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Go Do This: Local Travel Writers Tell Their Best Stories this Saturday

San Francisco magazine | December 10, 2014 | Story Further Afield

Lonely Planet’s newest travel anthology, “An Innocent Abroad,” features a handful of intrepid Bay Area writers, including San Francisco’s own Editor-at-Large Jenna Scatena, who writes about her experience of getting lost in a Thailand jungle. Find out if she makes it out alive this Saturday at Book Passage Corte Madera at 7 p.m. when (spoiler) she and six other writers read their stories from the book.

The anthology’s editor, Don George, is co-founder of the Bay Area’s monthly travel reading series, Weekday Wanderlust, and is the Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet. He will be at the event, along with journalist Jeff Greenwald, Travelers’ Tales Executive Editor Larry Habegger, Best Women’s Travel Writing editor and fellow Weekday Wanderlust cofounder Lavinia Spalding, and others. The book itself features stories from 35 well-known writers reflecting on moments of innocence lost while abroad, including Dave Eggers, Cheryl Strayed, Mary Karr, Jane Smiley, Tim Cahill, and Pico Iyer.

Here’s an excerpt from Scatena’s story, “A Walk with a Cave Man:”

I’m in the back of John Spies’ old pickup truck, sliding around like a load of loose cargo. We whiz past villagers boiling water over fires, turning up debris in the brisk morning breeze. Dust-cloaked children wave their hands wildly, and barefoot elderly women in black and neon garb smile at us.

The crowns of the mountains we’re heading for, foothills of the Himalayas, bob on the horizon. This is the outskirts of the Golden Triangle—a remote region where the terrain is as tumultuous as the history.

The forbidding topography is riddled with gaping caves and rogue 2,000-foot cliffs. Water combines with decayed plants to form a carbonic acid that leaches into tight limestone crevasses, slowly eating away at them and eventually carving out hollow valleys and some of the deepest known caves in the world. Above ground, black scorpions, tarantulas, and centipedes scuttle about, but John tells me they aren’t poisonous to the point of death, unlike the snakes, such as the ill-tempered Malayan Pit Viper or the king cobras.

Inside the caves is a world even more mysterious, unpredictable, and baneful. I recall the ominous way John explained the caves to me by the fire the night before: Tunnels twist through the earth like an intestinal system, leading to vertical drops that plummet 1,000 feet. Carbon dioxide festers and is even exhaled from some of the caves, to which John sarcastically recounts a near-death incident in one: “Slow death by suffocation—bloody hilarious!” And it all exists in a darkness blacker than outer space. A shade of night only found in the bowels of a planet.

Ten minutes into our trek, I’m barely keeping up with John as we hoof it up a barren craggy formation toward the lush jungle and the deep blue sky. I glance below us, at the small hill tribe village where we parked the truck. His pace is one stride per second—swift and not breaking a beat, even when a renegade rock or branch crosses his path. He reminds me of an old but sturdy train chugging up a hill, his breath deep, short, in steady bursts like a locomotive.

Given John’s haggard physique and affection for whiskey and cigarettes, I’d concluded I must be in twice as good shape as him. But not even a single mile in, my chest is already tightening and my calves are cramping, while John ascends into the elements without hesitation.

“What I like about Thailand,” he says, not breaking stride, “is that there's no permits to go into the backcountry. You can just do whatever you want and no one will stop you.”

As if on cue, a gunshot blasts in the bushes next to us. A villager emerges with a rifle slung over his shoulder...

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