Wild by Nature
From Siberia to Australia
Three Years Alone in
The Wilderness on Foot

Sarah Marquis
(Thomas Dunne/St. Martins)
Sarah Marquis seems to have made a career out of walking. Mostly alone . . . in wild places. Places you or I wouldn't be caught dead in. Like the Gobi Desert. The rice paddies of Laos. The Nullabor Plain of southern Australia.

It makes good copy for magazines and Sunday newspaper stuffings and idle hours on television and cable news programs.

Brave Sarah. Alone with the wallabies and wild buffalo and the Aborigines. Passing the Han people who "look at me darkly, suspicious." Avoiding the drunks in Manda-Oova. Demanding food in Khujirt, even though they don't want to serve her. Fending off dope dealers in the back roads of Mongolia. In all, Ms. Marquis seems up to it.

Still, she does all this a little differently than we would. If for instance for some idiotic reason you and I decided to walk through the Gobi Desert, I guess we would fly into Ulaan Baatar, shoulder up our back pack and take off . . . heading down the road and praying that we didn't run out of water in, say Khakhorin; or freeze to death in Bulgan; or get blown away by the glacial winds somewhere outside Dalanzadgad.

Not so with Sarah. First off, she is working with a conglomerate back home in Switzerland that makes damned sure that she has everything she could possibly need on the road. Necessary clothing, snow goggles, special wagon to carry water and emergency food supplies, tent, red and black North Face snowsuit, GPS devices --- and most important of all, a constant contact back home with her Blackberry that she can ring up twenty-four hours of the day or night when anything untoward comes up.

She may be a single white woman trekking bravely through Asia with all that implies, but just before she starts to shuffle up the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains she develops an abscessed tooth. Does she go looking for a local dentist to help her? Well, in a word: no. "I call my contact in charge of the evacuation" . . . there in Bern or Geneva or wherever her operatives hang out, and quickly, "after the work of synchronizing all the moving parts, I'm on an airplane," one that takes her directly to Tokyo. There she is in a hotel ("still in my hiking clothes") and even though it is an official Japanese holiday, "my sponsor's contact is going to open his clinic just for me."

So yes, she is determined and hardy and has some close calls on the road, mostly from men who would like a chance to know this forty-year old Swiss lady with the gumption to shuffle for weeks through rain forests, filthy villages, over the steppes. They think that this lady, maybe they should invite her to pass the night together. But she's is one tough biddy.

As she says, significantly, at one point, there her pass through the mountains in the Sichuan province, traveling temporarily without her technical equipment,

    I'm so glad I ventured into these mountains without knowing where I was going; I experienced a new form of letting go. It took balls of steel to venture into these mountains with neither maps nor GPS, without knowing the rules or regulations.

She also shows these . . . unh . . . accessories around when she runs into troublesome drunks or hidebound officials on the road or at the borders. She shouts at them, threatens them in whatever language she can come up with, manages to place her cart between her and these officious or horny or drunk Asians and, if you pardon the expression . . . she always manages to come out on top. In one close encounter of the deleterious kind, another of these "Asians" tries to snuggle up to her sleeping bag when they chance to be together in a yurt. She wakes, pokes him stoutly in the snout, and tells us that he leaves the next day, early, so that no one will notice his black eye. It's a matter, we might say, of saving face with her balls of steel.

§   §   §

There is another oddity in this extended tale of meanderings through Asia Major and Minor. It has to do with hiding. Ms. Marquis spends a hell of a lot of time avoiding people. Each evening is a search for the most isolated, protected, off-the-beaten-path place to set up her tent. Given the chance to stay in a village or to hide in the outskirts in some isolated glen or hollow, she always chooses the latter, even if it means a great deal of discomfort.

The little bit of traveling I do comes with a curiosity to meet people where ever I may happen to find myself, even if I do not speak the language. I'll go out of my way to find where the people are, even if it is a stinky cantina, trusting in the innate goodness that I always manage to find even in the most desolate parts of the world.

