"The Wild and Wooly Adventures of Wendy Dale"
Cover story for the July 28, 2004 issue of MetroBEAT.
Wendy Dale is not your average traveler. From sitting in a bar in Cuba surrounded by prostitutes to attending family-friendly parties at a Costa Rican prison to cruising across the bombed out battlefields on the border of Lebanon and Israel, Dale takes the road less traveled, that unpaved, jungle-lined path the Bermuda shorts and sunscreen crowd are too frightened to powergawk their way down.
Fortunately for us, Dale has written a travelogue about her rather unorthodox journeys. In Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals, Dale drinks Coca-Cola out of plastic bags, tackles the myth of the Latin lover, battles unruly ATM machines, searches for a Mac-compatible printer in Bolivia and is swindled by a con artist posing as a hapless traveler. She also falls in love with a man named Francisco, who has been wrongly imprisoned in a Costa Rican jail, and struggles to free him from prison. Dale’s story is at times enlightening. At times sad. At times touching. But overall, just plain funny.
Aside from her vacation destinations, Dale is unconventional in other ways. She spent a good chunk of her childhood in Spartanburg County, more specifically Woodruff. (Okay, we admit. That’s not so out of the ordinary.) She lived with her family of five for a brief period of time in a car while her father tried his hand at farming. And she was nominated for an Emmy for her work on The New Adventures of Mother Goose.
MetroBEAT recently spoke with the author and discussed her wild and wooly adventures.
What do you remember about your days in South Carolina?
I have some of the most wonderful childhood memories of South Carolina. I’m really grateful to have grown up in a rural area. I tell people I had a Tom Sawyer childhood. I remember climbing trees, collecting lightning bugs in a jar, scraping my knee. I really have outdoor memories which a lot of my friends growing up in a city have no idea what that’s like.
“Y’all” or “You guys”?
The hardest thing is I was always a Yankee. We’d moved to South Carolina from Tennessee, and the only memories I had at that point were of Peru, and I was always a Yankee [an American]. So I guess that’s why I wanted to say “you guys” over “y’all”.... To answer your question, I say, “You guys.”
What was your experience in Tennessee like? I know your father wanted to become a self-sufficient farmer and you lived in a car for some time. How did that affect you?
The great thing about being 8-years-old is you have no preconceptions of what life is supposed to be. I had no idea at eight that living in a car was at all strange. It was later when we moved to a house and my father got a job and we were the typical American family again that I realized that this experience was out of the ordinary. At the time, I had a great time. I played in the forest. I ran through the fields. I loved it. My mother is the one who suffered. She had three girls, one of which was a baby, only a few months old. It was very difficult for her. But my experience of that is very positive.
How long did you and your family live in the car?
My memory of it is a little bit bad. I think we were only in the car for a matter of weeks, and then we moved into a camper. And I think we were in the camper for several months, and the camper was tiny. We were squeezing five people into this tiny camper. Eventually, we got a trailer. Even the trailer was not at all luxurious. I remember there were all of these holes in the floor of the living room, and I would have to get up for school really early in the morning. It was still dark, and I was so happy once I finally learned where the holes were, so I would quit falling through the floor.
Your family was never poor. These were more or less choices your family made?
It’s very true. My father is a professional mining engineer. He has a degree. When he was working, we lived a nice middle, even upper middle class lifestyle ....Both of my parents have sort of a hippie mentality, a non-materialistic mentality. Buying things just doesn’t matter. Quality of life is much more important than what you owned, which is a very important lesson they’ve passed on to their children.
Now what exactly ended the situation in Tennessee?
I know that it was very difficult on my mother and it wasn’t panning out financially. My father has had a lot of dreams, a lot of which haven’t panned out which has always been sad for his children to watch, which is one of the reasons we were so happy when they moved to Honduras because it’s what my father wanted. It wasn’t working financially. It wasn’t going anywhere. My mother had three girls to raise and wanted us to go to OK schools and to sleep in beds. We didn’t have beds when we lived in the trailer. I slept on a foam cushion I shared with my sister. I remember the day we got a bed in South Carolina.
The book starts with your parents moving to Honduras. How did you initially react and how do you feel about it now?
It was a decision that changed the outcome of all of our lives. It was the impetus for me to embark on my own travels. My sister wound up studying international relations and now lives in Egypt. My brother grew up speaking fluent Spanish. I think it broadened our horizons and let us realize that other ways of living were possible and even acceptable.
In terms of traveling, in the book you say there’s a difference between a planner and a fun person. So what is the difference?
