Christina Ammon has penned stories for Orion Magazine, Hemispheres, The San Francisco Chronicle, Conde Nast and numerous travel anthologies. She is the recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship for nonfiction and organizes the Deep Travel writing tours in Morocco and Nepal.
When not traveling, Christina Ammon lives in Ruch, Oregon where she writes, sips wine, and paraglides. For travel tales and workshop information, visit her blog
PML: What triggered your life as inveterate traveller and writer?
CA: I grew up with a case of geographical low-self esteem. I think this is common among kids living in places like the American Midwest. I disdained the ordinariness, the flatness, the feeling of not being somewhere - like California!
PML: Did your parents and siblings feel the same way?
CA: Given that they all live in Nebraska, Kansas and Minnesota, I don’t think they felt the same way at all.
PML: But what was so frustrating about life in the Midwest?
CA: I didn’t understand why people wanted to take on all of the strictures of conventional life: get married young, have kids right away, live in the same house forever etc. But that’s how teenagers think.
PML: And now?
CA: I understand now the huge satisfaction that comes from having roots and rich, long-term friendships. And I respect the meaning people find in family and routines and community—wherever they find it.
PML: But your choices have necessitated sacrifices.
CA: Yes, I have forgone having children and committed to have adventures, which offer up a similar amount of mundane moments, stress, and annoyances all redeemed by moments of transcendence.
CA: Those moments of bliss where you feel sort of out of yourself and connected to everything. Small, transient moments of awakening and pure contentment. It’s blissful.
PML: How did you get in touch with the outside back then?
CA: My window to the big world—as it was for many--was National Geographic magazine. I sat on the brown shag carpet of my bedroom in Nebraska and thumbed through photos of Africa and South America and conjured some big dreams. I still haven’t quite matured out of the dream of being a female Sinbad and sailing the high seas, or trekking through the Middle East like Freya Stark.
PML: I’ve read a little of Freya Stark. Didn’t she have a rather condescending, colonial attitude?
CA: So, I’d be Freya Stark minus the colonialism. Or how about Pippi Longstocking instead? Seriously, when it comes to traveling role models for women, it’s been slim pickings. Our gender hasn’t historically been encouraged to set off on our own. That’s changing now.
PML: How did you begin writing about travelling?
CA: It was Jeff Greenwald who tipped me over the edge. I read his book Shopping for Buddhas when I was sick in bed with flu and food-poisoning in Kathmandu, Nepal in my early twenties. His humor and insight were the best medicine. He modeled a way of travel, or I should say a way of looking at travel, that I wanted for myself: an openesss to the random and as well as a comedic attention whatever is served up. Jeff winnows the remarkable out of the most ordinary, and at the same time, makes the remarkable feel ordinary to the reader. Although he has had incredibly exotic experiences, he communicates in accessible, everyday metaphors.
PML: Can you give us an example?
CA: The flow and color of a monks orange robe might be described as “a flood of Florida orange juice.” I always delight in these whimsical descriptions and ability to render the extraordinary ordinary. There is humility in this approach, in not presenting his own life in grand, flourishing terms, or holding his experience above that of his reader.
PML: Do you have your own philosophy towards travelling?
CA: Travel, like writing, is a creative act and like all creative acts, is best not planned too much in advance. But there is alchemy in the first step. You can’t know what an essay is really going to be about until you’ve written it. The writing itself is generative. The same goes for travel. The first step is generative: one step is followed by the next in the way that one word suggests another. If you want all the details ahead of time, either you won’t begin or the writing/travel will have a stiff and disappointing quality. That step into the unknown can feel risky and painful though. At first, you wander around feeling lost, and you wonder if you are wasting time.
PML: Do you always have such feelings?
CA: Particularly in the case of solo travel. I’m usually miserable for at least a little while. It takes time to strike a match, for the trip to catch fire. I’m still undone by it, but now at least hold a little more faith that I’ll find my way.
PML: Where do you think this discomfort comes from?
CA: It’s the feeling of being suspended between two chapters. You’ve left what you know, but haven’t started the new chapter yet. You’re in limbo. It’s awful. But I think it’s a potent formula for living a vital life.
PML: Which is?
CA: It’s being awake! It’s not trying to escape through television or compulsive Internet-use, or addiction. It’s not trading your integrity for security by staying in dead relationships, or in jobs or lifestyles that are killing you. It’s being present and sitting with pain. It’s grieving, laughing—it’s everything that isn’t numb.
PML: Can you describe one of your trips?
CA: I arrived in Morocco by myself a couple of years ago. I floated from Tangier to Chefchaouen to Fez and felt depressed for the first month. I even looked into early plane tickets home. Later, I ended making wonderful friends, and having some of the most profound travel experiences of my life.
PML: How did that come about?
CA: Well, after feeling isolated in Fez for a while, I worked up the nerve to call a writer I admired. Soon after, I was having dinner with her and her husband. Then, they hosted me in their incredible house for months and introduced me to many people wonderful people. So, I went from being depressed and aimless, to incredibly inspired and connected. That couple saved me! Travel serves up some awful loneliness sometimes, but it also offers magic connections. Anyway, I stayed for four months and return every year. I’m glad I stuck out those initial weeks. Nothing is wasted.
PML: You’re off to Morocco again soon.
CA: I’m organizing writing and storytelling workshops in Morocco for this fall. Our group will have a cultural exchange with the old storytellers of Marrakech. Morocco has a long storytelling tradition that has been threatened in this era of Internet and television. Our group will be part of an effort to keep this ancient tradition alive.
PML: I’m wondering whether travelling contributes to destroying such traditions too...
CA: The cat is already out of the bag, and it’s probably not going back in. There is an upside though. In this case, travelers are interested in the storytellers, are willing to pay to hear them, and that could inspire a renaissance of sorts.
PML: How do you design these trips?
CA: I approach itineraries like art projects and take great care in calibrating the pace of the trip. It’s fun to do something a bit rough like trekking in the mountains and then follow it up with some pampering, to immerse ourselves into something deeply foreign, but then relax into something comfortable.
PML: How do you connect your participants with the local culture?
CA: I search for the people in the place who can articulate the culture. For example, rather than trail around a guide to the Top Ten Sites (you can do that on your own with a guidebook!), we wander the medina with Fez photographer Omar Chennafi. You never know what’s going to happen with Omar—he doesn’t plan in advance. You just experience the place as he experiences it—running into friends, stopping over somewhere for a spontaneous cup of mint tea. People like Omar are bridges for us, they straddle both worlds—that of the local and that of the foreigner and so can empathize and help translate our confusion. Fez writer Suzanna Clarke is another one, Sandy McCutcheon another, and Mike Richardson with his cross-cultural cafes. There are not many people at this nexus, so it feels like such a gift when you find them.
PML: Thanks for this, Christina. A brief word about future plans?
CA: I see more writing, more travels, and more workshops abroad. Our Morocco storytelling workshops will be held October 21-30th and December 4th-13th.
Photos by Tim Daw.
Photos by Tim Daw.