Passport: Mary Russell - 'They said don't bring too many things with you - you might not be coming back'

IN 1988, after completing her first book, The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt, about women and travel, Mary Russell was raring to visit some of the people and places she had read about in her research for the book.

Her destination? The former Spanish Sahara in northern Africa to visit the Saharawi tribe. "I'd been to a refugee conference in the UK and someone representing the Saharawi spoke of his 'society of revolution', in which money played no part. I thought, I have to visit this place."

She cycled most of the way there through France and Algeria and on arrival found they were at war with Morocco. She was invited to travel through the desert to the frontline. "They said don't bring too many things with you as you might not be coming back, so I took just my passport and a loo roll."

She carries a European Irish passport which is maroon with "a neat little gold harp" on it and says she's found a little island in the Caribbean "that actually gives you a shamrock stamp for your visa".

Another research trip was to visit the Carib, the original Caribbeans who live in Dominica. "I was travelling on a shoe-string, and had to hang around the harbour in Antigua for about a week to try and get a ride on one of the little boats that travel between the islands. Suddenly I spotted a boat called The Danny Boy and thought, this has got to be it. The owner of the boat took me all the way to Dominica with his cargo of corrugated tin then agreed to pick me up again in two weeks' time. But of course I didn't have a return ticket or much money so as soon as I arrived, the Dominican police confiscated my passport. I tried to persuade them that it was all above board, but they took it from me.

"When it was time to leave I had to convince the chief of police to give me back my passport by giving him my word that the boat was arriving the next day. Of course it didn't come - that is the way that things work in the Caribbean. I was red-faced when I ran into the police guy again, as he had trusted me, but I got a flight out the day after that."

In addition to her travelling experiences, Mary has been an observer at elections in South Africa and twice in Bosnia.

"The South Africans were anxious that outsiders be present to make sure that everything was conducted freely and fairly. So I was there for two months in 1994. I stayed on after the elections to travel around and attended the first post-apartheid sitting of parliament in Cape Town. It was amazing seeing all these legends. Chief Buthelezei made a speech in Zulu. Suddenly the rhythm of the speech changed into a kind of chant and he was actually paying homage to Nelson Mandela, his former enemy. It was very moving."

Mary Russell's short story "Bosnia" appears in Amazonian - a Penguin book of women's travel writing edited by Dea Birkett and Sara Wheeler, published 28 May, pounds 7.99.

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