I am sipping a cafi au lait at a sun-dappled sidewalk cafe in San Francisco, listening to the wind play the trees and children laugh in the pocket park across the street, and reading a book that feels like wanderlust incarnate. The book is "Kite Strings of the Southern Cross," by Laurie Gough, and it's a stirring song of the pleasures and possibilities -- and perils, too -- of the open road.
"Kite Strings" is notable partly because it represents a heartening departure for Travelers' Tales Inc., the company that heretofore has focused on publishing literary anthologies organized by country or theme ("Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World," for instance, or "Travelers' Tales: Japan," which I co-edited). With "Kite Strings," Travelers' Tales has embarked on a new venture to publish single-author travel books that embody the same literary excellence and adventurous spirit as their anthologies.
According to co-founder and co-editor Larry Habegger, the new series -- which the company is calling Footsteps: The Soul of Travel -- "gives us the platform to publish more and longer works from the talented writers we've discovered in producing our anthologies. We plan to publish books where writers explore their inner and outer worlds and are transformed through their experiences -- in other words, grow spiritually through travel. Future books will include new works by established writers and selected reprints of books whose time has come, again."
"Kite Strings," which was originally published in Canada last year under the title "Island of the Human Heart," is a happy vessel with which to launch this series. It's a densely sensual and poetic, multi-layered narrative centered around a young wanderer's temporary residence on the isolated and apparently idyllic Fijian island of Taveuni.
One of the almost nightly rituals of Taveuni life -- celebrated by residents and lucky visitors alike -- is to drink kava and tell stories around a campfire. Using this storytelling rite as a structural vehicle, Gough interweaves chapters about her ever-deepening life on the island with tales from her previous wanderings around the world -- in Hawaii, Bali, New Zealand, North America, Morocco, Malaysia, Australia and Italy.
Gough is an impressionable traveler, constantly falling into -- and sometimes out of -- love with the people, places and cultures she encounters. Happily, she is blessed with the traveler's essential qualities: a sense of adventure, innocence, vulnerability and passion. Whether she is stumbling on an end-
One of the greatest gifts of Gough's work is its sensual celebration of the world, as in this description of her adopted home on Taveuni, a campground called Buvu Beach: "Heaven owns real estate on Buvu Beach ... The campground is shaded by towering and twisted trees which drop down leaves large enough to hide overfed cats. Coconut palms, mango trees, ferns, and bamboo shoots jump up everywhere to join the lush green picnic of it all. But it's the flower blossoms that lure people inside. The smells they emit refuse to be shunned. Scent-drenched, the blossoms fill your nostrils, swarm the cracks of your memory until you're inhaling more than flowers. You're inhaling echoes of how the world once was."
In this way, ever attentive to the nuances of physical and philosophical sense, Gough celebrates music, mountains and motorcycles, sunsets and moonrises, fresh fruit and friendship, and the way the huge Fijian women float on the sea at daybreak, stretching out their arms and legs so that they look like fading stars, or starfish, linking the depths of the ocean to the far reaches of the sky.
This sense of connection and continuity is also central to Gough's tale -- to the time-weaving narrative and to the individual stories themselves, full of encounters that span age and culture. Gough understands and cherishes how travel can open little doorways into people and places -- how, if she is lucky and the circumstances are right, the traveler can peer straight into the core of a culture: its rituals and beliefs, deceptions and dreams, love and longing and envy. Rootless, the traveler can see roots clearly -- but can never take them into herself.
And so Gough's odyssey comes to embody many lessons. One of these is that "traveling is a journey to the center of the soul" -- wherever we go, the journey is always, ultimately, inward.
Another is how travel enlarges us, even as it may seem to diminish us: "Traveling alone can be utter hell, in its utter solitude and in its panic, panic not from rain or cold or sickness but from the sense of displacement, and the question Why am I here? But something compels us and it's this: When we travel we absorb fresh life around every corner."
And she learns that every bright paradise also contains a dark side, that the world is also a place of shadow and seduction, disappointment and betrayal: "Something always stands in the way of paradise. But perhaps this is how it always is. Perhaps this is the only story ever written."
Some of the moments at the heart of this book are so crystalline and precious that I wish I could wrap them into a ball and keep them on my desk. Here, for example, is Gough's description of her surprise, late-night return to Taveuni after being away for eight months, drawn back by her memories of the place and particularly of her lover, Laudi: "I looked inside and saw Laudi sleeping ... It was one of those moments that catch people off guard, that come from a place unknown and rarely suspected. A moment that if frozen and preserved for future generations to thaw out and contemplate, would make them think life had ripped them off because happiness doesn't come like that anymore. I started to call Laudi but hesitated. Everything would change after this. Here and now, as I crouched on the sand in the warm dark night, were all the things I wanted to feel or see or hear and I didn't want it to end. In the precious space of time just before drinking water in a desert, before a child opens a present, before calling out Laudi's name, the world tells us a secret. It's a quiet message that whispers life can be what we want it to be."
To read a passage like this on a sunny San Francisco day can be extraordinarily moving. It can make you suddenly remember a drunken, lamp-lit Parisian night, wandering hand in hand under the plane trees by the Seine, or a poppy-bright deserted Aegean island, watching the ferry you deliberately missed crawl toward Mykonos, leaving just you and the ruins. It can make you remember a thatch-roofed, tatami-redolent Japanese temple in a little-visited coastal village, and the inn next door where you ate grilled fish straight from the sea, smelled the rain and listened to it pattering on the flagstones like the monks' early-morning chants.
Reading this book is like traveling all over again, like meeting a soulmate in a far-off place, someone you know you can trust, someone who immediately understands you, and who is just waiting for the stars to come out and the campfire to be lit, so you can start swapping your worldly tales.
It is enough to make you drop everything and rush down to the port to see where the next freighter is bound for. Or barring that, it is at least enough to make you order another cafi au lait and lose yourself all over again in the unexpected, irreplaceable and ever-widening wonders of the world.