Rita Golden Gelman
Three Rivers Press, 2001
Tales of a Female Nomad is written for a person interested in amateur anthropology that flits and flies through cultures, enjoying the diversity of people. Gelman is a congenial easy guide who easily talks with strangers and appears to slip into the daily fabric of any culture. It is apparent she has great enthusiasm for first-hand participation in lives of indigenous, usually uncelebrated people.
It was curious that as able as she is to start conversations and wriggle herself into the lives of locals, that she felt so remote to this reader. The book is in first person, present tense which was clipped reporting rather than empathetic feeling. She did report when she was sad or felt joyful which is good because otherwise I might not have picked up on it. The style may be attributable to her education as an anthropologist and career as a writer for beginning reader children’s books, both of which could contribute to a reciting emotionless style. A sample is, “Then Joseph moves on. I do not want to leave. I want to move closer. To touch them and let them touch me. But that is not on our agenda. We go on.” My answering feeling was, “I’m in the first grade. Agenda is a big word. My teacher is Ms. Gelman. I like her. She likes people.” A third of the way through I discounted the distracting style for what else I was getting out of the book.
It was a good read as she moves easily within rural Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Indonesia, New Zealand and Thailand. Her experiences are vast as she goes from learning languages, traveling with a juggler, being gladly seduced in Palenque, feeling entranced by the Galapagos and spending time with backcountry Indonesians who still may practice cannibalism. When she travels as a U.S. Jew in Israel, she is baffled and leaves with questions of shared history vs. shared earth. Surprisingly, one of her most traumatic experiences was not while facing armed Contras in Nicaragua, but in a sporting goods store in Seattle.
She believes in trusting strangers when the Lonely Planet and your mother would whisper, “Back away, slowly,” and she deserves acknowledgement for her ability to like and relate to people from vastly different cultures.