In spite of the title of her first book, Wendy Dale has not been very good at avoiding prisons, especially the ones located in Costa Rica. A world traveler known for heading to some of the strangest places on the planet, she has also competed for jogging space in Colombia with guerrillas intent on overthrowing the government, learned to dance salsa in Cuba with the aid of a 60-year-old woman intent on starting each morning with a healthy dose of rum, and dodged bombs in Lebanon. (The good news, as she would learn later, was that they were small bombs. "Very small bombs" her optimistic guide in Beirut would helpfully point out.)
She studied film in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the city she currently calls home, where she writes and directs comedic shorts in Spanish. Long ago she lived in Los Angeles, where she wrote a humorous TV special that was nominated for an Emmy ("The New Adventures of Mother Goose.")
She is currently at work on a new memoir.
AUTHOR Q & A
What made you decide to write this book and when did you start?
By 1996, several of the people closest to me had moved to very out of the way places. My friend Peter was living in Lebanon and my parents had spontaneously decided to sell everything they owned ("the house, the car and anything else that could be considered their children’s future inheritance") and had taken my eleven-year-old brother and a few suitcases filled with clothing to the capital of Honduras with the idea of surviving on their savings and never having to work again. Peter kept calling me up and bugging me to visit and my parents kept calling me up and bugging me to visit— and it occurred to me that these were probably events worth writing about.
The book itself began with a single line that occurred to me while walking around the University of Syracuse library in 1996: "One of the disadvantages of vacationing in Beirut is that it deprives you of one of the greatest pleasures of taking a trip in the first place: the jealousy of your friends." I fell in love with that sentence. I knew that it reflected the tone of the story I wanted to tell, but it was a tough line to follow. It took me eight months and a lot of false starts merely to complete a 20-page account of my trip to Lebanon, but once I had finished, I felt like I had finally discovered the narrative voice for the book.
What was the biggest creative challenge you faced in writing this book?
When I first began my travels, I had sort of assumed that nothing really interesting would actually happen to me so I had created this sardonic narrator who wittily prattles on about the country she happens to find herself in. But when I fell in love with Francisco, a man imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit — and when that man got accused of leading a prison breakout that he also hadn’t been involved with — my life as well as my story spun out of control. How did I make light of such a serious incident? How did I tell my story without destroying the narrative voice I had worked so hard to create? Ironically enough, it was this creative challenge, the desire to talk about Franicsco’s imprisonment in humorous terms that saved not only my book but also my sanity. In order to write about the lighter side of the dark situation I found myself in, I was first forced to find the lighter side — and it was this discovery, this ability to laugh again, that rescued my work as well as my life.
Out of all the men to choose from, why did you pick Francisco, especially given that he was in prison when you met him?
In many ways, it was the fact that he was in prison that made me choose him. I was questioning a lot of beliefs that I (or any American, for that matter) was raised with — and I wanted to open my mind to new possibilities, new ways of looking at the world. Francisco was such a refreshing contrast to the men I kept meeting in Los Angeles, men obsessed with getting ahead in the film industry, driving expensive SUVs and eating Italian lettuces in trendy restaurants. I met Francisco and his problems seemed so significant. This was a man who was sleeping on the concrete — at the prison, inmates had to buy their own beds and Francisco didn’t have the money to pay for a mattress. Yet he never complained. I admired him for that — and I knew I had a lot to learn from him.
Did you ever want to give up fighting for Francisco and just go home? And if so, what made you stay?
When I left Los Angeles, I burned many of my bridges behind me — there wasn’t a lot to go back to — which doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of dark days when I just wanted to give up. However, there was one event that really made me commit to sticking it out: a group of prisoners snuck up on Francisco in the middle of the night, wrapped newspapers around the edge of the bed and and lit him on fire. Francisco survived, but his legs were badly scarred.. Every time I looked at those scars, I knew I couldn’t abandon a man who was unjustly suffering so much. It made me furious and that anger impelled me to action.
Did your view of justice change during your travels? Why or why not?
Not my view of justice as much as my view of truth. In my travels, I was reminded over and over again that so many of the beliefs I had taken for granted as an American no longer held true when transferred to a foreign place. Sometimes this realization was banal and downright funny — for Costa Ricans, seeing a monkey was no big deal but a squirrel was something to write home about. Sometimes it was intriguing — Colombians didn’t have a word for snowflake because they had never experienced what we would think of as winter. And sometimes this was profound — in Panama, for the first time, I understood what it meant to experience true freedom.
How large a role did your parents play in your decision to travel?
The good thing about having such eccentric parents is that I can always blame them for all the bad decisions I have made in my life. By the time, I was four, my parents had moved us to Peru. By the time, I was eight, we were living in the back woods of Tennessee in a station wagon parked on 150 acres of vacant land that my father dreamed of transforming into a farm. So as an adult when I decided to go to Lebanon illegally, fly to Cuba on a whim or move to Costa Rica without much forethought, in a way you could say that I was just following in my parents’ footsteps.
What was your favorite experience throughout your journeys?
The thing I love about travel is its very unpredictability — perfect travel moments happen when you least expect them. Oddly enough, my favorite memories have nothing to do with adventure or danger — in fact, they seem rather insignificant. When I think back, what I remember most fondly is the taste of guanábana (my favorite tropical fruit), the smell of the rain in Costa Rica, coffee and conversation with my friend Manfred in Colombia and walking down the street in Havana, surrounded by heat and salsa music.
Do you have a favorite place you visited and why?
In a way, my relationships with places have been a lot like my relationships with men. There are places I have become infatuated with instantly. I would say Cuba fits into this category. Cuba for me is like a fling with a seductive stranger, filled with passionate and intense moments, but not something I mourn the loss of once I’ve left. Costa Rica is a lot like the man your parents want you to marry: good-looking in a traditional sense, well-off, from a respectable family, whose dark side isn’t readily apparent.
Colombia is probably my favorite place overall, but it is also the country that I have the most complicated relationship with. Colombia is simply bewitching. It’s like the man who all your friends know is just terrible for you, but the one you want to be with anyway. It had a hold on me from the beginning. All I could see was how beautiful and mysterious it was even though I was aware that danger was all around me. I still miss Colombia intensely, but I no longer want to live there. It’s like the love of my life that could never be.
If you could go on the same adventure again, would you? Would you do anything differently?
I would spend a lot less time hanging out at prisons. I’ll always be a traveler, but I doubt I’ll ever throw myself into the face of danger the way I once did. I think you need to take those chances when you’re young, when you can afford to take wild risks because you still have plenty of years to earn everything back that you lose along the way. I don’t regret a single decision I made — because in the end, I gained the answers I had been seeking all along. I’m looking forward to doing some international travel again, but it will be different — because my questions have changed. Now I’m looking for new answers, which means that my next journey will follow an entirely distinct path.