Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman

Summary: Tales of a Female Nomad is the story of Rita Golden Gelman, an ordinary woman who is living an extraordinary existence. At the age of forty-eight, on the verge of a divorce, Rita left an elegant life in L.A. to follow her dream of connecting with people in cultures all over the world. In 1986 she sold her possessions and became a nomad, living in a Zapotec village in Mexico, sleeping with sea lions on the Galapagos Islands, and residing everywhere from thatched huts to regal palaces. She has observed orangutans in the rain forest of Borneo, visited trance healers and dens of black magic, and cooked with women on fires all over the world. Rita's example encourages us all to dust off our dreams and rediscover the joy, the exuberance, and the hidden spirit that so many of us bury when we become adults.
My review: Reading Tales of a Female Nomad was simply fascinating. Through Rita, I was introduced to so many new countries, people, and cultures that my head fairly spun with envy. I spent some time living in and traveling through Ecuador and parts of Bolivia when I was 20 years old. It was spectacular and I was enchanted by a nation, climate, and culture so very different from my own. Having that taste, it is easy to see how Rita fell in love with nomadic life. I've always wanted to travel more extensively, but instead chose the more traditional road of college, husband, and children and have never looked back...much. I do occasionally manage to find books like this one (and it's bite-size version Eat, Pray, Love) and when I do, I savor them--reveling in all the newness, adventure, and vicarious thrills.

Rita is an amazing writer. I read The Biggest Sandwich Ever to my kids all the time. In Tales she manages to give you a fairly in depth and chronological story of her nomadic life without becoming dry or repetitive. She writes in the present tense (as if she didn't really know what was going to happen) even though the actual book was written after her travels. This successfully creates the illusion that you are with her on her trek, experiencing things together.


In the book, Rita travels through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Galapagos, Israel, Bali, Indonesia, Canada, the U.S., Thailand and New Zealand. She doesn't stay in five-star hotels either, but travels from place to place, sometimes not speaking the language, and most of the time not knowing or having barely a clue about what she was going to do outside of the airport. Rita took a great deal of interest in indigenous cultures, and preferred to spend her time hiking to remote regions to find and live with people who hadn't been "missionized." I really connected with her time in Central America and in the Galapagos. My major in college was Latin American studies and it was fascinating to rediscover these countries again through her eyes which is probably why it was one of my favorite parts of the book. I also enjoyed Rita's descriptions of Thai cooking and food. Since Thailand was one of the few places she went specifically for the cuisine, she described each noodle in exquisite and yummy detail.


One thing that I both admired and was irritated by, was Rita's determination to live with the people. To her, that meant, being completely immersed in the culture. Allowing them their cultural beliefs and customs without passing judgement or attempting to change or modernize them. This is all well and good until you stay silent while someone is beating their wife. I think there is a line between being immersed and being an accessory. I also wondered at how she could be so accepting of some people and yet so unaccepting of a culture much closer to her--our own. While giving other people the benefit of the doubt, I found she had far less patience for Americans both at home and abroad. It was minor but irksome.


When we get older, sometimes our dreams get shoved aside as we learn to make room in our lives for those around us. As our families grow they become the center of our world but sometimes those aspirations still linger in the backs of our minds waiting for their turn. This book made me think about my own goals in life. It is still, I think, a dream of mine to travel all over the world and photograph and explore different cultures. I'm not sure whether that dream will ever be fully realized, but this book helped me renew some of the promises I have made to myself.

I also wonder about Rita, who has friends all over the world, people that she truly cares about and loves. But at what cost? What did she give up, to gain this adventurous life, and do the blessings outweigh the consequences? I can't answer that. Perhaps travel is what it took to shake up her life, but I don't know if it was entirely necessary. I think that we can find the tools to enhance our lives a little closer to home and family.

Not far into the book Rita made a statement that struck me. She was looking to "uncover the person inside [her] skin." I really think is what this book boils down to--a woman's journey to discover her real identity and become comfortable with it. I can't imagine the bravery and sheer determination it took for Rita to not only embark upon this adventure--but to stay on it--and she still is. You can find out what Rita is up to at http://www.ritagoldengelman.com/ .

Currently, she is in Spain.

My rating: 4.5 stars - I have it if you want to borrow it.

Sum it up:  (to be said in the voice of the Mastercard Guy) Hiking boots for a trek in Indonesia? $250.  Old Blue Mazda to putter around New Zealand? $500.  Magnificent trip around the world?  Priceless (but really, it's $14.00 at your local bookstore)

4 comments:

Heather said...

Sounds good. I'm adding it to my list. I'd like to borrow it in a couple months, once I get through some of my must reads.

Melissa said...

I really enjoyed this book, more so than Eat, Pray, Love.

I appreciated your mention of the immersion angle too, I was just thinking how difficult it would be to be a journalist or photographer somewhere third world-ish without trying to "fix" everything. To be simply an observer or a recorder without being a participant. Then again, would Rita have been able to experiecne so much if she got more "involved" with her hosts?

Melissa Mc (Gerbera Daisy Diaries) said...

This was advertised with some other travel-logs in the NYTimes this weekend -- I'm now adding it to my Goodreads list.

Melissa said...

I found this book at a thrift store and was so glad I gave it a chance! It was right around the time Eat, Pray, Love movie came out. All I can say is I wish this author would have gotten all of the glory for a great "find yourself" travel story! If I'm not mistaken, her book was even written before Eat, Pray, Love. Great read!

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