This month Ultimate Library had the absolute pleasure of talking to Isabella Tree, award-winning travel writer and journalist, who writes for The Sunday Times, The Observer, Conde Nast Traveler and National Geographic. Her recent book, The Living Goddess, has taken nearly 14 years to research, and my goodness, it has been worth the wait! Read on to discover Tree’s candid and intelligent musings on her traveling experiences from around the world and visit her website where you will find the archives of her brilliant and thought provoking articles – all being a must read for any curious explorer.
What was the first place you ever wrote about? What was it about that place that made you want to write?
The first place I ever wrote about was the Inca trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. I was 17, travelling with friends from school, and totally clueless. For the trek, we rented a tent without a groundsheet and took dozens of tins of tuna with us, most of which we gave away on our first day because we couldn’t carry them. We wore huge alpaca ponchos because we thought they looked cool but they dragged like lead when it rained, which was most of the time. I don’t know how we made it over those passes, one of which is nearly 14,000ft, lugging all that wet kit.
But it was so stunningly beautiful – cloud forest dripping with lichens, hummingbirds buzzing around us like bees, and this extraordinary path beneath our feet, made of stones laid by the Inca centuries before. I could imagine runners taking messages between the great Inca cities along these routes. Laid up in a hostel in Quito, Ecuador, a week or so later, I wrote my first travel piece and ultimately showed it, bursting with pride, to my father who, embarrassingly, sent it to Bob Silver, editor of the New York Review of Books. Looking back at how naïve and just damn bad the piece was, Bob’s response was beyond generous. A polite ‘thanks but no, thanks’, but with lots of encouragement to carry on. He died recently, one of the best editors that’s ever been, and sadly, I never got to write for him, but I’ll always be grateful for his kind words to such a complete and utter novice.
What was it that first drew you to Nepal?
I went to Nepal in my second gap year (having attempted and failed Oxbridge for a second time), with another three friends from school. By now I was addicted to travelling, but almost just as clueless. I think we chose Kathmandu because of the name – it sounded mystical and enticing – all yaks and yetis and yab-yum – and, of course, we were catching the tail end of the hippy era, so we made a bee-line for Freak Street to hang out with the dharma bums. But one of my friends, Charlie – now my husband – was struck down by the Kathmandu Quickstep after a dodgy momo in Pig Alley, and our three-day stay turned into a week, and then a month. We ended up renting a couple of rooms in Freak Street while we waited for him to get better. The flat had no electricity or running water, just a long-drop under the stairs used by everyone else who got caught short on the street. But the windows looked on to Basantpur Square and the old royal palace with its magnificent seven-storey tower. We had the best view in Kathmandu. We loved it and soon we never wanted to leave.
When was the first time you heard about the Living goddess? Was this the first moment that you knew you wanted to discover more, or did it take longer to cultivate your fascination?
Our flat also happened to be a stone’s throw from the Living Goddess’s palace. We could look out of our windows and see this little girl, dressed in red, running past the windows on the third floor. We would drop into her courtyard to try and see her. As foreigners and non-Hindus we couldn’t enter the building but if we were lucky she would appear for just a few moments at her upstairs window. She was extraordinarily prepossessing. She was probably no more than seven years old but wore red lipstick and her eyes were elongated to her temples with thick, black kohl. She stared down on us with inscrutable aloofness. We were told she couldn’t smile at us or it would be an invitation to heaven and we would die.
According to our neighbours, she only left her house a dozen or so times a year for festivals, and then she was carried in a palanquin or pulled around the city in a gigantic golden chariot. Her feet could never touch the ground. Great care was taken with her because if she cut or grazed herself, or lost so much as a drop of blood, the goddess would leave her and she would have to return home to her parents. Inevitably, when she reached puberty and had her first menstruation, she was dismissed, and another little girl was chosen to take her place. She yielded – and continues to yield – considerable power in Nepal. In those days, the King of Nepal used to come to the palace to kneel at her feet to receive her blessing. These days, the President kneels before her. Without her blessing he has no mandate to rule the country.
I was longing to know what the Living Goddess’s life was like. Was she happy, bored, lonely? Did she miss her family? What did it all mean? But we couldn’t find anyone in the know who was willing to tell us. The tradition revolves around Tantra, the esoteric strand of Hinduism and Buddhism, knowledge of which is transferred from guru to initiate under terms of utmost secrecy. So it wasn’t until I returned to Nepal, fourteen years later, in 1997, and managed to meet an ex-Living Goddess (Rashmila Shakya, who has since become a friend) that I was able to make any headway. That’s when my fascination was really piqued. I wrote an article about Rashmila for the Sunday Times that won the Travelex travel writers’ prize, but I knew I’d barely touched the tip of the iceberg. It would take me nearly a decade and a half to write my book.
Over your 14 years of research what would you say were the biggest hurdles you had to overcome?
Because the tradition is so esoteric I knew I could never learn the innermost secrets of the Living Goddess tradition. But after the royal family massacre in 2001, when the Crown Prince shot and killed almost his entire family, including himself, Nepal was suddenly in crisis and many people thought the tradition of the Living Goddess, having lost one of its most powerful patrons, was also under threat. So some of the tantric priests and even the Living Goddess’s caretakers, felt that now was the time to answer some of the criticisms that had been gaining traction both in the country and abroad. They felt they had to open the door, at least a chink, to show the world that what they were protecting was worth saving. Even then, they wouldn’t talk to just anybody. It took me a long time to win their confidence. But that was also one of the most rewarding things about writing this book – the friendships that have come out of it, and the feeling of glimpsing something absolutely extraordinary.
As a travel writer and journalist you must have been to some exotic and exciting places which has been your favourite?
That’s an impossible question! When I was in my early twenties I landed my dream job – as travel correspondent at the Evening Standard. Every six months I would have lunch with my editor and give him a list of places I’d like to go to. He’d ditch some of them, but I still got to go to some of my dream destinations – Antarctica, Namibia, Botswana and Mexico (which I ended up writing a book about) were some of the most exciting. And Papua New Guinea, of course, where I also wrote a book, and where Charlie and I eventually got married.
What can we expect next from you?
For the first time in my life I’m writing a book without travelling at all. It’s the story of our rewilding project on a 3,500 acre estate where we live in West Sussex. When we took on the estate from his grandparents in our early twenties, all the land was intensively farmed. But the soil is heavy clay. It’s like concrete in summer and porridge in winter. Which makes it impossible to compete with modern farming. So we hit upon the idea of turning it over to nature. We’ve ring-fenced the whole area, taken up 350 miles of internal fences, and introduced herds of free-roaming animals – Old English longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs, red deer and fallow deer. It’s a bit like ranching. The grazers are essentially acting as proxies for the herds of animals, like the aurochs (our ancestral cow), tarpan (the original horse) and wild boar, that would have wandered our landscape thousands of years ago.
Since the project began in 2001, our grazing herds have created this wonderful mosaic of habitats, from open grassland and shallow ponds, to thorny scrub and groves of trees. The wildlife results have been astonishing – we’re now a breeding hotspot for some of the rarest creatures in Britain, like purple emperor butterflies, nightingales and turtle doves. And almost every month a new species turns up. It’s a complete revelation – that I can walk outside our front door and have adventures every day. G.K Chesterton wrote: ‘The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.’ That now seems spot on.
My book is called Wilding and will be published by Picador in Feb 2018.
Scroll down to discover Isabella Tree’s list of travel books that she believes no library can do without.