September 13, 2012

Today, I’m honored to have won three Lowell Thomas Awards, which is thrilling in the field of travel journalism. They are 1) The Grand Prize Silver Award for Travel Journalist of the Year; 2) Silver Award in Personal Comment for ‘Masha’; and 3) Bronze Award in the foreign travel article category for “Green Pastures and the Ghosts of Rwanda”. I got the news in an e-mail as I poked around a gas station convenience store while my tank filled up, after taking my dog Gus to the vet. The awards were announced at a conference in Indianapolis. Along with the other winners I (and my work) appeared in a short film that was shown at the luncheon. I won for stories written in Russia, Haiti, Rwanda and France. There were many strong characters in these essays, and I couldn’t have written anything without them. Masha, a beautiful savior. Val, a PhD who is trying to increase the food supply in his native Haiti. The desk clerk in Kigali who schooled me in guilt. Guy Martin, a chef in Paris.

I had submitted these pieces several months ago to The SATW (Society of American Travel Writers) Foundation, urged on by my editor and friend, Lavinia Spalding. It’s a constant challenge to keep track of the pieces I send out with regularity to overworked and oversolicited editors, accompanied by cheerful little notes. But I have to believe in my work, always fearlessly and fully. I submit essays and fiction to literary journals, and I am rejected daily. I don’t take any of it personally. I soldier on. Sometimes things work out, and today, it did. Here’s what the judges from the UNC School of Journalism said about the Grand Prize award:

Sometimes a writer can get into your head describing scenery and people as if you were seeing it yourself. Marcia DeSanctis does just that in “A Grand Return,” about a 20th-anniversary trip to a legendary Paris restaurant, and again in “One Day, Three Dead Men,” sharing her return visit to Moscow after 28 years. But the brightest jewel in a crown of remarkable stories is “Green Pastures and the Ghosts of Rwanda,” where again DeSanctis is one with her readers. Of airports she writes: “They are my hello and goodnight, the place I cross with an exhausted shuffle when I arrive and impatiently want to ditch when I leave.” After arriving in the country and retiring to a guesthouse, DeSanctis begins to tell the story of Rwanda’s ghosts and mass killing that took place there. “I repaired to my too-quiet room and fell back on the bed. … Sensing something more akin to mortal sickness rather than terror, I imagined the thousands of people who were killed in the neighborhood I slept in, and pictured their souls swirling around in the windy night.” It is reflective writing at its best. During a conversation with a night clerk she inquires about his heritage.

Oh,” I said. “Are your parents…I mean your family…”
“No, they are all dead,” he said. “I never knew them, really.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s not your fault,” he said.

We are treated to a harrowing encounter when DeSanctis is side kicked by a charging 500-pound gorilla during a jungle trek. Afterwards, in conversation with a soldier, the following exchange occurs:
“I think the gorilla liked you.”
“I’m not actually sure that’s a compliment,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “But you will surely remember him.”

Later that day and no worse for the experience she drinks a tonic water and lime on a beach. The narrative of what Marcia DeSanctis experiences vacillates from current-day scenes to past Rwandan horrors whose memories she cannot shake. For a tour de force in writing excellence she earns the silver in the Grand Award category.

Thank you judges, whoever you are, for understanding what I was trying to say and why.

Here is the link in Overnight Buses for my Rwanda piece (which you can download for free), and what the judges said about this one:

“Green Pastures and the Ghosts of Rwanda,” by Marcia DeSanctis, takes travelers through the hellos and goodbyes that are part of transiting airports. She describes them as “miserable, inhuman places, churning people in and out like an automatic dishwasher, offering lattes to the unthirsty and warm water in the restroom, if you can figure out that country’s faucet mechanics.” By the second paragraph she has prepared readers for a deeper story, one wrapped in the harsh realities of the genocide that took place in Rwanda. While in the country to do pro bono consulting for a small NGO, DeSanctis navigated the streets, spent days in remote villages and trekked up muddy hillsides. Through most of her visit, it was difficult to see “Rwanda’s beauty, hope and promise.” She writes, “Everyone seemed to bear a mark of the country’s recent terror. Each man was a perpetrator, each woman was a survivor, each teenager was a victim, and everyone was a witness.” It is only when she visits the Akagera Game Preserve that she finds comic relief with a team of baboons. Later she travels to Virunga Park, near the border of Uganda and the DRC, to hike and take a 60-minute gorilla tour. Suddenly, after 30 minutes of visiting and snapping pictures of gorilla families, a 500-pound male gorilla heads straight toward DeSanctis, strikes her, spins her around. After recovering, she conversed with the guide: “‘I think he wanted to show me who was boss,’ I said, trying not to look as weak and scared as I felt.” By the time she returns to the airport to depart, she understands that while she wasted time thinking too much of Rwanda’s tragedy, everyday Rwandans were moving on. Marcia DeSanctis passionately and deftly writes her way to the bronze.

Here is a link to Masha on Geoex (and it also ran in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011). And what the judges said:

Some people we never forget, even when they were with us for a relatively short time. In another wonderfully written, rich tale of human interaction, Marcia DeSanctis tells of a kind young woman who cared for her while she was ill in Moscow many years ago and, maybe telling us more about herself than about the woman, how she has never forgotten that act of kindness. It’s the type of story that makes us feel good about people.

Here is a link to a piece about a voyage around Haiti with two NGOs.

Congratulations to all the talented writers and editors who were honored today! Here is the list of all the winners.

It’s a big wide beautiful world.

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