To the Far Corners:
Explorations on Six Continents

Table of Contents

Setting Out

1. Mountain Dreams (Khunjerab Pass, on the border between Pakistan and China)
2. Many Easts (Vienna, Austria through Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey)
3. Rising from the Desert Dust (Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, Uzbekistan)
4. Faces of History (Pai, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia)
5. "Poleni kwa Safari" (Crater Highlands and the Usambara Mountains, Tanzania)

A Very Long Way from Home

6. America the Beautiful (Hungry Jack Lake, Minnesota)
7. Explorers of the Pacific (Vava'u, Tonga, South Pacific)
8. The Way to Shangri-la (Zhongdian, Yunnan, China)

Finding My Place in the World

9. Bush Flight into the Arctic (Amiloyak Lake, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska)
10. Swimming with Piranhas (Manú National Park, Peru)
11. Living with Scarcity (Isla Espíritu Santo, Baja California Sur, Mexico)
12. A Great Day in Patagonia (Torres del Paine National Park, Chile)

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It's November 1993. Margaret's fifty and Bob's fifty-four. They wake up with more aches and pains than they used to have. They begin to feel if they don't do something exciting soon, it will be too late. Seven months later they are in the departure lounge of JFK International Airport, headed for a five-week hiking trip to Pakistan. Margaret naively thinks she can handle the cultural differences without any problems. Right away, she gets into hot water. A taxicab driver takes her American-style friendliness as an invitation to get fresh. She thinks about taking the first flight home but decides to struggle on through the confusion of a very foreign place. By the end of the trip she's discovered that the people of Pakistan aren't easily categorized.

Margaret knows that she can't solve the problem of American ignorance of other cultures, but she and Bob can do something about their own. They decide to go on a mission to explore as much of the non-Western world as they can before they get too old for the rough and tumble of travel. Their only qualifications are a curiosity about how people live and a willingness to travel without comfortable beds, air conditioning, American-style plumbing, and soft toilet paper.

They go from an Eastern Europe still recovering from the ravages of communism, to the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan in Central Asia—open to Westerner visitors for one of the few times in its history—to the remote border regions of Thailand, and finally on to walking tours through the Crater Highlands and the Usambara Mountains in northern Tanzania. Along the way they interact with people faced with tremendous political, social, and economic changes. By the time they arrive in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's capital, Margaret feels that she has overcome her belief that American ways are best and begun to understand how other people live.

She's in for a surprise—and in the unlikeliest place. Margaret and Bob take a camping trip to Minnesota and experience first-hand the differences between red and blue states. "If I have this much trouble close to home," she asks herself, "how can I even hope to understand the rest of the world?" Tonga in the South Pacific is the test case. At first the country seems to be a tropical paradise, but the more Margaret learns about country, the more the Tongans' laidback lifestyle seems to conflict with her American belief in self-reliance. The darkest hour comes in a trip to China. Margaret should have known better—the news media and guide books report that communist China is known for its lies and deceit. But its disregard for truth and for freedom of thought almost overwhelms her. She feels lost, alienated, and very far from home.

When Margaret turns to the natural world, she expects to escape the challenges of different cultures. But here too her naive assumptions about her place in the world get tested. After a week hiking in the Alaskan tundra, she wonders if she even belongs in such a pristine landscape. The answer is mixed. She swims with piranhas in Manú National Park in the Peruvian Amazon, an equally untouched landscape. Afterwards, biologist and conservationist John Terborgh tells her bluntly the park wouldn't exist without tourists. Later she and Bob take a kayak tour around Isla Espíritu Santo in the Sea of Cortés and discover that the island landscape is so fragile that even well-meaning tourists can disrupt its ecosystem.

Margaret faces her ultimate test as a traveler in Chilean Patagonia. She expects the challenge to be physical. She and Bob sign up for a trek in Torres del Paine National Park. The first day they have to walk twenty-two miles. She's now 61, and it's the longest hike of her life. But the main challenge turns out to be cultural. Paula, their Chilean guide, claims that Americans are arrogant, partly because they assume everyone can speak English. Margaret wants to prove that Paula is wrong—and the only way she can do it is to overcome her reluctance to speak a foreign language. By the end of the trip, Margaret is speaking a few tentative sentences in Spanish. It's a start in overcoming her American arrogance.

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Author Bio

Margaret Eldred started drawing up detailed itineraries for traveling in Europe when she took her first art history course at the University of California at Berkeley, but she didn't manage to get to Europe until twenty-five years later. After she tagged along on her husband's business trip to Heidelberg and stayed in small, family-run hotels, she realized that they could afford to travel as long as they avoided international standard accommodations and first-class restaurants. Now, Margaret and Bob Eldred travel abroad a couple of times a year to such unusual places as Romania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Tonga, Thailand, Nepal, China, Peru, Chile, and Tanzania, focusing on nature, cultural interchange, and architecture. They also take short trips within the United States.

During the intervening years, Eldred finished her degree in English, got married, raised two sons—who as adults still like to accompany their parents on their travels—and earned a PhD in British literature from the University of California at Davis. She has spent most of her working life as a lecturer in the writing program at UC Davis, specializing in scientific and technical writing and in journalism. Her experience teaching and presenting papers at professional conferences will aid her in promoting To the Far Corners at readings and travel shows. Her background in scientific writing has aided her in translating technical concepts for a lay audience. In addition, she is senior editor of Writing on the Edge, a composition journal devoted to the idea that even professional articles should be enjoyable to read as well as intellectually stimulating.

For the last decade, Eldred has been honing her writing skills by attending writing workshops and conferences, including Art of the Wild (Squaw Valley Writer's Conference), Iowa Summer Writing Festival, Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, and San Diego State University Writers' Conference.

Eldred has had the good fortune to have had two travel articles pulled from the slush pile and published in The Los Angeles Times Travel Section: "Swimming with Piranhas" (May 31, 1998) and "Testing the Silent Spring in Yorkshire" (June 3, 2001). A slightly longer version of "Swimming with Piranhas" forms one chapter of the proposed book. "Fellowship, views, are the best parts of hike up Mt. Whitney" was published in The Davis Enterprise in September, 1996. She is also an avid gardener of the relaxed, overgrown style and has had gardening articles published in Fine Gardening, Flower & Gardening, National Gardening, and GreenPrints.

Besides traveling and gardening, Eldred likes to hike and bicycle. She and her husband prepared for high-altitude trekking in Pakistan by running up and down the eight flights of stairs in the English and languages building at UC Davis.

After retiring from UC Davis in 2002, Eldred has reawakened her latent interest in art and has begun to take art studio courses at the nationally known art department of Sacramento City College. (She does the thirty-eight mile round trip commute by bicycle, except when the rain gets too fierce.) Since she has met with some success, she hopes to illustrate To the Far Corners with her own pen-and-ink illustrations.

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