor market. We can see the cord of a leather pouch tucked inside her bodice. She did well, this young woman. I send her my love across the years. She lives in me still. She shaped me into the woman I am today at nearly 66. She stepped out on space. She lived on love and fresh air. And, most importantly, this country girl who roamed the world found her way back home.


Janet’s blog “Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century” is dedicated to creating connections through the arts and across cultures at www.riehlife.com

A Strategy for Travel Writing

by Sheila Bender

My daughter Emily Menon Bender took a trip with her husband, children, and parents-in-law to India, where her husband has many relatives. During the three-week trip, I was very happy to be able to follow her travels through photos and writing she shared on Facebook. Her Facebook posts took a form that made me think of William Stafford’s poem, “Things I Learned Last Week,” and the way I use that poem’s writing strategy to help people find the specifics in their experience.

I asked Emily how she came up with her technique.

mumbai1“We started our trip in Mumbai where we had the good fortune to stay with Vijay’s cousin and her husband. They were very keen to teach us about their city and their country. Our first day there, I learned surprising facts and I wanted to post the information on Facebook. I had known that on Twitter, TIL means “Things I Learned” and is used in a self-deprecating way as if to say “Duh! I should have already have known that,” but I had the phrase in my head, and it felt like a good way to share my experiences with my Facebook friends. Here’s that first post I made:

Today I learned: In Maharashtra a permit is required to “drink” alcohol, though this is largely ignored and people just pay fines (bribes?) on the rare occasions that it is enforced. Also, leopards live in the national park visible from Vijay’s cousin’s house. Development has encroached on the park and the leopards don’t have enough prey, so some mornings people in the buildings closest to the park (not this one) find leopards prowling around in their lobby.

I wondered how that original post led to daily posts using this TIL strategy. Emily said she had a particular friend back in the States who wanted to hear her impressions of India while they were fresh. She didn’t have many chances to chat with her friend online while she was traveling, and posting about what she learned each day was a way to give her friend a short version, at least, while it was new and striking.

I see that writing about what she learned, rather than what she did, brings the reader along with her on the trip in a way that feels more grounded and more interesting than just a travelogue about where one goes and in what order. Emily told me that once she decided to make her TIL posts a daily habit, she started looking for things to learn throughout the day. “What in all the experiences I was having did I note learning something that was of personal interest to me?” she asked.

Sometimes, the learning was from people explaining things to her, but not every day involved a tour guide (or relative interested in playing tour guide), and so then the learning was more about direct perception, she says. Here’s an entry from a day spent in transit, first on a long flight from Mumbai to Kochi, and then a very long drive through very windy roads up to the hill station resort of Munnar:

teabushes112/15/12 Today I learned: Rolling hills covered with tea bushes look remarkably like giant turtles. Also: There are also quiet places in India. Finally, one extra one from yesterday: Our networked world makes for an impressive amount of shared reference between my son Toby and his cousins in India. They quizzed each other on Harry Potter and then danced to Gangnam Style together.

Framing things in terms of what she learned was to Emily like taking a close-up photo of the underside of a flower, a departure from the expected depiction.

Here’s are two more of her posts:

12/18/12 Today I learned: It’s prudent to remove all photos from the memory card in the camera before entering the wildlife preserve. Also: Elephants have 10,000 muscles in their trunks. Finally: Modern mahouts are not only trained in the care & handling of elephants, but also in the use of digital cameras.

12/12/12 Today I learned: In Mumbai and Pune and maybe other parts of India, honking means “I am here!” and “Coming through!” and not “Get outta my way!” or “You idiot!”. This is probably why trucks all say above the back bumper “Horn OK Please”. Also, I am able to eat an entire meal of curry & rice with my hands without getting the scarf of my salwar set dirty. Finally: when coming to India for the first time after marrying into an Indian family, even if said wedding was 12 years ago, one extra suitcase for carrying things back is not enough.

Try this whether you are traveling or at home–it is an excellent writing exercise and will allow you to find some interesting writing topics!