I first came to know about Sarah Marquis through an interview of hers which was published in a prestigious global newspaper. Here was a fascinating figure, a woman who had walked 20,000 kilometres solo from Siberia to Laos, Thailand, then taken a boat to Australia and walked across the country. My interest into this extreme walker’s views arose because of an observation she shared with an interviewer. She said it usually took six months for the noise of language to stop and then she became one with nature. Then she said she thought of herself as a bridge between human beings and nature.
Therefore, when her book came out, I felt compelled to read it. Human language and nature were supposed to be her concerns and a woman walking solo for 20,000 kilometres was bound to be an amazing read. But the book was not what I expected. Then I realised that expecting a wilderness walker to talk about her connection with nature which is supposed to be beyond human language is an unrealistic demand. After that realisation, I was able to enjoy the book.
The travels begin from Mongolia, even though the media interviews make you expect that the book and the walk would begin from Siberia. Mongolia is portrayed not as a country but as a natural habitat in which human beings also live. Most of them are nomads and Mongolian men, which, for the author, are uncouth except for some regal horse riders.
There is an incident which could have been in a movie. Marquis, the explorer, has been surrounded by angry dogs and is expecting to become "hamburger meat," when, out of nowhere, "comes a galloping horseman trailed by a cloud of dust. The horse is black, with a magnificent shiny coat, and the man is garbed in traditional attire. He holds himself erect, and there’s something very noble about him." This mythical rescuer is also Mongolian but somehow he is not the typical pestering Mongolian the explorer has met in other parts of her journey.
The author had to hide in underground sewage pipes in the Mongolian desert for her safety. These drainpipes proved to be a real luxury for the weary traveller.
This part of the book makes the reader wonder why anyone would want to travel if the desire is to meet well-behaved people everywhere. Of course, the purpose of all journeys must be to seek the unfamiliar. But this thought is curbed when we learn about the Mongolian horse riders who are bothering her. She has to hide in underground sewage pipes in the desert for her safety. These drainpipes prove to be a real luxury for the weary traveller: "I realize that these concrete drainpipes might offer a real long-term solution for my safety. I decide that instead of heading due south, I’m going to follow this path, even if it goes a little too far west for my taste. I’m hoping that this way I’ll be able to sleep without being disturbed. For a certain period, nights are a joy; I’m finally able to rest and sleep deeply. These cold, windy culverts are palaces for me. From this point on, my days of walking no longer end in terror … Often, I’m forced to share space with the decomposing bodies of animals."
These are still small misadventures when compared with the mishap in Laos where the explorer makes the mistake of camping on a well-trodden path in the woods. As it turns out, her tent was in the way of some really angry drug traffickers. They fire some rounds in the air and make her leave with them. For hours, they made her walk with them while she consistently repeated "I am a tourist, I am from Switzerland, do you understand me?" Eventually, they let her go, after the hostage-taker tells her in perfect English: "We’re sorry for the disturbance, ma’am!"
Throughout her Asian adventures, Marquis receives generous help from women: "With a single look and without judgement, they always identify me with the denominator that unites us: woman. And that is enough for our simple and authentic exchanges." But, after the adventurer enters Australia, her sense of identity, which is based on her socially constructed gender, changes into something more isolating and almost bordering on ethnocentrism: "I become aware that, for once, I melt into the crowd. All around me, there are lots of "Long Noses" with white skin, and no Asians. No one gives me judgmental or questioning looks. I breathe deeply; I’m among my own people. For the first time in 20 years, I intimately understand my belonging to the ethnic group known as Caucasian." This is a certain brand of Eurocentric whiteness that survives all the cultural unlearning imposed on the traveller and makes one wonder if the trap of identity can ever be truly avoided.
Here is a traveller who has communicated with the wolves and understood their animal desire to mark their territory but whenever she meets people in Asia she is judgemental, either they are very good because they help her or they are subhuman because they harass her or they simply do not understand her. But the white Australians are spared this kind of collective judgement. They can be forgiven: "I’m happy to arrive in Australia by sea, it’s a nod to all the people who once left everything behind and arrived by boat. Australia has always been my destination!"
There is immense Othering in this kind of natural adventure. It is evident in the fact that even sherpas are not credited for the summits they have scaled. People of colour must reclaim and flaunt their connection with nature and turn it into cultural capital if possible. Europe, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has theorised, must be provincialised.
Wild by Nature
From Siberia to Australia, Three Years Alone in the Wilderness on Foot
Author: Sarah Marquis
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, 2016
Pages: 272 pages
Published on September 18, 2016