Not Sarah. In her travels through the more obscure parts of the Sichuan Province of China for instance, "I protect myself by sleeping as far as possible from villages, in the forest or in a rice paddy suspended in the terraces."

    I've become an expert in camouflage. I never stay in the villages. I slip into the scenery. My hat is pulled firmly down over my head and my sunglasse on my nose, my hair is hidden under a stretchy cotton band the color of stan; not a strand of hair is visible. I wash only rarely --- the occasions don't really present themselves --- and I don't look for them either, it's far from being a problem.

To me, this is traveling like a thief --- and one gets the feeling that perhaps the reason that the people in the villages do not want to communicate with her, not even sell her foodstuffs may come about because with her thick foreign clothing and her thick foreign accent and her evasive looks and grimy appearance, they may well decide that she is up to no good.

This is especially true when she is traveling in borderlands around and within China where there are cultural and territorial wars going on and police agents everywhere. She tells of setting up her tent near a rice paddy and an old lady passes by and deliberately sets a stream of water flowing through her tent in the middle of the night . . . and we find ourselves thinking, as the old lady must have thought, "Who in hell is this person, this man or this woman, in her filthy clothes, avoiding all contact with any of us, plopping herself down on our land without asking any permission, hiding her face, hiding everything."

If someone came along and set up a tent near my place without the courtesy of asking permission and avoided me here in my part of the rural countryside in civilised California for crumb's sakes, I'd probably want to get them the hell out p.d.q. --- might even ring up my friend Bob the sheriff to have a look-see.

I know, I know: Sarah is from Switzerland, hardly a hotbed of demonstrative huggy-feelie people. I never found any tender come-hither smiles when I was on the road in Switzerland. But Sarah? When she's not hiding from the locals, she harps on the blank stares, the lack of affect of all the Asians she meets. In turn, the Mongols, Chinese, and Laotians offer little Gemütlichkeit in return. What Sarah doesn't seem to get is that on the road it is all tied up with quick reflections, the very real Doppelgänger that we take everywhere with us and show to everyone, mostly without our knowing it.

There are various soaring passages here in Wild by Nature on the lovely hills of Laos, the endless steppes of Mongolia, the sudden appearances of huge Buddha figures in Thailand. But the rare human contact is mostly with women or "safe" people who speak French or English. Throughout the book, like many westeners, she shows a sly, underhanded prejudice against those she labels "Asians."

At one telling point, she comes across someone she tells us who looks like Robert Redford. She is brushing her teeth in the morning, on a river near the border of Thailand. When he spied her, she says, tellingly, "I feel like an eight-year-old girl." But then she says

    I'm not facing down a threatening Mongolian or a drug trafficker. I'm simply confronted by the woman inside me, and she's suddenly surfaced like a lioness with all the emotions that go along with it.

"Perhaps I am blindsided by this because the men I met in Asia didn't catch my eye." There seems to be a drab cultural threnody going on here, one where she continually --- no matter how far she goes --- seeks to avoid those who are what she sees as evasive, secretive, blank-faced, monosyllabic. Like her. As Carl Frantz said in his wise book on travelling in Mexico, "Where ever you go, there you are."

The upshot, at least for me, of our journey with Sarah Marquis is that --- for all the choice asides on the kangaroos and koalas and "birds frolicking in the high branches" --- we have someone who is going very far in her Wanderlust in order to confirm her hostility.

When her final journey through southern Australia comes near to its end, for the first time, she grows impatient, worried that she might be late, is busy chastising her aching legs.

Why? "At the roadhouse, the cameramen and the photographers" are waiting. "The helicopter's going to show up three miles before my tree," the tree she has designated, to all her handlers and publicity workers, and those around the world watching her, the one that will mark the official end of her journey."

No wonder she is suddenly in a hurry, berates the legs that want to take her no further. She cannot and will not be late for the huzzah, the huge photo-op before the thousands of fans, waiting for her to end this eighteen-month nightmare walkathon.

--- Pamela Wylie
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