The more plans you make, the more you set yourself up for disappointment. I learned to always head in a certain direction and leave myself open for the possibility of the unexpected occurring. So when it comes to traveling, having a structured itinerary, you’re never open to new possibilities when they arrive. You have a short frame of vision.
What challenges do you think a writer faces when writing a memoir? What creative liberties do you allow yourself to work with?
It’s been a real challenge being constricted by the truth. A story has a narrative arc, and in order to tell a story that is fulfilling to a reader, it’s a real challenge where you’re dealing with actual life events, so that has been a huge challenge to me. Fortunately, my stories seem to have a narrative arc built in. The real challenge has been finding themes to my life. You live your life day to day, and you don’t really stand back to look, to think about what your life means on a literal level. Literature has themes. When you write a memoir, you really need to step back and find the themes to your life because it’s not a diary. You don’t write, today I did this, today I did this, today I did this. You have to know where you’re headed when you sit down to write. You have to know what the ending is. Part of the real challenge in the actual writing of this book, I was writing it as I was living it. I had completed the first draft when I was in Bolivia where the book actually ends. When I got an agent, she said, I love this voice, this is really wonderful, but you’re missing this narrative arc. And she was absolutely right. The problem was I didn’t know where I was headed when I was sitting there writing it.
You have a whimsical way of describing even the most dangerous of situations, and I’m thinking particularly of your experience driving across the border between Israel and Lebanon. Are you really that devil may care?
No. But I do have a strong sense of optimism that runs through the way I look at life. However, it’s much easier to laugh about dangerous situations when you no longer are in them. In the same way you look back at your life and some of the most terrible things that happened to you, at the time they were horrible. You look back on them a month later. When you tell your story to your friends, you’re able to laugh. It’s the same way with my book. In the retelling of it, I’m much more devil may care than I was actually living it.
When you talk about the people in foreign countries, you give them a good ribbing. When do you think it crosses the line?
I’ve always made fun of my own culture. That’s one reason I also make fun of other cultures. The other reason is there really is a lot of affection for a lot of the people in the book. I don’t poke fun at individual people in a malicious way. I poke fun at a Honduran the same way I poke fun at my parents.... I really do have a very strong affection for Latin American culture. When I go to Latin America, I forget that people see me as an American because I learned Spanish as a kid. I speak it without an accent. That’s another reason I feel perfectly justified, especially making fun of Latin American culture. I was a little careful about politics, especially when we got to the Middle East because it no longer was a joking matter. Whenever you write comic material, you always run the risk of offending someone, and you, as a writer, have to decide where you personally are going to draw that line, knowing that some people will be upset. You can’t be too concerned about not offending someone, or you’ll never say anything of any importance.
Do other nationalities dislike American travelers?
It depends on the country. It depends on the circumstances, but overall, people in other countries become offended when Americans go to their country and treat it like Disneyland, as if they are people to be gawked at, [and there is] entertainment value to be had from them and their culture. Whereas, if you make any effort to understand them on a deeper level, I’ve had such amazing experiences and I’ve felt so welcome. If you are willing to make an effort, people are more than willing to help you, to communicate with you if you make any effort to speak their language. They are very forgiving. So I think it depends on what attitude you’re traveling with what kind of reception you’re going to get from people abroad.
Cuba is a pretty odd travel destination. Why did you decide to go there?
I think I was drawn to it precisely because of that, because it is an odd travel destination. I’ve always been drawn to countries that are in the news. I think I was drawn to Cuba in the way I was drawn to Lebanon. I had a reason to go to Lebanon [a college friend lived in Beirut], but behind that was the fact that the Middle East is so much in the news. I wanted to get a firsthand impression of what it is really like because news articles can only go so far. The same was true of Cuba. I’ve always been fascinated about what communism is really like. We have so few remnants of it left, and I wanted to get a firsthand impression of what it is like to live in that country. Plus, I already spoke Spanish, so it was practical for me to go.
What exactly did you do in Cuba?
I made a futile attempt to learn to dance salsa. I talked to a lot of Cubans about what it means to be Cuban. I never got to the beach. I really was fascinated about what it really was like to live under communism. I got so many different impressions.... I was staying with a family, and the husband was a professor at a university. He was very pro-Fidel Castro. He would talk about the triumph of the revolution.... He would speak with such pride about Fidel Castro. And then I would talk to my friend Mercedes, and every time she would talk about Fidel Castro, she was terrified that anyone would hear her speaking about the president, so she would never utter his name. She would call him the bearded one, which she would say in a hushed whisper and she would make a sign that looked like a long beard.... She was very critical.... That was one of the aspects that really fascinated with Cuba. And so you’re living with this, freedom of the press is nonexistent, you’re living with this repression. And at the same time they were liberated in a way. They weren’t self-conscious. They would dance in a way that I envy. You’re just walking down the street, and you just start dancing.
