Anna Leonowens

Reading Travelers: Find Your Historical Context

"Can you share a travel secret?" asked an online travel site for women prepping its annual feature of tips from women writers worldwide. "Read the women who went before us," I replied. "Or, read about them."

For this expat/ archaeologist/ writer/ traveler, cultural wisdom pools at the intersection of women and travel.  The romance and grit of historical travelogue connects me to the land -- and reminds me of travel's transformative force in the lives of women. Reputation-risking. Life-threatening. Culturally redeeming. Personally empowering.  (My post about a related controversial history.)

Adventurous Women in Southeast Asia (Oxford-in-Asia), a selection of traveler sketches by historian John Gullick, gave my own struggling expatriate experience new meaning when I was sweating it out for 5 years in the Malaysian jungle. Playing an attitudinal extra aristocrat on the 1860s filmset of "Anna and The King" with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat in 1999 (next to a pig farm during a swine flu outbreak, but that's another post!), I appreciated learning about the dark side of the iconic governess to the Siamese court. Foster may have played Anna Leonowens prim, proper and principled but actually the lady was a scrappy mixed-blood mistress of reinvention. There was hope for me!

If you plan a trip to Turkey maybe Cultures in Dialogue holds similar promise for you. The print-on-demand series resurrects antique writings by American and British women about their travels in Turkey (1880s to 1940s), along with surprisingly political writing by women of the Ottoman empire. Contempo analysis by spunky scholars Reina Lewis and Teresa Heffernan refreshes the context of a region in transition.

Any favorite antique travel reads? What draws you to by-gone reports? +++++ Check out some of expat+HAREM’s favorite hybrid life reads here.

Filming Anna & The King With Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat

Just got back from the filming of 20th Century Fox's extravaganza ANNA AND THE KING (of Siam) in Ipoh, two hours north of here. No, I was not Anna although my English accent would have been equally as bad as Jodie Foster's.

Her simpering dialogue coach would run up and say, "That was perfect! But if you want to make it even more perfect --"

I played an attitudinal European, "Lady Hay", in 1870s Bangkok. This mainly amounted to being uncomfortably-trussed-up-in-the-tropics and giving Jodie the evil eye around town, and at the big banquet and ball thrown by gorgeous King Mongkut at his Winter Palace.

I also did my share in giving her and Chow Yun Fat a really hard time out on the marble dance floor. With 25 barely-trained couples it quickly became more like a bruising, tripping, sweaty mosh pit than an evening of civilized diversion. The editor will have to be a genius to make us look like we know what we're doing.

We'll be waltzing across the screen in December.