Virtual Tourists

We are all virtual tourists. We sit at home, work or school in front of our brightly lit screens traveling around the globe in search of those hot spots on the map that will provide us a break from our own lives or something that we can take back with us to make our lives better. Before there were computers and the Web, the medium of choice to accomplish this virtual tour were books.

Books aren’t dead yet; in fact, book sales increased 5.7 percent in 1994 and are estimated to increase 5.1 percent in 1995. The book industry is meeting the electronic revolution in its own manner; utilizing the new technology to speed the time between when a book is written and when the final product appears at the store (witness the O.J. and Ross Perot phenomena), as well as investigating the possibilities for electronic publishing (including what you see before you). But until that brave new world becomes a reality, there remains the old technology–ink on paper, bound by glue.

Two virtual tours available in this form are Maiden Voyages: Writings of Women Travelers and To Touch the World: The Peace Corps Experience. Both are non-fiction accounts of expatriates attempting to understand different cultures and people, writers who braved leaving the reading chair and took their tours into reality. Whether it be Boxcar Bertha on the hobo trail in America, or a naive Peace Corps volunteer teacher in Africa, the authors challenged the elements and conventional wisdom to discover something unique about the world.

Maiden Voyages is a compilation of excerpts collected by the excellent travel writer Mary Morris in collaboration with her husband, writer Larry O’Connor. The collection begins with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose work Embassy to Constantinople¬†was published in 1763, and follows a roughly chronological order through the next to last excerpt from The Road Through Miyama by Leila Philip, published in 1989. Not all the women travelers represented here acted on their own, but every one of them evidences a fierce independent strength, an absolute necessity for women daring to go abroad. As Maud Parrish wrote in Nine Pounds of Luggage: “There wasn’t any liberty in San Francisco for ordinary women. But I found some. No jobs for girls in offices like there are now.”

The striking thing about reading this collection of women writers is akin to reading Virginia Woolf’s celebrated essay, A Room of Her Own–it is amazing how much progress in women’s rights has been accomplished in such a short period of time. But as much as I would like to congratulate our society on how much more enlightened it is, there is still progress to be made in eradicating the sexism that remains. The joy in reading this volume and Woolf’s essay is the realization that things are getting better.

Women’s rights are not the only subject touched on in this volume, although it is in the forefront. Other things that can be gained in touring with these travelers are pictures of cultures now long gone, such as the “mountain men” and goldrush societies in Colorado and Alaska, respectively, to the days when the journey to Nepal required a mastery of lowering your body temperature rather than the greasing of bureaucratic palms. The only fault with this volume is the staccato nature of each entry, lifted as it is from the volume where it originally appeared. There’s a bright spot to even that, however, because you know that if you run across an essay that you like, you can find more of it in the author’s complete work.

Although the Peace Corps has only been in existence for 35 years, it has fielded over 140,000 volunteers. So it is not surprising that some of these Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) have taken a moment to write about their experience–not only what it meant to them personally, but the effects that they have been able to see of their efforts on the world. In this volume, published and available free with the application form from the Peace Corps recruitment center near you, 32 RPCVs and former Peace Corps staff members share the vision and the experience of the Peace Corps.

For what is ostensibly a recruiting document, To Touch the World is not filled with unrestrained tales of wonder. The Peace Corps does not attempt to hide the fact that service is not necessarily glamorous or fun. It is, after all, a job. What the authors do show is that the hard work has purpose, that the exchange of culture is rewarding for both volunteer and host country. The writing ranges from reflections on the history of the Peace Corps by its original director and journalist Bill Moyers and to reflections on teaching English in Poland and accounts of building fish ponds in Africa. Not all of the essays are the polished writing of professionals, but nothing is ill-wrought or misshapen. The intended audience is obviously people who are contemplating joining the Peace Corps, but almost any virtual traveler can come away from this volume with something, including a better picture of the Peace Corps itself.

[Finished February 1996]

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