Did you expect to be sitting in a bar surrounded by prostitutes?
That was shocking to me. It really is a sad aspect of Cuban life.... I was hanging out with a female doctor and she made $20 a month, and when you have American tourists there and a prostitute would make $100 or $200 a night, that is more than she would make as a doctor in a year. It just became normal for Cuban women to do, so that was a tragic consequence of it, that really bright women who had great careers... would have a side job as a prostitute.
It’s kind of odd talking to you about some of your experiences and thinking about the passages in the book. It was definitely more light-hearted in print. You present more of the humorous aspects.
It was intentional. I wanted to write an entertaining book. I have deeply held political beliefs and beliefs about different cultures and philosophical beliefs as well, but I wasn’t writing an academic book on the politics of the country [Cuba].... I wanted people who normally wouldn’t read about the politics of the country to be drawn in by the humor.
In the book, you say the idea of the Latin lover is a myth? Is it?
I live with a man from Bolivia, so any answer is going to get me in trouble here. Yes, I live with a man from Bolivia. Is that a good enough answer?
I really don’t want to ruin the book for our readers, but could you tell us a little bit about Francisco and how those experiences affected you?
The whole Francisco experience was extremely difficult. I look back on it with a real sense of optimism and a real positive note because it showed me what I was capable of. After freeing Francisco from prison, I realized there was nothing I couldn’t do. Those memories are really priceless to me. Sitting in a prison with these drug kingpins was something. I’m really so grateful for having that experience because I’ve done some of the things that other people have only read about. It gives me, once again, a real sense of what matters. I think I’ve seen humanity at it’s most basic level, and it’s really given me a sense of what matters and what doesn’t and how much of the world that we live in on a daily basis is superficial and inconsequential.
What’s the difference between “real life” and traveling?
One of the things in the book that happens is that at first I really go to foreign countries because I find it entertaining. It is. It’s fascinating. It is like walking into a movie. In the same way you go to a movie to live the life of someone else for two hours, travel is like this, but it is much more intense because you are physically in a different place. When I first started my travels, that was the enjoyment I got out of it was sort of an escape from my real life.... After awhile, if you spend enough time in any culture, you start to identify with the culture. The longer you spend in the culture, the more you begin to feel one with what was once a foreign culture. After a while, traveling becomes your real life.
What is your favorite country?
It’s so strange to say, but I love Colombia, which is such an odd response because it has the highest kidnapping rate in the world. It has guerilla war, drug trafficking. It has horrible crime rates. I can think of no good reason for me to like the country. But I just had such a chemistry with the country. In the same way that you can be attracted to a person and you have no logical reason why.... I struggle to understand why I love Colombia so much. I don’t have a good answer.
What’s your favorite flag?
Eww. It wouldn’t be Colombia. I would have to think about that. [Pause]. The Cuban flag is pretty nice. But I don’t know if I’d be waving a Cuban flag outside my house anytime soon. It’s simple, attractive. All my favorite flags are countries I’ve never been too. Switzerland has a nice flag.
Traveler’s cheques or ATM machines?
I rarely use travelers cheques. The first time I went to Central America, I brought them. Not only would I get charged a fee for purchasing them in the United States at my bank, in Central America they charge you a fee for cashing them, so I was losing 10%. They would only cash them in banks. So, I started walking with cash. ATM machines in Latin America are very fickle. One day they work. One day they don’t.
How difficult is it to find a Mac-compatible printer in Bolivia?
Did you have any other difficulties finding necessities in these other countries?
It’s interesting. What I used to think of as necessities would change the longer I spent in a country. So when I got to Colombia, I used to think that electricity was a necessity, but my standard keeps getting lower and lower.... Getting a phone line is next to impossible. I ended up sharing a phone line with the downstairs neighbor. When the phone rang, whoever got to it first, picked it up the phone. If I picked it up and it was for the downstairs neighbor, I would tell the person to call back, and then the neighbor that heard it ring the first time knew it was for her. Phones were difficult to get. Internet connections were unbearably slow. I never had one in my own house. I always had to go to Internet cafes. It’s impossible to get Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which I always miss. Other countries think peanut butter is disgusting. The hardest thing you’ll ever find traveling is Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.