Tag Archives: travel writing

River pirates are the reason

“We had to hide from the river pirates,” Mom said in the darkness. The lights were out as this was a bedtime story, and I was four years old.

“From the pirates?” If the lights had been on she could have seen my eyes open as wide as the full moon.

“Yes, we hid under the wooden bunks and couldn’t talk all night long. Even the kerosene lamps were out. We had to be invisible.”

My mind tried to conjure an image of the Yangtze circa 1920 from the black and white photos I looked at frequently that my grandparents had taken of their many trips on this legendary river. My young mind could see the steep banks shrouded in mist and trees tumbling down to the shore and imagine the junk pulled into a cove hidden from the marauding pirates. Yet I couldn’t get an image of Chinese pirates, only the ones from my comic books, which I knew weren’t Chinese because I didn’t think they had parrots in China.

“But they didn’t find you, right?” I was pretty sure they hadn’t because Mom was right here in my room and pirates made people walk the plank.

“No, they didn’t, and we continued to Kuling in the morning.”

“But why were they being pirates?” I asked because I knew pirates always wanted doubloons and rum, whatever they were, and I didn’t think China had those.

There was a long pause from my Mom. I thought maybe she wanted to end the story since I was supposed to be getting sleepy not excited. Yet her voice , not mine, sounded weary.  “Because they were hungry. They wanted food. They knew boats with foreigners would have food.”

I had heard that before. (“Eat your lima beans!” I hated lima beans. “The children in China are starving.”) So I knew that was true. For you see, my Mom wasn’t making this story up. It wasn’t fiction.

My grandparents c.1930s in China (far left) Dr. & Mrs. William Berst.
My grandparents c.1930s in China (far left) Dr. & Mrs. William Berst.

The daughter of American medical missionaries, my Mother was born and lived until she was 13 in Changde, a city a thousand miles up the Yangtze River. My grandparents  worked and lived in China for most of the first half of the 20th century until being ejected by the retreating Japanese in 1945. My bedtime stories were not fiction; I grew up hearing first hand what it was like being a foreign child in China during its turbulent years after the 1912 Revolution – the year of my Mother’s birth.

I grew up with images in direct contrast to the bucolic beauty and calm of Pennsylvania’s historic Bucks County circa 1950s.

Then there were the Nova Scotia stories from my father on other nights. Stories of my family sailing from France in 1650, settling that rocky coastline and still living in the same fishing village I visited every summer. I have a pair of ice skates my father strapped onto his boots to traverse the frozen harbor when he was a boy.

First hand stories were the sparks that inflamed my mind with a desire that turned into passion and finally a career as an international travel journalist. Once I could read I devoured books on geography and history, poured over maps, paged through every volume of the World Book Encyclopedia multiple times and read National Geographic magazines as if they were comic books.

Once out of high school there was never anxiety as I went off to universities far from home in the USA, Canada and Ireland. If my Mom could survive river pirates, I could navigate hostels backpacking in Europe. If my father’s family could cross the Atlantic in 1650, I could move to the Caribbean for a decade working as a teacher, chef, writer and father children who, like my parents, where born into a language different than my native tongue.

Dozens of countries and many jobs, hundreds of published articles and thousands of photos, it’s the pirates that still haunt me. Why were they hungry? Why were they at war? I need to know, and I don’t want to hide.

Other travel writers can marvel at the newest luxury hotel and discover the next trendy beach scene. What drives me is discovering the “why” within the destination. Why does the land take this shape? Why does the food have this taste? Why did that cooking method develop? Why is that festival so important to their identity as a people?

Without that drive to discover “why” why go.


You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:

Hellenic News of America

Travel Pen and Palate Argentina

Original World Insights





Travel 1931: A Reflection of (racist) Times

You are reading that correctly: “…every effort to appear civilized.” The author was Aleko E. Lilus and the article, “The Old Seaport of the Sulu Pirates,” appreared in the highly popular monthly magazine Travel, October 1931 (Robert M. McBride & Co., Camden, NJ).  I did not seek out this magazine. This classic of Western mores illustrated through travel was a recent gift  knowing full well my interest in antiques and popular culture through the ages.

cover of the Oct. 1931 edition, illustration by Frank Newbould

Travel (1902-2003) “…was reflective of the world at the time…” (Contextualization, Clay Dillon) and let’s remember the time. 1931: the depth of the greatest world economic depression ever, Fascism was flourishing in Italy with many European and American supporters, the Nazi Party was gaining ground in Germany, the Western empires controlled most of Asia, Africa and South America. In the USA the Klu Klux Klan was terrorizing and murdering African Americans, Jews and Catholics – and not just in the south – and the United States shut the immigration door to all but white Christian Western Europeans.

Yet for the affluent who could travel, and the majority that could only dream through films and lavishly illustrated magazines, this was the “Golden Age” of Aryan dominance – the opportunity for the “savage” to rise above his station. Travel writers could transport minds from a three room Hoboken apartment to exotic lands, “educating” their audience that there were people that had it “far worse” than you had it at home.

children gathering grapes in France, 1931, page 20
“land of boundless opportunity for the man of business”

The articles run the gamut from the cathedrals of Mexico, the American Southwest, the vineyards of France, a once great Medieval European city to the wilds of Australia.  Yet the language used to describe non-Western cultures was far different than those used for lands closer to home.

“The sultan’s niece…became a co-ed of the University of Illinois. She was thoroughly Westernized, but on her return…she promptly forgot her pretty American ways…and went native…As an educational and social experiment she must be considered a complete failure.” (p.25).

“Some of them…have bought Fords…but in the back country they still shoot bows and arrows and have never heard they belong to a vanishing race…” (p.28 “Exploring the Southwest in Your Own Motor” by Harry Fergusson).

“They love their children but they are inclined to spoil them for discipline comes hard to the southern mind..” (p.17 “Malta – Stronghold of the Sea King” by Francis Mc Dermott).

“The Spanish Colonials…upon this land they called “New Spain” … lavished their genius, endowing it with…civilization…” (p.7 “The Glory of Mexico’s Cathedrals” by James Jenkins).

Soochow, China, photo by M. O. Williams, p.33
illustration for a Cunard Line ad.

Travel was a gorgeous magazine, especially its stunning black and white photography and its advertising illustrations. In researching the history of Travel, it was second only to The National Geographic in readership for an audience interested in the world outside the United States. Indeed the last article in the October 1931 issue was on Australia’s unique animal life, “Nature’s Side Show in Australia” by Georgia Maxwell.

Clif Dwellings, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, photo by Ewing Galloway, p. 27

Naturally, for any modern traveler, 1931 prices for hotels and steam ships seem absurdly inexpensive until one factors what a 1931 dollar purchased compared to today – $16.00 for what $1.00 was worth during the Great Depression.

The queen of Philadelphia’s hotels, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, had rooms as low as $4/day in the depth of the Depression – cheap but these were teaser rates  especially if you didn’t have a job.  A 12-day cruise to the Bahamas started at $125 ($2,000 in 2011  dollars) and the French Railways campaign that “Everybody’s back” speaks to today’s ads urging the weary to travel once more.

I well remember this anticipated magazine that arrived at my home every month as a child.  I also believed for many years that Mark Twain was correct, Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” but life has taught me that even the great Twain was a victim of wishful thinking. 

As a travel journalist I’ll be the first to praise the work I’m fortunate enough to enjoy, yet I’m well aware of the fine line that separates being the eyes of the reader from the human that may color the picture with their own cultural prejudices.